A marquee matchup is set for Saturday night, as the 12th-ranked LSU Tigers and the 20th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs kick off the season in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
A year removed from an undefeated regular season and a loss in the BCS National Championship Game, LSU took a slight step back in 2012. Of course, a step backwards for an elite program is still outstanding by most teams' standards. The Tigers were ranked in the top-10 all season long, finishing 10-3 overall and 6-2 in SEC action.
The Tigers qualified for a bowl game for the eighth consecutive time under Les Miles (13th straight overall), but dropped a hard-fought matchup with Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, 25-24. Even with slightly tempered expectations in 2013, Miles, as always, in confident in what his team can accomplish.
"I like the position of the program," Miles said. "I think we've made our mark over time. We're looking forward to this fall...A year like this year, where you're not necessarily picked No. 1, basically there's a responsibility for us to control the outcome."
After dominating the Mountain West Conference for several seasons, TCU made the transition to the Big 12 in 2012 to moderate success, going 7-6 overall and 4-5 in conference play, although its production fell off drastically following an outstanding 5-1 start to the year. The Horned Frogs' efforts earned a berth in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, their 12th bowl bid in 13 seasons under head coach Gary Patterson, but they fell to Michigan State, 17-16.
Patterson knows the importance of playing quality non-conference opponents, especially if his team wants to be considered one of the nation's top programs.
"You're already playing great programs within your conference, but I truly believe you've got to cross over every once in a while," Patterson said. "Obviously, is it more of a risk for a head coach win/loss-wise? Yes, because they've got really good players, really great staff, and really great tradition. On the other side of it, if you play well or you win, it also puts you in a situation where it jumps you into the national spotlight"
LSU has a 5-2-1 advantage over TCU in the all-time series, and this is the first meeting since 1968.
On the surface, LSU's offensive numbers a year ago (29.8 ppg, 374.2 ypg) appear to be strong, but both ranked in the lower-half of the SEC. To help improve the unit, the program brought aboard offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who has previously established himself as a creative play-caller in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens over the past decade.
Whether or not Cameron's tricks will stick relies a lot on quarterback Zach Mettenberger. As a junior and a first-year starter in 2012, Mettenberger's responsibilities were limited as he averaged fewer than 28 pass attempts per game, completing 58.8 percent of his tosses for 2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The Tigers have one of the deepest running back stables in the nation. Alfred Blue was impressive in three starts last year (270 yards, two TDs) before going down with a season-ending knee injury, but he is fully recovered. Kenny Hilliard (464 yards, six TDs) will also see plenty of action. Jeremy Hill (755 yards, 12 TDs) was the team's most productive back a season ago, but he has been suspended indefinitely following an offseason arrest.
Mettenberger's top targets in the passing game are back as well. Jarvis Landry (56 rec, 573 yards, five TDs) is a trusted option when it comes to moving the chains, while Odell Beckham, Jr. (43 rec, 713 yards, two TDs) has displayed big-play ability.
The Tigers defense was impressive as usual in 2012, yielding just 17.5 ppg and 307.6 ypg, but the production was a small down tick from the dominating previous year (11.3 ppg, 261.5 ypg). The loss of several key players to the NFL -- including Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery -- doesn't help matters.
Lamin Barrow had a breakout campaign as a junior with 104 tackles, 7.5 TFL and two fumble recoveries, and he is expected to be the leader of the defense this season. Tahj Jones made just one start last year before being ruled academically ineligible but he is going to be counted on for big production at linebacker this season.
LSU's 33 turnovers gained ranked sixth in the country last year, and the return of Jalen Mills (two picks), Jalen Collins (two picks), Craig Loston (three picks, FR) and Ronald Marin (two picks, FF) in the secondary is sure to keep that number high once again.
Danielle Hunter, Ego Ferguson, Anthony Johnson and Jermauria Rasco present an all-new starting front four, although Johnson saw plenty of action last season in the defensive line rotation, finishing with 10 TFL and three sacks.
In the high-flying Big 12, TCU had difficulty keeping up offensively a year ago, ranking eighth in both scoring (29.3 ppg) and yardage (397.0 ypg), although an entire season with its star quarterback under center will hopefully change things for the better.
Casey Pachall was on his way to an outstanding campaign in 2012, completing 66 percent of his passes for 948 yards with 10 TDs to just one pick in four games before leaving the team to enter an inpatient rehab facility for substance abuse treatment. With his issues seemingly behind him, Pachall is due for a big season, and the Horned Frogs clearly missed him last year, going 4-0 in his starts and just 3-6 without him.
Although Pachall appears to be the solution under center, Patterson will have the luxury of turning to a Trevone Boykin as well, who performed admirably in Pachall's absence (2,054 yards, 15 TDs, 10 INTs).
In the backfield, Waymon James returns as the starter. After leading the team in rushing in 2011, his season was derailed after just two games in 2012 with a knee injury. Before he went down, he averaged just under 10 yards per carry (168 yards on 17 attempts).
Brandon Carter (36 rec, 590 yards, six TDs) is the top returning receiver, and while he underwent hand surgery earlier this month, the procedure was minor and he is expected to be ready for this contest.
While the offense floundered at times last year, the defense was able to pick up the slack, allowing just 22.6 ppg and 323.9 ypg, which ranked second and first in the Big 12, respectively. The Horned Frogs' effort against the run (105.4 ypg) ranked 10th in the nation, and with nine starters returning, an improvement in 2013 is not out of the question.
Devonte Fields is one of the top pass-rushers in the country, and his 2012 performance (18.5 TFL, 10.0 sacks) allowed him to earn Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Linebacker Joel Hasley is the quarterback of the TCU defense and will try to improve upon a 79-tackle season. Jason Verrett (six INTs) and Sam Carter (four INTs) are difference-makers in the secondary.