Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: 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 AP top-10 all season long, finishing 10-3 overall and 6-2 in conference.
The 2012 campaign got off to a predictably strong start with five straight wins, but a trip to No. 10 Florida on Oct. 6 resulted in a 14-6 loss. The Tigers still controlled their own destiny in terms of representing the SEC West in the conference championship game, but a loss at home to No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 3 (21-17) put an end to that dream.
LSU managed to close out the regular season with three straight victories to reach the double-digit win plateau for the third straight year. They 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.
"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."
OFFENSE: 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. With the playbook expected to be more wide open in 2013, Mettenberger is expecting big things.
"I have six months left in my career at LSU and I am not going to take one moment for granted," Mettenberger said. "I'm definitely much more comfortable being it's my second year. Coach Cameron has made a difference. The guy is a football genius when you look at his background and all of the quarterbacks he has developed."
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.
DEFENSE: 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 much.
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 here in 2013. 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.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicker Colby Delahoussaye and punter Jamie Keehn will serve as first-year starters in the kicking game.
Beckham, Jr. -- an outstanding punt returner in 2012 (320 yards, two TDs) -- will likely handle both kickoff and punt returns this season.
OUTLOOK: In earning double-digit wins in each of the last three seasons, LSU is used to being one of the nation's top dogs, but whereas it came into the 2011 and 2012 seasons ranked in the top-five in the preseason AP poll, it is ranked just 12th in the first poll this season. Miles does not see the lowered expectations as a bad thing, however.
"A year like this year, where you're not necessarily picked No. 1, basically there's a responsibility for us to control the outcome," Miles said.
There's a reason the Tigers aren't considered among the top-level talents in the SEC in the preseason rankings, as they showed last year by coming up small in big games. Things will be even more difficult in 2013 with one of the most challenging schedules in the nation, which includes road matchups against Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama, as well as home tilts versus Florida and Texas A&M.
Perhaps Cameron's new-look offense can spark an unlikely run to the SEC Championship Game, but more than likely LSU will be looking at a good-but-not- great season as it fails to reach 10 regular-season wins.