BATON ROUGE, La. – Although LSU is losing its best defensive back to the NFL, the Tigers' strong finish to the 2010 season left little doubt that they were back among the elite in the Southeastern Conference and poised to contend for a national title next season.
The biggest question hanging over LSU following its 11-2 season and 41-24 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl was whether Les Miles would still be the head coach when the Tigers take the field in 2011.
LSU scheduled a press conference for cornerback and return man Patrick Peterson on Monday in which he planned to announce his intention to turn pro, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press.
The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the announcement was still pending, but Peterson's decision hardly came as a surprise.
The 6-foot-1, 222-pound junior had acknowledged since the season began that he would give serious consideration turning pro before his senior year. Miles, who has yet to publicly discuss his intentions for next season, was expected to join Peterson at the announcement.
Miles is widely considered a top candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Michigan, where he played and worked as an assistant coach, and where the athletic director, Dave Brandon, was a former teammate.
LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said Sunday that Michigan had yet to contact LSU about speaking with Miles. Michigan is not required to seek permission to speak with LSU's coach, but that is considered a common courtesy.
When asked earlier about Michigan's opening, Miles has said only that he loves being the coach of LSU. He has not yet promised to return next season, although his current players have said he has given them the impression he plans to be back.
Should Miles wish to speak with Michigan representatives, his next best opportunity could be on Tuesday, when he has a previously scheduled speaking engagement at an American Football Coaches Association gathering in Dallas.
Miles' LSU contract pays him $3.75 million per year, runs through 2014 and includes an annual one-year roll-over at the discretion of the athletic director that could extend the deal to 2015. The contract also would make him among the three highest paid college coaches should he win a second national title at LSU.
If Miles were to head back to his alma mater, he'd not only be taking on a rebuilding project, but also leaving behind a program that is bound to be a favorite in the mighty SEC in 2011.
Next season would be Miles' seventh at LSU. All of the players will be those he brought to Baton Rouge in one highly rated recruiting class after another.
In addition, Miles last month signed coveted 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior college transfer quarterback Zach Mettenberger, a former top Georgia recruit who was dismissed by the Bulldogs because of legal trouble. Mettenberger passed for 2,678 yards and 32 touchdowns at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas, which lost in the national junior college championship game.
His arrival is expected to provide a boost to LSU's passing game, which was last in the SEC this season, and was perhaps the only thing holding the Tigers back in their two losses this season — one to unbeaten Auburn, which is playing in Monday night's BCS title game against Oregon, the other to Arkansas, which lost a close game to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Mettenberger will compete for snaps with rising senior Jordan Jefferson, who struggled for long stretches but is coming off an impressive performance in the Cotton Bowl.
Jefferson had touchdown passes of 42, 41 and 2 yards to Terrence Toliver and the quarterback ran for another score.
"I just had to let it be known that I can be a top quarterback," Jefferson said. "I had to show the critics what I can do on the field."
Toliver, a senior, won't be back, but a host of good receivers including Rueben Randle and explosive play-maker Russell Shepard will be.
Meanwhile, even if 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley decides to forego his senior season for the NFL, LSU will have several emerging running backs stepping in including Michael Ford and Spencer Ware, who had 102 yards on only 10 carries in the Cotton Bowl.
LSU's defense, which ranked second in the SEC, will lose a top defensive lineman in senior Drake Nevis, as well as the leader of their linebacker corps, Kelvin Sheppard.
Peterson, who is widely projected to be an early first-round NFL pick, may be the biggest loss. He routinely covered opponents' top receivers one-on-one. His four interceptions were second on the team and he returned two punts for touchdowns.
Yet Morris Claiborne, who started at the other cornerback spot and led the club in interceptions with five, will be back, along with three true freshmen defensive backs who intercepted passes in the Cotton Bowl: Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.
Mathieu was a top reserve and a source of big plays all season. He had two interceptions, caused five fumbles, recovered three and had 4.5 sacks.
"He has a lot of confidence," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "When you play that hard, you'll have the opportunity to make plays. When Tyrann has the opportunity to make plays, he makes them. He has the 'it' factor when it comes to making football plays."