BATON ROUGE, La. – The reasons to doubt LSU's ability to contend for Southeastern Conference and national titles this season start with the 11 regulars who left school early last winter to turn pro.
The Tigers, who had a school-record eight defensive players drafted, will have four new starters on the defensive line alone.
"Obviously, the number of guys that we lost last year isn't usual," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "We didn't get caught off-guard. We recruited well before this year and the years before that. But certainly when you lose that many guys, there's going to be some freshmen that are going to have the opportunity to play."
The offense has retained many of its skill players, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, and running backs Alfred Blue, Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard.
But that unit ranked near the bottom nationally in passing in 2012, so long-time college and NFL coach Cam Cameron was brought in as offensive coordinator, raising hopes that LSU will add a more dynamic passing attack to its formidable ground game into 2013.
The Tigers' first test comes Aug. 31 against TCU in Dallas.
In the meantime, coach Les Miles offers a calm, knowing smile to those who ask him how his team will handle being projected to finish behind both Alabama and Texas A&M in the SEC's Western Division.
"We have always felt we need to earn our position, and we understand that that people have an opinion that would not necessarily reflect the hard work, effort and energy of the people in this room," Miles said as he stood in a large, theater-style meeting and film room inside LSU's football headquarters. "So we like us we like us, and we like us in every game."
Five things to watch this season at LSU:
1. QB PRESSURE: Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has one last shot to realize the potential many saw in him when he was a prized Georgia recruit a half-decade ago. Legal trouble stemming from an incident with a woman in a bar led to his dismissal from the Bulldogs. Then came a season in community college and a season as a backup at LSU before he finally started an SEC game as a junior. But last season didn't go as hoped. LSU was 92nd in the nation in passing, averaging 200.5 yards per game. Cameron says all signs point to a better Mettenberger in 2013.
2. YOUTH MOVEMENT: LSU expects significant contributions on defense from freshmen such as defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, defensive end Tashawn Bower, and defensive backs Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson. "We've counted on them to have a real strong impact," Miles said. "We recruited to that. I think it was an opportunity (to play right away) that these guys saw and seized."
3. PERIFERAL PERRIL: LSU has had to contend with off-the-field distractions, though that is nothing new. There was Jordan Jefferson's bar fight in 2011 and former Heisman candidate Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal for failed drug tests last season. This summer's off-the-field drama involved Hill, last year's top rusher, who was caught on video punching a man outside a bar. After a judge decided that Hill's second misdemeanor plea in two years did not merit revoking the player's probation, Miles allowed him back on the team and has declined to say whether he'll sit Hill for any games. Hill, who had 755 yards rushing and 12 TDs last season, insists he is determined to become a better person and make the most of his third chance to play for LSU. "I'm a lot more focused ... and I'm not letting off-the-field distractions affect me," Hill said. "I know this is a privilege and I'm so happy to be back. ... All I can do is do the right things."
4. BLUE'S BACK: Blue was LSU's No. 1 running back in 2012 until he blew out his knee in Week 3, after which Hill emerged as the Tigers' top rusher. Now Blue is back, apparently in excellent shape, and poised for his best season yet.
5. TOUGH SLATE: If being in the same division of the SEC as Alabama and Texas A&M, as well as improving Mississippi and Mississippi State, wasn't tough enough, LSU also must play two of the top teams in the SEC East: Georgia (on the road) and Florida (at home).
Predicted finish in the SEC West: Third.
AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/