Sixth-year head coach Les Miles has increasingly drawn criticism as the Nick Saban era in Baton Rouge drifts further into the shadows. After riding the current Alabama head coach’s leftovers to a 34-6 record with three straight top-5 finishes and a national championship in ’07, the former Oklahoma State head coach has dropped nine of his last 17 SEC regular season games, including a late-game clock debacle in a 25-23 loss to Mississippi last November in which LSU wasted 17 seconds before calling its final timeout and then watching the clock run out at the five-yard-line.
The Tigers posted a 9-4 (5-3 SEC) record in ’09, but were outgained by an average of 23.1 yards per game (327.6 to 304.5), good for eighth in the SEC. Not helping LSU was a knack for mental mistakes at inopportune times, as evidenced by the 86 penalty flags drawn last fall (78th nationally).
If you’re looking for the primary reason behind Miles’ struggles, look no further than the offensive side of the ball, where the Tigers’ production has plummeted in recent years. After boasting the nation’s 11th-ranked unit in total offense (417.46 ypg) back in ’06, LSU slipped to 26th overall during the ’07 national championship season. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton’s squad dropped to 55th nationally during the ’08 campaign before sinking to 112th last fall (12th SEC) with an average yardage output of 304.5 per contest. Not bad for a fourth-year OC that earns roughly $470,000 per year.
Crowton returns six starters in ’10, led by junior quarterback Jordan Jefferson (182-of-296 passing, 2,166 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT) and wide receiver Terrence Tolliver (53 receptions, 735 yards, 3 TD). The Tigers lost their two rushers in Charles Scott and Keiland Williams, but red-shirt freshman Michael Ford – the nation’s third-ranked running back prospect in ‘09 – turned heads in the spring game with a 19-carry, 139-yard performance. Former top quarterback recruit Russell Shepherd has moved full time to wide receiver after leading the team with a 6.2 yards-per-carry mark last year working out of the offensive backfield.
If the offense has been an unsettling variable in Baton Rouge, then defense has been the mighty constant. Second-year defensive coordinator John Chavis returns just four players off a squad that ranked 26th nationally in total defense (327.6 ypg) and 11th nationally in scoring defense (16.2 ppg), but middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (110 tackles, 7.5 TFL) returns as the Tigers’ leading tackler and second-team All-SEC cornerback Patrick Peterson (52 tkl, 2 INT) anchors a solid defensive backfield along with strong safety Brandon Taylor (41 tkl, 2 INT).
Quotable: "I can tell you this -- it will only be a championship season, and that's the only point and direction of this program. That's where we're headed... I love guarantees. I think there's a uniqueness with every year. The uniqueness comes with the situations that the teams are confronted with, the personalities of the men that play, the competitiveness with which they play. I think that this team has as good a chance as any. I like my team. I like my team's attitude. I like us in every game. So, can't wait. The fall is here." -- Miles after his squad was picked fourth in the SEC West in the preseason media poll
Matchup to Watch: While North Carolina fans will anxiously be watching their own quarterback battle unfold between fifth-year senior T.J. Yates and red-shirt freshman Bryn Renner, the LSU crowd will likely be more concerned about Jefferson’s well being under center against the Tar Heels’ vaunted defensive line. The Tigers return three starters on the offensive line for the second straight season, but that positive failed to pay dividends last fall as Crowton’s front five allowed 2.85 sacks per game (T-105th nationally) and managed just 122.8 rushing yards per outing (90th) despite a pair of standout tailbacks.
Gone from that group is second-team All-America Ciron Black at left tackle, who offensive line coach Greg Studrawa assuredly wishes he had back for one more season to battle UNC’s All-America candidate in junior defensive end Robert Quinn. Add future first-round pick Marvin Austin into the mix at defensive tackle for the Tar Heels and the situation quickly becomes dangerous for LSU’s signal callers.
Remember Me? Sam Montgomery, the nation’s seventh-ranked defensive end prospect in the class of ’09, surprised most analysts on Signing Day when he selected LSU over North Carolina. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder earned national recognition by The Sporting News during spring ball for posting 23 tackles, five sacks and two tackles for loss in four scrimmages. That performance also delivered the Greenwood, S.C. product the top defensive player award in spring practice by the LSU coaching staff. With defensive tackle Lazarius Levingston serving as the Tigers’ lone returning starter on the line, Montgomery will be counted on to make an impact against the Tar Heels.
Sept. 4 North Carolina (in Atlanta)
Sept. 11 @ Vanderbilt
Sept. 18 Miss State
Sept. 25 West Virginia
Oct. 2 Tennessee
Oct. 9 @ Florida
Oct. 16 McNeese State
Oct. 23 @ Auburn
Oct. 30 OPEN DATE
Nov. 6 Alabama
Nov. 13 ULM
Nov. 20 Ole Miss
Nov. 27 @ Arkansas