LSU’s 2012 season hasn’t quite gone according to the plan that many pundits scripted in the preseason. The Tigers were picked to win the SEC West and SEC Championship, as well as challenge USC or Oregon for the national championship.
Through seven games in 2012, LSU finds itself on the outside looking in to the national championship picture. It’s won close games against Auburn, Texas A&M and South Carolina but couldn’t beat Florida in Gainesville for its only loss of the year.
Much of the Tigers’ struggles – “struggles” in terms of top football teams – have come from two places: the cornerback and quarterback position.
Their play-making cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, dubbed “The Honey Badger” by the LSU faithful, was suddenly kicked off the team in early August for a violation of team rules. Mathieu possessed average cover skills but provided a spark with his electric kick returns and timely strips, sacks and interceptions.
“The cornerbacks that have stepped in to fill Tyrann’s role at the cornerback and nickel back have really filled that well,” said Randy Rosetta, LSU beat writer for NOLA.com. “You can argue that they probably miss him in the return game as far as turning a game on its ear, but they’ve adjusted and have guys making plays on defense.”
Meanwhile, quarterback Zach Mettenberger hasn’t evolved into the quarterback coaches and fans dreamed of in the preseason.
The quarterback position has always haunted the Tigers under head coach Les Miles. In the last two seasons, Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson split time, with Lee playing the pocket passer role and Jefferson more of a scrambling threat.
Mettenberger, a junior college transfer from Butler Community College in Kansas, was billed as the steady quarterback LSU needed to put it over the top but has underwhelmed to this point in the season. He brings in a 56.6 percent completion percentage, with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
“Early in the season they tried to open it up a little with Mettenberger throwing the ball, but he threw a couple of interceptions in the red zone and he lost a fumble in the red zone,” Rosetta said. “Since then, they’ve been really conservative. When they get within what they feel like is [kicker] Drew Alleman’s field goal range, everything is based on the run.
“Running the ball helps them set up the play action a little more. You’ll see a little bit of balance, but everything is still based on the run. Even though Alabama’s defense is great at stopping the run, LSU is still going to try to control the line of scrimmage.”
The feeling around Baton Rouge is mixed. Paul Crewe, a contributing editor to the LSU blog And The Valley Shook called it “bourbon-infused optimism with a dash of bitter concern.”
“You have your delusional optimists, as we like to call them at ATVS, who believe that deep down LSU will figure out they are a great team at some point and a game at night, against Alabama is just the time to do,” he said. “Then there are those who see the weekly box scores and watch the weekly ‘Bama melts [insert team name here]’s face off’ performances and say, ‘We have no chance.’”
Crewe sees the Tigers as having their backs against the wall with one last chance to save their season and possibly sneak back into the title game with some help.
“For LSU, it’s all or nothing,” he said. “This season, though, coming into the game with one loss already, it’s do or die. The game has been huge the past few seasons and nearly always winds up closer than the betting lines and experts predict. If LSU loses, it’s basically season over. This was to be the year we were the favorites to the win the title. Two losses? That’s a nightmare though a dream season for most teams, such is the life of elite football.”
He said LSU’s chance lies in playing in Tiger Stadium at night. The atmosphere created in Baton Rouge after the sun has set has taken down many opponents.
“This is the one thing I take hope in,” he said. “LSU just doesn’t lose on Saturday nights at home. The last loss came in 2009. The last game before then? 2002. Against Alabama. When Saban was our coach.
“Tiger Stadium held true to form against South Carolina a few weeks ago, and I can only imagine they will turn it up to 11 this Saturday night. After a day full of tailgating and a lot of anti-Saban rallying cries, the crowd should be in a tizzy early and often.”