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Top 25 team preview: No. 14 LSU Tigers

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After an inconsistent 2012 season, LSU's Zach Mettenberger will look to stabilize a team in transition.

LSU's 2013 schedule
DateOpponent
Aug. 31vs. TCU (Arlington)
Sept. 7vs. UAB
Sept. 14vs. Kent State
Sept. 21vs. Auburn
Sept. 28at Georgia
Oct. 5at Mississippi State
Oct. 12vs. Florida
Oct. 19at Ole Miss
Oct. 26vs. Furman
Nov. 9at Alabama
Nov. 23vs. Texas A&M
Nov. 29vs. Arkansas

The SEC title game is Dec. 7 in Atlanta.

Top 25 Previews
1
Alabama
By Lars Anderson
 
2
Stanford
By Stewart Mandel
 
3
Texas A&M
By Stewart Mandel
 
4
Ohio State
By Stewart Mandel
 
5
Oregon
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
6
South Carolina
By Thayer Evans
 
7
Louisville
By Zac Ellis
 
8
Notre Dame
By Lars Anderson
 
9
Florida
By Andy Staples
 
10
Clemson
By Zac Ellis
 
11
Texas
By Stewart Mandel
 
12
Georgia
By Lars Anderson
 
13
Florida State
By Andy Staples
 
14
LSU
By Lars Anderson
 
15
Michigan State
By Ben Glicksman
 
16
TCU
By Dan Greene
 
17
Baylor
By Elizabeth McGarr McCue
 
18
Michigan
By Ted Keith
 
19
Oklahoma
By Richard Deitsch
 
20
Boise State
By Lars Anderson
 
21
UCLA
By R.J. Rico
 
22
Northwestern
By Gabriel Baumgaertner
 
23
Vanderbilt
By Zac Ellis
 
24
Northern Illinois
By Martin Rickman
 
25
Virginia Tech
By Zac Ellis
 

Can Alabama make a run at a third straight national title? Can Ohio State replicate last year's 12-0 campaign? Can Oregon maintain its standard of success under new leadership? With the college football season approaching, Sports Illustrated unveils its preseason Top 25.

For more college football preview content, check out SI's 2013 schedule guide, four teams that can beat Alabama package, preseason All-America Team, media roundtable and much more.

The case for

Despite losing 11 underclassmen who left early for the NFL -- thought to be the most ever for a team in a single season -- the Tigers will be a threat to knock off Alabama in the SEC West because of the maturation of one player: senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger. A year ago, in his first season as the starter, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Mettenberger struggled with his accuracy on intermediate-length passes and often appeared as slow-footed as a lineman. But working with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this spring, Mettenberger tweaked his throwing mechanics. "It was little things, like where I put my [right] big toe when I throw and always trying to keep my eyes looking down the field," Mettenberger said. He also spent dozens of hours performing speed drills on the LSU practice fields. The play of the new and improved Mettenberger, who possesses an NFL-caliber arm, will lift a young team looking to maintain its place near the top of the SEC pecking order.

The case against

Graduation and early departures crushed the defensive line, where four starters must be replaced. Breaking in two more starters in the secondary (sophomore cornerback Jalen Collins and junior safety Ronald Martin) makes it harder to stop high-powered SEC offenses.

Schedule analysis

A young team could struggle in its opener against TCU in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas. After that, LSU hosts both Florida (Oct. 12) and Texas A&M (Nov. 23). Road trips to Georgia (Sept. 28) and Alabama (Nov. 9) will likely determine the Tigers' BCS fate.

Key stat

2,609: The number of yards quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for in 2012. Mettenberger is the first LSU quarterback since Jeff Wickersham in 1984 to return to Baton Rouge after passing for more than 2,500 yards.

Breakout player

LB Kwon Alexander: In 2012, the 6-2, 215-pounder started two games at outside linebacker as a freshman before breaking his right ankle. In the games he did play, he forced one fumble and recovered two others. He'll see time at outside or inside linebacker this season.

Freshman to watch

CB Tre'Davious White: When pressed on which freshman he was most excited to see in summer camp, coach Les Miles didn't hesitate giving a response: defensive back White. Widely considered a five-star recruit, the 5-10, 170-pounder needs to add weight, but he flourished as a dual-threat quarterback and shutdown cornerback at Green Oaks (La.) High. "We've played defensive backs early a lot here and I don't expect to change this season," Miles said. "If you're good enough, you'll play early here. And White has got a chance to be very good."

X-factor

The backfield situation: After starting running back Jeremy Hill pleaded guilty this summer to misdemeanor simple battery stemming from a fight in April, Miles suspended him from the team indefinitely. Hill was reinstated with the Tigers after a recent team vote, and he's set to share carries with senior Alfred Blue, who missed the last 10 games of last season after tearing his ACL against Idaho. "People forget that Alfred was our starter and off to a great season last year," said Mettenberger. "He brings explosiveness and experience to the position. We'll be fine at running back."

2013 stat projections (By RotoWire.com)

QB Zach Mettenberger: 2,735 passing yards, 19 TDs; -125 rushing yards

RB Alfred Blue: 840 rushing yards, 11 TDs; 135 receiving yards

WR Odell Beckham: 750 receiving yards, 5 TDs; 65 rushing yards, 1 TD

Coach speak: Les Miles

SI: What kind of development have you seen out of Zach Mettenberger this offseason?

LM: He's more commanding, more comfortable and more demanding of his teammates. His commitment to his job is more evident.

SI: How has new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron meshed with Zach?

LM: Cam brings us NFL experience and a track record of developing quarterbacks. He will mentor Zach very well.

SI: Do you feel like LSU is getting overlooked?

LM: We've won more conference games in the last eight years than any other team in the SEC. And in the past eight drafts we've had 51 guys drafted. So considering all of that, it's difficult for us to take on that underdog role.

SI: Are you concerned about your depth given that 11 underclassmen left early for the NFL?

LM: No. We recruit good players, we teach them, they invest time to get better, and then they can achieve a dream of playing in the NFL. I'm proud of that. Sure, I'd like to have those guys back, but we have a bunch of talented kids on the roster.

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