By Zac Ellis
Throughout the offseason, SI.com will spotlight several teams, players and coaches with something to prove heading into the 2013 season. To check out every edition of this series, click here.
Heading into the 2012 season, expectations for LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger were extremely high. The junior assumed the role of LSU's offensive leader after a year spent watching quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lead the Tigers to a 13-1 record and BCS championship game appearance against Alabama in 2011. Originally a Georgia signee who competed with Aaron Murray for the Bulldogs' starting gig in 2009, Mettenberger ran into trouble off the field and was kicked off the team in 2010. But after a stint at Butler (Kan.) Community College in which he threw for 2,678 yards, 32 touchdowns and just four interceptions -- he led Butler to a berth in the 2010 juco national title game -- Mettenberger's talent was evident. The hype followed.
However, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound passer turned in a mediocre 2012 campaign. Mettenberger threw for 2,609 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he tossed seven picks and completed just 58.8 percent of his passes. In seven of LSU's 13 games, Mettenberger completed fewer than 60 percent of his attempts (he went 11-of-29 for 97 yards against Texas A&M), and the offense finished near the bottom of the SEC.
This fall, he has one more chance. On the heels of a pedestrian season, Mettenberger might be looking at his last shot at redemption.
To fully understand Mettenberger's junior performance -- and to glimpse what it may mean for his forthcoming senior effort -- it's best to break up last season into three separate stretches: Sept. 1-Sept. 15, Sept. 22-Oct. 20 and Nov. 3-Dec. 31. He started hot, struggled against the teeth of the SEC schedule and then rebounded to close out the regular season on a positive note.
Here's a breakdown of his stats from each stretch:
• First three games: 48-of-66 (72.7 percent), 609 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions
• Middle five games: 64-of-132 (48.9 percent), 810 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions
• Final five games: 95-of-154 (61.2 percent), 1,190 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions
After taking advantage of lesser competition early -- particularly against North Texas and Idaho -- Mettenberger looked visibly uncomfortable in spurts during SEC play. He consistently overthrew receivers. He failed to identify wide-open targets. Some LSU fans questioned whether he should retain the starting role, especially following his dismal performance in a 24-19 win at A&M.
But then Mettenberger showed improbable poise against the Tide on Nov. 3, throwing for a season-high 298 yards in the losing effort. It's largely forgotten in the aftermath of AJ McCarron's dramatic game-winning screen pass to T.J. Yeldon, but at times, Mettenberger had his way with Nick Saban's defense. Though he regressed in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson -- he went 14-of-23 for 120 yards in the loss -- his performance against 'Bama and the Tigers' final three regular-season opponents (Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas) bodes well for 2013. His ceiling might not be as high as previously imagined, but he certainly has all the tools to be a consistent source of production.
The Tigers compensated for an up-and-down Mettenberger throughout the year with ferocious defense, as its unit finished eighth in the nation in total defense and ninth in rushing defense, respectively. (Eight LSU defenders were selected in April's NFL draft.) The Tigers held six of their opponents to fewer than 15 points, and the ground game did the rest: Running backs Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard combined for 1,219 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. The team's total of 29 rushing scores more than doubled the 12 touchdowns it managed through the air -- a dichotomy that will need to change if LSU hopes to challenge for a BCS berth this fall.
Still, a few factors seem encouraging for Mettenberger entering his senior year. For one, four veterans return across the offensive line, including tackle La'el Collins and guard Josh Williford. If the line can make up for the departure of three-year starter P.J. Lonergan at center, the unit could again be a major strength of the offense. But that veteran leadership won't come without the need for some improvement: The offensive line allowed 32 sacks last year, 10th in the SEC. Mettenberger went down 13 times in the Tigers' three losses in 2012.
The quarterback will also work under the tutelage of new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who was fired midway through last season by the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Though Cameron hasn't coached in college since a stint at Indiana in 2001, he has overseen a handful of successful NFL passers, from Drew Brees and Philip Rivers with the San Diego Chargers to Joe Flacco in Baltimore. And as SI.com's Andy Staples explained in the spring, Cameron is already teaching his quarterbacks to flourish in tight situations -- a lesson the sack-prone Mettenberger could take to heart.
Both Hilliard and Hill return in the backfield, though Hill's future is uncertain after he was arrested in April for his alleged involvement in a fight outside a bar. Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone -- the Tigers' three top wide receivers from 2012 -- also make their way back to campus, which should foster a feeling of familiarity between Mettenberger and his skill players. The schedule, however, is daunting: LSU has Georgia as its cross-division opponent along with Florida. The Tigers also open the season against TCU and travel to Alabama on Nov. 9.
As he demonstrated toward the end of the regular season last year, Mettenberger possesses the big-play ability to perform against top competition. He needs to address the inconsistency and accuracy issues that plagued him throughout 2012, but the offense's success doesn't ride on him alone; the line must provide better protection and Hill's status at running back could make a big difference. Mettenberger may not be a Heisman contender, but he could be a very effective quarterback in Baton Rouge. With a bunch of key returnees and a mentor in Cameron, Mettenberger's senior season could cap his college career on an upswing.