SCOUTING REPORT Les Miles sat on a metal bench next to a practice field in Baton Rouge, squinting into the late-afternoon sun. It was March, and he was watching a few of his players throw a football around in the Louisiana dusk. "We've got a chance to be a special team this fall," Miles said. "But like everyone else, we've got question marks. If we can answer those, then who knows what will happen."With Miles in 2010 you never, in fact, did know what would happen. His questionable clock management followed him all year -- the Tigers' lackadaisical late-game approach nearly cost them a win over Tennessee -- and his eating of LSU stadium grass (literally) late in a win over Alabama perpetuated his image as college football's most eccentric coach. Yet Miles is a winner (he has the '07 BCS trophy to prove it), and this year he may have the most talented team of his tenure in Baton Rouge.The Tigers bring back most of their starters on offense, including Jordan Jefferson, who with a 20-7 career record is the winningest active quarterback in the SEC. Though running back Stevan Ridley left early for the NFL, an able replacement has been found: bruising tailback Spencer Ware, who starred in the spring game with two TDs. And Jefferson will have potentially the most dynamic wide receiving duo in the country with Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard.The defense lost All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson, but his replacement, sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, may soon take his spot on the All-America team. Last season as a nickelback Mathieu was one of the most disruptive part-time players in the nation: He had 4½ sacks, forced five fumbles (he recovered three of them) and had two interceptions. "I've been practicing with Patrick a bunch this off-season," says Mathieu. "We'll go out onto the field, just the two of us, and work on technique. He'll teach me little tricks. I'm learning from the best, and I can't wait to apply what he's taught me."LSU opens against Oregon, which has 13 starters returning from the team that lost in the national championship game. What will happen? Miles will find out quickly whether his team -- loaded with potential (and potential high NFL draft picks) -- will be a serious national-title contender.
THE BIG IF Is the promising but lightly used Ware ready to carry the load as the Tigers' starting running back?
TELLING NUMBER 92 -- Fourth-down success percentage (11 of 12) in 2010, best in the FBS. On third-down conversions LSU was 75th, at 38 percent.
KEY RETURNEES Morris Claiborne, CB, Jr. -- All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson got most of the attention last year, but Claiborne was nearly as good. He led the Tigers with five picks (third most in the SEC) and 11 pass breakups (second).
Russell Shepard, WR, Jr. -- In his first two years in Baton Rouge, Shepard, a former high school QB who runs a 4.36, caught 38 passes for 288 yards. This season he'll be more integral as he continues to learn the inside slot receiver position.
Spencer Ware, RB, So. -- For most of last season Ware was a bit player, rushing for only 73 yards in the first 12 games. But in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M he was a running machine, gaining 102 yards in a 41-24 win. Patient and powerful, Ware will be LSU's featured runner in 2011.
P.J. Lonergan, C, Jr. -- After playing a team-high 787 snaps last season, Lonergan will be the anchor of LSU's offensive line. He's one of the strongest players in program history, tying a school record by hoisting 374 pounds in the clean lift in the spring of 2010.
Jordan Jefferson, QB, Sr. -- The 6-5, 224-pounder can run a blazing 4.5 40-yard-dash and heave the ball 70 yards without much effort. Talent has never been an issue, but consistency has been.
BREAKOUT PLAYER Rueben Randle, WR, Jr. -- As a senior at Bastrop (La.) High in 2008, Randle was among the nation's most sought-after recruits. But he's been erratic in Baton Rouge, making big plays one game (three catches for 125 yards in a win over Alabama) and disappearing in the next (in two 2010 games he failed to catch a pass). Randle, though, has the talent to become LSU's next All-SEC receiver.
TOP RECRUIT La'El Collins, LT, Fr. -- A USA Today All-USA choice, he's hailed as the left tackle of the future by LSU coaches. Collins (out of Baton Rouge's Redemptorist High) is a dominant run blocker; if he hones his pass-blocking technique, he could play a crucial role as early as this season.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.
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