BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) Les Miles enters his 12th season at LSU with one of the most experienced teams of his tenure, including Heisman Trophy hopeful Leonard Fournette.
Now LSU's upperclassmen must produce or face the prospect of precipitating the end of the Miles era on the bayou. After all, expectations at LSU run as high as Death Valley is loud, and it has been four seasons since the Tigers earned a berth to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
Optimism oozes from junior quarterback Brandon Harris as he explains how having a slew of leaders among the 17 returning players who started much of last season could propel LSU back into contention for SEC and national titles.
''We have such a great group of guys, great leaders in each of those (position) rooms, guys that have played a lot of football,'' Harris said. ''All those guys are really working hard in the leadership role. We're able to motivate guys. ... Guys want to get out and compete.''
A three-game, late-season losing streak that began with a fifth-straight loss to rival Alabama derailed the Tigers' hopes for a return to SEC supremacy and spawned rampant speculation that Miles would not make it through the season. His status wasn't confirmed until after a victory over Texas A&M in LSU's regular season finale in Tiger Stadium.
The Tigers then beat Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl, finishing with a 9-3 record, and LSU headed into the offseason eager to see how much better it could be with another year of maturity.
Indeed, Miles said as fall camp approached that he expects the Tigers to be ''a very significant team.''
Here are some prominent story lines for LSU:
FABULOUS FOURNETTE: LSU's star running back rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns as a sophomore. He also had 19 catches for 253 yards and one touchdown receiving. However, a 31-yard performance at Alabama knocked him out of the running for the Heisman Trophy, eventually won by his Alabama counterpart, Derrick Henry. This year, LSU has a deep backfield and is striving for an improved passing game, meaning the Tigers won't necessarily expect Fournette to increase production overall, but still carry the offense through critical junctures.
ARANDA'S ARRIVAL: LSU's defense has its third coordinator in three seasons following the departure of Kevin Steele, who last season replaced John Chavis. Now Steele has moved on, replaced by Dave Aranda, who left Wisconsin to join Miles' staff. The Tigers, who've long played with four down linemen, will now be in a 3-4 set that in some cases will allow more versatile players to line up in different spots, depending on the situation. So far, LSU defenders seem pleased by the opportunities Aranda will give them to explore their full potential. How well they execute in game situations remains to be seen.
SEASON OPENER: The Tigers open against Wisconsin on Sept. 3 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. This marks the second off-campus season opener between these teams since LSU narrowly came back to beat the Badgers, 28-24, in Houston in 2014. The game also pits Aranda against the team for which he coached the previous three seasons.
KEY GAMES: For LSU, no game is bigger than Alabama's visit on Nov. 5. The Tigers have not beaten Nick Saban's Crimson Tide since the 2011 regular season. Other pivotal games include a visit to Florida on Oct. 8, a home date with Mississippi on Oct. 22 and a Nov. 12 visit to Arkansas, where the Tigers historically struggle.
PREDICTION: LSU was a virtual 10-win team in 2015 with a younger squad and with Harris as a first-year starter. Now Harris has another offseason under coordinator and QB coach Cam Cameron, who plans to be on the sideline this season, rather than in the press box as he was for all of last season except for the Tigers' lopsided bowl victory. ''With him on the sideline, being able to communicate with me, me being able to look over there and look at his eyes and see if we're on the same page, it's important,'' Harris said. If Harris improves on last season's completion percentage of 53.8, LSU could contend for a College Football Playoff berth.
Online: AP College football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org