Five takes and topics after returning from SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
1. LSU still envied and elite
Yes, the ending of last season was an absolutely maddening nightmare for Tiger fans. LSU's game plan, the mysterious abandonment of quarterback Jarrett Lee and the overall bizarre vibe from the team that evening of January 9 against Alabama will be discussed for years to come.
But despite that embarrassing 21-0 BCS national championship setback, these are still the golden years of LSU football. Throughout the numerous player and coach interviews conducted this week, there were two programs brought up and praised repeatedly as the cream of the crop, Alabama and LSU. The Tigers are still envied by basically everyone in the conference and across the country as THE premier program in the land, second only perhaps to the hated Crimson Tide. These days it's almost like debating The Beatles or The Rolling Stones ... it's not bad to be either. So while the crushing defeat to Nick Saban roughly six months ago will be impossible to forget, knowing that countless fan bases would die to have LSU's unlimited future NFL talent, their plentiful resources and yes, very accomplished head coach Les Miles, should be very comforting.
2. Mettenberger Matures
Watching him walk the halls of the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover reminded us what a towering and physical specimen the 6'5, 222 pound LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger is. After problems at the University of Georgia that led to his dismissal from the team, Mettenberger is now primed to become a breakout star in his junior season. The QB impressed many of the media in attendance this week, taking personal accountability for being an "immature kid" in the past, who is now focused on changing people's perception of him. His former head coach, Mark Richt of Georgia, wished nothing but the best for Mettenberger and his family. Bulldogs senior wide receiver Tavarres King echoed those sentiments, saying "I love Zach to death."
Despite his tremendous skill set and unlimited potential, Mettenberger still has much to prove. He's only thrown 11 passes in major college football, all in mop up duty during LSU's 49-3 pasting of Northwestern State last season. Still, with a confident disposition and new lease on life, Mettenberger appears to have matured tremendously and understands the golden opportunity that awaits him.
3. Third time a charm for Saban?
This will be the third time Nick Saban has entered a college football season as the defending the national champion. The previous two experiences weren't all that fantastic, as Saban's 2004 LSU Tigers lost three games (including a 45-16 waxing at Georgia) the year after defeating Oklahoma in the Louisiana Superdome for the BCS Championship. In just his third season at Alabama, Saban's 2009 Crimson Tide ran the table to a 14-0 finish, including a national championship drubbing of Texas. However the next season the Tide slipped to 10-3, including a 24-21 loss at LSU. Now, to channel Whitesnake, here Nick Saban goes again.
His 2012 squad lost 13 starters, many of them on defense, from last season's national champion. Two huge tests come within the first three games of the season, as Bama opens with Top-10 Michigan in Dallas and then making a trip to Arkansas shortly after. If the Crimson Tide can win those two, LSU fans might be groaning "Here WE go again."
Bama visits Tiger Stadium on November 3, with the game airing nationally at night, on CBS and primetime. These two can't meet again in Miami for a BCS rematch....can they?
4. The more Spurrier, the better
The PGA is simply more relevant and exciting when Tiger Woods is winning. Likewise, the same can be said about college football when Steve Spurrier is getting it done. Spurrier has always been an entertaining soundbite, but now his South Carolina teams are trending back towards his "Darth Visor" days at Florida. The Gamecocks will likely never dominate the college football landscape like his Gator days of Danny Wuerffel, but big things are happening in Columbia.
The Gamecocks are coming off their best season in school history and are a preseason Top-10 selection again this year. Spurrier has finally escaped the Stephen Garcia soap opera at quarterback, and now has a reliable kid behind center, with a good head on his shoulders. His arm and mobile legs aren't too bad either. Junior Connor Shaw played extremely well during the second half of last season and emitted a very cool, confident demeanor at SEC Media Days. Shaw is indeed a dual-threat, who expects to have a fully recovered Marcus Lattimore returning at running back (knee injury) to hand the rock to.
As far as Spurrier's unfiltered comments, the more the better. Far too many coaches have become paralyzed with fear of speaking their minds, cautious of upsetting some people that honestly don't matter. It's college football, not the Cuban Missile Crisis. Let's have a little fun people. Those who get offended by "The Ole' Ball Coach" and his sense of humor, probably need a vacation.
Keep the jabs coming, Steve.
5. Saban's Disciples Doomed?
I know at least one devoted LSU fan, who was highly upset the day Florida hired Will Muschamp as their new head coach. That fan wanted Muschamp to eventually coach the Tigers, believing he would become a strong and powerful rock star like his mentor, Nick Saban. But after only one season in Gainesville, doubters are already spreading like a chomp in "The Swamp". Muschamp's first Florida team lost six games and were outscored by Alabama and LSU 79-21 collectively. Not exactly an elite start.
To be fair, Muschamp deserves more time, but Florida may not be willing to give it. The Gators lack any returning quarterback with legitimate experience and the overall vibe I received from Muschamp at SEC Media Days wasn't overly positive. He seemed worried. After opening at home against Bowling Green, the Gators make back-to-back road trips to Texas A&M and then Tennessee. Those two journeys will either have Florida poised as a legitimate contender to win the SEC East, or two big steps towards Muschamp's demise.
Derek Dooley's backside on the other hand is burning, and not because of those fiery, orange pants he wears on game days. Dooley, another member of Nick Saban's national championship staff at LSU, is just 4-12 in the SEC through two seasons in Knoxville. Dooley inherited a situation much more gloomy than Muschamp's, thanks to Lane Kiffin. Still, losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1984 and ranking #116 in the country in rushing the football were two alarming setbacks for the Vols a year ago. But promising junior quarterback Tyler Bray and a very manageable schedule (especially the last four games) gives Dooley hope for a turnaround season, after just an 11-14 overall start.
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