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LSU in Review

Breaking Down the Bayou Bengals' 2012 Campaign

With the 2012 college football season officially in the books, LSU football beat writer Chris Rinaldi tries to make sense of the Tigers' 10-3 season.



Alabama has brought home another BCS Title for the SEC, the seventh straight, after defeating Notre Dame 42-14, in what will likely be remembered as the most lopsided title game in the BCS era, only rivaled by Florida's 2006 41-14 victory over Ohio State. It also put the SEC to 6-3 this bowl season.



Determing LSU's place in the 2012 SEC pecking order is difficult, as is anyone else's, outside the Crimson Tide. South Carolina beat Georgia; Florida beat LSU; LSU beat South Carolina; Georiga beat Florida; A&M defeated Bama; LSU and Florida defeated A&M--- it's all too difficult.



So, it's best to look at LSU's season independently, from day one.



High Expectations

LSU was the favorite to win the national championship at the precipice of the 2012 college football season. They were returning a majority of the 2011 team, which was 13-0 in regular season play, only to be tripped up by Alabama in the national championship. 



The first blow to the Tigers came when Tyrann Mathieu was suspended from the team for failing a drug test. Some wondered if the loss of the Honey Badger, particularly so close to the beginning of the season, would erode the personality of the Tigers' defense, and if the defense would be effective without the game-breaking plays Mathieu's explosive punt returns and momentum swinging turnovers. However, the prevailing thought was the loss would be a blow the Tigers could recover from. With the season in the rearview mirror, it's not quite clear what the effect of losing Mathieu was, as the Tigers had plenty of other issues that held them back from reaching an elite level in 2012. 



LSU lost left tackle Chris Faulk in their opener to North Texas. The impact of Faulk's torn ACL was seen immediately. LSU beat North Texas convinvingly, but first year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger was constantly under pressure in that game, and would be for much of the season that followed. 



LSU went on to win impressively over Washington and the University of Idaho, but the SEC opener against Auburn revealed signs of what was to come. The Tigers struggled to beat an anemic Auburn team at home, as Mettenberger's acclimation to SEC football was muddled by a bungling offensive line that relied on freshmen Trai Turner and Vidal Alexander, and sophomore La'el Collins, for most of the season.



Mettenberger would not fulfill the promise that many LSU fans hoped he would until more than halfway through the season. The Tigers hit their low point when they squeaked by Towson, which was supposed to be the cupcake of their schedule, overcoming turnovers and sloppy play, both on offense and defense. Still, at 5-0, the season could be saved when they headed to Gainesville to take the Florida Gators. 



Gator Chopped, But Not Deterred

No one knew quite how good Florida was at that point, but LSU exhibited many of the same struggles they did in the prior two weeks when they matched up against the Gators. Mettenberger was missing passes, sometimes due to his own fault, and at other times due to the porous offensive line which was still attempting to find the same page as a result of injuries and the shuffling of personnel. In the end, LSU botched opportunities, notably being unable to take advantage of a fumble at the end of the first half and wasting a beautiful Zach Mettenberger completion after an Odell Beckham Jr. with a fumble. In the end, the Fighting Tigers suffered a low-scoring, close loss to the Gators. 



The loss also highlighted a pattern of inexplicable play-calling on offense which lingered over from the Tigers' two prior lackluster performances against Auburn and Towson, and would rear its head again in their final loss in the Chick-Fil-A bowl to Clemson--- a refusal to run the football. 



Equipped with a stable of strong running backs, including breakout freshman Jeremy Hill, who was unknown at that point, and a physical yet inexperienced offenseive line, the Tigers' insisted on playing a game that accentuated their weaknesses - namely pass protection - and neutralized their strengths, which is running and resting their stellar defense. The team was determined to force Mettenberger to win games with his arm, willfully ignorant of the fact that he was not quite ready, and that a young and battered offensive line was not capable of providing the necessary protection. 



But, just when the frustration had hit its peak, the Tigers hosted South Carolina in Death Valley, where Jeremy Hill rammed through the vaunted South Carolina defense in an impressive victory that re-ignited hope for LSU's national championship run, with the showdown against Alabama only two games ahead. 



But first, LSU had to go Texas A&M to take on Johnny "Football" Manziel and the Aggies. Manziel had already built a reputation, thriving in Kevin Sumlin's offense with both his arm and legs, but it was far short of the Heisman reputation he would earn by season's end.



Manziel opened the game tearing apart the LSU defense, and many fans must have been at home thinking they were watching the season crumble before their eyes. Additionally, the peculiar play-calling returned. The Tigers abandoned the successful formula of the prior week, leaning on Mettenberger and an over-matched offensive line, while neglecting the run even in the most run sensible scenarios. 



Soon, though, defensive coordinator John Chavis changed the game, calling for a three man front against Manziel and the A&M line. The extra speed on the field stifled Manziel, who was unable to continue his first quarter success. The rest of the game belonged to the LSU defense, and a couple key throws by Zach Mettenberger, in addition to another fourth quarter explosion by Hill, set the stage for LSU-Alabama, and a chance for the Tigers to regain control of the SEC West, and their title hopes. 



Heartbreak in Death Valley, and Muddling Through

The game against Alabama was everything LSU could have wanted, except for the result. Mettenberger operated efficiently and effectively; the offensive line made the Alabama defense look pedestrian, and the defense held A.J. McCarron and Eddy Lacey in check. 



LSU's kicker Drew Alleman continued his disappointing year, missing field goals, while Les Miles took questionable risks. The Mad Hatter may have left points on the field thanks to an onside kick and missed long field goal that set up Alabama in good field position. The latter set up the culmination of the game. With under two minutes to go, Alabama's A.J. McCarron orchestrated a game-winning drive that stymied the Tigers' hope to return to national prominence, and handed LSU its second loss. 



After that, it was only pride that LSU had to play for. The next two games came against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. LSU beat Mississippi State, but looking back on it, the game was closer than it was made out to be, and the final result left a skewed impression, in part due to a 100 yard interception return by Craig Loston in the final quarter. 



Zach Mettenberger built on his strong performance against Alabama, and the offensive line looked like they had turned things around, but a development occurred that was not fully acknowledged. The LSU passing defense had become porous. The defensive line was not causing quite as much pressure and star cornerback Tharold Simon wasn't living up to his expectations. Additionally, safety Eric Reid was quite the opposite of safe, which would be fully revealed in the final home game against Ole Miss.



Ole Miss jumped on the Tigers, as Rebels' quarterback Bo Wallace exposed Simon, and big plays opened up when Eric Reid was unable to bottle up receivers after Simon's blown coverages. For a period, it appeared that a season that could be rationalized by losses to Alabama and Florida, two of the Top 5 teams in the nation, would unravel into utter disappointment. But, the game quickly turned into one of the most exciting in recent memory when Odell Beckham Jr. returned a punt that shifted the trajectory of the matchup and propelled LSU to victory. The punt return also provided us with what was arguably the greatest moment of the season, when coach Les Miles ranted, raved, and gushed about his players in one of the finer press conferences in college football memory.



The excitement of the Ole Miss victory was followed by a game that made you feel as if you ate another whole turkey for leftovers in the annual post-Thanksgiving showdown against Arkansas. LSU trudged to an unimpressive victory, but secured another ten win season. They were then matched up in one the best bowl games of the year in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl against an explosive Clemson offense. 



As the regular season ended, and before the bowl season neared, the Tigers could not go drama-free. Rumors began to fly about Les Miles' future with the team, as Arkansas purpotedly made a lucrative offer to draw the coach away from Baton Rouge. However, Miles and LSU quickly stomped out any distraction when they agreed to an extension to keep the Mad Hatter in Baton Rouge.



On to Atlanta it was...



Bowled Over

While I share SEC hubris, it should have been clear that Clemson's explosive offense posed the kind of threat which LSU would be most susceptible to. LSU's porous secondary and diminishing defensive line results could not have asked for a worse match-up then Clemson's stock of explosive receivers, and their dynamic quarterback Tajh Boyd. 



The loss to Clemson in the bowl game was a perfect storm of everything that was wrong with the LSU Tigers. One part poor play-calling, one-part questionable coaching, and one-part weaknesses exposed, formed a triumvrate of defeat that leaves LSU and its' fans with a sour taste in its mouth, as Clemson hit a field goal in the final play of the game to ice a one-point victory.



A season that began with so much promise ended with so much dissapointment. Everything seemed so close, so attainable. Mistakes and a failure to capitalize keyed a Florida victory over LSU; lost - or better yet, left - opportunities and a defensive breakdown let Alabama sneak by the Tigers, and Clemson was able to win the Chick-Fil-A bowl because the Bayou Bengals handed them the opportunity. Clearly, this was not the best team in the nation, but it was a team that was brought down by play-calling, decision-making, and lapses in performance at key times. 



In the end, this was the most frustrating LSU team I've followed, highlighted by my disdain after the Florda game, pounding headache and frustration after the A&M game, nap to ward off anger during the Ole Miss game, and "I just give up" dissapointment after the loss to Clemson. But, it was also my most sober season, in an attempt to bring articles to you, and that may explain all of those emotions. Hopefully you've enjoyed it.



Next year's team will be completely different, with the early departures of Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan, Kevin Minter, Eric Reid, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Brad Wing. But, maybe that's a good thing, as the 2011 and 2012 teams rose out of the ashes of a similarly frustrating 2009 LSU team that began to gel in 2010. 



The 2011 team was like a whirlwind honeymoon, that carried over to this year, with the whole affair falling apart in the end. Now, it's a new phase for the program, with new players and continued high expectations. 



Who knows what the 2013 team will provide, but next fall will still hold promise, as every one does. But this time, I'm going back to being a gameday lush. That's my New Year's resolution. 

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