All-American Sam Montgomery and second-team All-SEC Barkevious Mingo anchor a defense that is key to the Tiger's return to a title game.

1. LSU

2011 Record (SEC): 13-1 (8-0)
Returning Starters (Off/Def/ST): 13 (7/4/2)

Ryan Trapp and Kristina Taylor | Staff Writers

For the first time since 1959, the Bayou Bengals will open its football season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. Although only four starters return on defense, it is still one of the best units in the nation. Three of the four behemoths lined up on the defensive front project as first round picks. All-American Sam Montgomery and second-team All-SEC performer Barkevious Mingo give LSU the best defensive end combo in the country. The two combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries as sophomores last season. Bennie Logan, the third junior in the terrifying threesome, is a force to be reckoned with when it matters most. Last year he accounted for 57 tackles, six tackles for a loss, three sacks, blocked a field goal at Alabama and forced a fumble in the SEC Championship. The linebacker group is a youthful one, with junior Kevin Minter filling in at the Mike positions as the lone returning starter. A trio of true freshman, Kwon Alexander, Ronnie Feist and Lorenzo Phillips, could all get looks as the season goes on. LSU has an exceptional group of safeties led by Craig Loston and Eric Reid, who was named to the Lott Trophy watch list. Reid tied for the team lead in tackles last season with 76, including 11 in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. Tyrann Mathieu’s departure leaves a hole at one of the corner slots, but Les Miles has been impressed by redshirt freshman Jalen Collins who should steps into some pretty big shoes. Junior Tharold Simon is a lock-down guy, tied for the team lead with 12 pass breakups last season, and will fill in at the other corner.

Offensively, the Tigers seem will be more balanced with the emergence of strong-armed sophomore quarterback Zach Mattenberger. After the Jordan Jefferson-Jarrett Lee seesaw last season, Mattenberger has the LSU faithful buzzing that he may be the best Tiger quarterback since Ja’Marcus Russell. Despite his lack of experience, the Tigers will look for Mettenberger’s powerful right arm to deliver Baton Rouge a crystal trophy for the first time since 2008. He’ll have an experienced bunch at wideout to throw to, with Odell Beckham Jr. and Russell Shepard returning six touchdowns and 665 yards to the position. True freshman Avery Johnson, younger brother of Tiger great Patrick Peterson, could also garner some attention his first year in Baton Rouge. The LSU ground game should be as strong as ever, bringing back their four leading running backs from 2011, including second team All-SEC honoree Spencer Ware and the team’s leading rusher Michael Ford. Between Ware, Ford, Alfred Blue and sophomore Kenny Hillard, the Tigers’ backfield returns over 2,300 yards rushing and 32 total touchdowns. The offensive line is just as experienced as the legendary defensive line with four of five linemen back for 2012 along with senior Josh Dworaczyk, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after missing all of last season with an MCL injury.

LSU’s 2012 schedule features five of the nation’s Top 25 teams. The Tigers travel to Auburn week four and play Florida and South Carolina back-to-back weeks in October. The marquee matchups will be a national championship rematch against the Crimson Tide November 3. A win there and a win in their regular season finale against Arkansas should put the Bayou Bengals in the SEC Championship game, where they’ll likely face either South Carolina and the brilliant Marcus Lattimore or Georgia and their stalwart defense. Running the table against in the powerhouse SEC will give LSU a chance to win their third national championship in 10 years.

BURNING QUESTION: Is this really a number one team?
LSU received less first-place votes in the coaches’ poll than either Alabama or USC, were destroyed in title game last season, released Heisman finalist and big-time corner Tyrann Mathieu in the offseason and enter 2012 without an experienced quarterback. They’re defense is elite, the kind that doesn’t just keep a team in games but wins them, yet there are still a lot of questions surrounding this team. The preseason ranking seems merited based on potential, but time will tell if the Tigers can really live up to the mark and reach a second straight title game.


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