Opening preseason camp: LSU

Schedule: The Tigers’ first practice is Thursday morning with the varsity players. The freshmen and selected veterans will practice later in the day. The first full-squad practice is Sunday, and the first day in pads is scheduled for Monday. LSU opens the season Sept. 1 against North Texas in Tiger Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised by ESPNU.

Returning starters: Six on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.

Star power: Junior cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist last season. He tied for the team lead with 76 total tackles and led the SEC with six forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries. He also returned two punts for touchdowns.

New faces: Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist, a pair of true freshmen, went through spring drills and showed enough that that they’re going to be in the rotation at linebacker this season. Also keep an eye on incoming true freshman Kwon Alexander. In the secondary, redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could end up being the Tigers’ third cornerback, while redshirt freshman Micah Eugene is expected to push Craig Loston for the starting strong-safety spot.

Don’t forget about: Sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk didn’t go through the spring and missed all of last season with a knee injury. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility, and he adds a wealth of experience to an already-talented offensive line. Dworaczyk started at left guard in all 13 games of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons, but will have to beat out promising sophomore La'El Collins if he’s going to return to the starting lineup.

Big shoes to fill: Morris Claiborne picked up right where Patrick Peterson left off the year before and took away one whole side of the field at cornerback last season. He was an eraser back there for the Tigers and also contributed a key 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against West Virginia. Next in line is junior Tharold Simon, who has the size, skills and drive to be the next great corner to come out of LSU.

Key battle: LSU coach Les Miles likes to play a lot of running backs, but he can’t play five, and the Tigers have five who could start for a lot of teams. The new kid on the block is 6-foot-2, 225-pound freshman Jeremy Hill, who might be the most complete package physically. Juniors Michael Ford and Spencer Ware combined for more than 1,450 rushing yards last season, and 240-pound sophomore Kenny Hilliard came on toward the end of the season. There’s also junior Alfred Blue, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry a year ago. The competition at running back should be fierce over the next month.

Rising star: After starring on special teams last season and blowing up a few opposing return men, sophomore Jarvis Landry is ready to make his mark at receiver. He runs excellent routes and catches everything. He’ll be a vital part of the Tigers’ passing game this fall.

Bottom line: The Tigers came up one game short a year ago after winning 13 in a row against a brutal schedule and then laying an egg in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. They lost three talented underclassmen to the NFL draft, but the defense has a chance to be even better in 2012. Good luck in finding a deeper, more talented defensive line this side of the NFL. The secondary won’t be too far behind. If quarterback Zach Mettenberger can have success throwing the ball down the field, it’s going to open up all sorts of things on offense for the Tigers. Their running game will be as potent as ever. The schedule is also much easier, and Alabama has to come to Baton Rouge this season. When you add it all up, it has the feel of another national-championship run for the Tigers, who are still smarting from what happened to them in New Orleans last season.