LSU season preview

Our SEC preview series shifts today to the Bayou and the LSU Tigers.

Coach: Les Miles (113-42 overall, 85-21 at LSU)

2012 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

Key losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid

Key returnees: QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham Jr., OT La’el Collins, DT Anthony Johnson, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston

Newcomers to watch: LB Kendell Beckwith, TE Logan Stokes, WR Travin Dural, WR Quantavius Leslie, DE Lewis Neal

Biggest games in 2013: TCU (in Arlington, Texas), Aug. 31; at Georgia, Sept. 28; Florida, Oct. 12; at Alabama, Nov. 9; Texas A&M, Nov. 23

Biggest question mark: The amount of talent LSU lost on defense last season to the NFL was staggering, but few teams in the SEC have reloaded on that side of the ball the way the Tigers have under fifth-year coordinator John Chavis. That’s the challenge this season, particularly when it comes to finding guys who can rush the passer and make big plays off the edge. LSU should be fine on the interior with the tandem of Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, but there’s not a proven finisher at end. Junior Jermauria Rasco and sophomore Danielle Hunter are both primed to move into that role and have breakout seasons, while freshmen Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower will also be worth watching.

Forecast: Amid all the talk about Alabama going for its third straight national championship and the circus surrounding Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, LSU has sort of been the forgotten team in the West race. Deep down, LSU coach Les Miles doesn’t mind being in the shadows entering the 2013 season because it’s been an excellent source of motivation for his team. Try mentioning to any of the players that this could be the year the Tigers fall off a bit. At LSU? The Tigers may have lost several great players, but they also breed great players, and that’s been their mantra on the Bayou.

One of the big questions of the offseason was recently resolved when star running back Jeremy Hill was reinstated to the team following his legal troubles. Miles has said only that Hill would be punished internally and hasn’t specified if he will miss any games. Getting Hill back was big for the Tigers, who were already deep at running back. But the 233-pound Hill has the size, power and speed that should fit perfectly into Cam Cameron’s offense. Having Hill in the backfield will make LSU’s play-action passing game that much more effective, and the plan is for senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger to throw the ball down the field more this season. The Tigers need to throw it better, period, after finishing 11th in the SEC last season in passing offense and tossing just 12 touchdown passes in 13 games.

As Miles has alluded to more than a few times, LSU is the only team in the West this season that has to face both Florida and Georgia from the East. The Tigers also have to play at Alabama, so the schedule may be LSU’s biggest hurdle in terms of making a run at the SEC championship.