Les Miles has his work cut out for him in 2013.
The Alabama Crimson Tide is now a dynasty, Texas A&M returns Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and Ole Miss' future keeps getting brighter under Hugh Freeze. Welcome to the SEC West.
To make matters worse, LSU lost 10 juniors to the NFL draft. So heading into next season, Miles will rely on his veterans, the men that will be the difference between winning and losing.
Here are those men.
It all starts with Zach Mettenberger.
The line separating success and failure is razor-thin, but if new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron elevates Mettenberger's game in 2013, the Tigers have a chance.
Obviously, it won't be easy. Mettenberger still has problems with holding onto the ball too long and his pocket awareness is moderate at best. Actually, that's being generous. But Mettenberger has this offseason with Cameron to sharpen his skills.
If Mettenberger performs like he did against Alabama and Mississippi State, LSU challenges Alabama's reign as champion.
Jeremy Hill is the star of the team.
Giving the ball to Hill in the fourth quarter is critical, as Tiger fans saw what happened when he had zero rush attempts in the fourth quarter against Clemson. Sorry for the reminder.
Changing the subject—at 6'2", 225 pounds, Hill runs the ball with power, but his lateral movement, shifty cuts and breakaway speed is what makes him special.
The Tigers' backfield is much more shallow with Michael Ford and Spencer Ware gone. So the words, "The Tigers need a big year from Hill," is an understatement to say the least.
Bulldozer is a unit within a unit.
Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander are the driving force of the right side of the offensive line, hence the nicknames "bull" and "dozer."
Alexander struggled against Clemson, but for most of the year, he held defensive ends in check and provided Mettenberger with great protection. As for his partner, Turner, he opened up gaping holes for Hill and other running backs.
Turner and Alexander must stay healthy and continue to push defenders off the ball for LSU's ground-and-pound style of play to remain effective.
Speaking of ground-and-pound...
Standing at 6'5", 325 pounds, La'el Collins is an absolute handful at left guard. In fact, Collins is the Tigers' best returning offensive lineman.
Collins impressed the minute he stepped on campus and saw action as a freshman. Last year, he became a full-fledged starter and earned an honorable mention for a stacked All-SEC offensive line squad.
Expect Collins to place on the first or second team in 2013 if he keeps up his play.
Whenever LSU needed a big play last season, the offense more than often dialed up Jarvis Landry's number.
Landry delivered in a big way. Whether he caught a pass across the middle or made an exhilarating one-handed catch in the back of the end zone, Landry was the spark that ignited this offensive flame.
But that's not all he did. This LSU team last season lacked the swagger of the 2011 team. The trash talking and the body language was much less noticeable. Credit that to the absence of Tyrann Mathieu.
However, anytime Landry made a big play or a crucial catch, he displayed a confident strut that told LSU's opponents exactly what they're getting into. It's vital for LSU to regain its confident demeanor next season and Landry is just the guy to ignite that desire.
They grow up fast, don't they?
It seems like just yesterday Anthony Johnson was the young, talented freshman that presented a similar explosive ability to Glenn Dorsey.
Entering his junior season, Johnson is the veteran on the defensive line. Bennie Logan, Josh Downs, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are all absent.
Enter the new faces.
Johnson has to be the glue that holds this young defensive line group together. On crucial 3rd-and-shorts, it's essential for Johnson to be the show-stopping defensive tackle everyone believes he will be.
The absence of Kevin Minter is heartbreaking.
Here's a linebacker who made 130 tackles for this LSU defense last season. Who will fill his void? Who will defensive coordinator John Chavis turn to?
Well, the leading candidate is Lamin Barrow. Barrow is a hard-hitting linebacker with enough size to play at the middle position.
LSU has talent for days with Ronnie Feist, Tahj Jones, Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones all expecting to play. But the Tigers need a linebacker that can make sure-handed tackles in the middle and Barrow is likely to become that guy next season.
Jalen Mills' play in 2013 was phenomenal.
You want to talk about putting players on islands? Mills stepped in for Mathieu and developed into a lockdown cornerback by SEC play.
But he also had Tharold Simon opposite him. With that no longer being the case, Mills must improve and show that he can take opponents' best receivers and shut them down.
Mills is talented enough to do so.
Craig Loston could have made the jump to the NFL, but he chose to stay and play his senior year. This had to put a classic expression on Miles face.
Loston is now the captain of this defense, for his tenacious style of playing safety will be needed to add toughness to the secondary.
Ronald Martin and Micah Eugen return as well to play key roles alongside him, but get it straight—Loston is the veteran of this group with an incredible amount of experience.
As captain of this defense, he is sure to strike fear into opponents with his hostility toward defenders crossing the middle.