HOOVER, Ala.—After last season’s sluggish finish which preceded a flood of underclassmen headed for the professional ranks, there’s a different feel surrounding the LSU football program entering the fall.
Expectations of the Tigers have taken a substantial hit outside the cozy confines of the football operations center. That speculation was borne out in the media vote in Hoover when the Tigers received exactly one vote to win the conference championship this fall.
Four teams received more.
“A year like this year, where you're not necessarily picked No. 1, basically there's a responsibility for us to control the outcome,” said LSU head coach Les Miles. “The fact that our culture in that team room and in our team kind of looks at each game, an opportunity to play for victory, it really does not affect us really what the perimeter of that team room says about them.”
Miles’ cliché-riddled response to a lack of preseason publicity may hold truth, but whether or not the team has been affected by external expectations, there is no denying the change in social media messages from the Tigers.
Last summer, tweets referencing the BCS National Championship piled up. Those are no longer.
That could be an indication of lowered expectations in the locker room, but it could also be a message of renewed focus and dedication.
“For us, we just try not to get too carried away with it,” said junior wide receiver Jarvis Landry. “I think we set expectations for everybody when we say things like that. One of our mottos this year is, ‘We can’t just win a ring on Saturday. You have to win them every day.’ That’s going to be our mission statement this year.”
Landry joined seniors Josh Williford and Alfred Blue on the preseason All-SEC third team, but LSU failed to put a single offensive player on the first or second teams. Still the players continue to preach that the introduction of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will improve an offense that has lacked consistency in recent seasons.
Cameron makes five offensive coordinators in the well-traveled career of LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. While many point to that oddity and paint it negatively, Mettenberger chooses a different point of view.
“I look at it as a chance to learn from a different guy, different style of teaching,” Mettenberger said. “His is definitely been something that I can grasp on to and learn. Knowing his pedigree and the guys he’s worked with, it makes you pay attention and learn everything you can.”
Keeping with the theme of a moderated mood on the Tiger team, Mettenberger insisted the summer has been easier.
Last year the prevailing thought was that Mettenberger represented the missing piece to a team that appeared a quarterback shy of a national title in 2011. He fielded questions at Media Days last year suggesting just that.
For a player who had never started a Division I football game, the expectations laid at his feet may have been a touch steep. Maybe not so much this summer.
“It’s just easier,” Mettenberger said of his offseason. “I’m more comfortable. I’m not a first year guy not knowing what to expect in a big SEC game day. Even being at Media Day I’m just so much more comfortable and relaxed. I’m not sweating as much as I did last year.
“Being a second year (starter) and a fifth year guy, having all that time under your belt, I feel like a seasoned veteran. It’s definitely going to be an easier transition to the first game this year than it was last year.”
That game is not against North Texas this time around. Instead, it will be a prime time contest with nationally ranked TCU at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tx.
Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen alluded to the uptick in intensity and focus in his program this summer as the Bulldogs prepare for a similar opener in Houston against Oklahoma State. Miles has done the same in previous years as the Tigers approached “kickoff” games against North Carolina and Oregon—games LSU won.
“There’s nothing like playing in that Stadium,” Landry said while sporting a grin. “The first time I was in it, it was only two years old. Stepping on that turf during walk through kind of livened the stage a little bit.”
The big stage has a way of setting the tone for a season as opposed to easing in against a lower level school, just another difference between the summer of 2012 and 2013 at LSU.
But senior safety Craig Loston isn’t buying it.
“It’s not different at all,” Loston said. “Expectations may not be high for some people, but for us it’s always going to be high. IK know how we work at LSU. I know what we are capable doing.”
Zach Going Back
Throughout Mark Richt’s 12, going on 13, years at the helm in Athens, there has been a Mettenberger presence in the Georgia football program.
Tammy Mettenberger, his administrative assistant, has been there all along. It wasn’t until January of 2009 that Zach, Tammy’s son, became a member of the Georgia football team.
Due to an incident in a Georgia Bar, Mettenberger was dismissed from the team and made his way to LSU via Butler Community College in Kansas. In September, Mettenberger will return to Athens to quarterback the Tigers against his former squad.
“As a kid, growing up a Georgia fan with my mom working there, I always dreamed of playing between the hedges,” Mettenberger said. “Now I get that opportunity, just wearing purple and gold. The dream has changed a little bit, but I still get to live it.”
Mettenberger enrolled with fellow freshman Aaron Murray who will enter the 2013 season as a three-year starter for the Bulldogs. The two signal callers shared an apartment.
“Going against a guy who was your roommate for a whole year, it’s going to be fun,” Mettenberger said. “There’s going to be a lot of trash talking for sure. There were a lot of heated battles for sure whether it was playing a video game or foosball or anything. There were a lot of cut throat moments in our roommate history.”
Asked about the reception he’ll receive for his homecoming, Mettenberger didn’t pretend to be naïve.
“They’re going to cheer for me, ‘Yeah, go Zach!,’” he said sarcastically to a throng of chuckling reporters. “No, they’re going to boo the crap out of me. I might get a freakin’ brick thrown at me. Who knows? It’s just going to be like anywhere else playing on the road.”
Next in Line?
The No. 18 has carries more weight than any other jersey hanging in the LSU locker room.
Matt Mauck, Jacob Hester, Richard Dickson, Brandon Taylor and Bennie Logan have earned the right to wear that number because of hard work, leadership and quality play on the field. When Logan elected to forgo his final season of eligibility this spring, he left the number behind for another Tiger to sport proudly.
Senior Craig Loston, one of a handful of returning starters on the Tiger defense, would gladly hold the mantle for his final campaign.
“I’m the only old one in the secondary,” Loston joked. “If I was to wear 18, I would be truly honored. Eighteen is a great number, and it has tradition behind it. Whoever they select to wear that jersey is a big time deal for LSU.”