The Good News: The Tigers, from a talent perspective, will be loaded. Again. As they are every year. Even with the departure of a few key cogs in that 2011 team, coach Les Miles will field a team stocked with NFL-caliber players. None of those stars will shine brighter than Tyrann Mathieu, the cornerback/kick returner who blossomed into a true superstar last season. Mathieu is the finest defensive playmaker college football has seen since the days of Charles Woodson, and he'll be the best player on the field every game next season. He should be a blast to watch. More than that, he'll also likely walk off with the Heisman Trophy.
The Bad News. It's relative, of course. I mean, most teams would love to be entering 2012 with the kind of "problems" that LSU has. But still, the fact remains that the Tigers will be breaking in a new quarterback this season, and while one could make a pretty good case that Zach Mettenberger will represent a step up from the departed Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, there is always a sense of the unknown when an elite team hits the field with a newbie at the most important position on the field. Along with the questions at quarterback, the Tigers will need to find replacements for linebackers Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois. The only other bad news I can think of is the fact that Tigers have to share a division with Alabama. Oh how easy life would be but for that.
Game to Watch: The Tigers played an absolutely brutal schedule in 2011. Things don't look quite so tough for 2012. After opening with a Top 5 Oregon team last season, the Tigers give themselves a break this year .. with a showdown against mighty North Texas. The other non-conference showdowns--Washington, Idaho and ... Towson?--aren't exactly all that daunting, either. With no non-conference game to worry about, then, the Tigers' focus will be almost entirely on its own league, and more specifically, its own division. The season-ending matchup with Arkansas figures to be a doozy, but once again, it's safe to say that the the battle for the West (and possibly the nation) will come down to the Nov. 3 grudgefest against Alabama. Mark your calendars (that is, if you haven't already).
What They'll Be Expecting: Well, it's pretty clear, isn't it? When you go on a 13-0 run and then see it all go up in flames in the biggest game of the year, as the Tigers did last season, there is only way to make those awful memories go away. And that's to win it all. That 2011 Tigers team was one of the best I've seen--the rolled through most of their schedule, and it was a tough schedule, too--which made their title-game meltdown all the more confusing. I'm sure they're confused by it, too. The story of the season will be seeing how they respond to that confusion.
The Schedule (key games marked with an *):
Sept. 1 North Texas
Sept. 8 Washington
Sept. 15 Idaho
Sept. 22 at Auburn*
Sept. 29 Towson University
Oct. 6 at Florida
Oct. 13 South Carolina*
Oct. 20 at Texas A&M
Nov. 3 Alabama*
Nov. 10 Mississippi State
Nov. 17 Ole Miss
Nov. 23 or 24 at Arkansas*
Prediction: The Tigers have all the talent in the world, and as much talent as anybody else in the SEC West. But can this team overcome the mental hangover it must surely be experiencing in the wake of that BCS Championship Game metdown against Alabama? I think they can; they have no choice, do they? But that doesn't mean they're going to walk to the national title. Look for an 11-1 regular season, including a loss to you-know-who.