Perhaps one of the most befuddling teams in the SEC this year is LSU. No one with any sense can deny that the Bayou Bengals are stacked with talent; Nick Saban and Les Miles have set up the program to where a stuffed raccoon could be recruiting coordinator with no noticeable let-up.
But the Tigers return 12 starters -- "only" 12? -- and lose some of the key pieces from their title run of a year ago. RB Jacob Hester, who rushed for 1,103 yards and 12 TDs? Gone. QB Matt Flynn, who steadily managed the offense to its 12-2 record? Gone. Co-leading tacklers (with 101 each) LB Ali Highsmith and SS Craig Steltz (who also had 6 INTs)? Gone. DT Glenn Dorsey, he of the 12.5 TFL, including seven sacks? Gone.
That said, South Carolina will still have to defeat one of the most talented teams in the country to win. And that talent will have been tested by several of its first six opponents; it won't be a green Tigers team that rolls into Columbia.
O-line. Four of the five starters from last year's strong squad return. The Bengals averaged 4.9 ypc last year and allowed a so-so 30 sacks (6.8 percent and 2.14 a game, or 66th in the nation). South Carolina allowed one more QB TFL in two fewer games. ADVANTAGE: LSU
Quarterback. One of the saving graces for the Gamecocks this year is that their unsettled quarterback situation will be matched by many of their opponents. This is an interesting point of the season for the signal-caller position, though. By now, a QB has either "gotten it" or is still running around trying to remember his progressions. Andrew Hatch is the likely starter for LSU's opener, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will be the starter by the time the Bengals come to the WB. In any case, Hatch was the only current LSU QB to see the field last year, going 1-of-2 for nine yards. Assuming Tommy Beecher hasn't imploded at this point, another surprising edge for the Gamecocks. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Wide receivers. None of LSU's WRs put up particularly impressive numbers last year, but it's hard to tell if that's because of their talent or because of the offensive system. LSU was 72nd last year in pass attempts per game. Brandon LaFell and Demetrius Byrd, the top two receivers in terms of yardage, both return. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Running backs. RB Jacob Hester, who departs, had 36.8 percent of the team's rushing yardage last year despite being considered the "primary" back in the Bengal's RB-by-committee system. The next four returning backs, all expected to see significant playing time, averaged 6.8, 6.9, 7.2 and 6.6 ypc on 35 or more carries. ADVANTAGE: LSU
Alexander's a big space-filler who occupies blockers. Ricky Jean-Francois is a fierce penetrator who makes plays. Like Dorsey/Alexander, Jean-Francois/Alexander is a pair that perfectly complements one another. Alexander doesn't get headlines, but he's very important to the play of the defensive units.
They're pretty excited about the DEs, too. Pop quiz: Who led LSU in sacks last year? If you said Dorsey, who had 7.0, you're wrong. It was Kirston Pittman, who does return, with 8.0. ADVANTAGE: LSU
Linebackers. Two of LSU's three starting linebackers from 2008 are gone. Again, our SBN colleagues think this unit will be just fine. Steele calls them "down a notch or two." Darry Beckwith is on almost everyone's All-SEC ballot. The experience gap will be smaller by the time they come to Columbia, but should be enough to give the Gamecocks a small, small edge. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA.
Secondary. Another part of LSU's team that is "fraught with uncertainty," at least at the cornerback position. In all, the secondary loses 14 INTs from last year and three starters from a squad that ranked 37th in pass efficiency defense. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Yeah, that sucked.
For the most part, though, Colt David is the only real positive for the LSU special teams. The return yardage was mediocre at best -- not that the Gamecocks have that much room to talk -- and the punting situation is unclear. Again, as Gamecock Man has pointed out, South Carolina doesn't necessarily have that much room to talk. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Last year's loss at LSU generated some, um, debate at this site about the coaching ability of Spurrier. Miles, meanwhile, has taken some flak for his fourth-down decisions, something on which I agree with And the Valley Shook: anyone criticizing him is ignoring the circumstances under which Miles made those decisions. (I'm far more critical of Miles for his tendency to mouth off than for his in-game decisions.) And don't come at me with the Auburn game. I saw that play as it happened, and if it weren't for the LSU players sauntering into position and a comatose clock operator, few would have any meaningful reason to criticize the decision. Point being: Both coaches know their teams and play to the strengths of those teams. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Having gone through the teams in-depth, C&F can now understand why this has become a trendy upset pick for some. But LSU is still more talented than South Carolina, and will have several tough games under their belts by the time their tilt with the Gamecocks comes around. South Carolina, for its part, will have just finished a brutal stretch of eight straight games without a bye to start the season. This is, though, also a perfect trap game for the Bayou Bengals, who have to go to Florida the week before the game and will welcome Georgia into Death Valley the week after. PROBABLE LOSS
THE REST OF THE SEASON
The best tonic for an inexperienced team is an easy start to the season. And that's what LSU has: Appalachian State, Troy and North Texas come to Baton Rouge before the Bengals head to Auburn in Week 4. But the Tigers have the misfortune of drawing what C&F thinks will be the top three teams in the East this year, and traveling to two of them. South Carolina is probably a win, as I've said, but it's not hard to see losses to Florida and Georgia to join a defeat against Auburn. And a young team that eked out several wins over the course of the last season does not inspire confidence that the schedule doesn't hold another upset. Even so, I'll take the risk that it doesn't. 9-3