LSU posted yet another 10-win season last year, with losses to Florida on the road, Alabama at home, and Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Coach Les Miles returns a strong senior class this fall despite several Tigers departing early for the NFL. QB Zach Mettenberger returns for his second season as a starter, and, as always, the Tigers are loaded with prospects at running back.
On the other side of the ball, junior Anthony Johnson rates as one of the elite defensive linemen in the nation. Look for a strong start from the Tigers as Georgia might be the only team on the first half of the schedule that could beat LSU. The schedule toughens late, however, with Florida, Alabama and Texas A&M in three of the last five games.
How deep is the talent pool the Tigers are drawing from? LSU set a school record with nine draftees in April, and an NFL draft record six defensive players drafted in the first three rounds, yet have another crop of strong NFL prospects still on hand. Over the past three drafts, 21 Tigers -- about 25 percent of the 2010 roster -- received the draft call.
Top senior prospects
LB Lamin Barrow: The senior made 104 tackles as a junior for the Tigers and should lead LSU in that category in 2013 if he can stay healthy. Barrow, likely an outside linebacker prospect, has good leadership skill, good size at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds, and can reach the sideline on stretch plays.
RB Alfred Blue: Part of the deep stable of backs LSU coach Les Miles always seems to have, Blue is probably the team's second-best raw talent at the position behind Jeremy Hill. He averaged 112 yards per game over the season's first two weeks last year before a season-ending knee injury sidelined him in the third week. At 6-2, 220, he has the frame to add more weight.
FB J.C. Copeland: Undoubtedly the best blocking fullback in the SEC, Copeland plays with a mean streak (sometimes too mean) and can blow open huge holes at 275 pounds. He made 12 starts last year and rushed for four short-yardage touchdowns. Copeland won't be a high NFL pick, but there should be a job waiting for him.
QB Zach Mettenberger: The size (6-5, 230) and arm strength are certainly there with the second-year starter. What's less convincing is his lack of mobility, decision-making and ability to read defenses. That improved as the 2012 season progressed -- Mettenberger posted four consecutive 200-yard passing days in his last four conference games, but it will need to improve more in 2013.
DB Craig Loston: An Associated Press Second-Team All-American last year, Loston started every game and delivered 55 tackles and three interceptions. The hard-hitting safety and special-teams standout is expected to lead the Tigers' secondary this season. He had a 100-yard interception return against Mississippi State last season.
WR Odell Beckham: Beckham is LSU's most talented receiver, but he's not on the level of some of his predecessors, such as Rueben Randle or Brandon LaFell. He led the team with 43 catches last season for 713 yards. Beckham (6-0, 187) will be eligible for early entry in 2014, but he would probably be wise to play two more years in college. He is also a solid but unspectacular punt returner.
OL La'el Collins: This will be a critical season for Collins. At 6-5, 321 pounds, he has been a standout guard the last two years for the Tigers. This fall, however, he makes a move to left tackle. If he can perform on the edge as well as he's played inside, NFL teams will no doubt take note. If not, he'll still be a strong guard prospect.
RB Jeremy Hill: An elite talent who posted 12 touchdowns in only five starts last year, Hill has a great combination of size (6-2, 235) and speed. The question with the sophomore is, can he stay out of trouble? Legal issues both in high school and college will be an NFL red flag. The latest off-field problem involves a battery charge. Hill's been reinstated to the team, but may still serve a suspension. His earliest possible draft year would be 2015.
DL Anthony Johnson: The next in a continuous stream of dominant LSU defensive linemen, Johnson was more of a rotator last year with only three starts, but will play all he wants and more this fall. LSU's official website claims he can run a 4.7 40-yard dash at 295 pounds. Last year, he made only 30 tackles as a sophomore, but 10 of those were tackles for loss, and three were sacks. Johnson has slimmed down considerably from his freshman playing weight (330). Consider Johnson a serious threat for early draft entry in 2014.
CB Jalen Mills: As a freshman last season, Mills made an immediate impact with 57 tackles and two interceptions over 13 starts. With 2015 being his earliest possible point of entry into the NFL, he has plenty of time to work on his game. Under LSU defensive coordinator John Chavous, who likes to use safeties in run support, he'll be pressed to excel in man coverage.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 31 vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas): In front of a home-state crowd on a neutral site, TCU will look to take a non-conference bite out of the SEC's reputation against one of its marquee programs.
Oct. 12 vs. Florida: The Gators should arrive in Baton Rouge with an SEC Championship still within their grasp. Two solid defenses figure to provide plenty of big hits.
Nov. 9 at Alabama: Two years ago, LSU topped Alabama in Tuscaloosa to end the Crimson Tide's perfect season. If Mettenberger plays as well against the Crimson Tide this fall as he did last season, the Tigers should have a chance to do it again.