Like many football coaches, Nick Saban loves his aphorisms and metaphors. His latest exhortation to his players is the catchy, "Last year is history, next year is a mystery." He also likes to compare the coming season to climbing a mountain. Last season LSU reached an unprecedented peak, upsetting Tennessee 31-20 to win the SEC Championship Game for the first time since the game was instituted in 1992. To Saban, that makes this year's ascent trickier than ever. "The mountain just got bigger," he says. "It's even more treacherous and harder to climb."
If repeat SEC championships are unfamiliar on the Bayou—LSU's only back-to-back titles came in 1935 and '36—so too is all this talk about mountains. The state's highest point is 535 feet above sea level.
The play of senior linebacker Bradie James, a Louisiana native, is a big reason LSU can expect to rise above most rivals. The 6'3", 238-pound senior has had more than 110 tackles in each of the past two seasons. This year he moves from the outside to the middle. His job will be much easier if massive sophomore defensive ends Marcus Spears (6'5", 280) and Marquise Hill (6'7", 285) live up to the promise they showed as high school All-Americas.
The defense may need to hold the fort as the offense searches for a new identity. With strong-armed quarterback Rohan Davey and Biletnikoff Award winner Josh Reed gone to the NFL, the Tigers will likely rely more on the run this year. Sophomore quarterback Matt Mauck terrorized Tennessee with the quarterback draw when he replaced an injured Davey in the SEC title game, but he needs to be more consistent as a passer. The Tigers are banking on the return of junior tailback LaBrandon Toefield, who has recovered from the torn left ACL he suffered in the conference championship game. The 6-foot, 225-pound Toefield, who rushed for 992 yards and an SEC-record-tying 19 TDs in '01, brings some much-needed toughness to the Tigers. "He just pounds and pounds," James says. "After a while teams get tired of hitting him. He's a relentless competitor."
That's an attitude LSU will need in abundance if it expects to reach the heights of last season.