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LES MILES SAT ON A METAL BENCH NEXT TO A PRACTICE FIELD in Baton Rouge, squinting into the late-afternoon sun. It was March, and he was watching a few of his players throw a football around in the Louisiana dusk. "We've got a chance to be a special team this fall," Miles said. "But like everyone else, we've got question marks. If we can answer those, then who knows what will happen."
With Miles in 2010 you never, in fact, did know what would happen. His questionable clock management followed him all year—the Tigers' lackadaisical late-game approach nearly cost them a win over Tennessee—and his eating of LSU stadium grass (literally) late in a win over Alabama perpetuated his image as college football's most eccentric coach. Yet Miles is a winner (he has the '07 BCS trophy to prove it), and this year he may have the most talented team of his tenure in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers bring back most of their starters on offense, including Jordan Jefferson, who with a 20--7 career record is the winningest active quarterback in the SEC. Though running back Stevan Ridley left early for the NFL, an able replacement has been found: bruising tailback Spencer Ware, who starred in the spring game with two TDs. And Jefferson will have potentially the most dynamic wide receiving duo in the country with Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard.
The defense lost All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson, but his replacement, sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, may soon take his spot on the All-America team. Last season as a nickelback Mathieu was one of the most disruptive part-time players in the nation: He had 4½ sacks, forced five fumbles (he recovered three of them) and had two interceptions. "I've been practicing with Patrick a bunch this off-season," says Mathieu. "We'll go out onto the field, just the two of us, and work on technique. He'll teach me little tricks. I'm learning from the best, and I can't wait to apply what he's taught me."
LSU opens against Oregon, which has 13 starters returning from the team that lost in the national championship game. What will happen? Miles will find out quickly whether his team—loaded with potential (and potential high NFL draft picks)—will be a serious national-title contender.
COACH Les Miles (7th year) 62--17 (33--15 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Steve Kragthorpe
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR John Chavis