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IT IS A HORROR SHOW THAT STILL FLICKERED IN HIS MIND, frame by frame, play by play. Four months after LSU was thumped by Alabama 21--0 in the BCS national title game, Les Miles sat in his office in Baton Rouge, still trying to digest all that happened that night in New Orleans. "We would do things differently if we could, obviously," Miles says. "That game is a constant reminder to us that we need to get better and that we need to revamp a few things and tweak a few things.
"But I'll tell you this," Miles added, "I really, really, really like this team. We have got some incredible talent here."
Yes, they do. Though LSU lost 10 starters from a team that held the nation's No. 1 ranking for most of last season and tied a school record with 13 wins, the 2012 Tigers are loaded with former four-and five-star recruits—a testament to Miles's ability to entice elite high school players to Baton Rouge. The offense will feature quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the best passer Miles has had, as well as heavy doses of barreling running back Spencer Ware, who will be operating behind one of the SEC's most skillful offensive lines.
Twelve of the top 22 players on the LSU defensive depth chart last season were either freshmen or sophomores, which means the Tigers' D will be more mature and—perhaps—even better than it was in 2011, when it finished second in the nation in total defense. The front line features two projected NFL players (junior ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo), while the secondary will be led by arguably the most exciting athlete in the college game, Tyrann (Honey Badger) Mathieu, who is a threat to score anytime he intercepts a ball, recovers a fumble or returns a punt.
"We have the ability to be a more dominating defense than we were last season," says junior free safety Eric Reid, who, like Mathieu, is a potential first-round NFL draft pick. "I get asked about the BCS game all the time, people wanting to know what happened. And I always say the same thing: We got beat, simple as that."
Then Reid uses just the kind of words that Miles wants to hear: "We're using it for motivation," Reid says. "We're hungry to get back to the title game and get a different result."
COACH Les Miles (8th year) 75--18 (41--15 in SEC)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Greg Studrawa