by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

A month after Les Miles decided not to return to his alma mater Michigan in 2007, his Tigers won the national championship in the New Orleans Superdome, whipping Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. The same scenario would encompass nearly 12 months this time around. But the stage is set for deja voodoo on the bayou from the highly unpredictable and unconventional coach known as the Mad Hatter, who again needed several Houdini acts to escape end-game ineptitute in 2010. Hey, keep in mind he managed to keep many crucial drives alive, converting on 13 of 14 fourth downs last season!

After entertaining thoughts about leaving Baton Rouge for Ann Arbor for the second time in three years, Miles opted to sign a seven-year contract with LSU. Last year, the Tigers finished 11-2 (6-2 in SEC) despite a somewhat choppy offense that ranked 11th in the SEC and a passing attack mired in last place. For improved production, Miles brought in a new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, who was the head coach four seasons at Tulsa (2003-06) and three seasons at Louisville (2007-09). Baton Rouge sources report that Kragthorpe, who coached Matt Hasselbeck at Boston College and helped Drew Bledsoe reach a Pro Bowl while he was a Buffalo ssistant in 2002, has already helped Jordan Jefferson (20-7 as starter) hone his mechanics and decision-making in the spring. Kragthorpe says, “I think our philosophies mesh very, very well in terms of...we want to be power-running football team, and couple that with a great downfield, quick-strike passing game. Les and I are on the same page, we’ve known each other for a long time.”

And if mobile but maligned third-year starting QB Jefferson (completed 118 of 209 for 1,411 yds.; 450 YR)—who threw just four regular-season TDs last year—doesn’t get the job done under the bright lights in a challenging September, former senior starter 6-2 Jarrett Lee or 6-5, 250-pound Zach Mettenberger (Georgia transfer considered the nation’s top juco triggerman in 2010!) are eager to get the chance to direct a veteran attack (8 starters back; 29.7 ppg) loaded with weapons. Although All-SEC jr. RB Stevan Ridley left early for the NFL draft, the Tigers remain well stocked at running back. Shifty soph Spencer Ware, who also played outfield on LSU’s baseball team in 2011, emerged as the heir apparent after a strong Cotton Bowl and spring game performances. Miles also sees promising prospects in soph Michael Ford, highly-regarded true frosh Kenny Hilliard (the early enrollee set state record with 8, 603 career rushing yds.) and RS frosh Jakhari Gore, a cousin of NFL RB Frank Gore. With a more vertical attack implemented under Kragthorpe, dangerous junior WRs Rueben Randle (33 grabs) and Russell Shepard (33) will be the primary beneficiaries. And coaches plan on using versatile, hybrid TE/WR 6-4 Deangelo Peterson (16) in a variety of ways. Plus, after injuries plagued the “big uglies” a year ago, the OL should be a real strength now, with four starters returning and a bunch of experienced back-ups.

With seven starters back, long-time Baton Rouge sources don’t envision any kind of drop-off on a proud, athletic, mistake-causing stop unit (18 ppg, 307 ypg, 30 takeaways), despite losing a trio of big-time playmakers in All-American CB Patrick Peterson, All-American DT Drake Nevis and All-SEC MLB Kelvin Sheppard. Well-respected d.c. John Chavis has a shipload of young, aggressive performers ready to contribute on all three levels (DL, LB & secondary), buoyed by a string of highly-ranked recruiting hauls. The stingy pass defense (only 170 ypg—ranked 1st in SEC) will continue to flourish thanks to fearless 5-9 soph CB Tyrann Mathieu. who takes over Peterson’s position (and his old No. 7), and jr. ball-hawking CB Morris Claiborne (team-high 5 ints.). Opposing QBs will feel constant pressure supplied by hard-charging soph DEs Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who returns to full health after missing five games year ago due to a serious knee injury in the Tennessee contest. And highly-prized true frosh DT Anthony “Freak” Johnson (No. 1 DT prospect in nation), an early enrollee who didn’t disappoint in the spring, could make an immediate impact. Senior LBs Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois cover a lot of ground, with high-motor Baker—who Chavis says energizes the unit—primed to add to his eye-opening stats of 2010 ( 87 tackles and 7 sacks). Special teams took a big hit with the loss of nation-leading placekicker (Josh Jasper nailed 28 fo 34), punter and scintillating return man Peterson.

Most importantly, SEC sources report that LSU's breakthrough, 24-21 late-season win over Alabama took the heat off of Miles in Baton Rouge, which has finally embraced the "Mad Hatter" as one of its own.

Summary... LSU is on the short list of prospective national title contenders. Yes, the Tigers must be sharp right out of the gate, opening up with Pac-10 powerhouse Oregon at Jerry Jones' domed Cowboys Stadium Arlington, and back-to-back September away games vs. payback-minded Mississippi State and West Virginia. But no doubt Miles will have his troops ready right away, “To open college football against Oregon on national television in Dallas," Miles says, “will be great incentive to prepare well.” Sure, the Mad Hatter might have to reach deep into his bag of tricks vs. retributory Alabama in Tuscaloosa on November 5th in what could very well decide the SEC West title. But with a smothering defense helped out by a more potent, big-strike attack, no shock to see LSU, which also won a national title in the Superdome in 2004, capture the big prize once again in 2011. Certainly, stranger things have happened for Miles’ men.

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