The core questions entering the 2013 college football season revolved around the SEC and its pursuit of an eighth consecutive national championship: Would the league get a team to the title game? If so, which team? Quietly, the key to unlocking that mystery may belong to LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
From Nov. 10 of last season to this past Saturday, so much energy was expended thinking and talking about Alabama and Texas A&M that LSU, a consistently great team over the past decade, became an afterthought. Now it's time to start paying attention to the Tigers, who will play a more prominent role as the season progresses. With 11 Saturdays before the SEC title game, nine games remain between currently ranked SEC teams (11 if you include games vs. ranked nonconference opponents -- Florida vs. Florida State and South Carolina vs. Clemson). No team is involved in more big-time matchups than LSU, which plays a ranked opponent in five of its final nine games: at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, at Alabama and Texas A&M.
Combine the Tigers' ridiculous attrition on defense due to NFL draft defections with that schedule, and LSU was doubted enough it began the season ranked outside the top 10 for only the third time in Les Miles' nine seasons. But if all goes well beginning Saturday night against 3-0 Auburn, we will be talking about LSU a lot more.
For that to happen, Mettenberger's eventful college football career will have to continue its star turn under new coordinator Cam Cameron.
* * *
The five stages of Zach Mettenberger
1. Hype. Sure, LSU went to the national title game in 2012, but anything would be an improvement at quarterback after the disaster in that title game against Alabama in which they failed to cross the 50-yard line until the fourth quarter and were shutout 21-0. The Tigers, led by a platoon of Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, went 13-1 and finished 41st nationally in yards per pass attempt, but the offense leaned heavily on the run, ranking just 111th in pass attempts. Watching from the sidelines was Mettenberger who threw only eight passes all season in mop-up duty against Northwestern State.
A four-star recruit in the class of 2009, Mettenberger originally committed to and attended Georgia, but he was thrown off the team before his redshirt freshman season after an incident at a bar. By 2011, he was a four-star recruit again, this time at Butler County C.C. in Kansas. A year later, after that awful championship game, he finally got his chance to take the Tigers' offense to another level.
LSU fans were understandably excited about the prospect of a new highly rated quarterback with a strong arm after the frustrating Lee-Jefferson timeshare. If LSU was good enough to cruise through most of its schedule and finish the regular season undefeated with a shaky quarterback situation, what would happen with an All-SEC talent?
2. Reality. In 2012, the final year under Greg Studrawa (who's still the O-line coach) and Steve Kragthorpe (who moved into an administrative role), the offense was often stagnant and continued its conservative ways. The line struggled, Mettenberger went through growing pains, the receivers dropped passes. Ultimately LSU finished 75th in yards per play (5.51), 58th in yards per pass attempt (7.3) despite Mettenberger's arm strength and the speed of wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham, and 89th in sacks allowed (2.46). Through October, Mettenberger passed for 200 yards only twice, culminating in an 11-for-29, 97-yard game in a five-point win over Texas A&M. Overall, the offense didn't look much different, and the passing-game problems appeared to be a symptom of a larger issue with LSU's approach.
3. Hope. After the hype died down and reality set in, LSU was still 7-1 entering a bye week before Alabama. And on that night at Death Valley, Mettenberger nearly became a star. Had LSU won, had AJ McCarron not led Alabama on a late game-winning drive, we would have remembered a breakout game from Mettenberger en route to LSU dethroning the Crimson Tide. It's not as if he put up Manziel-vs.-Bama numbers, or anything close. But he played his best game against the nation's best defense, completing 24-of-35 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown -- the most passing yards and completions by any quarterback against the Crimson Tide all season, including Johnny Manziel. It was his high point and he threw for 200-plus yards in each of the next three games, all wins, to close the regular season, before a 120-yard night in which he was sacked six times by Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
4. Transition. Once again, a lackluster bowl loss -- even by one-point to a good Clemson team on a last-minute drive -- sent the Tigers into the offseason on a sour note. Clemson's defense teed off on Mettenberger, and it was clear the offense needed change. Enter yet another offensive coordinator for Mettenberger in his three-school college career.
Miles hired his former colleague and longtime friend Cameron, last seen getting fired by the Ravens in the middle of a Super Bowl season. As Mike Tanier wrote when it happened, Cameron began his Ravens career as an innovator and ended by shedding those tendencies and running out of ideas. Combined with the aforementioned exodus of defensive players and the brutal 2013 schedule, expectations were relatively low and the team was picked by most as a clear third in the SEC West behind heavy favorite Alabama and Texas A&M. With so many great quarterbacks returning nationally, and with McCarron, Aaron Murray and Johnny Manziel in the SEC, Mettenberger, the quarterback who had never thrown for 300 yards, was buried on anyone's list of the league's top passers.
5. Stardom. Three games into the 2013 season, all signs point to a breakout season for the LSU offense. Mettenberger has completed 45-of-69 passes (65.2 percent) for 797 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions, ranking third nationally in passer rating (205.3) and fifth in yards per attempt (11.6). Two of those games were against UAB and Kent State, yes, but he also played a solid game against TCU, which always plays great defense. He also did what good quarterbacks and good offenses are supposed to do to inferior opponents like the Blazers and Golden Flashes.
As expected, Cameron has established a vertical passing game, which is exactly what LSU should be doing with its personnel. It's continued the power running with a rotation of four big backs, but became more aggressive with play-action passes downfield from Mettenberger, who has one of the strongest arms in the country. As Todd Blackledge pointed out on the broadcast of the TCU game, this is the first time since 2006 that LSU has brought back its top two wideouts. The explosive Beckham ranks ninth nationally in receiving yards and first in all-purpose yards thanks to his return ability. The more polished Landry is tied for second with five touchdown catches. The offensive line is still a work in progress after offseason reshuffling, and the receiving corps lacks a consistent third option -- although redshirt freshman Travin Dural is promising, as is tight end Travis Dickson -- but confidence in this group should be the highest it's been in years.
Mettenberger has the talent to succeed with a more aggressive, pass-first mindset, so Cameron is charged with harnessing that ability and developing Mettenberger into a more comfortable quarterback who is more effective in the pocket under pressure -- something that appears to have happened through three games -- and helping facilitate an explosive element to the offense with Beckham and Landry on the outside. Do that, and the defense, anchored by tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, will give LSU a chance to win every game.
* * *
It's too early to anoint Mettenberger a Heisman candidate or a first-round draft pick, too early to say LSU, given its schedule and still-unproven offense, is better than a middle-of-the-pack national championship contender.
But if LSU's offense truly has become more efficient and more explosive, the Tigers will play a big role in shaping the BCS picture. They have the opportunity to deliver national title knockout blows to Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M, and are the best bet for a team to take down Alabama before the SEC title game. In all, the schedule may prove too daunting for LSU to run the table, or even escape with just one loss, but pay attention when the Tigers host Auburn this Saturday night in a game that features two improved teams. Last year, LSU struggled with a bad Auburn team. Win decisively, and it could be a launching point into the SEC gauntlet and an opportunity for Mettenberger to become a star one year after the unsubstantiated hype.
Whether or not LSU stays in the national championship conversation is to be determined, but the path to the BCS goes through the Tigers. Mettenberger's development will largely be responsible for which shape it takes.
* * *