CLEMSON — Had Alabama not converted a screen pass into a touchdown late in the fourth quarter against LSU last month, it might be LSU playing Notre Dame for a national title in January. Instead No. 8 LSU faces No. 14 Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31 in Atlanta.
The fact that LSU (10-2) played so well this season, and so well in the nation’s top conference, is remarkable given the amount of injuries and roster turnover the program dealt with in 2012. LSU has had a combined 38 starts from freshmen this season and yet came within eight points of Florida and one stop vs. Alabama from going unbeaten.
LSU coach Les Miles is known as the “Mad Hatter” for his eccentric coaching style – he’s been caught eating grass on the sideline during games – but his teams have been resilient, and he’s stockpiled a remarkable amount of talent with three top-six recruiting classes in the past four years.
“As this year played out, I think this team improved,” Miles said. “Three games into the season, the team changed numbers. We had key players not there. Guys stepped in and played big.
“This team fought like hell and fought adversity.”
LSU lost a pair of elite defensive backs before the season started.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne left early to become a top 10 overall pick in the NFL Draft. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, was dismissed for repeated violations of the school’s drug policy. Freshman corner Jalen Mills stepped in and started 12 games, finishing as a freshman All-American.
LSU lost three starting offensive linemen during the course of the season.
Left tackle Chris Faulk was lost for the season after Week 1 with a knee injury. Right tackle Alex Hurst left the program in midseason. Right guard Josh Williford hasn’t played since suffering a concussion in Week 6, though he’s expected back for the bowl game. The three averaged 6-foot-6, 330-pounds per player.
In stepped freshman tackle Vadal Alexander, who rotated between both tackle positions and who was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team, and fellow freshman Trai Turner at right guard. They helped LSU to eclipse 100 yards rushing in three of its final four games.
The program broke in a first-year starting quarterback in Zach Mettenberger. He struggled at times, but still threw for more yards per game than Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw.
“The opportunity to do the things that we did kind of reflects, in my opinion, on the strength of the program,” Miles said.
While LSU’s depth has been tested, the team still has plenty of stars. On the defensive line are ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, who are each projected to be first-round draft picks. LSU has a talented trio of running backs in freshman sensation Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said earlier in the week that the Clemson staff hadn’t yet watched much film of LSU, but he knows the challenge Clemson (10-2) faces.
“This is a team that played for the national championship not even 12 months ago,” Swinney said.
This is a very, very good football team. As good a team as there is in the country.”