Note: this is the first in a series of previews of Carolina's 2010 opponents.
When and Where: September 4th, in Atlanta at the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic
Stop me if you've heard this one before:
A pretty good football team is among the country's best defensive squads but was downright putrid on offense. The team lost a big game it had won, lost two out of three to end the season, and fell to a team from Pennsylvania 19-17 in the bowl game.
If you guessed the 2009 LSU Tigers, you're right!
Much like the Tar Heels, the Tigers last year were defined by a solid defense but a horrid offensive line and an offense that actually ranked worse that Carolina's. They also lost a game against Ole Miss that has become legendary for clock mismanagement. Still LSU managed a 9-4 overall record (5-3 SEC West), with three of the losses being to Florida, Penn State, and national champion Alabama.
Les Miles and the Tigers enter the 2010 season only three years removed from a national title in Baton Rouge, and expectations are ramping up that LSU will move into the realm of BCS contenders once again.
In many ways, the Heels and Tigers resemble each other. The defenses will be front and center, and the defensive talk about LSU begins with junior cornerback Patrick Peterson, quite possibly the country's best defensive back. He will be part of an experienced secondary, and the linebackers will be bolstered by the return of leading tackler Kevin Sheppard; otherwise much of the linebacking corps will be young and untested. The defensive line will be a mix of veterans and newcomers as well, led by tackle Drake Nevis. The D-line was one of LSU's glaring weak links on an otherwise solid defense, as they struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks, but improvement is expected in this area as well.
Speaking of improvement, just like in Chapel Hill, the thought process in Baton Rouge is that the offense just has to be better, because it couldn't be much worse. And like at UNC, a quarterback battle is ensuing between junior Jordan Jefferson, the starter for most of 2009, and junior Jarrett Lee, who was the starter for most of 2008. Jefferson seems to be the starter for now, but his leash may be as short as T.J. Yates' on the other sideline, as Lee may make an appearance if Jordan cannot get the Tigers in gear. LSU also utilizes a Wildcat package to mix things up.
LSU's offensive strength will be in the receivers, if the O-line can keep Jefferson upright after giving up the most sacks in the SEC last year. Senior wideout Terrance Toliver leads a group of speedy and athletic receivers that will challenge any secondary.
The Tigers also boast strong special teams, as senior kicker Josh Jasper is among the SEC's best, while the above-mentioned Patrick Peterson will take over the punt return duties, an area in which LSU was the nation's best last year.
Most pundits agree that if the defense maintains from last year and the offense improves to just average, the Tigers could easily make it to double-digit wins (gee, where have you heard that before?) And in many ways, LSU is like ACC foe Miami, in that there is speed and talent all over the field, but with a Les Miles-coached team, just like a Randy Shannon-coached team, you're always in the ball game.
For the most part, the media, more so than the coaches, are taking a wait-and-see attitude with the Tigers. LSU will begin the season ranked 21st in the AP poll and 16th in the coaches' poll, while UNC sits at 18th in both.
Regardless of the outcome of the NCAA investigation and the status of Greg Little and Marvin Austin, the story of the game will be each team's strengths versus the other team's weaknesses. UNC's wicked front seven against LSU's offensive line. LSU's athletic secondary against Yates and his receivers. Which offense can actually move the ball and win the field position battle. It might be the first team to 21 wins, given the offensive struggles both showed last year.