The 2012 LSU football team reported to fall camp three months ago boasting a preseason No. 1 ranking, five preseason All-Americans, a Heisman Trophy finalist and a colossal chip on its shoulder after a National Championship drubbing in 2011.
Twelve games, two losses and one high profile dismissal later, the No. 9 Tigers (10-2) wait for their last game, which will end a season full of unexpected twists.
Expectations were high for LSU in 2012 as 11 starters returned from the 2011 season, with many Tiger fans eagerly anticipating a new and improved Tiger offense led by junior transfer quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
But many Tiger fans’ expectations were derailed Aug. 10, when LSU coach Les Miles announced Tyrann Mathieu had been dismissed from the team.
“We have a standard that our players are held to and when that standard is not met, there are consequences,” Miles said at the time of the dismissal.
Mathieu’s exit resulted in the Tigers’ dropping to No. 3 in the Week 1 Associated Press top-25 poll, and in the eyes of many, it severely hurt the Tigers’ hopes of returning to the National Championship Game.
After participating in a drug rehabilitation program in Houston, Texas, Mathieu re-enrolled in classes at LSU, turning down multiple opportunities to play at Football Championship Subdivision schools and immediately sparking speculation about his potential return in the 2013 season.
Speaking on ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt Show in the week prior to LSU’s 14-6 loss at Florida, Miles did not rule out a possible return for Mathieu in 2013.
“I think this is a very legitimate chance that he would have a happy ending,” Miles said.
Any flickering hopes of a possible return were extinguished when Mathieu and three other former LSU players, Jordan Jefferson, Karnell Hatcher and Derrick Bryant, were arrested for marijuana possession in late October.
However, the blows to LSU didn’t end with Mathieu’s dismissal.
Beginning early in camp, when junior offensive tackle Chris Faulk suffered a season-ending knee injury, LSU began to be plagued by injuries.
In the first few weeks of the season, LSU lost three starters to injuries, including Faulk, junior offensive guard Josh Williford and junior running back Alfred Blue.
“With the number of injuries and the attrition we had, I really feel like this team accomplished a lot, and they continue to get better,” Miles said in a news conference last Wednesday.
Mathieu’s dismissal and LSU’s early season injury woes forced the Tigers to rely on young players early and often in the 2012 season.
Overall, LSU freshmen made 31 starts, with many inexperienced players making important contributions to the Tigers’ season.
After multiple shifts along the offensive line, replacing Faulk and Williford was left in the inexperienced hands of freshmen tackles Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander.
Freshman running back Jeremy Hill was also thrust into the spotlight after Blue’s injury, and Hill took full advantage of the opportunity.
Hill has since started four games and is the Tigers’ leading rusher with 651 yards, 10 touchdowns and three games with more than 100 yards.
Inexperienced but carrying lofty expectations, Mettenberger started the season slower than many LSU fans had expected.
Prior to the start of the season, Miles assured fans that the Tigers’ offensive game plan would be more balanced than in previous seasons because Mettenberger had the talent to handle a heavier passing load.
But in the early stages of the season, LSU spectators were treated to more of the same offense as the Tigers relied heavily on its stable of running backs. Mettenberger struggled, throwing multiple goal line interceptions and failing to consistently connect with receivers.
Mettenberger finally found his footing in the rematch of last season’s National Championship Game when Alabama traveled to Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3. He passed for 296 yards — his highest total of the season — as the Tigers nearly pulled off an upset against the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
Since the Alabama game, Mettenberger has delivered the productive passing attack many had predicted at the beginning of the season, passing for at least 200 yards in the Tigers’ final four regular-season games.
But despite Mettenberger’s recent success and the efficient play of young talent, the Tigers still came up short of their preseason goal, which is always to compete for a National Championship, according to Miles.
“I would never have taken a 10-2 final [regular season record],” Miles said. “But as it played out, I felt like this team continued to improve and continued to get better and really wants to be a quality football team.”
A shared second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference Western Division and a season-ending starting lineup without a ball-hawking Honey Badger was not how many expected the Tigers’ 2012 season would end.
But with one more game awaiting them, the Tigers will have one last chance to write their own ending to the 2012 script.