- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Odell Beckham Jr. leapt high in the end zone during the first quarter Saturday at Tiger Stadium. He looked set to snag a touchdown reception from Zach Mettenberger, before Kent State defender Darius Polk interfered on the play, drawing a flag as he popped a Beckham finger loose from its socket.
It required two attempts for a trainer on the LSU sideline to set the finger back in place.
The scenario, Beckham said, turned his stomach a bit.
But on the next LSU possession, there he was, lined up wide. He caught a 12-yard pass on the second play.
“I’m not going to leave the field,” he said.
With such enthusiasm over a game against Kent State, imagine Beckham’s energy level this week as the sixth-ranked Tigers prepare to open SEC play against Auburn on Saturday (7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“That’s why I came here, to play in the SEC,” said Beckham, who leads the nation through three games in all-purpose yardage. “Honestly, I can’t wait. I feel like a kid in a candy shop -- just excited about Auburn and the teams we’re going to face. I’m looking forward to the competition.”
Beckham’s feelings appear representative of the Tigers after comfortable wins over TCU, UAB and the Golden Flashes. LSU hasn’t trailed in 180 minutes despite a defense forced to replace eight starters from a year ago and youth across the board.
The Tigers have played 14 true freshman, third-most nationally behind Texas A&M and UCLA.
Still, LSU looks ready for the SEC.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence right now,” junior receiver Jarvis Landry, second nationally with five touchdowns on his 17 receptions. “We believe in the system. We’re going to continue to buy into the system.”
Beckham and Landry have teamed with Mettenberger to form a lethal passing combination that ranks as the Tigers’ most notable improvement over last year.
The senior Mettenberger ranks eighth in Total QBR. He’s thrown nine touchdowns, an LSU record through three games, without an interception and reached the end zone on 13 percent of passes, second nationally behind Florida State phenom Jameis Winston.
All this after Mettenberger ranked 96th a year ago in Total QBR, averaging 7.4 yards per pass attempt. This year, it’s 11.6 under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
“I think we’re in a good spot right now,” Mettenberger said. “We’ve done so many good things, but we’ve yet to play our best football.”
With the re-emergence of running back Jeremy Hill, the Tigers are stacked in the backfield, too. Each of their top running backs -- Kill, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- have led the Tigers in rushing in at least one career game.
“We have a really good problem,” Mettenberger said. “Who to get the ball to?”
Hill rushed for 117 yards and two scores last week in his second game back from suspension. He’s far from a finished product, coach Les Miles said.
Defensively, the Tigers were supposed to struggle. After all, this team lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL after last season, including five defensive starters with new starters needed at every position on the line.
But as LSU enters SEC play, that front four might rank as the strength of the defense.
“I like it, how we’re playing,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “But I feel like we can still improve every play.”
They’ve allowed 267 yards per game, No. 10 nationally. It’s 62 yards – and nearly a yard per play – down from a year ago through three games. Impressive, though.
“I can’t wait for SEC play,” Ferguson said.
After the win over Kent State, a reporter asked Miles what he likes about waiting until this fourth week to jump into league play as many SEC teams have already opened their conference schedules.
“Did I say I like that?” Miles said.
The coach said he likes his team but that he needs a measuring stick to accurately gauge its progress.
He’s about to get it. The SEC is here.