- Alex Scarborough, SEC reporter
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There won't be anything neutral about the site of the Cowboy Classic. Tickets might be split down the middle, but there's no questioning who the home team will be when the game gets underway. LSU will travel some 400 miles to get to Arlington, Texas, from Baton Rouge, La., while TCU's bus ride from Fort Worth might take all of 30 minutes with traffic.
Nonetheless, jet lag shouldn't play a role in the outcome of the game. The atmosphere should be electric for this primetime matchup between the SEC and the Big 12. After more than seven months of waiting, football is finally back for two schools with BCS aspirations.
As the countdown to kickoff marches toward the final hour, here are five things to keep an eye on:
1. Reloading on defense: It's no secret that LSU lost a ton on defense from last season. Returning just three starters would be precarious for most teams, but Tigers coach Les Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis come into the season opener confident with emerging leaders such as linebacker Lamin Barrow and rising stars such as defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. There's plenty of talent at every level of the defense, especially in the secondary, where safety Craig Loston and cornerback Jalen Collins give the Tigers two NFL-caliber pieces to build around. The Horned Frogs will be a challenge, though, especially in what will essentially be a road environment in Arlington. Nerves could be an issue given the Tigers' youth, in addition to whatever wrinkles TCU coach Gary Patterson is able to employ with the nucleus of his offense intact from a season ago.
2. Cameron's first test: Much has been made about the hiring of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron over the offseason, but the real question is how much effect he'll have on an LSU offense that's struggled to meet expectations. The former coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins has plenty to work with, as the Tigers return a senior quarterback, a swath of talented running backs, playmakers at receiver and an offensive line that brings back the likes of Vadal Alexander. The trouble with Cameron's offense, though, is that it might be too complex for the college game. After all, it's been roughly 13 years since he last coached student-athletes at Indiana. The good news is that LSU was already running a pro scheme before he arrived. The running game has always been a strength under Miles, but incorporating a vibrant passing attack has been elusive. As a supposed "quarterback guru", look for Cameron to try and expand Zach Mettenberger's game and incorporate more downfield passes into the Tigers' playbook.
3. Will stars play?: The game might well be decided by who doesn't see the field. LSU, still in limbo over Jeremy Hill's status, is keeping TCU guessing over whether the team's leading returning rusher will play. Miles was vague with reporters this week, saying that while he wouldn't comment on pending disciplinary action, "I wouldn't be surprised that he would be on our trip [to Dallas]." Though the Tigers certainly have enough in the backfield to do without, having a bruising runner like Hill available would do wonders. And just to keep things interesting, Patterson is playing coy about the status of his star defensive end. Devonte Fields, who was previously suspended for two games, was listed on TCU's depth chart and will be in uniform for the game, according to reports. Patterson won't say whether or not he'll play, but it's safe to say the Horned Frogs could use the reigning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
4. Maturation of Mettenberger: There's never been a doubt about Mettenberger's arm strength or talent. What we saw when LSU played Alabama last season was enough evidence to show he's capable of being one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. The former Georgia transfer made the Crimson Tide's secondary look porous for the first time all season, throwing for a season-high 298 yards in Baton Rouge. Though the Tigers ultimately came up short in that game, it proved to skeptics that Mettenberger isn't a lost cause. Cameron is the quarterback's fifth coordinator since coming out of high school, but he also represents his best hope of maturing into an NFL-caliber prospect. TCU and its complex 4-2-5 scheme signal the first step in that process. Patterson's squad might play in the defensively challenged Big 12, but their aggressive style and talent up front and in the secondary has always resembled that of the SEC.
5. Preparing for two quarterbacks: It remains to be seen whether it'll be Casey Pachall or Trevone Boykin under center for the Horned Frogs in Week 1. Patterson isn't saying and Miles and Chavis aren't about to predict how TCU's quarterback race will turn out. Instead, LSU is preparing for both. The two bring different styles to the table, Pachall fulfilling the more traditional role of a pocket passer while Boykin applies his quick feet and athleticism as a dual-threat quarterback. While Pachall was sidelined with off-the-field issues last season, Boykin performed admirably, passing for more than 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns in nine starts as a redshirt freshman in addition to rushing for 417 yards. Fans will remember, though, that it was only a year ago that Pachall was viewed as one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming off a sophomore campaign where he threw for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns and finished in the top 15 nationally in passing efficiency.
There won't be anything neutral about the site of the Cowboy Classic. Tickets might be split down the middle, but there's no questioning who the home team will be when the game gets underway.