LSU Tigers: Teddy Bridgewater

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.

What to watch in the SEC: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
AM ET
We've arrived at Week 3 of the season in the SEC, bringing us to one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season: Alabama's trip to Texas A&M in a rematch of last season's thriller in Tuscaloosa, when eventual Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and the Aggies upset the eventual BCS champion Crimson Tide 29-24.

But that's not the only game worth watching in the conference this season. Let's take a look at 10 things to watch on Saturday around the conference.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonMaybe it's something, maybe it's nothing, but Nick Saban is 7-1 at Bama in rematch games following a loss, with an average win margin of 20.9 points.
1. Revenge factor in College Station: At No. 6 in this week's AP Top 25, the Aggies won't sneak up on anyone this year. In fact, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban and his troops have stewed over that loss throughout the offseason -- and that has typically been a bad sign for opponents. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, the Tide is 7-1 in rematch games following a loss, with an average margin of victory of 20.9 points. Of course, the Aggies have no intention of simply rolling over before its home crowd. Kevin Sumlin's club leads the SEC in scoring (58.5 ppg), total offense (600.0 ypg) and passing offense (392.0 ypg), so the Aggies should provide an enormous test for a formidable Alabama defense that allowed just 212 yards to Virginia Tech in its first game.

2. Run the X factor for Alabama: How the Aggies' porous defense fares against Alabama's strong running game might be the determining factor Saturday. An A&M defense that was depleted by suspensions has been horrendous so far, ranking last in the SEC by allowing 273 rushing yards per game to Rice and Sam Houston State. Oddly enough, Alabama is last in the league in rushing after totaling only 96 yards on the ground against Virginia Tech, but that trend is sure to be short-lived with star-caliber talent on the offensive line and T.J. Yeldon among the standouts in the backfield. Alabama is sure to try to control the pace of this game by hammering the Aggies' defense with its talented stable of running backs on Saturday. It will require an infinitely more effective performance by A&M's defense than what we've seen thus far if the Aggies are to do an acceptable job against the Tide's ground game.

3. Tough nonconference matchups: The SEC hasn't fared so well in its marquee nonconference games thus far, with Georgia and Florida falling to a pair of ACC opponents, Clemson and Miami, and Mississippi State laying an egg against Oklahoma State. Yes, LSU and Alabama held up their ends of the deal with wins against TCU and Virginia Tech, respectively, but this might be another weekend where SEC teams come up on the short end of high-profile nonconference matchups. As of Tuesday night, Tennessee was a 27.5-point underdog for Saturday's game at Pac-12 powerhouse Oregon, and Kentucky was also a double-digit underdog (plus-13.5) for its in-state rivalry game with Louisville. One of the more intriguing games of the weekend is Ole Miss' visit to a Texas program in turmoil, but the Longhorns are the favorite in that game, as well.

4. Measuring stick for Vols: New Tennessee coach Butch Jones' club has been impressive in its first two games, routing overmatched Austin Peay and Western Kentucky, but its next two games are a completely different animal. The Vols have the pleasure of facing No. 2 Oregon on national TV Saturday, followed by another tough road trip, to No. 18 Florida, the following week. Tennessee ranks 13th nationally with an average of 48.5 points per game and it leads the SEC with a plus-seven turnover margin, but slowing down Oregon's offensive juggernaut in Eugene is no simple task. The Ducks are 27-2 at Autzen Stadium dating back to the start of the 2009 season and at 62.5 points per game in wins against Virginia and Nicholls State, this year's club looks to be just as good as its recent predecessors.

5. Odell Beckham show: LSU's multi-talented return man and receiver punctuated an outstanding night by returning a missed field goal 100 yards for a touchdown last weekend against UAB. He also caught 136 yards worth of passes for three touchdowns against the Blazers. Kent State should provide ample opportunity for Beckham to add to his impressive stats -- he already has 10 catches for 254 yards and three TDs -- before the Tigers jump into conference play next week against Auburn.

6. Rebels primed for upset?: What do we make of Saturday night's Ole Miss-Texas game in Austin? The Longhorns won last year's game in Oxford by five touchdowns, but they hadn't just performed so poorly that coach Mack Brown felt compelled to fire a coordinator two games into the season. Texas' defense was horrendous last week, allowing 550 rushing yards -- the most by an opponent in school history -- in a 40-21 loss at BYU. That prompted Brown to reassign defensive coordinator Manny Diaz and bring back Greg Robinson to take his job. Flash forward to this weekend. At No. 25, Ole Miss is ranked for the first time since 2009, and the Rebels aren't too shabby on offense with an average of 510.5 yards per game. That matchup between Hugh Freeze's up-and-coming team and a Texas club on the verge of imploding makes for one of the weekend's most compelling storylines.

7. Arkansas' running game: Those around the conference are starting to take notice of the new-look ground game that first-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has brought to Fayetteville. Once a pass-heavy offense under Bobby Petrino, Arkansas is 11th nationally with an average of 312.5 rushing yards per game. The Razorbacks have both the No. 6 (Alex Collins at 151.5 yards per game) and No. 12 (Jonathan Williams, 138.5 ypg) rushers in the country, and they'll face a Southern Miss defense this weekend that has been vulnerable against the run so far, ranking 81st with an average of 179.0 yards against.

8. Gamecocks, Commodores with something to prove: Steve Spurrier was livid after the way his defense performed in last week's loss to Georgia, vowing that the Gamecocks would change things up to force more turnovers. The Gamecocks risk falling out of the SEC East race if they suffer another division loss, so games like Saturday's visit from Vanderbilt are essentially must-wins. Although there have been a few near-misses, the Commodores are still in search of their first win against the East's power trio of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. With an SEC-high eight sacks and an overall productive defense, the Commodores might be able to give themselves a chance in Columbia if they contain South Carolina's offense and hit a big play or two against a Gamecocks defense in transition.

9. Enormous test for Kentucky secondary: Saturday's matchup against Louisville is a minor nightmare for a Kentucky team that lists three freshmen and four sophomores on the two-deep at its five secondary positions. Led by Heisman contender Teddy Bridgewater (376.0 ypg, 9 TDs, 1 INT) at quarterback, Louisville possesses one of the most potent passing offenses in the country. Kentucky has actually defended the pass fairly well so far, ranking fourth in the SEC with 147.0 yards allowed per game and limiting opponents to an 11.5-percent conversion rate on third down, but the Wildcats posted those numbers against Western Kentucky and Miami (Ohio). Defensive end Za'Darius Smith (an SEC-high four sacks) and company must get after Bridgewater for the Wildcats to have a chance on Saturday.

10. Bowl implications for Auburn, Mississippi State: For a pair of teams harboring mid-level bowl hopes, Saturday's matchup is a big one. Already 2-0, Auburn is a win away from matching its win total for all of last season. But with games remaining against LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, bowl eligibility likely hinges on beating the Mississippi States of the world. Dan Mullen's Bulldogs, meanwhile, are desperate to right the ship after dropping six of their last games since starting the 2012 season 7-0. They flat-out stunk in a 21-3 loss to open the season against Oklahoma State and still have all of the West's heavyweights left on the schedule, plus South Carolina. The loser of this one might very well be home for Christmas.

Ranking the SEC's bowls

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
3:00
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The bowl season is getting closer and closer, and as we all prepare for what truly is the most wonderful time of year, it's time to rank the nine bowl games that involve SEC teams.

This month, ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach took the time to rank all 35 bowl games. We only have nine to discuss here, but some are very intriguing matchups.

Here's how the SEC's slate of bowls ranks from top to bottom:

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAJ McCarron and Alabama are one win away from another national title.
1. Discover BCS National Championship: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Alabama (Jan. 7: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Sun Life Stadium, Miami) -- Two quintessential blue-collar football teams will smash into each other for the national championship. This game also features two of the most respected/hated football programs of all-time. People from all over will be disgusted with themselves for having to root for either squad in a game where some big hits and bruises will be given out.

2. AT&T Cotton Bowl: No. 9 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 Oklahoma (Jan. 4: Fox, 8 p.m. ET, Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas) -- The scoreboard inside Jerry's World better have brand new bulbs, because there are going to be a lot of points in this one. The Aggies will be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, who accepted the head-coaching job at Texas Tech, but Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and his group of playmakers will be ready -- and rested. Both teams are averaging more than 500 yards and 40 points a game.

3. Chick-fil-A Bowl: No. 8 LSU vs. No. 14 Clemson (Dec. 31: ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET, Georgia Dome, Atlanta) -- One stout defense takes on one of the nation's flashiest offenses. The only thing is that LSU currently has some real bite on offense, so that Clemson defense better make adjustments after giving up 444 yards and 27 points in a home loss to South Carolina. Oh, and if Tajh Boyd thought Jadeveon Clowney was a handful, he now has to face Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo coming at him from the outside.

4. Allstate Sugar Bowl: No. 21 Louisville vs. No. 3 Florida (Jan. 2: ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET, Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans) -- Some people are turning their noses up at this game, but there are a lot of fun storylines. This is a huge bowl for the Cardinals, and coach Charlie Strong was once the Gators' defensive coordinator. Teddy Bridgewater was also recruited by Florida. We've also learned that Florida's offense can be pretty tough when healthy, and a month off should have the Gators in proper form.

5. Outback Bowl: No. 10 South Carolina vs. No. 18 Michigan (Jan. 1: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.) -- Clowney and fellow defensive end Devin Taylor get another mobile quarterback to chase around. Michigan had major issues with the last SEC team it played, and this South Carolina defense is a little more aggressive than the Alabama one that made the Wolverines' offense relatively obsolete in Arlington this year.

6. TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Northwestern (Jan. 1, ESPN2, 12 p.m. ET, EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.) -- At first, I wasn't thrilled about this game, considering how the Bulldogs ended the season. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that this team will be fired up to prove people that its better than its 1-4 finish to the regular season. Plus, Mississippi State is going for its second nine-win season in four years, something this program has never done.

7. Capital One Bowl: No. 7 Georgia vs. No. 16 Nebraska (Jan. 1: ABC, 1 p.m. ET, Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.) -- On the surface, this looks like a very fun matchup. But you have to wonder how both of these teams are feeling after they lost in their respective conference title games. The Bulldogs were literally a play away from the national championship, while the Huskers missed out on the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio because of a blowout loss to Wisconsin. Both teams expected a much bigger bowl at season's end and could be a little down heading into this one.

8. BBVA Compass Bowl: Pittsburgh vs. Ole Miss (Jan. 5: ESPN, 1 p.m. ET, Legion Field, Birmingham, Ala.) -- So both teams are 6-6 and barely made the bowl cut. They're in the postseason, and both showed a lot of fight this year. Both are also averaging more than 400 yards of offense a game. Pitt took Notre Dame to the wire in triple overtime and owns the nation's No. 16 defense, which means the Rebels' offense will have to keep up its high-flying routine if it wants its first bowl win since 2009.

9. Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl: NC State vs. Vanderbilt (Dec. 31: ESPN, noon ET, LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.) -- For starters, I'm opposed to any team having to play in its own city for a bowl game unless its a BCS bowl. The Commodores ended the season on a six-game winning streak, while NC State's season ended with the Wolfpack losing three of five and seeing head coach Tom O'Brien get fired. Dana Bible will be coaching in his place.

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