The Tigers (8-2 overall, 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference) opened the season 3-2 with road losses against Auburn (10-9) and Georgia (45-16), but have reeled off five straight victories heading into Friday's 1:30 p.m. game against Arkansas in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium.
"The difficult thing was, especially in the beginning, nobody is willing to kind of sever the ties of last year's team," said LSU fifth-year coach Nick Saban. "And look forward to what we have to do this year as readily as you are when you're trying to prove something. Or you've been humiliated. Or you came off a bad season and you want to have a better one. Because you want to prove something."
Saban lost 26 lettermen off of last season's co-national champs (they shared the title with Southern Cal) and SEC Championship team and only returned 13 starters on both sides of the ball. The Tigers opened the preseason polls at No. 4, but have dropped to No. 14 this week.
"I think everybody has to take a new role when you have a new team," Saban said. "Some of the young guys we had on last year's team didn't play very much. They are really good players and guys we're dependent on this year. And I've made this statement before, we kind of think that they're the roosters that created the dawn."
One problem has been a lack of leadership. LSU has 14 seniors, but only five are listed as starters: Quarterback Marcus Randall (who's been more of a back-up than a starter) as well as defensive players Marcus Spears, Cory Webster, Lionel Turner and Travis Daniels.
That means Saban has had to rely more on leadership from underclassmen like sophomore tailback Justin Vincent (a freshman All-American) and Skyler Green (an All-American return specialist). They haven't got the job done as Vincent slipped to No. 3 on the depth chart and Green hasn't been as productive on his punt returns, averaging 9.9 yards per return.
"They really hadn't put as much into the program as some of the older guys who were around great leadership," Saban said.
It appears they have in wins against Alabama (26-10) and Ole Miss (27-24), but Saban still is not satisfied with his team's overall performance.
Against the Rebels on Saturday, LSU trailed 24-20 heading into the fourth quarter.
"It's pretty obvious this week that we have a short week to make a lot of corrections in terms of things we did technically wrong," Saban said. "Make some improvements on special teams as well as offensively and defensively, both of which we did some good things in."
Good things like tailback Alley Broussard rushing for a school-record 250 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries. He was named the SEC's Offensive Player of the Week for his performance.
Another positive was in the Tigers' defensive adjustments, limiting Ole Miss' offense to 254 yards and shutting them out in the fourth quarter.
"Our ability to run the ball and control the line of scrimmage was a tremendous asset for us," Saban said. "The way we played defense in the last five or six possessions, three and out and two turnovers was also something that was significant in our ability to come back and win the game."
Regardless of how they're playing, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is impressed with the Tigers' ability.
"You watch the film we've been watching and this is a real football team," Nutt said. "They are physical, Very, very physical on both sides of the ball."
Besides Broussard, who has rushed for 677 yards and 9 touchdowns on 113 carries, LSU features two more dangerous rushers in Joseph Addai (614 yards and 3 touchdowns on 84 carries) and Vincent (262 yards and 2 touchdowns on 66 carries).
Randall is listed as the starting quarterback, but he's been handing off the signal calling duties more and more to 6-foot-5, 236-pound redshirt freshman JaMarcus Russell, who was 6 of 19 for 66 yards, but was sacked three times against Ole Miss.
Randall has completed 61.7 percent of his passes for more than 1,00 yards while Russell has completed just 47.3 percent.
"I think some of the problems in the passing game aren't by the quarterbacks," Saban said. "We have not protected as well as we needed to and not been as disciplined in the route running as we need to be.
"The combination of all those things have created problems in terms of the consistency in the passing game."
Making matters worse, the Tigers are banged up this week. Cornerback Daniel Francis has a high-ankle sprain and is not expected to play Friday while right guard Brian Johnson was scheduled for an imaging scan on his shoulder Monday and is listed as questionable. Linebacker Luke Sanders and tackle Paris Hodges also have been out with injuries.
Spears, a preseason All-American as defensive end who is tied for second in the SEC with 6.5 sacks, did not practice Monday with a hip flexor, but is probable to play Friday.
The injuries only add to the countless problems the Tigers have run across this season while trying to defend a national title.
"In the last few weeks, it doesn't seem like we're doing things with the attention to detail that we need to do them with to have the kind of success we'd like to have," Saban said.
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