This week, UW takes on its most potent non-conference road opponent of the Steve Sarkisian era when the Huskies travel to Death Valley to take on the LSU Tigers in a nationally televised night game (4 p.m. Pacific, ESPN).
Over the previous two seasons, LSU has been nothing short of dominant under the leadership of head coach Les Miles, posting consecutive top-10 finishes and entering the 2011 season as favorites to contend for a second-consecutive appearance in the BCS National Championship Game.
Paul Myerberg of the excellent college football blog Pre-Snap Read on Saturday ranked LSU as his favorite team to win this season's national championship, and for good reason: The Tigers return 11 starters from last year's team that went 13-0 in the regular season.
That total includes a win over eventual national champion Alabama on the road in what was dubbed "The Game of the Century" as well as victories over top-10 foes Arkansas and Oregon in the regular season before falling to the Tide in the infamous all-SEC national title game.
All this is to say that the Huskies will certainly have their work cut out for them when they head down to Dixie to play in what is often referred to as college football's most hostile environment.
Quarterback: Despite leading the Tigers to 13 wins last season, former LSU QBs Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson are probably most notoriously remembered for failing in all facets to overcome Alabama's suffocating defense in the national championship game, to the point that LSU's offense didn't cross midfield until less than 10 minutes remained in the fourth quarter. And although LSU's offense rarely faltered throughout the year as completely as it did in their two meetings with the Crimson Tide, it was hardly one of the nation's premiere units, especially at quarterback: LSU ranked a mediocre 57th in the NCAA in total offense, and an even more meager 100th in passing.
Certainly, this is one position that Miles hopes will be vastly improved from 2011, and in sophomore Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger, the Tigers might have the man to do it. He's a prototypical 6'5", 230 lb. pocket passer who certainly looks the part of an upgrade from last season's under-center inconsistencies, and his early returns have been promising --- 19 of 26, 192 passing yards, 1 TD to 1 INT --- but those numbers also came in a non-conference game against a vastly outmatched North Texas team, so take those statistics with a healthy grain of salt. Washington will be the highest-caliber opponent that Mettenberger has taken quality snaps against by a wide margin, and there's little question that the quality of his performance (particularly in the TD-to-INT ratio) will go a long way toward dictating how competitive a game this remains in the 4th quarter.
Running Back: Under Miles, LSU is a run-first team, and while Mettenberger theoretically poses a more potent deep-ball threat than his predecessors did, that basic philosophy of keeping the ball on the ground is likely here to stay. LSU has recruited accordingly, and as a result has a scary-deep backfield to work with. They return their top four rushers from 2011, in sophomore Kenny Hilliard, pictured above, and juniors Alfred Blue, Michael Ford and Spencer Ware. Combined, the foursome rushed for an average of 175.7 yards per game. Perhaps most striking of all is that no one player dominated the rushing attack: Ware technically headlined the crew with 13.6 attempts per game, while Ford was right behind him with nine touches per week. Likewise, the touchdown distribution was similarly even, with Hilliard and Ware scoring eight times, and Blue and Ford notching seven apiece. Ware was held out of Saturday's game to recover from an injury, but Miles indicated that he should be ready to play if need be against the Huskies.
Offensive Line: The SEC's signature has long had two components: overpowering defenses, and enormous lineman who, more often than not, utterly dwarf their competition on opposing defensive lines. LSU's starting five in this unit average 6'6" and 323 lbs., and their backups, while slightly more svelte than their No. 1 counterparts, will hardly be mistaken for Victoria's Secret runway models. Perhaps most importantly, LSU is putting seasoned players onto their offensive line: the 10 players on the line's two-deep includes six juniors and seniors who will provide leadership for their younger teammates, including senior RT Alex Hurst, a first-team all-conference pick in 2011. For Washington, it won't be surprising to see new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox utilize four-man defensive fronts that feature players like 340 lb. Sione Potoa'e and 317-pounders Danny Shelton and Lawrence Lagafuaina in an effort to simply mitigate the Tigers' sheer size advantage.
Tight End: Senior Chase Clement was more or less a non-factor in LSU's receiving game last year, catching only seven balls for 96 yards and one score despite playing in all of the season's 14 games, but that isn't why he keeps finding his way onto the field. Rather, it has everything to do with his superior blocking skills, especially for someone of a relatively lithe 6'5", 251 lb. frame (in the context of the LSU offensive line, that is). It's a testament to his skills at the position that, despite lacking the numbers to give his performance a certain sex appeal, he was still named to this year's John Mackey Award watch list for the nation's top tight end. As long as Clement stays healthy, he'll be right in the thick of LSU's power running attack all year long.
Wide Receiver: LSU loses its top target from 2011 in Reuben Randle, a first-team all-conference selection who recorded 53 catches for 917 yards and eight scores, after he entered the NFL draft and was taken by the New York Giants late in the second round. The Tigers' top returning receiver, sophomore Odell Beckham Jr., wasn't even close to matching Randle's productivity, gaining only 475 yards and two scores on 41 catches. After Beckham, the drop-off is especially steep, as no other receiver gained more than 200 yards on the season's 14 games, though senior Russell Shepard did manage to find the end zone four times. With Mettenberger still settling into his new role at starting quarterback, it seems likely that he will opt to take advantage of a series of short and safe check-downs in order to get into a rhythm before trying to air out the deep ball off of play-action passes once or twice later in the game, if for no other reason than to keep Washington from stacking the box in an effort to slow down LSU's rushing attack.