A look at the players who will play a key role in the 2013 race for the SEC West
The enigma. When he was first recruited as a college quarterback, Zach Mettenberger seemed to be another talented quarterback heading to Athens to play football. Rivals rated him a four-star prospect, as did Scout; they both saw him as one of the top 15 QBs in the country. Then came the sexual battery charges that would have derailed most players' careers. For most college football fans, Mettenberger essentially disappeared when he was dismissed by Georgia and ended up playing for Butler Community College. After one season, he was back in the SEC as a quarterback for LSU, but was still relatively quiet, attempting just 11 passes in 2011.
The average quarterback. For all the mystery that Mettenberger brought with him to LSU last season, the fact is that he wasn't really a great quarterback. He wasn't bad, mind you; going 207-of-352 for 2,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions is serviceable for a quarterback in the defense- and run-heavy SEC West. But that put Mettenberger at 12th in the SEC in passing efficiency, behind Tyler Russell and Jeff Driskel, among others. In related news, LSU ranked ninth in the SEC in the number of sacks allowed, clocking in at 32 on the season, and 10th if you count on a per-game basis.
Time for a breakout season? There are reasons to believe that Mettenberger can be a good quarterback. A solid performance against Alabama last year produced a boomlet of suggestions that maybe Mettenberger had turned things around. That ended up being premature; after looking almost as good against Mississippi State the following week, Mettenberger would not approach his passer rating against the Tide in the last four games of the year. He bottomed out against Clemson with a with a 14-for-23 game that produced 120 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- but it's worth noting that he had six sacks in that game. It's also worth noting that Mettenberger had the fourth-best interception rate in the league in 2012. A little bit more accuracy and a slightly higher yards-per-attempt average -- neither of which are impossible given experience and better offensive line play -- and Mettenberger's efficiency numbers could see an appreciable upswing.
In the final analysis. Part of this comes down to the question of how much the offensive line can improve. There are three returning starters by LSU's count, though depth could be a bit of an issue -- the Tigers rank 89th on Phil Steele's list of career starts on the offensive line, and the pre-camp two-deep included five sophomores or freshmen. If you go by the "can't get much worse" theory, then the protection should be at least as good and Mettenberger should be a bit better in his second year in the system. But if the offensive line improves dramatically, Mettenberger could have the kind of season fans have been waiting for ever since he went to Georgia. Mettenberger will be better in 2013, but how much better is still up in the air.