July 17, 2014 10:36:15 AM
Brandon Walker - [email protected]
HOOVER, Ala. -- If LSU coach Les Miles is bothered by media projections that have the Tigers slipping this fall, he's hiding it well.
Standing before approximately 300 writers and analysts at the Southeastern Conference Media Days on Wednesday afternoon, Miles was blunt in his assessment of LSU's chances this season.
"I like us," said Miles, who has won 10 or more games in seven of his nine years in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I like us in every game."
Miles likes his team against a schedule that includes home games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama and games at Auburn and Florida.
While optimism from Miles isn't unusual, the Tigers have won at least 10 games in four-straight seasons, the veteran coach and LSU enter this season with more certainty at key positions than any time in his tenure.
Gone is quarterback Zack Mettenberger, who passed for 3,082 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. Gone is running back Jeremy Hill, who led the Tigers in rushing for two seasons. Wide receivers Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry, who combined for 18 of LSU's 23 touchdown receptions a season ago, also are gone.
Despite the fact his team is starting over at the offensive skill positions, Miles appeared undeterred while describing his newest version of the Tigers.
"We're a team that's really on the cusp of an opportunity to win championships," said Miles, who owns one Bowl Championship Series national championship. "That was a fourth-straight 10-victory season. We return 16 starters; six on offense, seven on defense, three on special teams. Certainly we have, in my opinion, the style of team that can win championships."
Not all of the experts agree. ESPN College Football Analyst Jesse Palmer said Wednesday he believed LSU would finish fifth in the SEC's Western Division behind Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, and thoughts of LSU taking a step backward in 2014 have been an undercurrent at SEC Media Days.
Miles tackled one of LSU's prevailing issues -- the quarterback race -- in his opening statement.
"Quarterback will be Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris," Miles said. "It will be a very competitive event from the start to the finish. (Offensive coordinator) Cam Cameron will do the right things with those guys. You'll see how well a freshman executes at quarterback."
Jennings, a sophomore, played briefly in the final two games of 2013, going 13 of 29 for 181 yards and a touchdown. Harris, a consensus four-star prospect out of Bossier City, Louisiana, is part of a recruiting class 247sports.com ranked No. 2 in the country.
Tailback Leonard Fournette is another member of that recruiting class. Rivals.com lists the New Orleans native as the top running back in the country. Miles believes Fournette, Harris, and a number of other freshmen will help the offense avoid skipping a beat.
"We're a team that will expect some of these freshmen to come in and play," said Miles, whose team lost to Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia last season. "Leonard Fournette and Malaci Dupre, Brandon Harris, and C.J. Garrett (are) four freshmen we would expect to have a great impact for us this season."
The schedule doesn't set up favorably for LSU. In the first seven weeks, LSU plays a neutral site game against Wisconsin, a home game against Mississippi State, and games at Auburn and Florida.
The game on Saturday, Sept. 20, has players like MSU linebacker Benardrick McKinney excited.
"That's one of those games, they are all big, but it's huge," said McKinney while representing the Bulldogs on Tuesday. "Going down there, you know it's a tough road. Every game in the SEC is tough, but that's a big one."
Miles' confidence wasn't surprising. Neither was the fact his players have bought in to their coach's optimism.
When speaking about the possibilities of the new College Football Playoff, LSU senior linebacker D.J. Welter was overwhelmingly positive about his team's chances.
"I feel like it's a great opportunity for college football to be able to have four possible teams win the national championship, and it's also an excellent opportunity for everyone playing college football, especially LSU," Welter said. "At the end of the season, we will hopefully be one of those teams."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brandon Walker on Twitter @BWonStateBeat.