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July 24, 2009
HOOVER, Ala. - Down in Louisiana some things are just taken for granted.
The gumbo is hot.
The Abita beer is cold.
And LSU's defense is mean and nasty.
Last football season was different, though. Oh, the gumbo was still spicy and the beer was still icy, but LSU's defense was abnormally bland.
The Tigers ranked just 32nd in the nation in total defense - 29 spots lower than the previous year. They allowed more than 30 points in five games, four of which were losses. And they forced just 19 turnovers.
As a result, the Tigers slumped to an 8-5 finish, their lowest victory total since 2002.
No doubt, woefully inconsistent quarterback play was a major factor in that decline, but LSU had come to count on its defense to compensate for any offensive shortcomings. If nothing else, the Tigers could keep the score close and find a way to pull out a victory.
Eight wins? That's unacceptable in Baton Rouge, even with an inexperienced quarterback and several players from the '07 national championship team gone to the NFL.
"I think there's a level of acceptable achievement at our school," LSU coach Les Miles said Friday. "I think our guys understand it. I think [winning] championships is how we're measured. I understand how [last season's decline] happens, but it's not any fun.
"I had somebody ask me is that something you expect? You never expect to finish second, not at LSU."
But Miles isn't about to concede anything.
"I think our team has prepared in earnest," he said. "I think it will be seen on the field this fall."
Much of the optimism stems from a better outlook at quarterback. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson played very well in a Chick-fil-A Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, and his anticipated progress should boost an offense that features big-play receiver Brandon LaFell, power running tailback Charles Scott and a solid offensive line.
An even bigger factor, however, is the arrival of John Chavis, who has taken over the task of rebuilding the defense back up to LSU standards.
Chavis knows what he's doing. Among the country's most accomplished in his field, Chavis spent 14 seasons as Tennessee's defensive coordinator. In 10 of those seasons, the Volunteers ranked among the SEC's top four in total defense.
Even when Tennessee struggled to a 5-7 showing in '08, which led to the ouster of coach Phillip Fulmer, the Volunteers ranked third in the nation in total defense. Chavis became available when new Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin opted to hire his father, legendary NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
"I think John certainly has great experience and understands the want for dominant defense," Miles said. "I think our guys understand that and were really looking for that when John arrived on campus.
"I think the strategies behind the call, I think the effort and the technique behind the play will be improved. Spring [practice] has happened. It's gone by. You could see marked improvement in the defense. I would expect the same this fall."
Middle linebacker Jacob Cutrera said Chavis made a difference right away.
"He's a fired-up guy every practice," Cutrera said. "Those two and a half hours we're out there he's in your face and you'll know when you mess up. He's brought a lot of intensity, and the way he does things has helped out."
Maybe intensity is all LSU really needs. The Tigers annually raked in highly regarded recruits, but they underachieved in '08. Six starters return to the defense, including cornerbacks Chris Hawkins and Patrick Patterson. With emerging safety Chad Jones joining them, the secondary - which underperformed last season - projects to be significantly better.
Senior tackle Charles Alexander is the only returning starter on the defensive line, but with senior Rahim Alem (who posted eight sacks last season) stepping into the starting lineup, the Tigers should have a strong pass rush.
Miles said he expects the defense will be similar to the '07 unit directed by Bo Pelini, now the coach at Nebraska. That team held 11 opponents to 24 points or less en route to the national championship.
"I think you'll find that the structures of the defenses are the same," he said. "We can put four or three down linemen on the field. I think the opportunity to zone [blitz] is the same.
"I think what is also similar is a want and a desire to give relentless effort. So, I think there will be some similarities but some differences as well, based on personnel."
The Tigers are hoping to see some differences in the offense, too. Last year the Tigers were mediocre offensively and lost 20 turnovers. Former starting quarterback Jarrett Lee had multiple interceptions returned for touchdowns.
Jefferson, who is also a running threat, should ensure improvement there. He passed for 142 yards and no interceptions while also rushing for 25 yards in a 38-3 bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
But he still has limited experience.
Of course, a strong defense can take a lot of pressure off a young quarterback. Cutrera said he believes the LSU defense can do that.
"I think the hunger is there more than ever from what happened to us last year," Cutrera said. "That's not our style of play at LSU. That's not how we want to be remembered. We went through spring hungrier than ever."
Nothing but dominant defense may satisfy that kind of hunger.
Well, that and spicy gumbo.
Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.