USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.

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LSU has had 28 all-conference picks during the past four seasons. Only three players – one a kicker – earned All-SEC honors more than once: Sam Montgomery, Morris Claiborne and Drew Alleman.

Perhaps no other fact helps to illustrate the Tigers' ability to reload without fail, offsetting painful losses to graduation, attrition and the NFL draft with frightening consistency. Then again, perhaps another fact best explains this program's non-stop stride: LSU is 44-8 since the start of the 2010 season.

This might help us comprehend why, amid another round of early-draft entrants that robbed the Tigers of a deep core of would-be leaders and contributors, Les Miles' faith remains forever unwavering.

"We're a team that's really on the cusp of an opportunity to win championships," he said at SEC Media Days. "We're a program that achieves."

Seemingly impossible, perhaps, but still: Miles might be more confident in this year's team – despite the losses, the young quarterbacks, the schedule – than in the Tigers' last two versions, each of which stumbled in the quest for the SEC championship.

Confident, yes, but this isn't new; Miles is always confident.

"I maintain a similar disposition," he told USA TODAY Sports. "I think it's a life decision. Here's what happens: Every coach looks at his team and thinks, this is a strength, this is a weakness. You don't ever want to have to play to your weakness."

That's the balance: LSU will blend young and old on both sides, protecting a rookie quarterback with an All-American left tackle, for instance, or two senior running backs splitting carries with true freshman Leonard Fournette.

Promoting strengths and bandaging weaknesses – often with the former overshadowing the latter – takes on added emphasis in the SEC, a conference loaded with sharks trawling for even the smallest drop of blood in the water.

Looking for LSU's formula? Try this: Miles, without fail, finds what his team does well and manipulates it to the Tigers' advantage.

"In every year, sometimes it's an interior this, sometimes it's a cornerback, sometimes it's a safety, sometimes it's a whatever it is," Miles said. "That's what you do."

LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:

On paper, this is not a vintage team: LSU is too inexperienced, too questionable on offense and too young on defense to be viewed as Alabama's biggest nemesis. LSU doesn't care about what's on paper. Look for the Tigers to have their down moments, yes, but also look for this team to rock and roll against a premier opponent, catching someone off guard and totally remaking the SEC and national championship conversation.

2013 RECAP:

In a nutshell: LSU has scored more than 440 points five times in program history: 1908, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2013. The 1908 team went 10-0 and was retroactively awarded the national title by the National Championship Foundation, though the university doesn't recognize the season among its national championships. The 2003 team, coached by Nick Saban, won the national title; likewise with the 2007 squad, then led by Miles. The 2011 squad, if you can recall, breezed through one of the most impressive regular seasons in modern football history before losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Then there's last year's team, which scored 465 points – fourth-most in program history – yet finished third in the SEC West Division.

High point: Beating Texas A&M on Nov. 23. Someone had Johnny Manziel's number, at least.

Low point: Losing to Alabama. The 21-point loss was tied for LSU's third-worst this series since 1975; only a 31-0 loss in 2002 and a 26-0 loss in 1996 came by a wider margin.

Tidbit: LSU hasn't lost a regular-season non-conference game since a 26-8 defeat to Virginia Tech to kick off the 2002 season. Counting bowl games, the Tigers are 40-2 in such games since Miles replaced Saban in 2005.

Tidbit (running edition): LSU is 2-11 since the start of the 2008 when gaining less than 100 yards on the ground. Conversely, the Tigers are 27-1 during the same span when gaining at least 200 yards rushing – with Alabama, way back in 2008, the lone exception.

ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:

American League contenders

1. Baltimore Orioles
2. Los Angeles Angels
3. Oakland Athletics
4. Detroit Tigers
5. Kansas City Royals

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

Offense: Leonard Fournette once ran for 250 yards in a blinding snowstorm, uphill, with no pads, without any offensive linemen, against the Dallas Cowboys, in the second game of a doubleheader, without having eaten breakfast, and then bench-pressed 550 pounds six times, because he had excess energy to burn. Every so often, even in this era of non-stop coverage of the most miniscule of recruiting minutiae, a prospect comes along who shatters our perception of what rookies can achieve: Fournette is this prospect, a five-star only because the scale doesn't go to six, a 225-pound behemoth asked to live up to every expectation accompanying his ballyhooed arrival in Baton Rouge – and do so immediately, by the way, so there's no pressure.

He won't be as good as some believe he'll be, if only because that's impossible. Fournette will simply be one-third of your typical punishing LSU running game, joining holdovers Terrence Magee (626 yards) and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards) in again giving this offense the foundational pieces it needs to utterly demoralize the vast majority of teams on its schedule. I can see this group working wonderfully in concert: Fournette will take charge – sooner rather than later – but his style would play well against Magee's change-of-pace fluidity; Hilliard could be a very valuable secondary option, bullying his way through the mix near the end zone and providing the total-package skill set needed to flourish in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's scheme. And there's even a second touted freshman in the mix: Darrel Williams lacks Fournette's acclaim but has a similar frame, so he could step in with fresh legs in the second half and produce at a high rate.

With each passing practice, it becomes increasingly likely that LSU plays both sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris for the opener against Wisconsin. That's because there's little separation as the pair enter the home stretch: Jennings and Harris remain as ensconced in a competition as in March and April, with neither making a genuine move ahead of the other with divided snaps with the Tigers' first-team offense. In the long run, obviously, Miles and Cameron will have to make a decision; for now, it doesn't seem illogical – seeing that it's a neck-and-neck battle – to let on-field results dictate the story, with either Jennings or Harris stepping forward as a result of early-season production.

Jennings brings game experience, which counts, as well as a full season in Cameron's system, which can't be overlooked. He played in nine games last fall as Zach Mettenberger's backup, completing less than half of his attempts but not appearing totally overmatched – only a slight compliment, but it counts. Harris, meanwhile, enrolled early and took part in spring drills, giving him a quick and occasionally painful indoctrination in LSU's scheme. The negative, of course, is the complete lack of overall experience. The positives: LSU likes both, perhaps valuing Harris' potential a little higher than Jennings' slight advantage in game-day pressure; the Tigers will protect the new starter with an uppercut of a running game; both will have the opportunity to grow and develop nicely; and with history as our guide, the Tigers will need two quarterbacks during the course of the season.

This running game will be pulled forward – and these young quarterbacks protected – by one of the most veteran lines of Miles' tenure: LSU returns four starters, including an All-American in left tackle La'el Collins, and 75 career starts altogether – consider that last year's line, which ended up doing a fairly nice job, returned just 30 starts. Collins is the anchor, a star if he gets everything moving in the right direction, but the interior holds the key. While senior Elliott Porter returns at center, sophomore Jerald Hawkins at right tackle and senior Vidal Alexander at left guard, the Tigers do need to settle the competition at right guard between senior Evan Washington and Hoko Fanaika. While Washington could win the job, he's also valuable as a backup at both tackle spots – much like Ethan Pocic, a hugely important reserve due to his ability to slide in anywhere across the board. If healthy, this group is going to do very well.

Defense: There's something ironic yet enormously painful about this simple fact: LSU's defense was last year's Achilles heel. Whether that remains the case – to the pain and dismay of coordinator John Chavis – hinges almost entirely on the play up front, where LSU feels secure in both starting ends yet can't be overly comfortably in the youth and inexperience in the middle. With both tackles gone and projected starter Quentin Thomas slowed with a biceps injury, the Tigers will rely on a crop of redshirt freshmen and sophomores, beginning with sophomore Christian LaCouture, who did a nice job as the Tigers' fourth or fifth tackle last fall. But LaCouture and Thomas – if he's ready to go for Wisconsin – are the only two interior linemen on LSU's roster with any college experience.

Good thing they won't be asked to dominate, but merely occupy blockers and keep linebackers clean – not easy, obviously, and not for the faint of heart, but doable, perhaps. Beyond Thomas and LaCouture, look for LSU to round out its interior rotation with redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore, with sophomore Lewis Neal, a converted end, a potential contributor in certain packages. For now, it seems very unlikely that true freshmen Travonte Valentine contributes in his first season. There's far more experience at end, where LSU returns both starters, Jermauria Rasco (56 tackles, 4.0 sacks) and Danielle Hunter (57 tackles, 8.0 for loss), and reserves Tashawn Bower and Justin Maclin. You didn't hear it here first, but it bears repeating: Hunter's going to be a monster.

LSU's linebacker corps seems revitalized after a down season, thanks in very large part to the growth seen among the unit's junior cast. Having said that, a senior may set the tone: D.J. Welter (80 tackles) will be pushed by promising sophomore Kendall Beckwith, perhaps ceding snaps as the year wears on, but his consistency in the middle makes him an irreplaceable cog in the middle. For now, it'll be Welter in the middle, junior Lamar Louis (25 tackles) on the strong side and junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 for loss) on the weak side; Alexander, the Tigers' next all-conference linebacker, is poised for his breakthrough. What will be interesting, seeing that Chavis has a stable of options at his disposal, is how many looks LSU will be present on the second level. Between Louis, Beckwith and Alexander, LSU could put forth a dangerously athletic 4-2-5 set with the back-seven ability to run from sideline to sideline.

After struggling with late-game stops a season ago, LSU's secondary needs to recapture its two-minute form. There's reason to think experience alone will pay significant dividends. At cornerback, for example, sophomores Tre'Davious White (55 tackles) and Rashard Robinson are ready to take the next step: White's already among the league's best, for one, and Robinson, who didn't join the team until shortly before the opener, was the more impressive of the pair during the season's final month. Florida has the SEC's best cornerback, not to mention one of the nation's best; LSU's starting duo is the most imposing in the conference. When available, junior Jalen Mills (67 tackles, 3 interceptions) will join senior Ronald Martin along the back end of this defense. In the interim, LSU can team Martin with Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson and Jamal Adams and feel confident in the results.

Special teams: LSU's special teams will be among the nation's best, because this is what LSU does. There will be a void in the return game, however, though there's reason to believe this team has enough speed and explosiveness to recoup any lost production. Though it will be hard for him to match his freshman numbers, kicker Colby Delahoussaye is clearly a major weapon.

POSITION(S) TO WATCH:

Wide receiver: This is one of the youngest and least proven crop of wide receivers in college football – not just in the SEC and not just on the major-conference landscape, mind you, but across the entire country. To cite one metric: LSU's leading returning receiver, sophomore Travin Dural, made seven receptions a season ago. That paints a questionable picture for the passing game, particularly with the young quarterbacks, but with this youth comes immense promise, terrific recruiting pedigree and near-unfathomable potential. The depth chart tells the story, littered as it is with freshmen and sophomores: Dural is a sophomore, as noted, and little-used former reserve Quantavius Leslie a senior; from there, it's all rookies. Some are coming off redshirt seasons, such as Avery Patterson, John Diarse and Kevin Spears, and as such have a stronger grasp of Cameron's style. But these true freshmen are coming, charging fast, and they're going to be hard to fend out of the rotation.

There's D.J. Chark and Trey Quinn, a pair of three-star local products currently running behind Dural, Diarse and Spears on the two-deep. There's Trey Quinn, perhaps the most productive receiver in Louisiana history – that has to count for something, I'd say. Then there's Malachi Dupre, widely viewed as the nation's top receiver recruit in February's class and, with his next-level size, speed and athleticism, a likely immediate contributor. In another class, Dupree is the star; in this one, however, he plays second billing to Fournette. In addition to this talented crew, there are several reasons to think LSU will incorporate more production from tight ends DeSean Smith, Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes. Be patient while this receiver corps develops – you'll be glad you did.

GAME(S) TO WATCH:

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bars the Tigers' door to the SEC championship. This one's in Baton Rouge, boosting LSU's hopes, but Wisconsin, Auburn and Texas A&M come away from home. Nonetheless, a win at Auburn on Oct. 4 presents a scenario where Alabama visits Tiger Stadium on Nov. 8 with both teams undefeated and in the thick of the championship hunt, which would be, well, strangely familiar.

SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:

In a nutshell: LSU reloads its arsenal for another run at Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and the rest of the SEC. There is reason for optimism: This is what the Tigers do, by and large, and it's simply foolish – seeing that it ignores all the history and evidence at our disposal – to expect this team to do anything but notch double-digit wins, challenge for the SEC West crown and factor heavily into the championship conversation. Some things change; others don't. Death Valley will rock and roll, the Tigers will run the football, this defense will improve and the season will come down to Auburn and Alabama. It's on a somewhat untested and unproven team to answer the call.

Whether LSU can vault to the top of the division and into the playoff depends on three factors. One is quarterback play, and whether Cameron's magic touch – so far, at least – can extend to a pair of youngsters not quite prepared to grasp all the nuts and bolts of his NFL-style system. A second is the receiver corps, which is dangerously young – but not short on talent, as noted. A third is the interior of the defensive line, which is clearly too inexperienced for LSU's liking. If all three units come together, LSU is right in the middle of the championship hunt. If not, the Tigers still have enough in the tank to secure third place in the West and a program-record fifth season in a row with 10 or more wins.

Let's be realistic about the situation. The quarterbacks aren't going to be great, it's safe to say, and the receiver corps is going to struggle at times during SEC play. There's a chance that run-based teams – say, Auburn and Alabama – churn out wide swaths of land against this front four. These are unavoidable issues, sadly. But there's something to be said for a young, hungry, confident and not-wise-enough-to-know-better team; that would be LSU, and perhaps unbridled athleticism wins the day. It will, more often than not. It just won't be enough to win the SEC. This is still a very strong team with an extraordinarily bright future.

Dream season: LSU beats all comers, secures the SEC title and nabs the top spot in the four-team playoff.

Nightmare season: An opening-weekend loss to Wisconsin marks the first of five defeats on the season.

UP NEXT:

Who's No. 11? Teams led by this program's coach have outscored the competition 505-140 in season openers.

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