BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — When Zach Mettenberger predicted this would be the longest week of his life, he wasn't even talking about tropical weather from Isaac that would bring life in south Louisiana to a standstill for more than a day.
The quarterback for No. 3 LSU is entering his fourth year of college football and finally makes his much anticipated debut as a starter for a major program on Saturday night against North Texas in Tiger Stadium.
"I'm definitely excited to finally be the guy," said Mettenberger, who spent a redshirt year at Georgia, a year in junior college, and then last season as LSU's third-stringer. "I'm tremendously just ecstatic about this opportunity I have to be a starter for LSU. A lot of kids dream of being that guy and I finally get a chance to go out there and showcase what I can do."
LSU is hoping Mettenberger, who coaches see as an exceptional down-field passer, will provide the Tigers' offense more of the balance it lacked in a 21-0 loss to Alabama in last season's national championship game.
LSU had spent much of last season racking up 203 yards per game on the ground while rolling to double-digit triumphs in 12 of its first 13 games. But the Tigers could neither run nor throw the ball against Alabama very effectively in either its tight overtime victory over the Crimson Tide or its loss in the rematch for the title.
This season, LSU coach Les Miles expects LSU to be much better in the passing game, as long as Mettenberger doesn't put too much pressure on himself to live up to those expectations.
"He needs to relax and let the game come to him," Miles said. "He shouldn't have any anxiety about playing. He just needs to do the things we ask him to do."
If Mettenberger is as good as advertised, that should only make things harder for opposing defenses that will still have to contend with a Tigers' running game that has its top four rushers back from last season: Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard.
Miles has said that Blue and Hilliard have had the best August camp and should expect the bulk of carries in the opener.
The Tigers' potentially potent mix of a powerful ground game and proficient passing game is part of the reason that LSU is a six-touchdown favorite over the Mean Green, which is coming off of a 5-7 campaign in 2011, which marked the beginning of the Dan McCarney era at North Texas.
"LSU's just got it all," said McCarney, who knows from his experience as a former defensive line coach for Florida, a Southeastern Conference rival of the Tigers. "They're loaded with talent, experience. Where they're not experienced, there'll still be guys as good as there is in college football coming out of the high school ranks."
McCarney said he expects LSU to give Mettenberger a chance to show what he can do for a variety of reasons, including North Texas' own lack of experience at cornerback.
"What we're trying to do right now is be ready for what we keep hearing, which is they're going to be throwing the ball deep," McCarney said. "They're going to take shots. Why wouldn't you? ... Both of our starting corners right now have never started a game."
Still, Miles has said he won't veer too far from his run-first philosophy, and McCarney believes him.
"The things you never get away from at LSU is the (physicality) of the football team and running the football," McCarney said. "I know it firsthand, and I know how physical they are. It starts up front on the offensive line. Les Miles played on the offensive line. He coached offensive line forever in his career as an assistant.
"They're going to come off the ball on the snap of the ball and hit you right in the mouth and play physical football," McCarney said. "It's always been that brand of football with coach Miles."
Then there's the matter of how North Texas will try to move the ball against and LSU defense that still has a talented secondary — even after the dismissal of former Heisman finalist Tryann Mathieu — and perhaps the most feared defensive end tandem in college football: Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo.
It could be a long day for North Texas junior quarterback Derek Thompson. Other than receiver Brelan Chancellor, who is also a threat in the return game, North Texas does not have a lot of proven skill players on offense and virtually no experience at running back.
Whatever happens, McCarney hopes his players will handle it with more pride than he saw after their 41-0 loss at Alabama last year, when he noticed defensive players in the back of the bus light-heartedly talking about the experience of playing in a packed and electric Bryant-Denny stadium, and who did not seem terribly upset about losing.
"The environment was more important to talk about and what was happening out there, and giggling and laughing, rather than getting spanked ... and embarrassing yourself and the football program," McCarney said. "If we happen to lose this year, do I think that's going to happen on the back of our buses? No. I think we've matured and I think we've come a long ways."