BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has yet to prove he can be the savior of a stagnant passing game and the LSU offense. In fact, he occupies a seat similar to that of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron this time last season.
Perhaps Mettenberger's hope lies in the remarkable transformation that took place for McCarron after the Crimson Tide's overtime loss to LSU last fall.
McCarron didn't play well the first time he faced the tenacious Tigers defense -- he completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes with no touchdowns, and he threw a costly third-quarter interception.
But that marginal performance became something of a turning point for McCarron, who is preparing to make his 22nd start overall this weekend in Tiger Stadium. He threw just one other pick the rest of the 2011 season -- and eviscerated that same LSU defense while claiming offensive MVP honors in January's BCS Championship Game rematch. This season, he has shed the moniker of "game manager" to become a bonafide playmaker as a junior, with 1,684 yards, 18 touchdowns and no interceptions, with a completion percentage of 69 percent.
Of course, don't tell Alabama coach Nick Saban that the rise in production kills McCarron's role as a game manager.
"To me, you can't be a good quarterback unless you're a good game manager," Saban said. "Because you've got the ball in your hands every time and you're making some kind of choice and decision of what to do with it, whether you hand it off, what play you hand it off on, where you throw it in the passing game.
"You've got to process a lot of information quickly and make quick decisions. I don't think it's fair to AJ that because I said he's a really good game manager for us that it's like that means he doesn't do anything. He does everything."
The question in Death Valley is whether Mettenberger can take that step and become another strength for an offense that badly needs one.
Preseason illusions that had surrounded Mettenberger as a dark horse Heisman contender for LSU have faded -- and understandably so, considering his completion percentage of 56.6 and his touchdown to interception ratio of 7 to 4.
The junior has made eight starts for LSU -- the same number as McCarron in 2011 -- and LSU coach Les Miles believes that experience should lead to improved play for the Tigers' stretch run.
"Any quality quarterback that stays in the system and continues to call the same plays and develop the same reads and processes will in fact mature and have growth as they continue," Miles said. "It's realistic to expect that Zach will play better than he did at the beginning of the year and that he'll play better as we finish and get to the end and to the back end of this year."
There's clearly room for Mettenberger to improve, in SEC play at least. He's averaging 143 yards per game in conference play this season, with just 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions. And if he's going to improve on that this Saturday, it's going to come against the league's best defense.
But that doesn't feel like too tall of an order for Mettenberger, who seems to have had little trouble maintaining his confidence. The Tigers passed for a season-low 97 yards two weeks ago in the 24-19 win against Texas A&M, but they took plenty of shots downfield. They rarely connected. Despite that, Mettenberger said the offense plans to keep plugging away.
"I'm very confident in our ability as an offense to move the ball and get things done. It just comes down to execution," Mettenberger said. "We're starting to peak a little bit and starting to reach that potential that we have, and hopefully we can go out there and show that we can do it offensively."
At the end of the day, the Tigers would gladly accept a victory, even if they didn't complete a single pass. But against the Crimson Tide defense, throwing the ball is a necessity. While McCarron used the LSU game last season as a learning process, Miles and Co. will have to hope the learning curve is sharper for Mettenberger in his first taste of the rivalry.
"The opportunities are going to be there for me and the receivers to have to make a big play, and we're going to have to execute and capitalize on those plays when they present themselves," Mettenberger said.