CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

College football top 25 countdown: No. 15 Louisiana State

The Tigers lost 11 players to the NFL draft, but there's plenty of talent left, especially after running back Jeremy Hill was reinstated following a brush with the law.

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Jeremy Hill, Trae Elston

LSU running back Jeremy Hill figures to play a prominent role in the Tigers' SEC title aspirations — as long as he stays out of trouble. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press / November 17, 2012)

The judge just threw the book at running back Jeremy Hill.

Thankfully for Louisiana State fans, it was the playbook.

With the legal system already backlogged and training camp approaching, District Judge Bonnie Jackson ordered Hill to 40 hours of community service for his latest brush with the law.

It was a good thing Hill, already on probation, was not recorded on video laughing after he sucker-punched that guy in the bar in April.

But wait, Hill was recorded and laughing, but the LSU-graduate judge still determined enough justice had been served.

LSU Coach Les Miles then allowed his players to determine whether Hill should be reinstated and the vote was as unanimous as the last time Miles asked the kids if they wanted ice cream.

Hill rushed for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns last year and, truth is, LSU needs all the talented yard-eaters it can get.

This is a "transition" year in Baton Rouge in which the Tigers might win only nine or 10 games after losing 11 players to the NFL draft.

LSU is "only" the third-best team in the SEC West, the nation's best division, and the Tigers face a tough opener against Texas Christian in Dallas.

You understand why judges and coaches could be nervous, but LSU should end up fine despite having to replace eight starters on defense.

LSU is OK being under the radar. The Tigers of 2003, coached by Nick Saban, were No. 12 in the first BCS standings and ended up winning the national title.

In 2007, LSU crawled back from No. 7 in the BCS on the final weekend to win the title.

Last year, conversely, LSU opened No.1 in the coaches' poll and lost three games.

"We have always felt we needed to earn our position," Miles said.

Relative to almost everyone else, LSU remains an embarrassment of riches. The Tigers are also a straight-up program that, unlike some SEC schools, isn't afraid of tough nonconference scheduling.

Since 2008, LSU has played Washington, Oregon and North Carolina, and this year opens against TCU.

LSU not only plays Alabama and Texas A&M in the West, but its crossover games are Florida and Georgia.

Last year was a disappointment mostly because highly touted quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggled as the first-year starter. The Tigers had to rely on a defense that gave up only 17 points a game.

The good news is that Mettenberger improved and had a breakout game against Alabama in which he threw for 298 yards in defeat.

The thinking is that Mettenberger will be even better working with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Mettenberger will have plenty of weapons with the return of running backs Hill (suspension) and Alfred Blue (injury), and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry should benefit from Mettenberger's continued improvement.

The young defense, for sure, will have to grow up quickly.

The TCU opener has already been supercharged by Coach Gary Patterson's reported criticism of Hill's reinstatement. Patterson said letting the team vote a player back doesn't teach life lessons.

Patterson has since backed off the comments and said it is not in his nature to rile up opponents.

"I'm not Babe Ruth," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I don't point at fences. ... They don't need any more help."

Too late. Patterson already provided some.

Top 25 so far: 25. Oklahoma; 24. Wisconsin; 23. Fresno State; 22. UCLA; 21. Texas A&M; 20. Notre Dame; 19. Oregon State; 18. Oklahoma State; 17. Arizona State; 16. Nebraska.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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