The top-ranked LSU Tigers open practice Thursday, and they’re loaded just about everywhere. That doesn’t mean every starting spot is set in stone. Let’s look at three position battles to monitor:

1. Running back

Top contenders: Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee, Jeremy Hill

Ford, Ware, Blue and Hilliard return after combining for nearly 2,400 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns last season. The question is whether one or two can separate themselves from the pack. With the sophomore Magee and freshman Hill also pushing for snaps, this is one crowded backfield. Watch out for the well-rounded Blue, who averaged a team-best 6.9 yards per carry and ran for seven scores on just 78 carries.

2. Defensive tackle

Top contenders: Anthony Johnson, Ego Ferguson, Josh Downs

Michael Brockers left early for the NFL, so the Tigers are looking for someone to start alongside Bennie Logan. Johnson (6-3, 310) impressed in limited duty as a true freshman, making 12 tackles and three for loss and earning freshman All-America honors. He’s the clear favorite to start. Ferguson (6-3, 283) was just as solid if not spectacular, making 13 tackles as a redshirt freshman. Downs is a senior who started against Mississippi State last season. 

3. Outside linebacker

Top contenders: Tahj Jones, Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie

Kevin Minter returns at middle linebacker; he ranked fifth on the team with 61 tackles last season. But LSU must replace both starters on the outside. The top three candidates are juniors. Jones (6-2, 205) played in every game last season, making 27 tackles, and broke out against Auburn with his first career sack, a fumble recovery and pass breakup. Barrow (6-2, 229) started one game last year and was the top backup to Ryan Baker most of the season. Muncie (6-3, 220) was a standout on special teams lwho played in every game last season.

For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis from SEC bloggers Daniel Lewis and Larry Hartstein, follow @CBSSportsSEC.