September 15, 2011
LSU is currently ranked No. 3 in both major polls. It's already earned arguably the single most impressive win of the first two weeks of the season. It's beaten Mississippi State eleven years in a row, including five straight meetings in Starkville, by an average of nearly four touchdowns per game. What else could the Tigers possibly have left to prove tonight?
The answer, I think, is consistency. Consider the circumstances: Mississippi State, in Starkville, on a Thursday night, is a classic "trap" game for any team, by any definition. Seven different teams since 2006 have lost top-10 rankings at the hands of a home underdog on a weekday night, and the last time Mississippi State was on this stage — hosting eventual BCS champion Auburn on a Thursday night last September — the Bulldogs held Cam Newton to a season low in total yards and Auburn to a season-low 17 points in a nail-biter. This time, with much higher expectations and genuine excitement surrounding the program, MSU's usual home-field advantage amid the cowbells will only be magnified by the stakes, the spotlight and the full day of "preparation" students were able to get in with a day off from classes.
All serious national contenders have to navigate the dangerous upstart on the road, or they cease to be serious national contenders. In LSU's case, though, there are much deeper, more specific questions, namely: What's up with the offense? Starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard remain on ice indefinitely. The 40-point outburst against Oregon in the opener was aided by a special teams touchdown and three touchdown drives that began in Duck territory following Oregon turnovers. Including a late, short-field touchdown following a failed fourth-down attempt by the Ducks in the fourth quarter, 28 of the Tigers' 40 points came directly as a result of those giveaways; without them, a pedestrian 3.9 yards per snap on offense gets them nowhere. How does it looks when it's not aided by a special teams touchdown and doesn't get to start half its drives in opposing territory? Can it move the ball with any sort of consistency against the defense that yielded four sustained touchdown drives last week at Auburn?
Just as relevantly, what does it say about the Tigers if they do score another special teams touchdown and generate another plus-three turnover margin, in the same fashion they did against the Ducks? Given the not-so-rosy outlook for the offense over the long haul, this a team that needs to generate big plays in both other phases. Against Oregon, it did, and then some. If the defense and special teams deliver again tonight, in a much more hostile environment, we can put the "consistency" questions on the shelf for a while: At some point, with the athletes at LSU's disposal, even bailing out the mediocre offense ceases to be a fluke and starts to become an identity.