LSU Football: Tigers Still Have Plenty to Play for in the SEC West

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterSeptember 30, 2013

LSU entered Saturday's showdown with Georgia as a bit of a mystery. The Tigers were 4-0, but victories over TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn didn't exactly make the Tigers as battle-tested as the Bulldogs, who were facing their third top 10 team of the young season.

Instead of solving the mystery, LSU complicated things.

The Tigers' defense gave up 494 yards to the Bulldogs in the 44-41 loss, sending the defensive staff back to the drawing board this week against a Mississippi State team that's averaging 463.8 yards per game.

All is not lost in Baton Rouge though, because there are positives to take away from the loss that give LSU hope for the future.

LSU head coach Les Miles
LSU head coach Les MilesDaniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

As long as the Tigers don't let the Bulldogs beat them twice, and take care of Mississippi State like they should, they can still win the West. With only one loss, they still control their destiny in the SEC West.

The silver lining from the loss to Georgia is that it's clear the Tigers' offense is incredibly dangerous, and quarterback Zach Mettenberger's hot start to the season wasn't a product of weak competition.

Despite 86 yards and a touchdown from Jeremy Hill, LSU's running game was shut down Saturday. The Tigers managed just 2.1 yards per carry, and couldn't get anything going on the ground in the first half. Mettenberger picked up the slack, throwing for 372 yards and three touchdowns.

Sure, he exploited blown coverages at times, but made several NFL-caliber throws downfield into tight windows. On the 39-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry in the third quarter, he stood tall in the pocket and fired a dart over safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and in front of Tray Matthews, hitting Landry in stride.

It was just one of several examples of Mettenberger threading needles. On a critical 3rd-and-22 midway through the fourth, he hit Odell Beckham in coverage for the first down and then dropped two passes in a bucket later on in the drive, which ultimately led to a touchdown.

LSU WR Odell Beckham, Jr.
LSU WR Odell Beckham, Jr.Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

LSU was forced into a shootout, and the passing game responded. That's important, because Hill and the running game won't stay down forever.

The Tigers' offensive performance against the Bulldogs bodes well for the future. 

LSU WR Jarvis Landry
LSU WR Jarvis LandryDaniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

They have a treacherous schedule down the stretch that features games versus Florida and Texas A&M at home, and Ole Miss and Alabama on the road. Tough? Sure. Impossible to navigate? Hardly.

What do we know about those teams?

Alabama played very well against Ole Miss' dynamic offense, but its secondary has been hit-or-miss this year. It got smoked by Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans in a 49-42 win over the Aggies, and Colorado State's Garrett Grayson threw for 228 yards in a loss the next week at Bryant-Denny. At best, Saturday's performance was a step in the right direction, not confirmation that the problem is fixed.

There's plenty of time between now and Nov. 9 when the teams meet in Tuscaloosa for both teams to improve, but Mettenberger versus the Alabama secondary is going to be one of the bigger storylines in that game. Remember Mettenberger's coming-out party versus Alabama last year, when he threw for 298 yards? 

That was against a better Alabama defense and an LSU offense that severely lacked an identity. 

This is also an Alabama offensive line that's been Jekyll and Hyde opening holes for running backs, which could mean good things for defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Texas A&M can't stop anybody, Ole Miss is still a work in progress and Florida will trot out Tyler Murphy in Death Valley for his third career start. 

All of the critical teams remaining on LSU's schedule have major flaws. There's no reason to count LSU out of any of those games, and thus, no reason to count them out of the West. 

Don't be surprised if LSU at Alabama on Nov. 9 is the de facto SEC West championship game, just as it has been the last two seasons.