When the LSU Tigers raced out to a 5-0 start last season, they waylaid Oregon by 13 points and West Virginia by 26 along the way.
LSU is 5-0 again this year, but the No. 4 Tigers are hardly sprinting through their schedule. After surviving 12-10 two weeks ago at Auburn, a team they manhandled 45-10 a year ago, the Tigers stumbled through a 38-22 dumping of Towson last Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
With the trio of No. 10 Florida, No. 6 South Carolina and considerably improved Texas A&M next in line, could the Tigers actually be 5-3 heading into that next "Game of the Century" against Alabama on Nov. 3?
"It is time that we recognize that we cannot go down the path that we're on," LSU coach Les Miles said this week. "It is not productive, and it is not the football we are used to."
The close call at Auburn was understandable given that series -- the 20 previous meetings between the SEC West Division rivals had ended in a 10-10 standoff -- but last week's lethargy was alarming. A rainy night at Tiger Stadium resulted in thousands of empty seats, and LSU matched the surroundings by allowing Towson to rush for 188 yards and post a 9-minute, 24-second edge in possession time.
Towson led 9-7 with less than five minutes remaining in the first half, and LSU's advantage was only 31-16 midway through the fourth quarter before Michael Ford's 4-yard touchdown run with 5:22 left put the game away.
"We just went out there and played some bad football," junior defensive end Sam Montgomery said.
Said junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger: "We know we have to step it up from here."
Mettenberger has completed 78 of 119 passes (65.6 percent) for 1,016 yards this season with six touchdowns and two interceptions. The 6-foot-5, 222-pounder has been sacked 11 times, however, and he has fumbled three times in the past two games.
LSU was dominant offensively in a 41-3 humiliation of Washington but scored just three points in the final 49 minutes at Auburn.
"I think our quarterback play is by and large very good, but there are things that he tries to do by extending the play that put him in jeopardy," Miles said. "Some days you see those quarterbacks that run out of the pocket and make a big play, but that frankly is not something we are looking for from him.
"We would like to get it out of his hands, and we are coaching that. It is coming. Just remember that he has not really started in major college football before."
The Tigers are still stout rushing the ball, averaging 229.6 yards a game led by sophomore Kenny Hilliard's 73.2 yards a contest. They also are impressive against the run, allowing just 83 yards a game.
LSU has come up with 12 turnovers and yielded eight so far, but they had collected 12 and lost three at the same point last season.
The Gators will host the Tigers looking to atone for a 41-11 beating they sustained last year in Baton Rouge. Florida coach Will Muschamp was asked Monday about LSU's performance against Towson and began shaking his head.
"We won't see the same LSU team from an enthusiasm standpoint," Muschamp said. "LSU is as physical as ever, and they have won 18 straight regular-season games for a reason."
While the Tigers are ready to forget last week's showing against Towson, Miles wouldn't mind his players learning a lesson from the escape at Auburn. It was a hostile environment in which his Tigers survived, so a trip to the Swamp will be difficult but not a first.
After all, Miles has defeated every team in the SEC away from home except Missouri, and he hasn't had that chance.
"I think there is a time in games where you win the game," Miles said. "A year ago, we won the game in the third quarter at times, or we demonstrated to our opponent that it wasn't going to be their day. I think it was good for us to be in a game that was very tight, and plays had to be made in a timely fashion on the road.
"I think there is a comfort with how we handle road games. An identity can be formed with how we ended that game, and I think it's awfully important to have had that experience as we go forward."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...