- Gary Laney, Reporter, GeauxTigerNation
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Here's a key number that describes LSU's challenge next week: 32.7.
That's the average margin of victory this season for Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team and defending national champion, and the team that stands as a daunting hurdle in LSU's path to the BCS championship.
In that margin, one finds a team with no weaknesses exposed so far. However, unbeaten Mississippi State, which visits Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday, could be the team to point out some flaws.
One thing is clear: LSU has its share of flaws. The sixth-ranked Tigers (7-1) have been far from perfect heading into their bye week. With a rematch of last year's BCS national championship game -- which LSU lost to Alabama 21-0 -- looming on Nov. 3, the Tigers are haunted by some of the same problems that hurt them in the national title game last season.
Here are five areas in which LSU is going to have to improve if they are to have a chance at a Nov. 3 surprise:
1. Pitch and catch: LSU's clear weakness is throwing the football. Both Texas A&M and South Carolina sold out to stopping the run and it almost worked, because Tigers receivers struggled to create separation from defensive backs. When they did, either they'd fail to make the catch or quarterback Zach Mettenberger did not make an accurate throw.
It adds up to a pass offense that's 12th in the SEC, averaging 143 yards in league games with only one touchdown pass. Alabama has the SEC's best pass defense, so you can count on the Tide, like A&M and South Carolina, selling out to stop the run. LSU's going to have to come out of the bye week much improved in the passing game.
2. Flag football: LSU ranks third in the SEC for penalties, giving up just fewer than 65 yards per game in penalties. Alabama is one of the league's least penalized teams, at about 36 yards a game. The Tigers can't afford to give up 29 yards in penalties to a team as good as the Crimson Tide.
3. Cover up: In the past two games, LSU has given up a 76-yard kickoff return to Texas A&M's Trey Williams and a 50-yard punt return to South Carolina's Ace Sanders that would have been longer had a personal foul not negated about 10 yards.
What's disturbing for the Tigers is that they normally hang their hats on dominant special teams play. If the Tigers can't flip field position with special teams coverage those are lost yards that, like the penalties, they can't afford to give to Alabama.
4. Seeing red: Alabama's conference-leading defense won't give an opponent many chances, so when you get them, you'd better take advantage.
Unfortunately for LSU, that's not something it has done well.
In 34 trips to the red zone this season, LSU has managed just 16 touchdowns. In the SEC, only Auburn, Missouri and Vanderbilt have been worse at finishing drives with points. The Tigers have scored touchdowns on just three of 13 red zone trips in SEC games, the second-worst percentage in the SEC, ahead of only Missouri.
Given Alabama's defensive dominance in the red zone -- the Crimson Tide have held opponents scoreless in five of seven trips to lead the SEC in red zone defense -- LSU's going to have to become a much better team at finishing drives than it has been through its first eight games.
It starts with the passing game. Of the Tigers' 16 red zone touchdowns, only two have been in the air. They are next-to-last in the SEC in red zone touchdown passes per game, ahead of only Auburn, which has yet to throw a short touchdown pass this season. The Tigers are going to have to be able to complete passes in the red zone to finish drives.
5. Moving the chains: Remember all the jokes about LSU's struggles to cross midfield in the BCS championship game?
The offense's tendency to fall into long droughts has continued this season. LSU is 11th in the league in first-down production in SEC games, averaging just 15.8 a game, a low statistic for a team that relies on ball control.
The Tigers convert just 30.3 percent of the time on third-down attempts, 11th in the league. Alabama, on the other hand, leads the SEC in defensive third-down percentage, holding teams short of a first down on 75 percent of third down plays.
If LSU is going to stand a chance at the upset, it's going to have to find a way to keep its offense on the field to take pressure off its defense.
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