BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU played through two-thirds of the season before finally getting a break, but the bye week has arrived. It's safe to say the offense hasn't been the juggernaut fans were hoping to see in 2012, but it's been good enough to allow the Tigers to control their own destiny with two top-11 teams coming to Death Valley during the next two weeks.
Defensive grades come Friday. For now, this is how the LSU offense grades out heading during the off week.
The starter: Zach Mettenberger
The breakdown: Gone are the days when anyone expected Mettenberger to bomb away on opposing defenses or rack up obscene touchdown totals. The junior finished with just 97 yards and a touchdown in the win against Texas A&M, and he threw for 148 with no scores and a costly pick against South Carolina. He is averaging 177.4 yards per game, and if he maintains that pace or improves it, he should finished with 2,000 yards for the season -- a first for a single LSU quarterback since 2009.
But facts are facts. Although Les Miles has said he's committed to improving the passing game, the more likely outcome is we'll continue to see Mettenberger as a game manager whose job is to protect the football and hit the occasional big play. He managed to do the former against Texas A&M -- although that he hasn't been able to do that consistently this season -- and nobody is going to forget the staggering number of overthrows against the Aggies any time soon.
That's been good enough to get LSU to a 7-1 record. But the SEC West will be decided during the next two weeks, and it's safe to say the Tigers need Mettenberger to elevate his game if they're to overtake Alabama and Mississippi State.
What they're saying: "Those defenses that hang around the line of scrimmage, you have to have the ability to challenge them vertically. We're going to continue to call those plays. A couple of them were open, and we have to hit those." -- Les Miles
The bottom line: The next two weeks -- particularly the ever-anticipated Nov. 3 tilt with Alabama -- will decide whether LSU is a championship contender or an also-ran. Mettenberger's been so-so to this point; he must step up if LSU is to achieve it's goals. Grade: C+
The starter: Spencer Ware
The breakdown: Ware has been the de facto starter since Alfred Blue was lost to injury against Idaho, but he also boasts the fewest total yards of anyone in LSU's backfield. You can't deny the emergence of Hill as a huge boon to the running game, as he's led the team two weeks in a row -- largely thanks to a pair of back-breaking touchdown runs against both South Carolina and Texas A&M.
Regardless of who's doing it, the blueprint has worked fine ever since LSU sorted out its offensive line following the loss to Florida. Michael Ford continues to be tough to beat to the perimeter, as he proved on his touchdown off the right side, while the other three present a devastating combination of power and speed.
It speaks volumes to how well LSU runs the ball that, despite the passing woes and the injuries in the trenches, the Tigers are averaging 208 yards per game on the ground.
The bottom line: Everyone knew going in that LSU's running game was going to be its bread and butter, and with the exception of No. 2 Florida, nobody has been able to do anything about it. Whether Hill maintains his mojo or someone else steps into his place, the Tigers have one of the deepest and most potent stables in the league. Grade: A
The breakdown: Mettenberger hasn't been playing like a Heisman candidate, but the receiving corps quite simply hasn't carried its share of the load. The drops and lapses in communication have been persistent all season, and it shows considering Beckham is averaging the most yards per game with a mere 52. Everyone else is averaging fewer than 30 yards per game. It's a fitting microcosm for the season that the longest pass play of the season, a 56-yarder to Beckham, ended in a fumble that Florida recovered for a crucial momentum swing.
Boone has got to be happy he decided to return for another season after flirting with a transfer in January. He's not lighting the league on fire, but he's proven to be Mettenberger's go-to guy with four of the receiving corps' seven touchdowns. His stupendous diving touchdown against A&M was the best pass play against SEC competition this season.
Clement and Jacobs have proven surprisingly reliable as safety options in the passing game, and they're contributions to run blocking are invaluable. But we've known from the beginning that they were never going to be threats to make plays -- they've combined for just seven receptions for 48 yards.
The bottom line: If Mettenberger is going to step up, he needs his receivers to take the step with him. There's no telling how much better the quarterback's 56.6 completion percentage or 177 yards per game would be if not for the drops, fumbles and miscommunications on route running. Grade: C
The breakdown: Miles said Wednesday night that Williford should be ready to return to the lineup against Alabama after missing several weeks because of a concussion, although he has yet to practice. Turner has been excellent on the right side next to Alexander, as the youngsters have excelled to pave the way for back-to-back 200-yard rushing games after the debacle against Florida.
Hopefully the injury woes are behind the Tigers -- it's hard to fathom how much worse they could get. Chris Faulk has been gone for the year since Week 1, Dworaczyk has missed part or all of several games with knee problems, Lonergan has had issues with back spasms, and Alex Hurst is still missing in action because of personal issues. And that doesn't even factor in Williford's concussion.
Despite all of that, the line has reshuffled and bounced back from the ugly 42-yard, four-sack performance against the Gators. The ground game eclipsed 200 yards against both South Carolina and Texas A&M, and the Gamecocks and Aggies combined to sack Mettenberger just three times in those two games.
The bottom line: Things have gone so wrong for this unit that it reads almost like a comedy of errors -- or a tragedy of some sort. The Keystone Cops come to mind with regard to how absurd it's been. All that said, more often than not the line has protected its quarterback and paved the way for big rushing games. Hard to argue with that. Grade: B+