TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The final score, as it so often happens, was misleading. Alabama thumped LSU, 38-17, at home on Saturday to remain undefeated. The three-touchdown margin was, on the face of it, telling. The top-ranked Crimson Tide looked dominant and deserving of its lofty position in beating LSU so handily.
But when you're No. 1 in the polls, the stat sheet isn't the entire story. Not when the rest of the country is looking for a way to beat you.
And from what they saw from LSU's offense in the first half, the answer was there: Alabama, finally without a shutdown cornerback to rely upon, had trouble stopping the pass. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his tandem of talented wide receivers, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, gave the secondary fits.
Mettenberger completed 10 of 13 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown in the first half, including a perfect 3 of 3 on passes of 15 yards or more. Deion Belue couldn't stop it, neither could Cyrus Jones. Alabama's starting cornerbacks were, for the first time since the Texas A&M game, exposed.
"We weren't going to back down from Alabama," Mettenberger said. "We had a good game plan going, but we just weren't able to execute it."
The trouble in execution came primarily in the second half, though a key fumble near the goal line in the first quarter did rob LSU of a touchdown. Alabama got a field goal, and LSU coach Les Miles took time to note the 10-point swing early in postgame comments.
But the tenor of the game changed primarily in the third and fourth quarters, and it had more to do with LSU's inability to run the football than Alabama's ability to stop the pass. While the Tide was busy racking up yards on the ground, the Tigers were losing them, rushing for minus-16 yards in the second half. According to ESPN Stats & Info, those 11 second-half rushes contributed to minus-7.1 expected points.
"The first half I didn't think we did a very good job," UA coach Nick Saban said. "We mis-executed a couple pressures, busted a couple things. They played not loose. I told them at halftime, 'Look guys, you've got to cover them. We're not playing split safeties all the time and keeping somebody behind you. We need to pressure the quarterback, we need to affect the quarterback and we're going to have more of an attack mode and you're going to have to cover them.' "
Jones and Belue settled in some in the second half, limiting the deep ball, but they were aided greatly by the front seven stuffing the run and pressuring Mettenberger in the pocket. When LSU's offense became one-dimensional, Alabama's defense thrived.
"I think [Jones] did better as the game went on," Saban said on Monday. "I think he got more confident as the game went on. We obviously did a better job of covering them in the second half than we did in the first.
"We also did a better job of pressuring the quarterback, which I think is also something that goes hand in hand with getting off the field on third down and playing a little better."
But did Jones do enough to secure the starting job opposite Belue? Bradley Sylve, Eddie Jackson and John Fulton have all tried their hands there this season and none has separated himself from the pack.
"We were pleased with the way Cyrus played," Saban said. "We have a lot of confidence in Bradley Sylve, if we can get him healthy. There's certainly going to be competition at every position with guys that have played well for us in the past."
The hope, for Alabama's sake, is that competition breeds improvement in the secondary. Another first half like the one the Tide played against LSU could be the difference between a win and a loss down the road.
The final score and the stat book might not reveal a glaring weakness, but the bottom line is that the back end of Alabama's defense needs work. It's good, but it's not great like in years past. The question, though, is whether it's good enough to win another national championship.