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Playoff spot unlikely if LSU can't break its pattern of mid-game lulls

BATON ROUGE, La. -- If Les Miles can concoct a way for his team to play every quarter like it plays in the first quarter, perhaps the playoff buzz surrounding LSU will have merit. But if the Tigers can’t quit falling into lulls after their blazing-hot starts, losses are almost certainly ahead for Miles’ team.

It has already become a bizarre pattern for the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 SEC), with the same general theme playing out in three of their four games. Jump ahead early and look like they’re laying the foundation for a blowout win; then a mid-game stumble where the opponent pulls back into contention; and finally doing enough in the end to leave with a victory.

“It’s something that you see, definitely, but we’ll take a W whenever we can,” defensive lineman Christian LaCouture said after Saturday’s 44-22 win against Eastern Michigan, a team LSU was favored to beat by 45 points. “Whatever we’ve got to do.”

It was excusable when LSU had these issues in its season-opening 21-19 win against Mississippi State. The Tigers hadn’t played a game yet, but they still dominated early before penalties – another early headache for LSU – took some points off the board and gave the Bulldogs an opportunity to rally. They nearly pulled off the comeback, missing a game-winning field goal try in the closing seconds.

LSU’s more recent wins against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan – teams that occupy the No. 68 and 118 spots in ESPN’s Football Power Index – were more problematic. The Tigers wound up winning those games by 10 and 22 points, but they allowed both overmatched opponents to creep back into games in which they had no business competing.

Eastern Michigan trailed 17-14 in the second quarter and 30-22 in the fourth before Leonard Fournette’s running and two late takeaways helped seal the LSU victory. Again, this is a team LSU was favored to beat by nearly seven touchdowns.

“I think a lot of times we put that on ourselves, just maybe not executing or getting penalties or those sorts of things,” fullback John David Moore said. “We definitely can look at the film and see areas where we can improve, which is great knowing that we have areas to improve and it’s not just that we’re being outplayed.”

Actually, that’s a more debatable conclusion than you might realize if we remove LSU’s exceptional first quarters from the equation.

The Tigers are arguably the nation’s fastest-starting team, outscoring the opposition 49-0 in the opening period. No other FBS team has held opponents scoreless in the first quarter, and only five teams have outgained opponents by a wider margin. But games have a way of going sideways for LSU after that.

LSU is still outscoring its opponents in quarters 2-4, although by only a 95-86 margin. The Tigers are allowing 20.25 points per game after the first quarter, which ranks 72nd nationally. They’re outgaining opponents after the first quarter, but only by a margin of 12.25 yards per game.

In short, they have been fairly ordinary after the opening period – and they realize they have to fix that problem with the toughest games on their schedule still ahead.

“We’ve got to fix that. We can’t let that happen,” linebacker Deion Jones said. “We’ve got to have our foot on the pedal the whole time, no breaks. That’s something we’ve got to work on.”

Let’s be clear. LSU is good enough to belong in the playoff conversation. The Tigers are loaded with talent at every position and have yet to trail in a game. In fact, they rank first in ESPN’s Game Control metric and have had an average win probability of 80.1 percent across their first four games, ranking fifth in that statistic.

Obviously they have rarely been threatened by lesser opponents, and maybe they won’t be in Saturday’s visit to South Carolina (2-3, 0-3), but the Tigers still have four games remaining against top-15 FPI teams: No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Ole Miss, No. 7 Texas A&M and No. 14 Florida. No. 23 Arkansas won’t be a pushover, either.

If the Tigers can’t get past their attention-deficit problems – dropping passes, committing penalties, giving up the occasional long pass after a coverage breakdown – it’s possible that even Fournette’s otherworldly running ability won’t be enough to prevent future losses.

The Tigers have to start putting together full games and not keep opening fast and sputtering across the finish line. That won’t be good enough against the Alabamas of the world, and they are well aware of that reality.

“We have to work on being consistent all four quarters,” safety Jamal Adams said. “Just do your job. Everybody doing their job and everybody doing the right assignment. Everybody in the film room. Everybody putting in the extra hours, just doing the little things. I think the little things is what separates you.”