The road less traveled

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Tallahassee, Fla., sits about two hours and change from Gainesville, a quick jog north from Gainesville on Interstate 75, then west on I-10.

For LSU fans making the road trip to Gainesville to see the Tigers play Florida every other year, Tallahassee is not a bad candidate for a stopover. It's not too far from Gainesville and, assuming Florida State isn't at home, offers reasonable rates on hotel rooms compared to Gainesville proper on a game weekend. On Friday and Saturday, more than a few purple-and-gold flags could be seen at roadside Tallahassee hotels.

The Florida capital is not just a stop on the way back to Baton Rouge, it was also an early stop on LSU's road back to national title contention, a stopover that happened Saturday night.

When No. 3 Florida State was upset at North Carolina State, it cleared one of the obstacles that stood between LSU and a return to national-title contention. Just hours earlier, LSU lost to Florida 14-6, so the news from Raleigh, N.C., was welcomed by Tigers fans even if they understandably lack confidence that their team is capable of taking advantage.

LSU fell from No. 4 to No.9 in the AP poll after the loss and lost control of its own destiny. But, as defensive end Sam Montgomery said, the road back to the top two is fairly well paved for the Tigers.

"The polls are fairly unstable," he said, "and we play a lot of high-ranked teams. So with consistent wins over the high-ranked teams, that could move us to No. 1, or No. 2 (by the end of the season)."

Easier said than done for the Tigers.

In its last three games against SEC defenses, LSU has managed one touchdown -- that against an Auburn team that fell to 1-4 by losing to Arkansas on Saturday. Against the Gators, the Tigers managed just two field goals and 200 yards and at times looked completely incapable of turning around its offensive fortunes.

It was reminiscent of the Tigers' struggles last year when they would go through long offensive droughts, most notably in managing just 92 yards offense during the BCS national championship game loss to Alabama. In the game before that, LSU couldn't earn a first down in the first half against Georgia before exploding with a big second half.

At one point in The Swamp, LSU went six straight possessions without a first down and the streak was only broken because of a personal-foul penalty against Florida.

Those are alarming trends considering who's coming to town next week: South Carolina, which moved up to No. 3 in both polls after routing what many thought was the best offense in the SEC, Georgia, 35-7 Saturday. Two games after that, the Tigers host top-ranked Alabama, perhaps the only team in the country LSU could play with a defense even better than South Carolina's.

In between, LSU plays No. 21 Texas A&M on the road. While the Aggies' defense may be more forgiving, the question in College Station will be whether the Tigers' struggling offense can score enough to keep up with what Johnny Manziel and company are able to produce for Kevin Sumlin's high-powered offense.

"We're all accountable," LSU running back Spencer Ware said. "The offense needs to pull its own weight. And that's what we're going to start doing now."

If LSU can sweep its next three games, the chances of returning to the national title hunt are pretty good. LSU was one of two top-5 teams to lose Saturday along with FSU, one of the teams that, had it gone undefeated, would have been difficult for LSU to surpass in the BCS standings.

History shows that upsets tend to happen and few teams make it out of the regular season without a loss. There are 14 unbeaten teams in the Top 25 and one is a mid-major (Louisiana Tech of the WAC) that won't likely be able to climb into the BCS race. LSU plays three more in Alabama, South Carolina and Mississippi State and could, if it keeps winning, see Florida again in the SEC championship game.

The rest face their own potential pitfalls. West Virginia has won two shootouts, but still has No. 6 Kansas State and No. 13 Oklahoma ahead. K-State has yet to play West Virginia and Texas. No. 2 Oregon would likely have to beat USC twice to get through undefeated. And it's unlikely any one-loss team would have a higher BCS ranking than a one-loss SEC champion.

So while LSU no longer controls its own destiny, it still has a pretty clear road paved for it.

Question is, can a team with an offense as anemic as LSU's do what it takes to claw back into the picture?