The clearest image of trouble for LSU is a football spiraling, descending, dropping into the hands of Alabama wide receiver Devonta Smith, who, in full sprint, has found himself all alone in the open field.
Those who tuned in for Alabama's 41-0 demolition of Mississippi State on Halloween night saw this image twice: first, when Smith weaved past a defensive back for a 35-yard score, then, again, when the deep-threat receiver beat the same defender on a 53-yard touchdown.
The Crimson Tide's passing attack produced four plays that went for more than 30 yards against Mississippi State. Meanwhile, the Alabama defense shut out Mike Leach's "Air Raid" attack for the first time in the head coach's career — the same Bulldogs offense that set a Southeastern Conference record 623 yards passing in a 44-34 win over LSU in the season opener.
Each explosive play happened while Alabama's most explosive player, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, watched from a golf cart on the sideline, nursing a season-ending ankle injury he suffered on a kickoff return the game before against Tennessee.
If there was any evidence that Alabama's potent offense will be slowed by the loss of Waddle, it didn't show up Saturday night in Tuscaloosa. The nation's top scoring offense (among teams that have played multiple games) once again scored more than 40 points for the fifth straight game.
Today, No. 2 Alabama (6-0) ranks first nationally in plays of longer than 90 yards (1) and over 80 yards (2). They rank third in plays of longer than 70 yards (3). Fourth in plays of over 60 yards (4).
You get the idea.
"We still have too many weapons," said John Metchie III, Alabama's third leading receiver. "We have weapons everywhere, and I don't think with one player (out) that (defenses) can really change their whole scheme."
LSU has been rearranging its defensive scheme ever since the season began, mostly because it has been repeatedly surrendering the very kind of explosive plays that Alabama produces in bulk.
The Tigers (2-3) rank in the bottom 10 nationally in three explosive play categories: plays of 20-plus yards allowed (38), plays of 30-plus yards allowed (19) and plays of 40-plus yards allowed (11).
The root of the problem has been identified by head coach Ed Orgeron and defensive players for weeks: blown coverages in the secondary; confusion among players about what kind of play is being run and where exactly to be; the failure to execute the play's responsibilities even when the play call is clear.
"Yes," Orgeron said Monday, "it's been a common factor in every game."
These are the defensive lapses that left Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill wide open on wheel routes and receptions in the flats. They're the communication breakdowns that left a Missouri wide receiver uncovered on a 41-yard touchdown on a post route. They're the gap responsibility issues that gave up 4.7 yards per rush against Auburn, including six runs of 10-plus yards.
Missouri and South Carolina and Auburn each exposed holes in LSU's rush defense, which surrendered a total of 555 yards rushing in the three games at 5.2 yards per carry.
Auburn easily ran between the tackles, Orgeron said. They were more physical than LSU's defensive front, which couldn't stop counters, break through double teams, hold gaps against pulling offensive linemen.
This also spells trouble for LSU against Alabama and its star running back, Najee Harris, who already has 714 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns and averages 5.8 yards per carry. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior had five rushes for more than 10 yards against Mississippi State, when he rushed 21 times for 119 yards.
LSU's defense ranks 99th nationally in total defense with 478.6 yards allowed per game — an "unacceptable" number, Orgeron said, that goes against a defensive tradition that has only given up more than 400 yards per game one other time in history. That was back in 1998, when the Tigers surrendered 408.7 yards per game in the first of two straight losing seasons under former coach Gerry DiNardo.
Orgeron mandated his new defensive coordinator, Bo Pelini, shore up the mistakes by simplifying his 4-3 base defensive scheme. The defense seemed to be making strides in the 52-24 win over South Carolina — when LSU had five sacks, seven tackles for loss and a pick-six — and the success carried into a scoreless first quarter against Auburn.
But the defense's performance unraveled in the face of LSU's three turnovers, and Auburn scored touchdowns on 99-yard and 75-yard drives on either side of halftime.
Auburn didn't do anything LSU wasn't expecting. Orgeron said some of the plays Auburn scored on, LSU had run the same exact plays in practice with the same exact defenders who got beat in the game.
Could LSU's defensive game plan get any simpler?
"We simplified about as much as we can simplify to be honest with you," Orgeron said Monday.
Another issue emerged: if LSU's defensive game plan was simple, it was also predictable.
"If you play the same defense, people are going to have a game plan against you," Orgeron said. "And you better be good, or you better have some adjustments. And that's the point where we're at. I think we need to make better adjustments for our players, and I think our players, once they know what to do, they've got to have better eye discipline and execute."
Alabama has only scored more than 35 points in Tiger Stadium once in history: a 42-0 win over LSU nearly 100 years ago on Oct. 10, 1925. Last season's 46-41 LSU victory in the No. 2-vs.-No. 3 showdown showcased an upward trend of offense between the two programs, and the Tigers will need to improve defensively to ensure this year's game won't be lopsided.
"We've got to get it fixed," Orgeron said. "We've got to find a way to get it fixed."