GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The suspicion that LSU might not be quite the power it was a year ago started in August when Tyrann Mathieu, the Tigers' game-changing cornerback, was dismissed from the team.
Truth be told, the moment things really got off the rails was likely weeks later, a few days after the season opener, when LSU lost left tackle Chris Faulk, the team's best offensive lineman, for the season.
The Tigers' offensive line is not what it was with Faulk, as evidenced in Saturday's 14-6 loss to Florida in which the Tigers were unable to protect Zach Mettenberger. The offense could not sustain a drive and allowed the defense -- brilliantly talented even without Mathieu -- to get gassed on a muggy day.
LSU finished with a season-low 200 yards, managed eight first downs and was on the field for a mere 50 plays, while its tiring defense was left out there to try to toe the line for 70 plays.
"There isn't too much this offense would say it did well today," LSU coach Les Miles said.
It's become a trend for the Tigers against SEC-quality defenses. In its last three games against SEC opponents, including the BCS championship game loss to Alabama, the Tigers have one touchdown and 18 points, after managing two field goals against the Gators.
"The defense, they played great," LSU running back Spencer Ware said. "The offense needs to pull its own weight. We didn't do it today."
After a promising opening drive for 64 yards that led to a field goal, LSU went six possessions without a first down, then added a seventh in which it failed to get a first down without the aid of a Gators penalty.
When LSU finally got a first down on a 56-yard pass from Mettenberger to Odell Beckham Jr., Beckham fumbled it away at the end of the play.
It was perhaps the most frustrating moment in a disheartening day for the LSU offense.
"We just have to keep plugging away," Mettenberger said. "We played hard tonight. We just need to execute better."
The question is what LSU's post-Faulk offensive potential really is. After right guard Josh Williford was lost to an injury in the second quarter, LSU was left with freshmen Vadal Alexander and Trai Turner on the right side of the offensive line. LSU gave up four sacks to a team that had five in its first four games, and the Tigers could not sustain the run.
That's not a one-time problem for the Tigers, who have given up 15 sacks in six games.
When he had time, Mettenberger was 11-for-25 for 158 yards, numbers that should have been better if not for four dropped passes. Drops have been an issue all season for the Tigers.
"I don't know," Mettenberger said of his receivers. "I just have to keep going to them."
Here's the scary possibility for the Tigers: Perhaps the offensive line is what it is. Without an NFL talent like Faulk at left tackle, maybe LSU has to choose between being not physically good enough, or too young, to be effective up front.
Similarly, perhaps this is what the LSU receivers are. With Rueben Randle gone, perhaps the Tigers just aren't as good as they've been.
The Tigers' defense is still elite without Mathieu. Florida abandoned the passing game after taking five sacks in the first half. In the second half -- as LSU continuously failed to move the chains -- the Gators' found something with a misdirection running game and used it to wear down a tiring Tigers defense on a hot day.
"We needed more stamina," LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery said. "Maybe we need to work on our cardio more."
Or, maybe it's just proof that even a great defense can't be left on the field all day.
The assumption in the offseason was that the offense, with a new, strong-armed quarterback in Mettenberger, would cure some of the woes that haunted LSU last season. A more high-powered passing attack would replace the numerous big plays the defense, led by Mathieu, would come up with a season ago to bail out an offense with a tendencey to stall.
That hasn't happened. LSU can't protect Mettenberger, who will sometimes make bad decisions. The receivers drop passes, or fumble the ball away.
"There's no excuse," said Mettenberger, whose interception was his sixth turnover of the season. "We just have to execute better and it starts with me."