Auburn vs. LSU: Complete Game Preview
There's always something in the air when these two teams meet.
Whether it's over on the Plains in Auburn or down on the Bayou in Baton Rouge, when the Tigers of the South get together, it's always a tough, teeth-and-claws kind of fight—and a spectacle for the rest of the world to see.
From the days when the rivalry was born of nothing but on-field successes, to the cauldron of spite and hate that is today, this series has given fans in the last 25 years just about everything they could expect from college football at its finest—from classic contests to top-10 battles, to outright bizarre occurrences.
There was the Earthquake Game, and the night the Barn burned. There was the Interception Game and the Cigar Game. There was 10-9 in 2004 and 7-3 in 2006. There was Demetrius Byrd's catch in 2007 and Cam Newton's run in 2010.
In fact, seven of the last nine games played in the series were decided by a single possession.
But recently, the rivalry has taken a tilt in favor of LSU, with the Bengal-Tigers winning five of the last six installments, including two blowout victories in Baton Rouge.
On Saturday night, the rivalry returns to Baton Rouge, where Auburn hasn't won since 1999—the aforementioned Cigar Game.
The No. 6 LSU Tigers are built for another run at national title contention in 2013, and they seem set to clear an easy hurdle over a rebuilding Auburn team led by first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
But this is Auburn-LSU—stranger things have happened in this series.
First, the basics:
Time: 6:45 p.m. CT
Place: Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.
Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network, LSU Sports Radio Network
Spread: LSU -17½, via Vegas Insider consensus.
Auburn Keys to Victory
Slow Down the LSU Running Game
It's certainly easier said than done, but if anyone is going to derail the LSU offense this season, the formula starts with slowing down and containing the Tigers' running game.
Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee each bring a different skill set to the LSU backfield, and Auburn is going to have to play versatile on defense to have any chance of keeping them each in check.
It may be an instance of Auburn picking its poison, but if the orange-and-blue Tigers had a choice, they'd rather force Zach Mettenberger to beat them through the air.
Fly to the Football
In the first three games of the season, Auburn fans have had the opportunity to see new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense against several spread schemes. Now, Johnson's 4-2-5 will be on display against LSU's old-school, Power-I look.
Saturday will mark Johnson's first chance at Auburn to show off the advantages of the 4-2-5 against an offense like LSU's—most of which come from the athleticism Auburn will have on the field defensively and their ability to fly to the football. In theory, Auburn will have one of the smaller defenses that LSU faces in SEC play this season, as Johnson has traded off a third linebacker for a linebacker-safety hybrid in the 4-2-5. The emphasis for Auburn will be to follow through on plays, gang tackle and get all 11 to the football.
LSU's offense did well enough against Gary Patterson's 4-2-5 defense in the season opener against TCU, but the flexibility in the defense still allows Auburn to do plenty of things to maximize its potential on defense and show new looks to Mettenberger and the LSU offense.
Attack the LSU Defense Vertically
Offensively, Malzahn's downhill running game is going to have to shine Saturday for Auburn to have much of a chance of racking up points against the LSU defense. Against LSU's quick defensive front seven, the Tigers are going to have to run straight ahead, north and south, which means they'll need big days out of Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne between the tackles.
The same goes for Auburn's passing attack. The Tigers may be able to get away with a few every now and then, but lateral screens and long-developing pass patterns aren't going to work very often against the LSU defense, as TCU found out in the season opener.
Auburn's most effective passes Saturday may come on the edge, when the Tigers receivers match up their speed with the LSU secondary and simply go head-to-head.
LSU Keys to Victory
Pressure the Quarterback
Auburn's Nick Marshall is making his first road start at the Division I level—and he's doing it in Death Valley, no less.
One of the biggest criticisms of Marshall from his season in junior college last year was that he was too turnover-prone—throwing 20 interceptions and fumbling the ball eight times in 11 games in 2012.
Marshall has been solid in keeping possession thus far in an Auburn uniform, but if the LSU defense can get to Marshall and rattle him, turnovers could follow, which would allow the LSU offense to open the floodgates on the other side of the ball.
Auburn hasn't allowed a single score in the fourth quarter yet this season, which allowed the Tigers to pull away from Washington State and Arkansas State in the first two weeks of the season and come from behind against Mississippi State last week.
But if LSU is able to continue to pound away at the Auburn defense and wear them down late into the game, Les Miles' team could pull away late just as it did against TCU, when LSU scored three timely touchdowns in the second half en route to a win.
Saturday, the LSU Tigers need to finish strong, widen the margin and leave no room for any late-game magic from Auburn and the Malzahn offense.
Hold on to the Football
Turnovers almost cost LSU last season, in a tight 12-10 win over Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU fumbled the ball away twice in the 2012 game, once on the goal line when the purple-and-gold Tigers were going in for a score, and again when former Auburn Tiger and third-round NFL draft pick Corey Lemonier stripped Mettenberger to change the complexion of the game—turning a 9-0 LSU lead into a 10-9 Auburn lead going into halftime.
This year, that kind of carelessness with the ball could end up costing LSU. It would seem that if Les Miles' team holds serve, it has the talent to come away with a win on Saturday. But if they give away opportunities to Auburn, the orange-and-blue Tigers are eventually going to make them pay.
Auburn Players to Watch
The last time Auburn fans saw Nick Marshall out on the field, he was leading the Tigers on an 88-yard, last-minute touchdown drive to beat Mississippi State in come-from-behind fashion. Marshall was calm, poised, and on target—and that's exactly how Auburn fans want to see the quarterback perform Saturday against LSU.
How Marshall responds to the tough environment Saturday, and how his athleticism affects the game, will go a long way in determining how ready Auburn is to compete with LSU in Death Valley.
After two stellar performances by the Auburn running game to start the season, the Tigers finished with just 120 rushing yards against Mississippi State last week, leaving many to question whether the Tigers' three-headed monster of a rushing attack will be able to keep up the same output against elite SEC defenses.
Auburn has to have a big performance from its backs on the ground if it hopes to have any kind of a chance in a physical, smashmouth game against LSU. That begins and ends with Tre Mason, who is by far the most experienced in the Tigers' stable, the closest thing Auburn has to an every-down back.
For Auburn to have a chance, Mason must have a big day on the ground, grinding plays out between the tackles and breaking free for big chunks of yards on the outside.
Robenson Therezie and Justin Garrett
The focal point of Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense lies with the "Star" back—the linebacker-safety hybrid that operates as the defense's fifth defensive back. As Auburn attempts to slow down the LSU rushing attack, the "Star" back is one of the main pieces to the puzzle for the Auburn front seven, as he'll be challenged to fly to the ballcarrier and make initial contact.
That "Star" back is Robenson Therezie, who excelled at the position during the first two weeks of the season when Justin Garrett was out with an ankle injury. With Therezie taking over at the "Star," Garrett has been moved into the rotation at "Will" linebacker, as Johnson works to keep his best players on the field as much as possible.
Both will be crucial for the Auburn defense Saturday, as both will be asked to play up and defend the run, while also using their range and speed to play the pass when Mettenberger drops back to throw.
LSU Players to Watch
Odell Beckham, Jr.
Beckham has quickly become Mettenberger's favorite target in 2013, already catching 15 passes for 330 yards and four touchdowns. Beckham plays opposite of Jarvis Landry—who has pulled down 17 receptions for 246 yards and five touchdowns—and is the Tigers' deep threat, averaging 22 yards per reception.
The Tigers have also been known to hand the ball to Beckham on end-arounds just to get the junior in space.
Beckham and Landry combine for 32 receptions on the year through three games. The receiver with the third-most receptions for LSU has three catches on the year.
The buzz all around the South during fall camp was that LSU had a pretty good quarterback down on the Bayou—and that Mettenberger had finally developed here in his senior year into the quarterback he has had potential to be all this time.
So far in 2013, Mettenberger has lived up to the hype and exceeded expectations, throwing for 797 yards and nine touchdowns through three games, with a 65.2-percent completion percentage and no interceptions.
After starting his career at the University of Georgia and bouncing through junior college before arriving at LSU, Mettenberger is now under the tutelage of his fifth different offensive coordinator in five years—but he may have found the perfect match in new LSU offensive coordinator and veteran coach Cam Cameron.
Hill will make his second start of the season Saturday against Auburn, after serving a one-game suspension in the opener against TCU and playing behind Alfred Blue in Week 2 against UAB. Hill got his first start last week against Kent State, and the sophomore exploded for 117 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries against the Golden Flashes.
The sophomore will be a main focus for the Auburn defense all night—and unfortunately for the visiting Tigers, things won't be much easier when he's taking a breather. LSU's second all-around back, Alfred Blue, its power back Kenny Hilliard and its speed back Terrence Magee will all cause matchup problems for the defense as they rotate in and out of the game.
What They Are Saying
New Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is no stranger to LSU coach Les Miles and the kinds of teams he puts together at LSU. In his regular press conference on Tuesday, Malzahn told the media that he was preparing for a physical, smashmouth opponent in LSU, like always.
"We are playing a pretty typical LSU team. They are very good up front on both sides of the football. They have a lot of speed in all positions. Obviously, they have been very good on Saturday nights at home, so we definitely have our work cut out for us."
Across the way, LSU head coach Les Miles has been impressed with Auburn's preparation as a team, as he said in his weekly press conference released by Nola.com:
Auburn is a very quality team. Gus Malzahn doing a great job in preparation. You watch the teams play, they play hard. Just a very quality opponent and somebody that has done a great job. Their defense is big and strong. They are allowing 17 points and 433 yards per game. But it's probably not reminiscent of their abilities because they have talent and they are well coached and prepared. So they are getting better.
Meanwhile, Auburn's C.J. Uzomah, of recent fame for catching the game-winning touchdown pass against Mississippi State, told the Opelika-Auburn News that he's looking forward to the road trip—and a visit from Mike the tiger.
"They're probably going to put it right next to us as we're walking out," Uzomah said with a smile. "It's probably going to be roaring at us or whatever. That's going to make it all the more fun."
*Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
LSU Wins, 34-20
At this point, fans on both sides know that they're best suited to expect the unexpected when it comes to the Auburn-LSU rivalry.
But this year, Auburn just isn't ready to march into Death Valley and compete with sixth-ranked LSU.
Auburn just doesn't have enough pieces in place. Not yet—not by Saturday.
The visiting Tigers will have enough tricks up their sleeve to score on the LSU defense, and they may even make it interesting for a while, but LSU should pull away in the second half as its running game wears down the Auburn defense.
This game always marks an early-season test for both teams, and it always proves to be a measuring stick for both programs to see exactly where they stack up in the SEC West.
For LSU, Saturday's game will be telling in just how prepared LSU is for the week-to-week grind of the SEC schedule ahead, and whether or not the purple-and-gold Tigers are vulnerable to being tripped up along the way. For Auburn, Saturday's game will show Malzahn and his staff just how far or close their Tigers are from being where they want to be—that is, where No. 6 LSU is right now.
Several questions will be answered Saturday night as Malzahn and his young team take to the road for the first time and Les Miles and LSU look to defend Tiger Stadium in their SEC opener.
It could prove to be an interesting night in Baton Rouge, and like always, anything can happen.
But it would take a strange brew of voodoo for Auburn to come away with a win on Saturday.