How the Auburn Tigers fare in Baton Rouge on Saturday night will depend on which Tiger offensive personality decides to show up.
Will the coldly confident executioners who gunned down West Virginia with relentless precision swagger in or will the frigid and insecure victims who failed to perform against Kentucky and Arkansas stumble out of the gate?
Unfortunately for Auburn fans, the most likely personality to appear is the latter. The defensive issues that plagued Auburn in two losses are unlikely to be significantly improved in a single week of practice.
Auburn's crisis of identity on offense highlights the fragility of its early success. If the Tigers couldn't regain the magic at home, coming off a frustrating loss against a weakened opponent it is too much to ask for it to recapture its strut at night in Baton Rouge?
LSU has shown vulnerability. The Bengals should have lost to Mississippi State, should have lost to Georgia and will probably lose multiple games down the stretch. Ole Miss, Arkansas and Alabama are all legitimate threats to dump LSU and give the Les Miles doubters additional ammunition. They're the least-deserving top-ten team in the country by far.
But Auburn, at this point in the season, doesn't appear to have the tools to take advantage of the weaknesses the Bengals have exhibited. If you'd asked two weeks ago, before the current evidence was in, the answer might have been decidedly different.
There are two ways to look at Auburn's current situation.
One is that the Tigers are 5-2, about where most expected them to be at this point in the season.
Before the season if you'd told Tiger fans that the team would be 5-2 with a road win under their belts heading into LSU week, most would have said they'd be satisfied with that result.
The other is that Auburn has not improved on defense and regressed on offense over the past three weeks. That’s not what you want to see, particularly when the failures came in games that should have been easily winnable.
The problem is not the overall picture, but the way Auburn reached the cumulative result.
If you judge the Tigers only by preseason expectations, then you’d have to be satisfied. But expectations should change as the situation does. Do you blindly accept a lack of defensive improvement and an offense pinwheeling backward based on where you expected the Tigers to be prior to the season or should you evaluate where Auburn is today relative to the capability it showed in its first five games? Depending on which approach you take, you end up with two very different perspectives.
In evaluating a team or a coaching staff, you should be looking for signs of improvement at the very least.
Right now, the Tigers simply aren't living up to that standard. The team has, if anything, regressed -- and regressed by a significant margin -- over the last two weeks.
Auburn burst out of the gate with a revitalized offense that allowed it to mask and ultimately overcome defensive deficiencies.
Quarterback Chris Todd and running backs Ben Tate and Onterrio McCalebb all set offensive records as the Tigers rolled through five games. The Tiger offense, moribund a year ago, seemed completely revitalized in racking up unprecedented numbers.
The first cracks began to show against Tennessee. Drives that had resulted in touchdowns the first four weeks of the season were stymied. Auburn scored enough to win, thanks to clutch field goals by Wes Byrum, but the offense was not quite the juggernaut it had been.
Most pardoned that performance, citing Tennessee's highly ranked defense as a legitimate justification.
Overlooked was a dreary defensive performance late in the game that saw the Tigers nearly squander a commanding lead.
Then came Arkansas and a hideous offensive debacle. The defensive issues which had been an afterthought as the Tiger offense racked up points and yards became glaringly obvious. When the Tiger offense sputtered, the defense was completely unable to provide any support.
It was a complete reversal of 2008. Through the first eight games of the season, the Tiger defense bailed out an anemic offense time after time before finally collapsing under the strain. Because of the defense, Auburn was competitive in every game but one in 2008. That same defense in 2009 cannot hold its own.
A week later against Kentucky the offense was no better. For three quarters the defense performed reasonably well, but when the offense failed time and time again to sustain, it simply ran out of gas and was dominated in a grisly fourth quarter collapse.
That brings us to LSU.
The Bayou Bengals have struggled offensively this season. Never fear. As every team from Ball State to Tennessee has learned, the best way to give your offense a boost is to play Auburn.
If LSU head coach Les Miles has anything going on beyond PlayStation-esque button pushing under that high hat of his, the Bengals will feed Auburn a steady diet of the pounding Charles Scott.
Scott, the SEC's top returning rusher from 2008, has yet to break 100 yards in a game this season. That will likely change on Saturday.
Auburn's defense also showed weakness in tackling smaller, shifty backs like Noel Devine from West Virginia. LSU's Trindon Holliday fits that mold and could give the Auburn stopping unit fits.
Against Kentucky, all Auburn had to do was shut down the run game and force a quarterback making his first start ever to make plays. The Tigers couldn't do that. LSU is no Kentucky. There’s no reason to expect Auburn to be able to handle the Bengals any better than they did the Mildcats.
If the Auburn defense continues its trend, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson won't have to throw often, which is a benefit for the Bengals.
Mix a pound of Scott with a dash of Holliday and wait for the Auburn defense to wilt like a hothouse flower in the fourth quarter. That’s the recipe for a Bayou Bengal win.
The LSU defense is faster, stronger and more athletic than any Auburn has faced. That does not bode well for an offense suddenly searching for its identity.
When the LSU offense failed to produce against Mississippi State, the Bengal defense stepped up and won the game.
That's something Auburn apparently doesn't have the capacity to do.
Rumor is the Bengals will tempt fate and not don their traditional white jerseys for a night home game. An off-hand comment by Auburn head football coach Gene Chizik that his Tigers "would wear their road whites" sparked a meltdown on LSU message boards consisting of page after page of explanation of NCAA and SEC jersey rules and speculation.
Regardless of what color LSU chooses to wear, the color of the night for Auburn fans will be blue.
Unless Auburn's offense magically resurrects itself, the Bengal ground game will wear down the Tiger defense and win it in the fourth quarter. Tiger fans will be blue as a 5-0 start degrades to a 5-3 skid.
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