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Friday preview: LSU

BRING. HIM. DOWN.
BRING. HIM. DOWN.

First, a word: Screw you, Kentucky.

Seriously, screw you. Ask me, straight-up, what’s my favorite Auburn series, and it’s not even that close these days: Auburn-LSU. You mileage may vary, but for me,there’s too much riding on the Iron Bowl to really enjoy it until it’s finished with; on the flip side, there’s not enough genuine bad blood with the Dawgs to take it to that extra level of spicy (plus, those deflating 2006 and 2007 losses were both the most miserable point of those respective seasons).

But Auburn-LSU? Oh, it’s spicy. They hate us and hate us good, and yeah, though I’m not the sort of fan to revel too much in other fans’ misery, there’s not a lot more satisfying about Auburn football than shutting up those batter-fried motor-mouthed oh-look-we-spell-an-o-sound-“euax”-aren’t-we-special jerks for a while. I think most SEC teams get the coaches they deserve: the ‘Bama fans that coud give a crap about the school or anything that’s not crushing the rest of the league get Saban, the levelheaded kinda-whitebread Georgia fans get Richt, Vandy gets the quiet and cerebral Johnson, South Carolina has Spurrier but the late-era version whose reputation and mouth is a little big bigger than his game, etc. And hoo boy did LSU get the right coach when it hired a loose-lipped seat-of-his-pants ADD madman like Miles, who just like his fanbase boasts a kind of crazy that’s almost endearing viewed in the right light, but a lot less so viewed close up.

So there’s that. There’s also the fact that this series produces nothing but classics: it’s been six years since it was decided by more than a touchdown, and if any rivalry anywhere has produced a better four-year stretch of games than Auburn-LSU did from 2004-2007, I sure as hell haven’t seen it. And even last year’s game, which retroactively had its stakes and quality dramatically diminished by both progams’ off-years, still contained more than its fair share of drama.

And for all of that, I’ll be perfectly honest: I haven’t spent much time at all thinking about LSU, nowhere near as much as I did West Virginia and Tennessee earlier this season in the run-ups to those games. Losing a home game to a team like Kentucky naturally focuses the attention backwards–what went wrong?–rather than forward (what’s happening next?).

And the result is that here it is, Friday afternoon, and even the freaking LSU game feels like a random middle-of-the-season SEC game in terms of my anticipation. Pins and needles, come back to us!

So, yeah, screw you Kentucky. You ruin everything.

What’s at stake: For Auburn, well, there’s not really too much lost in the event of a loss: the Tigers are just striving for bowl positioning, a winning record, and good-old-fashioned pride at this point, and with two more chances to nab a seventh win ahead of them a road loss to the No. 9 team in the country isn’t so damaging.

However, Auburn does have a lot to gain with a win. Even more than the huge swell of swagger that would come with a huge road upset like this one or the gigantic feather in Gene Chizik’s cap, Auburn would be sitting at 6-2 and right in the middle of the SEC’s vast non-Alabama-non-Florida pack: just one victory over either Ole Miss or Georgia would very likely send Auburn on to one of the three New Year’s Day bowls or the Chik-Fil-A. That would be a hell of a final destination for the Chiznick in his first year, and it means that Auburn ought to play Saturday like it has nothing to lose and everything to gain–because it does.

As for LSU, no doubt they’d like to head to Tuscaloosa Nov. 7 with a shot at winning the SEC West via tiebreaker; a loss pretty well ends those dreams and hands the division to the Tide. At home, coming off of a bye, facing a team whose offense is as suddenly toothless as Auburn’s, they can’t afford to drop this one.

When Auburn has the ball

Honestly, who the hell knows.

OK, Auburn should be able to make some kind of hay on the ground. That No. 8 ranking in total offense is legitimately deceiving at this point, given Todd’s struggles and the hyperdrive pace of those first five weeks, but ranking 6th in the country in yards-per-rushing attempt? Even after going a week without a run longer than 18 yards and in which the opponent could call “run” on 23 of 26 first-down plays? That’s no fluke. LSU’s been better than their No. 55 national rush defense ranking or their middle-of-the-pack status in the SEC–since the weird 12 a.m. central game up in Seattle, everybody else they’ve played has been held below their season per-carry averages–but Auburn’s good enough on the ground that they should top 4 yards a carry again and have the chance to score some points if they get anything out of the passing game.

So: will they get anything out of the passing game? LSU ranks towards the bottom of the league in pass defense and allowed decent-to-good days for Jake Locker, Joe Cox, and the Tebow Child, so if Todd somehow returns to competence there’s some hope here, despite the presence of safety Chad Jones, one of the few true Very Bad Men in this conference.

Want even better news? LSU ranks dead last in the SEC in third-down conversions allowed. Here’s the flip side, though: Kentucky’s next-to-last, and that didn’t help us last week, did it?

The bottom line is that if Auburn can get the passing game back to the 6-7 yards an attempt range and use it convert at least a few 3rd-and-5’s, 3rd-and-6’s, the run game has enough potential to power Auburn to the 24-point, 27-point plateau again. The 500-yard fireworks are gone for good, I’m afraid, but as I said this morning, Auburn’s not that far away from competence.

When LSU has the ball

Auburn has zero reason to be afraid. Really.

Los Otros Tigres rank a stunning 112th in total offense, and if some of that is quick games with few total plays–they jump to 93rd in yards-per-play–it’s not all that much a product of schedule. Sure, it’s tough playing against Florida, but the other five LSU opponents rank 24th, 59th, 69th, 79th, and 106th in total defense. In yards-per-play, Auburn’s defense has been very similar to Mississippi St.’s and Georgia’s: the two sets of Bulldogs limited LSU to an anemic 4.8 yards per-play and a total of 36 offensive points. Remember: the last time Auburn went on the road to face an offense Florida had mostly shut down, up in Knoxville, they fared pretty well defensively.

The key will be, you guessed it, stopping the LSU run. LSU’s a fairly sorry 89th in total rushing, but that’s largely a product of their terrible pass protection–they’re 101st in sacks allowed. When Jordan Jefferson gets a pass off they’re not that bad–64th in YPA, in fact, despite ranking 104th in total passing yards. They just don’t throw all that often, and look long when they do–the result being big plays both in their favor (to receivers like LaFell and Tolliver) and against (in the forms of sacks). It will be absolutely key for Auburn to stay sound in their pass rush–they can get to Jefferson and make some big plays, but Auburn’s been gashed by quarterback scrambles all season and Jefferson has a ton of ability to make plays with his legs.

Nonetheless, forcing Jefferson into the pocket and taking our chances onhim being unable to find receivers in a secondary I think still has a lot of potential (despite the problems in the Arkansas game)–or getting sacked–is still much preferable to letting Charles Scott run wild, as he did a year ago in J-Hare. Scott’s been the best thing LSU’s had going the last two weeks and if Auburn can shut him down (as Miss. St. did), Gary Crowton hasn’t shown yet that he trusts Jefferson enough to take on the burden of moving the offense. LSU’s more likely just to keep plugging Scott into the line and hoping for better things.

One last thing: LSU is a dreadful 111th in the country in convering redzone possessions into touchdowns. As with Kentucky and Tennessee, if Auburn doesn’t hand their opponents short fields, they should be able to keep them mostly out of the end zone … and if LSU boasts much more potency in the air, their rushing attack isn’t as explosive as either the ‘Cats’ or Vols’. A 44-point meltdown a la the game in Fayetteville–or even the 31-point, 500-yard shredding at WVU’s hands–just isn’t in the cards here.

When special teams are on the field

I don’t want to talk about it. Kickoff coverage wasn’t disastrous but hardly looked “fixed” against Kentucky; kickoff returns have gone back to accomplishing little; punt returns are still a success if they’re not a fumble; and Clinton Durst has repaid my post-Ball St. faith in him by going completely into the tank. On top of all of that, special teams breakdowns led directly to Auburn’s losses on their last two trips to Baton Rouge, and figured prominently again last year. Meanwhile, LSU boasts the always-dangerous Trindon Holliday at returner, and even placekicker isn’t an advantage for Auburn: Josh Jasper is 9-of-10 on the year.

In other words: anything other than game-altering disaster here is a cause for (a minor) celebration.

Intangible reason for worry

Like all SEC teams (save Vandy, which is playing 12 games in 12 weeks), LSU has one bye week this year. They had it last Saturday. Huzzah!

Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the game will be held in Baton Rouge, where Auburn has lost four straight and hasn’t emerged victorious since Tubby’s First Shocker, the 41-7 “Cigar Game” beatdown that was the beginning of the end for Gerry DiNardo. That was a loooooong time ago.

Intangible reason for confidence

Well, there’s this to be said for the Kentucky loss: extra week of preparation or no, this game just isn’t as big–and LSU’s not likely to be quite as focused–as it would have been if Auburn had handled the ‘Cats. There might just be an element of surprise here in Auburn’s favor.

Also–Auburn lost on their last two trips to Baton Rouge, but those were both total coin-flip games: the first was the J**n V****n game, and the second was the last-second pass to the end zone. In the event of a close game, I daresay that Auburn is mathematically due for a break down there.

Three Wishes

1. No “swing points.” LSU escaped Starkville by virtue of two plays and two plays only: an interception return for touchdown and that incredible punt return by Jones. If Auburn can avoid handing out easy touchdowns like those, LSU’s red zone troubles should keep the score manageable.

2. Chris Todd converts on 75 percent of his 3rd-or-4th-and-5-or-less attempts. This isn’t asking for too much, is it, really? Maybe after last week–when he converted 16 percent–it is, but still.

3. Two turnovers forced. I’m hoping that Auburn’s just been saving up the last few weeks–since the Ball St. game, Auburn’s only claimed two total turnovers and one of those was the fumbled gift from the Vols. It’s time to start making big plays again, guys.

Success is / Failure is: A win or a one-possession loss capable of convincing us the Ole Miss and Georgia games are still within reach / a two-possesion loss or the kind of hideous 17-10 loss in which Auburn’s lone touchdown comes by fumble return and the Auburn offense shows no improvement.

Your bottom line

Until last week, I actually really liked Auburn’s chances in this game–LSU was and is dreadfully overrated. They got outgained at Washington. They should have lost in Starkville and were outgained again, badly, this time by a team Auburn pulverized. They slogged past Vandy and UL-Lafayette in unconvincing fashion. Despite looking better in the box score, they could have very easily lost to Georgia–just a week before the Vols knocked the Dawgs into next Tuesday. Then they rolled over at home to the Gators in a way neither Tennessee nor Arkansas did in Gainesville. There’s just no evidence in any of these performances that LSU is anything more than a completely, utterly average SEC team–and I believed Auburn’s offense made them a little better than that.

Well, watching that offense score just seven offensive points in 60 minutes has naturally tended towards a bit of a re-evaluation. Not of LSU, who I believe all of the above about. But of Auburn, who until/unless Todd returns to form just can’t be relied on to put anything meaningful on the scoreboard. For a team with confirmed issues on defense, that’s, well, a problem. A problem that means Auburn isn’t even an average SEC team until it’s fixed–with all due respect, average SEC teams don’t lose at home to a Kentucky team without its starting QB.

All it takes, though, is one halfway decent performance by our quarterback and Auburn suddenly becomes much, much more than that. I can’t help but feeling that despite the venue, despite the bye week, this game sets up well for Auburn–LSU is the heavy favorite, the No. 9 team in the nation, and they just don’t deserve to be. Those teams usually end up getting taken down a peg–I compared this LSU team to 2006 Auburn earlier this week, and I fully believe they’ve got their Arkansas/Georgia games (or something with the similar emotional impact, at least) coming to them eventually.

And I’ll say this much: if Todd is back to anything approaching his early-season self, that game will happen this week.

But I don’t see it happening, not the way he played last week, and not down there. It’ll be close, competitive, sure–LSU’s not the kind of team that going to run Auburn out of Tiger Stadium. But visualizing a victory on the road against a better team than the one Auburn just lost to at home, especially when they have the advantage of the bye week, is too hard. I want to believe. I guess I’ll just have to settle for being surprised. Sorry.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

LSU 24, Auburn 17.

Unless Todd is resurrected. In which case …

Auburn 24, LSU 20.

I like that a lot better.

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