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Friday (night) preview: LSU

Something's got to give.

What’s at stake: This is the biggest game of the year…

… or at least from an analytical standpoint, it is. As I went into a little more detail in with last night’s article, the winner of this game will most likely win the SEC West, and go to the SEC Championship Game and perhaps beyond.

For Auburn, a win Saturday, followed by LSU holding serve at home against Alabama in a couple of weeks, would mean that Auburn would likely have the West clinched before taking the trip to Tuscaloosa.

For LSU, a win on Saturday would put them in the driver’s seat and they could have the West locked up before their season finale in Little Rock.

For the loser, any reserved national championship hopes are dashed, and, really, so would be any hopes at getting to Atlanta. With the tiebreaker looming, they’d be thrown into what would essentially be a two game deficit, which would almost certainly be too much to overcome this late in the season.

Basically, this is an elimination game.

It’s a battle for sole supremacy between the two lone undefeateds in the SEC. It’s #4 and #6 slugging it out, unbeaten against unbeaten, last man standing take — almost certainly — all.

And, again, on top of all that, it’s Auburn vs. LSU.

When LSU has the ball

While people are going to pay to see the matchup on the other side of the ball, it’s still going to be really interesting when the LSU offense and the Auburn defense are on the field.

LSU’s starting junior running back Stevan Ridley is built like a power back and runs downhill and low to the ground, but has eyes enough to find holes and follow blockers. It will be interesting to see how he matches up against Bynes and Stevens, who prefer to play against straight-at-you running backs just like him. Of course, as the SEC’s second leading rusher, he’s also the best runningback the Auburn defense has faced all year (including Marcus Lattimore, who was playing in his first road SEC road game when he came to Jordan-Hare.) LSU is a run-first team, making Ridley the primary component of their offense. Slowing him down is of up-most importance for Auburn; make their quarterbacks try to beat us.

Speaking of, the most interesting thing about the LSU offense is, obviously, their two quarterback system; Jarrett Lee is the pocket passer, Jordan Jefferson the scrambling runner.

What immediately comes to mind? The colossal failure of Chrodi Torns, the two-headed, quarterback monster (kitten?) / colossal failure of ’08.

But this situation is not that situation, and, honestly, LSU has handled this the right way.

Sure, they would like for one of those players to step up and take the reigns as the full-time guy; as that hasn’t happened, they run both quarterbacks and they do it well. They’ve committed to the two quarterback system, they practice with the two quarterback system, and with it they’ve maximized the potential of both.

They’ll rotate the two of them systematically, with each taking over different drives throughout the game. There’s really no telling when exactly we’ll see who, with the exception of a handful of constants: Jefferson is listed as the starter so we’ll probably see him on their first drive of the game, they like Lee better than Jefferson in two-minute situations, and Jefferson usually goes in, no matter whose drive, down near the goal line to give them a run/pass option.

One of the trickiest things about defending their system is that the defense can get lulled to sleep, thinking that Jefferson in the game means an automatic run, or that because Lee is means a throw. Jefferson is perfectly capable of throwing it over their heads when they expect run, and Lee just has to hand it off to Ridley while they expect pass.

Auburn’s defense has to remain disciplined and prepared for anything, no matter who is in the game, if they want to prevent the big play… which, incidentally, both quarterbacks will be looking for every play that they’re in with their limited minutes.

LSU’s biggest receiving threat is senior wideout Terrence Toliver, who makes his living on yards after the catch. It will be up to the stitched together Auburn secondary to hit him, wrap him up, push him out of bounds, jump on him, slow him down, anything to get this guy on the ground. It’s tough enough for a regular secondary, let alone one that’s taped together and hanging on by a thread like Auburn’s.

If they play him right, Toliver will probably be LSU’s best weapon Saturday; Auburn’s secondary won’t stop him from getting his hands on the ball, but what they can do (hopefully) is wrap him up after the catch, bring him down, and prevent him from making any big plays out of nothing.

Meanwhile, the front seven are going to have to shut down Ridley and the LSU running game. Again, he’s the type of back that Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens, and Eltoro Freeman (back from injury and back in the rotation) excel against, and Auburn is going to need them and the rest of the line backing corp to step up if they want to slow LSU down. As it seems to be almost every week, the defenses primary focus will be to shut down the run.

If Auburn can do those things, and contain Jefferson, there isn’t much that the LSU quarterbacks will be able to do to win the game for their team. LSU is going to score some points, and the Auburn defense is going to bend, but in a crucial game like this, and especially where points are going to be a premium on the other side of the ball, the Auburn defense can’t afford to break.

When Auburn has the ball

And now, without further ado, the matchup we’ve all been waiting for: the SEC’s best offense against the SEC’s best defense.

The leader of the LSU defense is junior cornerback and preseason Heisman darkhorse Patrick Peterson, who will be first round material come May. His stats have somewhat fallen off this year, and he hasn’t had an interception for several weeks, but he is as advertised. Darvin Adams isn’t going to be able to jump over him and take the ball away from him like he did to those Kentucky corners, which means Auburn is going to have to look to someone else to make a big catch when it needs one.

Up front, the Bengal-Tigers are led by senior defensive tackle Drake Nevis, who is just downright nasty (with a name like Drake Nevis, he pretty much has to be). He’s just as good as Nick Fairley: both were named alongside each other in in Sports Illustrated’s Midseason All-American team.

But, unlike Fairley, Nevis is more of a pass rusher out of the defensive tackle position than a run stuffer. He’ll consistently draw double teams from Pugh and the guards, and, unfortunately, he’ll draw some holding flags, too. And, if and when he does get through the line, he’s on the short list of guys out there that can and will take down big Cam Newton by himself. Stopping Nevis and his pass rush is going to be a big key for the Auburn offense, and it will definitely be the toughest test the offensive line will face all year.

Right behind Nevis is senior preseason All-SEC middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, who is yet another defensive leader for LSU. He’s tough, physical, and quick, and very smart at how he plays the position. He played at all three linebacker positions throughout the season last year, so he knows the different roles on defense and the different ways to attack an offense. He’s quick, and can get from sideline to sideline in a hurry; expect to see him all over the field on Saturday.

If Nevis and Sheppard in the front seven weren’t enough to give the Auburn offense fits, they’re going to have put up with a myriad of blitzes thrown at them from LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis. Trooper Taylor, who spent four years on staff with Chavis at Tennessee, said earlier this week that Chavis might “drop a blitz out of a plane” on Saturday. They do run a very complicated, very pro-style defense. They like to blitz a lot, and they like to move their safeties all over the field, and the offense can expect to see some schemes that they’ve never seen before.

But while they like to mix in different formations and give different looks, LSU isn’t that much more blitz-happy than Arkansas was, and Auburn’s offense handled those blitzes fairly well. The LSU defense is pretty fast — really fast, in fact — but they’re not quite as fast as Arkansas is with their 4-2-5 scheme.

Instead, the key to this game on this side of the ball, as it always is with LSU, is going to rest in strength and physicality. The offensive line is going to have to push Drake Navis back, the running backs are going to have to get past Kelvin Sheppard, and the rushing game is going to have to rush straight in and through the teeth of LSU’s blitzes and schemes.

When LSU went down to Gainesville a few weeks ago, the most effective plays for Florida all game were the Wildcat runs with Trey Burton. You better believe that Auburn is going to line up to run it right down their throat with Cam and the option, and you better believe that LSU is going to be ready for it. It will be up to the offense to get off the ball, push them backwards, and outplay the best defense in the SEC.

If Auburn is able to do these things — if they are be able to prove that they aren’t a finesse team, and that they’re a “downhill, run-first, wear the defense out” offense like Gus Malzahn says they are — then they have a great chance to put points on the board.

When special teams is on the field

Patrick Peterson will show us what all the hype is about if we give him the chance. He has two punt returns for touchdowns this year, and he’ll be ready to bring one back if Steven Clark isn’t able to hang his punts high, or kick them out of bounds. Peterson muffed one away against Florida, but those are few and far between. He’s one of the best in the business, and we can’t afford to live dangerously.

On the flip side, their kickoff coverage team has allowed a touchdown earlier this year, so it’s possible that Demond or O-Mac could come up big once again on a kickoff return.

Their field goal kicker is senior Josh Jasper, who is just about as good as they come. Between him and Byrum, two of the best kickers in the conference will be on the field Saturday.

Intangible reason for worry: This is going to surprise you.

No, it’s not the voodoo magic or Les Miles’s hat or anything like that.

It’s last week’s game, where LSU defeated McNeese 32-10.

While you might think that that’s a good thing — that LSU showed signs of weakness and struggled out the gate with a lesser opponent — that’s probably not what actually happened. Truth is, whenever a good team struggles with the McNeeses of the world, that almost definitely means that they were looking ahead all week. The entire McNeese week, they were watching Auburn film and preparing for Auburn, which means they’ve had two weeks now of preparation for Saturday’s game.

And on top of that, they’re using a loophole this week to get in some extra practice.

Intangible reason for confidence: Leadership.

Like Mike Dyer said at the beginning of the week: “[The upperclassmen] were a little more focused today, which made everyone’s focus a little more high. Seeing the juniors and seniors on the same page, going until the whistle blows, running off the field and all these things today. It was kind of like, ‘Hey, this is real serious right now.’ They’re just making sure we all know that.”

While the outside world has been up in all kinds of chatter — from Heisman trophy talk, to Roszell Gayden leaving the team, to the rumor that some Florida players could come up to watch the game on their bye week — you haven’t heard a peep from anybody connected to the team talking about anything other than LSU.

It seems as if Auburn has their ears plugged, and that they’re locked in and focused, and you can credit that to the leadership on this team.

It was around this time last year that Auburn bounced back, and beat Ole Miss handily in Jordan-Hare after a three game losing streak; a victory owed to the leadership on that team for pulling the squad together and regaining their focus. A year later, it’s up to the leaders on this team to keep the group together and hold their focus, and earn another much-needed win.

With guys like Josh Bynes and Zac Etheridge — who learned from guys like Antonio Coleman and Ben Tate — stepping into senior leadership roles in their final season, yeah, that’s my intangible reason for confidence.

Three wishes

1. Win the turnover battle. We simply can’t go giving the ball away to LSU and make it any easier on their offense than it needs to be, and, conversely, turnovers on the other end can turn into game breaking swings with the hurry-up no-huddle wearing down the opposing defense.

2. Hit. I only say that because we know LSU is going to. Auburn/LSU is, year in and year out, one of the hardest hitting games in college football. Like always, Auburn has to match them blow for blow.

3. Prevent the big play. We just can’t have it happening, on either side of the ball. We can’t let Jefferson loose on some long touchdown run, we can’t let Toliver break free after a short pass, and we can’t give them turnovers inside our own territory. Auburn has to make it hard on LSU, and make LSU try to beat them straight up.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss — however it comes.

Your bottom line

Like I said, this could easily be the biggest game of the year, and one of the biggest wins for the school since, well, the 2004 LSU game.

Which is why it’s so exciting — Auburn has a really good shot at winning it.

Don’t write off this LSU team for a second. They’re one of the most talented, deepest teams in the country, and one of the most resilient as well. They’re not going to be affected by the crowd at Jordan-Hare, and they’re not going to be affected if they’re down a few scores early. They’re going to battle, for four quarters, and they’re going to give us their best shot.

We just have to hope that we give them ours.

In previous weeks, it’s been all about schemes and philosophies and who matches up well against who.

On Saturday, it will one-on-one, man-to-man, at every position, and it’s going to be the toughest team — not the best, not the deepest, not the better coached, but the toughest — that wins the game.

And I think that’s Auburn.

And so, in one final attempt to carry on tradition and put up a picture of Johnny Carson followed by a score prediction of tomorrow’s game …

Auburn 27, LSU 17

Photos via here and here.

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