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Friday Preview: LSU

The enemy awaits.

The Good Guys: In a way, Saturday’s game could provide some relief to the Auburn faithful, as it brings about the conclusion of the brutal four-game stretch that they’ve been dreading since January 11. With an upset victory in Columbia, and in holding serve last week at home against Florida, Auburn has navigated it better than many predicted going into October.

The bad news is that it all comes to a head on Saturday, when Auburn faces their toughest challenge of the month, and most likely the entire season, when they travel to play the No. 1 ranked LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge.

A skilled opponent. A fierce defense. A frenzied atmosphere. It could easily become an overwhelming scenario for a young Auburn team. If Auburn is going to have any chance in this game, they’re going to have to ignore all of that, and see only the opportunity that is in front of them.

Lost in the wash of the glory of last season and in the expectations of years to come is the position that Auburn is in today—on Saturday they’ll be returning to the classic underdog role that makes college football so grand.

The best part about competing in major college football, and in this league especially, is that you don’t have to be undefeated, you don’t have to win championships, and you don’t have to be better than your opponent, besides on any given day, to make history.

That’s the opportunity Auburn has. Going in, all the Tigers can do is give their best bid at the monumental upset.

If they fall short? Just come home and get ready for Ole Miss.

The Bad Guys: It seems like so much more than a year ago that Auburn was in this same position as LSU is in now.

Eight weeks into the 2011 season, LSU remains undefeated and untied, and in sitting atop the BCS rankings, controls their own destiny to the national championship.

LSU has a couple of big games remaining on the schedule, but as of now the Bengal-Tigers are just trying to fight their own complacency, and find ways to continue to win in the toughest conference, and toughest division, in all of college football.

They can’t afford the slightest slip-up, either. While they managed to win it all in 2003 and in 2007 with a loss (or two), they almost certainly won’t have that opportunity in 2011, with teams like Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Boise State all having viable cases to play for the crystal football.

In recent weeks LSU has thrashed middle-of-the-road conference opponent such as Florida and Tennessee, all of whom were just as set on upsetting LSU as Auburn will be on Saturday. LSU has separated themselves from the pack, and will wish to continue to prove themselves against solid, ranked conference opposition tomorrow.

All the while, the Tiger Bowl features the same Auburn/LSU matchup that has for the last decade represented the pinnacle of play in the Western division of the Southeastern Conference. As present circumstances would have it, Saturday’s game could be one of the last of such contests.

Either way, neither of these hated rivals want to lose this game.

When LSU has the ball: I’d say that the key for Auburn’s defense would be to pressure LSU’s redshirt senior quarterback Jarrett Lee, but that just might be impossible.

LSU’s pass protection has been stellar this season allowing just five sacks on the year, which is good for tops in the SEC and one of the best nationally. Auburn (who has, for comparison, allowed 14 sacks this year) will be going after him with a pass rush that has only recently come into form, ranking in the middle of the league with 11 sacks this season.

If Auburn can’t find ways to out Lee under duress, he’ll have a chance to get into rhythm with his talented receiving corps, led by veteran junior Reuben Randle, who has five touchdowns this season. He’ll also try to get the ball in the hands of highly-touted freshman receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who already has 22 catches on the year.

Behind a veteran line starting two seniors, two juniors, and a sophomore, odds are Lee will have plenty of time to get the ball out of his hands. The challenge for Auburn will be to play back and see what their secondary can do defensively once it’s in the air.

Normally, Auburn wouldn’t have the choice to play back at all against a bruising ground game like LSU’s, but as you already know, reports are swirling that LSU’s leading rusher Spencer Ware has been suspended for the game along with a couple of his teammates. Stepping into Ware’s place first will be redshirt sophomore Michael Ford, who has six touchdowns on the year to his own credit coming in relief. Auburn will also see a healthy dose of speedy sophomore Alfred Blue. Neither are as big or will provide the same physical presence as Ware does, but Ford in particular should have no troubles stepping into Ware’s role and running between the tackles.

With an offensive line this talented, LSU will still find a way to run the football, but you can’t just replace a guy like Ware, who has averaged 18 carries a game for them, on such short notice without missing a beat. Meanwhile, Auburn’s front seven has played well against the run in recent weeks, which would make one think that LSU is going to have to beat Auburn through the air.

Auburn’s gameplan defensively on Saturday should be–as insane as it sounds in a series as physical as Auburn/LSU to play back and trust their front seven to keep LSU’s inhibited running game in check, while trying to make plays in the secondary and hoping Jarrett Lee plays like Jarrett Lee.

Unfortunately for Auburn, Jarrett Lee hasn’t played like Jarrett Lee at all so far in his senior campaign. But if you’re the Tigers, the best chance you have at slowing down the LSU offense would appear to be to make him work for everything he gets, and try to throw him, and the entire LSU offense, off of their game.

When Auburn has the ball: Also unfortunate for Auburn is that they’re going to have to score some points in order to win on Saturday. It’s going to be tough to do that against this LSU defense, who, make no mistake about it, is as advertised.

Luckily, the LSU defense won’t be at full strength as defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon will be suspended along with Ware, according to reports.

That’s good news for Auburn, because in years past, LSU’s defense has always relied on key leaders at focal points of the defense to make plays when necessary and help bring their respective units to playing to their level. Last season, it was Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard, and Patrick Peterson they couldn’t do without. This season, one of those leaders is Tyrann Mathieu.

LSU still has its leaders at other positions on the defense. Redshirt sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery has become a playmaker on the defensive line this season, following a year that earned him Freshman All-SEC honors.

Meanwhile, senior Ryan Baker has been a rock for the Bengal-Tigers at the linebacker position, and has logged 27 tackles despite missing a game earlier this season.

But the best place for the Auburn offense to attack will be the LSU secondary, where the proud LSU defense will be down two men.

Clint Moseley is in a pretty bad position to be making his first career start, against No. 1 LSU in Baton Rouge. But it could be worse; Tyrann Mathieu could be playing.

Auburn’s best chance at putting points on the board will be through the air, meaning the Tigers are going to need Moseley to play with fire and with that “gunslinger” / Guslinger mentality that the coaches have described. Auburn could also use a return from Emory Blake and/or Trovon Reed, both of whom are questionable to play with injury.

Auburn can’t play to protect Moseley and avoid mistakes. If they don’t play to win Saturday, they’ll be overwhelmed by LSU before the first quarter is even over.

Meanwhile, the lingering trend all season has been Auburn’s inability to put points on the board away from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and they definitely won’t be in Kansas any more when they step onto the field in Death Valley.

Special Teams: Mathieu was also LSU’s leading punt returner. Without him, Auburn could see Randle, Beckham Jr., freshman wide receiver Jarvis Landry back to return.

Junior cornerback Morris Claiborne is LSU’s kickoff return specialist. He housed one kickoff already this season, against West Virginia.

LSU’s punter is freshman Brad Wing, whose infamous touchdown run against Florida was called back two weeks ago. Their placekicker is junior Drew Alleman, who is 9-for-11 on the year with a long of 44 yards.

Reason for Worry: You would think that Auburn could come out of this October stretch better than ever, now with plenty of experience for their youthful players and having been in games on a big stage. But that isn’t usually how it works, and it wasn’t the case the last time Auburn went to Baton Rouge, when they got hammered by LSU on the back end of a three-game losing streak. Instead, then Auburn was more fatigued than anything, and after consecutive games against South Carolina, Arkansas, and Florida, you have to wonder how much gas these Tigers have left in the tank.

Reason for Confidence: As much as I mentioned the possibility of Auburn being overwhelmed in Tiger Stadium tomorrow, I don’t think it will happen. There are two teams in the Southeastern Conference that plan to earn their victories by demoralizing their opponents, and they’re both good at it. LSU is one; Alabama is the other. Neither can (to paraphrase) make their opponent quit when they’re playing Auburn. It’s nothing noble — Auburn just follows them too closely, and no one gives up on some of their biggest rivalry games that easily. Auburn won’t give up on the game tomorrow. They’ll give LSU their best shot. Auburn fans just have to wonder if their best shot is going to be good enough.

The Prediction

This should just be another victory for LSU.

These Auburn Tigers will have to do something very out of the ordinary in order to win in Baton Rouge tomorrow.

That isn’t to say that they can’t do just that. Auburn could come out tomorrow with a new passion that they’ve picked up somewhere this midseason, while LSU could play complacently and at a loss without crucial peices to their offense and defense. But that isn’t what anyone should expect.

Auburn people have good reason be excited once again about where the program is headed in the very near future. And, soon, they can expect the Tigers to be able to once again defeat top-flight teams in big-time games in electric venues.

But they’d be misguided to expect it just yet.

Auburn will fight for four quarters, whether the game is in doubt by then or not, and we’ll get a good look into this team and what exactly they’re made of. We’ll get to see a lot, but, barring a miracle, we’re not going to see a victory.

Here’s hoping for a miracle.

The Final Score

Auburn 16, Louisiana State 31

Photo via.

Related: I’m telling you there’s a chance.

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