Ahhhh, the Tigers rivalry. As you guys might know this is one of the more bizarre rivalries in college football. There have been wild finishes, burning buildings next door, games decided on interceptions returned for touchdowns, games decided by a rare penalty … Hell, we can even go back to the "Earthquake Game" in 1988 (I was there, the tremor occurred well after the winning touchdown was scored, but I digress). Can't wait to see what 2021 produces.
These two Tigers come into this one heading in opposite directions. Auburn is coming off a pair of disappointments, for different reasons. After a one-score loss in a White Out at Penn State, the Plainsmen struggled for three quarters and nearly faceplanted at home against unassuming Georgia State. LSU has rebounded from the UCLA loss and now won three straight. Last week, they went into StarkVegas and escaped with a 28-25 win.
Both teams face daunting gauntlets in the weeks ahead, so this could be considered a must-win for both.
No. 22 Auburn at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Network: ESPN
Spread: LSU -3.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Of course, we have to discuss the elephant in the room; who will be the quarterback for Auburn? Bo Nix, who threw for 300 yards and ran for 81 yards in last year's 48-11 woodshed job over the Purple and Gold Tigers, struggled mightily against Georgia State and was replaced by T.J. Finley, who ironically played for LSU last year. In fact, in that game against Auburn, he threw two picks, fumbled once, and was replaced by Max Johnson. Because of that, Finley pulled the old "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and decided to transfer to Auburn. Finley led the Plainsmen on a 98-yard game-winning drive against GSU, tossing a touchdown on 4th-and-9 to help them avoid an embarrassing loss.
So now who goes to Baton Rouge with the starting assignment? Well keep in mind, coming into this season, Nix has had a checkered past in road games. In his 11 career road starts he had hit just 54 percent of his passes, with 12 interceptions and a 4-11 record. At home, those numbers are 63 percent, one interception, and a 10-2 record. All this QB drama means that the running game — i.e., Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter — will be more important than any game this year.
One of the more interesting facets of this SEC West showdown is that Auburn and LSU are currently No. 1 and 2 in the country in tackles for a loss, with the Plainsmen making 43 tackles behind the line (including 12 sacks) and the Bayou Bengals making 42 tackles behind the line (including 18 sacks). Considering both offensive struggles, whichever defense can get their opponents behind the yard-markers more often will have a distinct advantage.
When LSU Has the Ball
Oy vey. This is going to sound like a broken record here because I brought up the same issue in last week's preview of the LSU-Mississippi State game; the ground game must take a step up. Head coach Ed Orgeron said this week, "We've got a lot of work to do in the running game. We can't be 2nd-and-10, 2nd-and-12." Only once — against FCS McNeese State — have they run for more than 100 yards, and even that was just 124 yards. The Tigers have had just four running plays of more than 20 yards this season and are averaging a paltry 2.9 yards per carry. Striking some kind of balance will be necessary against these other Tigers.
Meanwhile, the big-play passing game needs to keep clicking. The Tigers are fourth in the nation with seven passing plays of 40-plus yards. Kayshon Boutte continues to be one of the most dynamic big-play receivers in the country, bringing in 24 catches with eight touchdowns, which is tops in the country for wide receivers.
Also keep tabs on the red zone. LSU has been very efficient, making 12 trips inside the opposing 20 and hitting paydirt 10 times along with two field goals. Any coach in the country would take that success rate in a Baton Rouge second. Meanwhile, although Auburn is 24th in the FBS in red zone scoring, they did settle for four field goals and missed a fifth kick in the narrow escape of Georgia State.
Ya kinda gotta feel bad for these two programs. Before the Saban-at-Alabama era, the winner of the Auburn-LSU game won the SEC West Division title in six of the previous seven years. Those were the days, my friend. But the early 2000s have gone the way of the musical career of Britney Spears.
The four games from 2016 to '19 were all decided by five, four, one, and three points. Then came 2020. Last Halloween, the War Eagles posted an ugly 48-11 blasting on the Bayou Bengals. Something tells me the boys in Purple and Gold are going to remember that. But enjoy the win for now because a rough road lies ahead.
Prediction: LSU 24, Auburn 17
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.