A battle of Tigers is set for Saturday afternoon at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as Auburn hosts LSU in a key SEC West showdown in Week 3. Both Auburn and LSU picked up big-time non-conference victories in Week 1 and hope to ride the momentum into conference play. While there’s still a lot of football left, and Mississippi State or Texas A&M are both squarely in the mix, the winner of this LSU-Auburn showdown is likely to emerge as the biggest threat to Alabama atop the SEC West.
Auburn started its season with a 21-16 victory over Washington and blasted Alabama State 63-9 in Week 2. Coach Gus Malzahn’s team has been trending up since last year. The Tigers defeated Georgia and Alabama in the regular season and claimed the SEC West title. Thanks to a standout defense and an All-SEC candidate at quarterback in Jarrett Stidham, Auburn is primed for another run at the CFB Playoff. However, there are question marks for Malzahn that remain through the first two weeks of the season. The biggest concern is a revamped offensive line, which struggled in pass protection and run blocking in the opener against Washington.
Just like Auburn, LSU picked up a huge non-conference victory in Week 1. Behind a stout defense and a timely offense, the Tigers handled Miami 33-17 in Arlington, Texas. Coach Ed Orgeron’s team defeated Southeastern Louisiana 31-0 in Week 2 but struggled to get the offense on track. The road trip to Auburn is the start of a difficult SEC slate for the Tigers. Following a home game against Ole Miss on Sept. 29, LSU goes to Florida on Oct. 6 and hosts Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama in its next three contests.
LSU holds a 29-22-1 series edge over Auburn. LSU won 27-23 in Baton Rouge last season, while Auburn claimed victory in the 2016 matchup at Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU has not won at Auburn since 2012.
LSU at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 15 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Auburn – 10
Three Things to Watch
1. LSU’s Offense
Building standout defenses hasn’t been a problem in Baton Rouge, but the offense needs to take a step forward for this program to consistently challenge Alabama and earn a spot in the CFB Playoff. Coach Ed Orgeron hired Matt Canada from Pitt to be his coordinator in 2017, but the two coaches never meshed. Veteran Steve Ensminger called the plays in Orgeron’s interim stint in 2016 and took over the coordinator job after Canada’s departure. Ensminger promised to improve the passing game and got a huge lift when Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow committed to LSU.
Through two games, the jury is certainly out on LSU’s offense and it faces a huge test this Saturday against Auburn. LSU recorded 296 total yards (4.6 per play) in the opener against Miami and posted 335 (6.1) against Southeastern Louisiana last week. While those numbers aren’t bad, the Tigers are only completing 47.7 percent of their passes and only two completions went longer than 30 yards. Of Burrow’s 151 yards last week, 40 of those came on one play. Burrow’s passing yardage hasn’t been prolific, but then again, LSU hasn’t needed to throw to win. Running back Nick Brossette has rushed for over 100 yards in back-to-back games, and the defense isn’t allowing much to opposing offenses. LSU’s offensive line has also been a source of concern. This unit has allowed four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss through two games. This group has to provide better protection in order to win on Saturday.
The need to pass and the improvement of this unit will be under the spotlight this Saturday against Auburn. Malzahn’s defense is one of the best in college football and is giving up just 12.5 points a contest and 4.7 yards a play. Coordinator Kevin Steele has a deep front seven at his disposal, and cornerback Jamel Dean was one of the SEC’s top cover options headed into the 2018 campaign.
So far, Burrow has been careful with the ball and in complete control of the offense. However, against Auburn’s defense this week, it’s likely the junior is going to be required to throw more in order for LSU to win. Is Orgeron’s offense ready to take a big step forward in a tough environment? Saturday’s game will be telling for the LSU offense.
2. Auburn’s Offensive Line
As mentioned previously, this unit was the biggest preseason concern for coach Gus Malzahn and coordinator Chip Lindsey. The Tigers lost four key seniors – Austin Golson, Casey Dunn, Braden Smith and Darius James – from last season and returned two players who were part-time starters in 2017. Left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and guard Mike Horton were the building blocks for line coach J.B. Grimes to start the reloading process this offseason. Grimes landed UMass graduate transfer Jack Driscoll to anchor the right tackle spot, with junior Kaleb Kim penciled in at center and Marquel Harrell at the other guard position.
Through two games, it’s safe to assume this unit has room to grow. In the opener versus Washington, Auburn managed only 147 rushing yards on 45 attempts (3.3 per carry) and gave up two sacks. The front five bulldozed Alabama State’s defensive front for running lanes in Week 2, as the Tigers racked up 429 rushing yards and six scores. Last week was clearly an improvement for this group, but the challenge in Week 3 is significantly tougher.
LSU will counter Auburn’s revamped front with one of the SEC’s top defensive fronts. Linebacker Devin White is one of the best in college football at his position, with Glen Logan, Breiden Fehoko, Rashard Lawrence, Neil Farrell and Justin Thomas in the trenches. Linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson was lost for the year due to injury in the opener, but the Tigers have depth here. Jacob Phillips ranks second on the team with 10 stops, Ray Thornton has accumulated 1.5 tackles for a loss so far, while Michael Divinity and Andre Anthony are also key cogs at linebacker. And if necessary, LSU has the pieces at safety to be flexible and versatile with different packages. Cornerback Greedy Williams is one of the top cover men in college football, and the return of cornerback Kristian Fulton has added another standout to the secondary.
In addition to the talented personnel, LSU coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the top assistants in college football. The Tigers are giving up only 74 rushing yards a game and just 4.1 yards a play so far in 2018. Also, LSU is tied for second nationally with nine sacks and has allowed only one play of 40 yards or more. Aranda won't have any trouble dialing up looks with extra pressure to test the Auburn defensive front. Can Aranda's defense stuff the Auburn ground game and consistently put the offense into third-and-long situations, allowing the pass rush to get after quarterback Jarrett Stidham? Or will Auburn's offensive line step up to the challenge and not allow LSU to win the battle up front?
How far has Auburn’s offensive line progressed since the opener? We should find out this Saturday against a talented LSU front.
3. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham
It’s no secret both Auburn and LSU possess standout defenses. And in a matchup with defensive talent and the ability for both sides to dominate in the trenches, a couple of big plays on offense could be the difference. If that holds true, Auburn certainly has an edge on offense.
Quarterback Jarrett Stidham threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns in his first year with the program in 2017 and is off to a fast start in 2018. Stidham connected on 26 of 36 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown in the opener versus Washington and completed 6 of 11 passes for 113 yards and a score against Alabama State last Saturday. Stidham’s go-to receiver is senior Ryan Davis (10 catches in 2018), with Darius Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers in supporting roles. Freshmen Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams are also involved on the outside, while Will Hastings and Eli Stove are expected to play more as the season progresses after offseason surgery.
Considering the talent in the trenches for LSU, it’s tough to see Auburn establishing its ground game behind running backs JaTarvious Whitlow or Kam Martin. Could Auburn open it up early behind Stidham to keep LSU off balance?
Regardless of the gameplan, Auburn has a significant edge at quarterback with Stidham at the controls. The matchup against a standout LSU secondary won’t be easy, but big numbers aren’t necessarily needed for Auburn to win. If Stidham is solid and avoids big mistakes, it’s tough to see LSU’s offense generating enough points to win.
LSU enters its annual matchup against Auburn in a familiar position. Orgeron’s team was a touchdown underdog to Auburn and pulled off the upset in Baton Rouge. LSU is more than a touchdown underdog (10) and has to go on the road to face Auburn this year. However, while it’s a familiar position, it’s tough to pick a LSU upset. Auburn’s defense is one of the top units in college football, and a deep defensive line is likely to create problems for LSU’s offense. And in a tight game where a couple of big plays on offense might decide the winner, the experience and big-time arm of Jarrett Stidham is a huge advantage for Auburn.