College football fans are in for a treat on Saturday when SEC heavyweights LSU and Auburn meet in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Both squads are in unusual circumstances, meeting as unranked opponents for the first time since the 1999 season, but each is still hopeful for a shot at the SEC West title with Alabama lurking in the distance.
A trend is developing with LSU (2-2), one head coach Ed Orgeron seeks to put to rest after facing Auburn: losing a close one, then win in blowout fashion. The topsy-turvy nature of the season had the Tigers forgoing a home game against Missouri because of Hurricane Delta and switching venues to Columbia, only to walk away with a 45-41 defeat. An unscheduled bye came due to COVID-19 rules when Florida had to push their meeting with the Tigers to Dec. 12. The extra week of practice time paid off when LSU breezed past the visiting South Carolina Gamecocks 52-24. Has the proverbial ship been righted, or are more troubles ahead with a very young squad?
If Auburn (3-2) has been anything this season, it's lucky. The Tigers have benefitted from questionable calls by SEC refs in three games that have resulted in their victories. Last week, Auburn snuck out of Oxford with a 35-28 win against Ole Miss, sealing the deal on a 58-yard Bo Nix-to-Seth Williams connection with 1:11 left in regulation. With LSU on its level in SEC circles, will the favorable calls still come or can Auburn live and die by the proverbial sword on its own?
LSU at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -2
When LSU Has the Ball
With starting quarterback Myles Brennan out due to an abdominal tear, true freshman TJ Finley stepped into the spotlight. In his first collegiate action, Finley looked like a seasoned veteran, completing 17-of-21 passes for 265 yards with two scores, throwing just one early pick, and adding a rushing touchdown. Finley's play-calling and quick decisions kept his jersey clean, as he did not take a sack. Finley did a great job of distributing the ball to six different targets, but he kept feeding one of the conference's best, Terrace Marshall Jr. The junior wideout tacked on six more receptions, 88 yards, and two touchdowns to his resume in the Tigers' rout of South Carolina.
What had been missing from LSU's offense this season arrived at the right time last weekend when the ground game produced 276 yards and three touchdowns. Tyrion Davis-Price had his best game, carrying the pigskin 22 times for 135 yards with a score. John Emery Jr. jumped into the mix as well with 88 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
With underclassmen lining Kevin Steele's defense, Auburn has fallen way off of its pace from a season ago. The Tigers were one of the nation's best in 2019, limiting teams to 337.0 yards per game, but have allowed that to balloon to 400.8 per outing this season. The opposition's scoring also is up from 19.5 to 25.2 points per game. One of the failures has been against the run, with Auburn allowing nearly 60 more rushing yards per game (180.4, 12th in the SEC) this season. Both Georgia and Ole Miss went for more than 200 yards on the ground against these Tigers.
When Auburn Has the Ball
As the season hits the midway point for Auburn, the rushing attack has become the team's strength. True freshman Tank Bigsby has filled the role of lead back while Shaun Shivers has been hampered by injury, currently sitting third in SEC in rushing with 432 yards. After getting 14 carries in the first two games combined, Bigsby has logged 60 over the last three and produced 386 yards (6.4 ypc) and three touchdowns. When the offense needed him against the Rebels, Bigsby grounded it out going for 129 yards and two scores.
Against a troubled Ole Miss defense, Nix put together one of his better games of the season hitting 23-of-30 attempts for 238 yards with the touchdown to Williams. Nix also ended a 10-play drive in the second quarter with a four-yard rushing score. The downside to those numbers is that the only team to throw for fewer yards against the Rebels this season was Kentucky (151), a heavy-heavy-running team. The 221 passing yards per game in coordinator Chad Morris' offense is not going to cut it against the elite SEC teams.
Against a quality opponent, LSU put together its best all-around game on defense last week. The Tigers granted 403 yards of offense to South Carolina but did a great job on third down, holding the Gamecocks to just three conversions in 10 tries. Running back Kevin Harris, who is second in the SEC in rushing, went for 126 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries. Bigsby or Shivers will have to replicate that performance for Auburn to notch a win.
If LSU can keep up the effort on the ground as seen against South Carolina, offense vs. offense, Bo Nix and Co. cannot keep up. If TJ Finley falls into too many patterns, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will find them, but can his inexperienced unit exploit those weaknesses?
The luck for the "Gus Bus" runs out in this one.
Prediction: LSU 31, Auburn 21
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.