The 2016 LSU versus Auburn showdown should be called what it is, the “SEC Hot Seat Bowl.” Both head coaches, Les Miles for LSU and Gus Malzahn for Auburn, are under fire for underperforming early in the season and poor production from their quarterbacks. If LSU harbors dreams of making the College Football Playoff, another loss cannot be taken. For Auburn, an SEC West title is still possible no matter how unlikely it may seem.
On paper Auburn has had a tougher path to upset the fan base. A 19-13 loss against Clemson in the season opener, which seemed like a moral victory, quickly lost its shine when Texas A&M came to town, winning 29-16. Auburn’s defense held strong against the Aggies, forcing four field goals on five red zone trips with very little help from the offense.
LSU looked sharp against a visiting Mississippi State team last week through three quarters. The Tigers went into the locker room up 23-0, but unfortunately left their offense in there for the second half. The Bulldogs started chipping away at the lead, making the game interesting by the fourth quarter. What should have been a walkover victory became contentious once the coaching staff decided to become more conservative on offense, one of the reasons Miles is on the hot seat.
LSU at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn +3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Growth of LSU QB Danny Etling
Etling, a transfer from Purdue, got his first taste of SEC action as a starter, hitting 19 of 30 passes for 215 yards and a touchdown versus Mississippi State. Perhaps more important than a high completion percentage or 300 yards passing, Etling was 6-of-9 on third down plays covering 96 yards with a score and didn’t throw an interception in the game. Efficiency and being on target when needed is something LSU has not had since 2013. Etling is the game manager Les Miles has needed to go along with his stout defense and overpowering run game.
Will Etling continue is growth as a quarterback adding a much-needed strong fourth quarter to his resume?
2. Downfield Passing of Sean White
White will be looking over his shoulder against LSU, not just because of the Tigers’ terrifying pass rush but because Gus Malzahn may be quick with the hook in favor of dual-threat option John Franklin III. White moved the ball early against Texas A&M but once the Aggies adjusted he became very average in the second half, finishing 18 of 27 for 126 yards. Franklin can run, finishing with 47 yards on nine carries against A&M, but does not have the passing skills Auburn needs. Franklin was just 4-of-8 for 37 yards.
It's a tough order against LSU, but White will have to stretch the field for Auburn’s offense to run as Malzahn intends. Play calling is part of the equation, but White cannot dink and dunk against LSU for a win. Keeping everything in the box will limit Auburn’s productive running game.
3. Battle in the Trenches
Winning in the SEC starts up front. For Auburn, its offensive line up the middle is very strong with Alex Kozan, Austin Golson and Braden Smith. Considering the line has only given up five sacks in three games with both Clemson and Texas A&M in the mix, this unit is tough. Auburn is averaging five yards per rush and 262 per game. LSU’s rushing totals are similar, 5.2 yards per carry and 182 yards per game.
LSU’s defense has limited the opposition to 103 yards per game on the ground, Auburn 149. LSU has been better against the pass, allowing an average of 222 per game to Auburn’s 252. Both teams are doing a fair job on converting third downs – LSU at 43 percent, Auburn at 41. The difference in the game could come down to third and long when the pass rush is unleashed. Which quarterback will be able to convert in those situations?
With the teams evenly matched in the run game and on defense, Danny Etling seems to be the x-factor trending in a positive direction between the two teams. Kerryon Johnson (278 yards rushing) and Kamryn Pettway (275) are a dynamic running back duo capable of carrying Auburn, but LSU has the same in Leonard Fournette (285) and Derrius Guice (183).
The same cast of characters met in Death Valley a year ago with LSU holding home field 45-27. Auburn’s defense is better this year, so expect a tight one unless turnovers change the complexion of the game.
Prediction: LSU 24, Auburn 17
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.