The Florida-Tennessee game, which takes place Saturday in The Swamp at Gainesville, is getting a lot of publicity, as well it should/ After all, it pits the No. 2 Gators vs. the No. 4 Vols and the winner will represent the Eastern Division in the SEC Championship Game and increase its chances of playing for a national championship in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Florida or Tennessee will have one more road block on its way to California and that is a date with the winner of a Saturday night showdown in Baton Rouge, La. That game pits No. 22/24 LSU and No. 22/25 Auburn and is being considered by many to be an undercard to the "real" championship game taking place in Florida even though Auburn has already beaten the Gators.
Kickoff for the battle of the Tigers is set for 6:45 p.m. at LSU's Tiger Stadium and will be nationally televised by ESPN. This game means just as much to each Tiger squad and it should show on Saturday. Here is this week's What to Watch:
Auburn has to find a way to score points at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night and the best case scenario would be to score them early and often to get what should to be an overly rowdy LSU crowd out of the game. To get the Bengal Tigers fans singing the blues early like Auburn did in its 41-7 win in 1999, the Tigers will need offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone to part with his conservative ways and allow redshirt freshman quarterback Jason Campbell to stretch the field with a vertical passing game.
Mazzone has been scrutinized throughout the season for his play calling, but hinted this week that the Tigers would try to exploit a weak LSU secondary. That has to be music to the ears of AU receivers Deandre Green and Tim Carter
Damon Duval has more to do with Auburn's field position than any of his other Tiger teammates. The multi-dimensional redshirt junior handles all of the Tigers' kicking chores. After getting off to a tremendous start to the season which saw him drill game-winning field goals in three-consecutive games, the Lou Groza Award finalist has struggled.
Duval has made just four of his last nine field goal attempts. His punting average of 43.9 is among the best in the league, but his placement and hang time that have been inconsistent this season costing the Tigers valuable field position. The Tigers will need a consistent Duval in each facet of the kicking game this Saturday to have a shot at returning to Atlanta.
Auburn will also need Duval to try and keep the ball away from LSU's dangerous return man Dominick Davis. The shifty junior returns both kickoffs and punts for LSU and does both quite well. He has a punt return average of 13.0 yards and has returned one for a 71-yard touchdown against Ole Miss. His kickoff return average is not eye-opening at 19.8, but his ability to go the distance has to be respected by the AU special teams. Davis' longest kickoff return went for 59 yards.
LSU knows all too well how a kickoff return can change the momentum of a game. It happened to them last year at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium when Carter raced 100 yards for a score after the Bengal Tigers had cut the home team's lead to 20-17 in the third quarter. That sent the visitors into a tailspin and Auburn went on to win 34-17. LSU will likely kick away from Carter this season putting the pressure on AU cornerback and return man Roderick Hood to be a playmaker.
When this game was originally scheduled for Sept. 15, Auburn was 1-0 in conference play and LSU had not played a conference team. The stakes were not nearly as high as they will be when the ball is kicked off Saturday. The winner moves on to Atlanta while the other will be watching the SEC Championship game on CBS next Saturday.
LSU has never represented the Western Division in the championship game while Auburn has done it twice. The home team would love to earn its first trip to Atlanta by beating a team that embarrassed the Bayou Bengals 41-7 two years ago at Tiger Stadium then celebrated by smoking victory cigars on their home turf.
While LSU was a preseason favorite in the SEC West, Auburn was not expected to be in this position. Well, that is what many prognosticators thought at the beginning of the season. Then the Tigers jumped out to a 4-0 start in league play, including a shocking 23-20 win over No. 1 Florida, making many of those prognosticators look foolish. Auburn had to win just two of its last four games to clinch the West title outright, but the Tigers hit a road bump in Arkansas and fell flat on their faces at home to in-state rival Alabama. They managed to sandwich an impressive win at Georgia in between to keep some respectability, but many of those same prognosticators are sticking with their preseason thoughts and expecting Auburn to continue its season-ending slide in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers have shown it is not a wise decision to count them out. See the Florida game. Now, after taking five days off over the Thanksgiving holiday to regroup and clear their heads from a 31-7 loss to Alabama, this rejuvenated group of Tigers is geared towards defending their SEC West title.
There is plenty to play for Saturday and it should show on both sidelines and in between the chalked lines.