Marshall: AU vs. LSU the Big One in SEC West

Phillip Marshall analyzes the key divisional showdown with Auburn visiting LSU and looks at some upset specials across the SEC.

Recent history will not be on Auburn's side Saturday night at Tiger Stadium.

The Auburn-LSU series, bitter though it is, has seldom produced close games since Tommy Tuberville coached his first Auburn season in 1999. And that has usually been bad news for the visiting team.

Tuberville's first Auburn team won 41-7 in Baton Rouge, helping push LSU coach Gerry DiNardo out the door. Auburn won 10-9 in a classic defensive struggle last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium, taking the first big step toward a 13-0 record and the Southeastern Conference championship. Other than that, the home team has won when Auburn and LSU have gotten together. And it hasn't been close.

Courtney Taylor hopes to be a key player for the Tigers again in 2005.

At Jordan-Hare, Auburn won 34-17 in 2000 and 31-7 in 2002. At Tiger Stadium, LSU won 27-14 in 2001 and 31-7 in 2003.

Close games or not, it's been the biggest series in the West Division in the 21st century. The Auburn-LSU winner has played in the SEC Championship Game four times in the past five seasons.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has no good explanation for why games haven't been closer.

"It's just the way it's kind of gone, I guess," Tuberville says. "The buildup has always been pretty big because it's always meant something. There's no answer for it. Everybody goes and plays and the best team usually wins."

Outside of Auburn, the widely held opinion seems to be that the best team this season is LSU. The Bayou Bengals are favored by a touchdown. Because of the disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina, they are playing their first Saturday night home game of the season.

But despite coachspeak that makes LSU sound like a team filled with superhuman athletes, there is an air of quiet confidence around the Auburn football complex. After all, this is a team that has won 13 straight games against SEC opponents.

It would be easy to get carried away about the importance of Auburn's trip to Death Valley. But the truth is that it isn't a make-or-break game. Auburn could win and still not make a return trip to Atlanta. Auburn could lose and still get there.

What this game is, as much as anything, is an opportunity for the Tigers to laugh in the face of their detractors, to make a point to those who wrote them off as yesterday's news after a season-opening loss to Georgia Tech.

LSU certainly is talented enough to win a championship, though I don't buy the notion that its talent is on a far different level than the other contenders in the SEC. So far, LSU hasn't been consistent enough to win a championship. Turnovers and penalties have plagued the Bayou Bengals from the start of what, for them, has been the strangest of seasons.

LSU's scheduled opener against North Texas was postponed. Their game against Arizona State, scheduled for Tiger Stadium, was played in Tempe instead. Their game against Tennessee was postponed from Saturday night, Sept. 24, to Monday night, Sept. 26.

But the disruptions are over now. It's show time.

LSU beat Florida 21-17 last Saturday despite five turnovers and 11 penalties for 84 yards. It had four turnovers and 14 penalties for 133 yards in a 34-6 win over Vanderbilt. That won't work against Auburn, but something tells me it's not going to happen against Auburn.

I don't look for this game to follow the pattern of recent years and get out of hand. It is a game between two seemingly evenly matched teams. The edge, slight though it is, goes to the home team. LSU 24, Auburn 20.

Your fearless picker had a good day last Saturday, going 4-0. It might not be as good this Saturday, because I have a hunch this is going to be a weekend that shakes up the league.

You can call me crazy, and some people will, but I'm sensing a weekend of upsets.

Tennessee (3-2 and 2-2) at Alabama (6-0 and 4-0): A lot of Alabama fans have been waiting for this one for a long time. They blame Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer for everything from the high cost of gasoline to global warming.

To say the Vols are struggling on offense would be an understatement. Their running game is stuck in neutral and they're still not sure whether they want senior Casey Clausen or junior Erik Ainge under center.

Alabama sputtered badly in its 13-10 win at Ole Miss and should have lost. The Rebels' defensive line, experienced but not overly talented, got the best of Alabama's youthful offensive line. Tennessee's defensive line is also experienced. And it is very talented.

Alabama misses big-play receiver and kick returner Tyrone Prothro terribly. It has no one close to capable of filling that hole.

Fulmer has often been at his best when his back has been against the wall, and it is certainly against the wall now. I don't expect what is sure to be a wild atmosphere at Bryant-Denny Stadium to rattle Tennessee players. They've been there and done that.

Tennessee, its season on the line after starting No. 3 in the preseason polls, will come to play. Tennessee 17, Alabama 14.

Arkansas (2-4 and 0-3) at Georgia (6-0 and 4-0): Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is another coach with a penchant for rallying his team when the chips are down. And the Razorbacks, the best rushing team in the SEC, have caught a break. Georgia will be without both of its starting defensive tackles.

I'm still not sold on the Bulldogs. With the middle of their defense decimated, they could have a hard time dealing with the Arkansas running game. Will Georgia coach Mark Richt be willing to attack Arkansas' defense on the ground like Auburn did? That's not his way. In the super, duper upset special of the year…Arkansas 21, Georgia 17

Kentucky (1-4 and 0-2) at Ole Miss (2-4 and 0-3): It might already be too late to save Kentucky coach Rich Brooks' job, but his players don't know that. Despite almost beating Alabama, Ole Miss isn't too good to lose to anybody, including Kentucky. In another upset…Kentucky 24, Ole Miss 21.

Vanderbilt (4-3 and 2-2 at South Carolina (3-3 and 1-3): Vanderbilt got a lot of people excited with its 4-0 start, but things are rapidly returning to normal. South Carolina hasn't been able to knock off one of the SEC's big boys, but Vanderbilt isn't one of those big boys. The winner stays in the hunt for a bowl bid. South Carolina 38, Vanderbilt 27.

Houston (3-3) at Mississippi State (2-4 and 0-4): Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom says the Bulldogs will do some things differently on offense. That is certainly a good idea for a team averaging 14.2 points per game.

Houston probably should win this game, but the Bulldogs are due. Mississippi State 23, Houston 21.

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