Coach Nick Saban's squad has won 12 of its last 13 games, the longest such streak for an LSU team since 1972.
Unlike last season when Rohan Davey and Josh Reed spurred the Tigers on with their offensive prowess, this season it has been the defense leading LSU to the top of the division. Linebacker Bradie James and defensive tackle Chad Lavalais are the catalysts of the leading statistical unit in the country, giving up just 217.4 yards and 11 points per game. Since losing the season opener 26-8 to undefeated Virginia Tech on the road, the Tigers have not allowed more than 14 points in a game and the most yards they have allowed this season is the 275 gained by the Gamecocks last week. All that spells a big challenge for the Auburn offense Saturday.
Lavalais, a 6-3, 289 junior, leads the down linemen in tackles with 38 on the season and has two sacks to go along with three tackles for losses. Next to him is huge Kenderick Allen (6-6, 318, Sr.). With just six total tackles this season while rotating with Byron Dawson, Allen is a physical specimen who clogs up the middle. One of the ends could be a mystery this week as dominating Marcus Spears (6-4, 295, So.) has been out of practice all week and is wearing a walking cast on his ankle. If he's unable to go in the game that would press redshirt freshman Melvin Oliver (6-3, 255) from Opelika into duty. Oliver has been solid on the season with 18 tackles and three and a half sacks. On the other side, sophomore Marquise Hill (6-7, 294) puts the finishing touches on the most physical line the Tigers will face this season. Hill has 33 tackles in 2002 with three sacks and three tackles for losses.
James is the unquestioned leader of the defense. The middle backer, a 6-3, 248, senior, leads the team with 86 tackles and has five stops behind the line of scrimmage. A strong player who can quickly cover a lot of territory from sideline to sideline, James will be a player to watch in Saturday's game.
Veteran Jeremy Lawrence (6-3, 242) will be on the strong side for the Tigers. With 23 tackles and three sacks on the season, he's a big play linebacker who likes to blitz from the outside. On the weak side is big Lionel Turner. The 6-2, 255 sophomore looks more like a defensive end than a linebacker, but he makes plays as his 33 tackles prove. His backup, Cameron Vaughn (6-4, 225, Fr.), will also see some action and is another of LSU's best blitzing linebackers.
In the secondary, veteran Damien James (5-11, 180, Sr.) has been missing from LSU's team this week for personal reasons and isn't expected to play Saturday. That would be a big loss for a secondary that depended on his leadership and experience in the middle at free safety. With two interceptions this season, he has nine for his career, which is tied for tops in the SEC for active players. In his place junior Jack Hunt (6-1, 189) will get the start. With 15 tackles and two sacks, Hunt has shown he likes to play close to the line of scrimmage and that could be something Auburn can take advantage of during the game.
Senior Norman LeJeune (6-1, 204) will get the start at strong safety and is a player who is very physical at the line of scrimmage. Second on the team with 52 tackles, he's like having another linebacker on the field at all times and will likely be the eighth man in the box most of the night.
On the corners senior Demetrius Hookfin (5-11, 173) and junior Randall Gay (5-11, 174) are both excellent cover men and rarely get challenged deep because of the up front pressure the LSU defense puts on an offense. If Auburn can give the quarterback time to throw, the Tigers will have a chance for some big plays down the field.
Offensively, the heart of the unit is tailback Domanick Davis (5-10, 215, Sr.). Taking over full time for injured tailback LaBrandon Toefield after the third game, the explosive runner leads the team in rushing with 527 yards and six touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. Behind him freshman Joseph Addai (6-0, 202) is averaging just over five,yards per carry and has scored twice. At fullback senior Solomon Lee (6-1, 237) is just a lead blocker with only one carry this season for six yards.
The quarterback position has also been hit with the injury bug as starter Matt Mauck is out for at least six weeks after having surgery on an injured ankle suffered with his team ahead of Florida 33-7 late in the game in Gainesville two weeks ago. His replacement is sophomore Marcus Randall (6-2, 218), a talented athlete who will be playing his first road game this week in Auburn. In his first career start last, Randall completed 12-of-23 passes against South Carolina for 183 yards and rushed for another 36 yards and a touchdown. Adept at running the option and throwing on the run, he will put pressure on the corners of Auburn's defense and will be a tough matchup for the Tigers. On the other hand he'll be playing in front of a hostile crowd for the first time in his career, which could pay dividends for Auburn. Expect the defense to give numerous looks up front and in the secondary to try to fool the sophomore.
Perhaps the most underrated receiver in the country resides in Baton Rouge in the form of sophomore Michael Clayton. The 6-4, 192 speedster has 29 catches for 418 yards and four touchdowns this season, one in which the Tigers have struggled throwing the ball, averaging just 142 yards per game. The Tigers have just 79 completions this season so keeping Clayton away from the ball would put a crimp in their passing game. If he's not the receiver of choice then junior Devery Henderson (6-0, 190, Jr.) is a safe bet to watch. With 12 catches for 186 yards and four touchdowns, he combines with Clayton to give LSU all but one of its touchdown catches this season. No other LSU player has caught more than eight passes this season with Reggie Robinson (6-2, 195, Sr.) the biggest remaining threat.
Tight end Eric Edwards (6-5, 264, Jr.) has just three catches for 19 yards this season.
Up front the right side of the line with guard Rob Sale and tackle Rodney Reed is the strength of the LSU unit. A senior, the 6-2, 315 Sale is a terrific drive blocker and is terrific on inside running plays. Reed, a 6-4, 280 junior, controls the outside of the offensive line and can get downfield on linebackers in the running game to spring big plays. Center Ben Wilkerson (6-4, 300) is just a sophomore but already an experienced veteran after starting the final nine games of the 2001 season and all seven this year. Left guard Stephen Peterman (6-4, 325, Jr.) and left tackle Andrew Whitworth (6-7, 320, RFr.) round out a unit that has allowed just eight sacks this season.
Maybe the most important aspect of this game will be Auburn's ability to contain Davis in the kick return game. The SEC leader in punt returns, averaging 19.1 yards per return on 23 chances with one touchdown, he can change a game in the blink of an eye. He's also dangerous on kickoff returns with an average of 25.3 yards. Henderson is also a threat, averaging 33.7 yards on six kickoff returns. If Auburn doesn't improve its coverage teams, this could be the difference in the game. Contain Davis both on the offensive side of the ball and in the kicking department, and Auburn will go a long way towards pulling off the upset.