No. 10 Auburn (3-0 Overall, 1-0 SEC)
You know it's a big match up when ESPN GameDay comes to town to cover what has become the biggest showdown in the SEC West. The winner of this game has gone onto the SEC Championship game in six of the last eight seasons. Both teams are currently ranked in the Top 10 of the Associated Press and Coaches' Polls. Auburn appears to be the better defensive team but LSU has played far more consistently on offense.
LSU is coming off a 41-3 victory over North Texas and the Auburn Tigers avoided a ninth-inning rally by the Mississippi State Bulldogs to escape 3-2. Though LSU has impressive numbers, it has yet to be challenged in 2008. On the other hand, Auburn has squared off with Southern Miss, who is currently averaging 428 yards per game and Mississippi State, who has the 20th ranked defense in the nation. Basically, LSU will bring the combined caliber of offense and defense.
The LSU offense is currently averaging 442 yards and 41 points per game despite having quarterback issues of their own. Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee have combined for over 400 yards passing, splitting time at the quarterback position. Hatch is the starter but Lee has received valuable playing time. Running back Charles Scott has been their primary offensive weapon with 262 yards rushing on just 23 carries with four rushing touchdowns. Brandon LaFell leads LSU in receiving with 11 receptions and two touchdowns.
LSU has been able to play through its depth chart on defense during two easy victories. The concern should be a defense that has totaled only nine tackles behind the line against two undermanned teams. In comparison, Auburn has 25 tackles for loss through three games against better competition. LSU has traditionally had dominating defenses but this will be their first true test of the year.
On paper LSU would appear to be the better overall team, but I would imagine its offensive coaching staff is concerned about Auburn's defense. As poorly as the Auburn offense has executed, it has been its own worst enemy. In terms of actual competition, the LSU offense is only plus five in scoring offense in terms of scoring margins, while Auburn is plus one. Despite their inflated numbers, the LSU offense is only scoring five more points more per game than what its opponents normally allow. On defense, Auburn is minus while LSU is minus 15 in scoring margin.
In the last two games, Auburn has been penalized 18 times to go along with seven turnovers, making it difficult for a new offense to find its rhythm or identity. Despite all the mental errors on the Auburn offense, it is still scoring one more point than what its opponents normally allow. Taking the difference in scoring margins, LSU has a slight advantage of 14 to 13, meaning this game should be close unless one team does more to hurt themselves.
Whether it's Andrew Hatch or Jarrett Lee (pictured) who starts for LSU, as many as five quarterbacks could see action between the two teams.
Under Tommy Tuberville, Auburn is 4-0 at home against LSU and the last three meetings in Jordan-Hare have been about defense. LSU scored only seven points in 2002, nine points in 2004 and three points in 2006. This game has all the earmarks of being an ugly, defensive war. Both defenses are established with the edge going to Auburn's defense. Because LSU's offense has not been tested this season, it's difficult to gauge just how good it truly is. With Auburn's offensive implosion, it's difficult to say just how bad it is.
The key to success for either team will be to limit the number of times the quarterback is needed to carry their offense. With the speed of both defenses, both offenses will want to avoid obvious passing situations. This means the focus could fall on the production of the running games, which are about equal when you consider the level of competition played thus far. Of course both teams have stout run defense, making it more difficult to simply rely on the running game alone. Running the ball won't be enough and for this reason, watch for the production in the passing game on first down.
Based on each teams' average scoring and scoring margins, LSU should win this game, 23-9 or 10-6. Taking the average of both scores and LSU wins, 17-7. Because LSU has yet to be challenged a comparison of Auburn's first two games to LSU might be more accurate. With this in mind, Auburn wins, 15-12 or LSU wins 23-9 or an average score of 17-12 in favor of LSU. The numbers indicate a low scoring game, which traditionally has been the case.
LSU coach Les Miles led his team to the BCS championship last season.
Auburn simply has too many issues on offense, which is why it has yet to have a great performance through three games. Expecting all the issues to be resolved in one week is asking too much, especially against a team like LSU. The key for Auburn will be to limit its mistakes and to take advantage of the miscues on the part of LSU. This is the type of game Auburn fans have become accustomed to seeing during the Tuberville era in big game matchups. From 2000-2008, Auburn is 27-11 in games decided by seven points or less.
This game will be decided by four major factors. Pass the ball successfully on first down to open up the running game on later downs. Take advantage of red zone opportunities and win the field position battle (special teams). Each category will be magnified in a low scoring game and there will not be very many scoring opportunities unless one or both teams self-destruct. Auburn has the defense and special teams to win a low scoring game but will the Auburn offense generate enough plays to secure the win?
If all else is equal in terms of defense and special teams, the edge goes to LSU on offense with coordinator Gary Crowton, but I also like Tuberville when all seems lost coming into a big game. I don't normally go against the trends or numbers but this game has Tuberville's thumbprint all over it.
Auburn 16, LSU 12