Nothing is official yet with any LSU football suspensions, but the writing is on the wall.
In seven games this season, Mathieu has been – well – a Honey Badger, ferociously tearing apart opponents to the tune of 42 tackles, five for losses, four forced fumbles, five pass break ups and seven deflected passes.
Because of Mathieu’s impact, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has played the sophomore as the third cornerback in the nickel package – which has more or less become LSU’s base defense over the past two seasons.
Without having to man a wide receiver on the outside, Mathieu’s ability to roam free has him able to carve a spot as a playmaker for one of the country’s top defenses and has catapulted his name into discussions for the Lott Trophy, Nagurski Trophy and – at one point - the Heisman Trophy.
Time spent unwisely off the field will wash away any hopes of becoming a Heisman darkhorse, but the Lott and Nagurski are still within reach, especially if Mathieu comes back from his break with a vengeance. A big statement against No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5 would probably help most forget about missed minutes against Auburn.
With Simon out, the Tigers lose one of their best cover corners – a 6-foot-4 sophomore with a long wingspan and impressive vertical. Simon is fourth on the team in tackles with 29, and his eight pass break ups and nine pass deflections are tops on the team.
Minus Mathieu and Simon, Auburn should be able to move the ball a little easier against the LSU defense, right?
It might be a little easier, but nothing drastic. Nothing game-changing.
In fact, don’t look for much of a falloff in production at all for a couple of reasons.
One, Ron Brooks isn’t your average backup cornerback.
Brooks, a fifth-year senior who earned his first career start against West Virginia, has played in 46 games and seen time at cornerback, as a returner on kickoffs and a gunner on punts.
Many of his teammates call Brooks one of the most athletic players on the roster, and safety Brandon Taylor recently said the 6-foot, 180-pound Brooks was pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team.
When Mathieu is in the mix, Brooks comes into the game as the fourth cornerback in the dime package. This weekend, Brooks jumps up to the role of starting cornerback opposite Morris Claiborne.
Where does the shuffle leave everyone else?
For starters, Chavis has a decision: Old or young?
If he goes with experience, expect senior Derrick Bryant to be Mathieu’s replacement in the nickel. Bryant has been a backup safety to Brandon Taylor, and he has seen action in all seven games and recorded 12 tackles. Not far off is sophomore Craig Loston, a backup at both safety spots. Loston has battled injury in recent weeks, but full health could equate to significant reps as an extra defensive back when LSU leaves the 4-3.
Then there’s always the chance that Taylor slides down to nickel back and Loston and sophomore Eric Reid roam the secondary as starting safeties.
If Chavis goes with youth, the first name to the field is likely redshirt freshman Ronnie Vinson, who has practiced at cornerback and safety, but could be slotted as the third cornerback this weekend, meaning he could be the sixth defensive back into the game when LSU goes to its dime package.
Point being, LSU is deep – to the point where the backups have dirtied up their jerseys a time or two over the years.
No Mathieu and no Simon?
With guys like Brooks riding the bench, it’s no problem.
Then there’s the other reason that LSU shouldn’t be worried: Auburn’s offense.
Strictly from a passing perspective, Auburn isn’t showing up at full strength, either.
Starting quarterback Barrett Trotter was benched this past week, and Auburn offensive coordinator Guz Malzahn turned to sophomore Clint Moseley – who has attempted just nine career passes, seven in last week’s win over Florida.
Even without a pair of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, LSU has nine other full-time starters licking their chops at the thought of a quarterback who hasn’t hit the double-digit passing mark.
For those counting at home, that is three straight weeks that LSU will face an SEC opponent that is breaking in a new quarterback.
And whom exactly will the fresh-faced Moseley be targeting?
Junior Emory Blake, the team leader in receptions (19), receiving yards (333) and receiving touchdowns (4), is likely sidelined. After Blake sat against Arkansas and Florida, Auburn coach Gene Chizik tabbed his top wide receiver as 50-50 for Saturday in Baton Rouge.
Chizik gave the same medical outlook to sophomore Trovon Reed, who came fast out of the gates with 12 catches for 91 yards in three of his first four games. But Reed, a Thibodaux native, hasn’t suited up since a win over Florida Atlantic on September 24 - and likely won’t this weekend.
If there are questions in the LSU secondary, there are more questions about the Auburn passing game – which should more or less nullify the absence of Mathieu and Simon.
This weekend, Chavis will show what quality depth can do for a program. Remember, the Tigers aren’t ranked No. 1 just because they have 22 players that get after it.