Somewhere along the line, there had to be a little trouble for the LSU football team. Something out of the ordinary and not as blasé as the road the Tigers have followed so far as they’ve barreled past seven opponents.
That rough patch arrived this week with some off-the-field problems leading to likely suspensions this week. Even that timing isn’t as bad as it could’ve been, though – some time in the next 13 days before a showdown that popped onto the national radar several weeks ago and just won’t go away.
Yeah, LSU and Alabama are headed toward a Nov. 5 collision of No. 1 vs. No. 2, but there’s work to do before then, starting today when 19th-ranked Auburn visits Tiger Stadium.
In a fifth game against a ranked foe this season, LSU is likely to take the field without starters Spencer Ware, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon who were caught in a controversy during the week and could face suspension for an alleged failed drug test.
Without that trio, the task is obviously a bit tougher against an Auburn team that has been up and down this season. But the way LSU has galvanized this season after a wave of pre-season controversy could make this just another week.
And if that holds true, Auburn would have to play awfully well against even a makeshift LSU team.
The fact is, the purple-and-gold Tigers have played this season with a purpose and it’s hard to imagine them being derailed by the probable suspensions.
Especially with the other circumstances surrounding this game.
As much as anything, the vivid memory of a punch-in-the-gut 24-17 loss to Auburn last season seemed to burn hot this week.
“We got embarrassed last season and it left a bad taste in our mouths,” senior linebacker Ryan Baker said.
This is not the same offense any more, though.
AU coordinator Gus Malzahn is still around and the two backs who teamed up with eventual Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 NFL Draft pick Cam Newton to carve up the LSU defense for 440 rushing yards – Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb – are also back in the fold.
There have still been plenty of big moments on offense this season. Auburn has rushed for 235 yards or more four times and is averaging 197 yards a game on the ground.
There will be a new wrinkle this week with sophomore Clint Moseley getting his first career start in an effort to jump-start an offense that dipped to a season-low 278 total yards last week in a 17-6 triumph against Florida.
Freshman Kiehl Frazier is also likely to see action in a wildcat formation.
“They’re offense looks a lot the same no matter who’s running it,” Baker said. “We’re preparing to see a lot of quarterback power (runs) like last year and we’re going to be ready for it. I can’t wait to get out there and get this feeling off my chest.
“You see a lot of similarities in their offense from last year when the freshman Frazier comes in. He kind of looks like Cam. Has the same build. He’s not as patient a runner yet as Cam was, but he’s got a chance to be great.”
He also has a chance to run into a defense with a chip on its shoulder.
LSU’s defenders insist it wasn’t the game plan that hurt them season, but execution. Specifically, poor tackling cost them over and over.
“We’ve got to make sure they don’t gash us again like that on the ground,” safety Eric Reid said. “That game played a big role for the way we play our scheme now because they were able to expose some for the flaws we had. (Defensive coordinator John Chavis) was able to tighten the screws after that and make us better.
Added defensive end Barkevious Mingo, “I think this defense strives for perfection in everything we do. We wanted to fix those mistakes and play the best we can and we’ve done that pretty consistently since the Auburn game.”
Since then, the LSU offense has also gone through a metamorphosis to make the Tigers the complete team they are now.
Playing without Ware would force the offensive coaches to shake things up somewhat, particularly against an AU defense that has shored up against the run.
In the first three weeks of the season, Auburn’s defense allowed 4.9 yards per carry and 266.3 rushing yards per game. Since then, those numbers have shrunk to 3.9 per carry and 119.3 a game.
AU ranks 12th in the SEC in pass defense, giving up 222 yards a game. But the visitors from the Plains could cause problems with a pass rush highlighted by sophomore end Corey Lemonier, whose six sacks lead the SEC.
“They have a lot of guys back up front who gave us some trouble last season,” LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee said. “We have to make sure we do a good job blocking them.
“We can’t overlook this team at all. They’re a very good football team and can knock you off very easily if you’re not prepared.”
Auburn is likely to load up against the run and try to force Lee and Jordan Jefferson to move the ball through the air. Last season those two combined for only 89 passing yards and were sacked three times.
Jefferson keyed LSU’s lone prolonged drive (78 yards for a touchdown) with runs of 15 and 16 yards and Ware accounted for the other touchdown on a 39-yard halfback pass to Rueben Randle.
Otherwise, downfield throws were hare to set up because the QBs faced heat all day long. That could be different this season with an LSU offensive line that has allowed only five sacks all season.
“They put a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks and they didn’t have time to step into the pocket and make throws like they wanted to,” Randle said.
“We’ve got some receivers who can make plays. If some we get some opportunities this week, we need to do take advantage of them.”
LSU also needs to seize on the motivation of taking on the reigning national champion – one that is out of the race this season but would love the idea of derailing a rival’s chances of climbing to a similar perch.
Miles has shown a flair for having teams ready against the best of the best, with a 26-13 record against ranked foes during his LSU tenure. This season LSU is 4-0 against ranked competition.
Including a pair of wins against Oklahoma in 2001 and 2002, Miles has engineered five victories against teams that won the national championship the season before or were in contention for a crown that season. He is 13-10 against coaches who have won national crowns, 11-7 since he got to LSU.
“They’re the defending national champions and that’s where we want to be,” Randle said. “They’re coming in here thinking they can this game. We have to come out with that same kind of chip on my shoulder.”
Even if it means steering through a little unforeseen trouble.