Although a win over Auburn would give LSU the same conference record, Saban's team would advance to the SEC Championship by virtue of the tiebreaker. LSU placed itself in position to win the West with a 41-38 win over Arkansas last Friday.
The Tigers became bowl eligible with their win over Middle Tennessee on Nov. 10 but reentered the SEC title picture when Ole Miss fell against Georgia and Alabama upset Auburn. The race would have been decided if Auburn would have beaten Alabama, but the Crimson Tide's 31-7 win in the Iron Bowl gave LSU new life.
In order for its game with Auburn to be meaningful in terms of the West crown, LSU first had to handle Arkansas. And by focusing solely on the showdown with the Razorbacks, the Tigers were able to overcome five turnovers and end Arkansas' six-game winning streak. The loss also eliminated Arkansas from SEC West contention.
I think the key thing for our team this week is going to be that we have an ability to focus on beating Auburn," said Saban, "not on going to Atlanta, not on going to the championship, not on who we would play if we won the championship, not on the ring we might get if we won the championship.
"All those things will be counterproductive to us being able to have success in the game. We need to focus on what we need to do to beat Auburn."
The Auburn-LSU game was originally scheduled for Sept. 15, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 led to the game being postponed until Dec. 1. Saban says he thought his team was physically and mentally prepared to compete against Auburn, but he is still pleased with the progress players have made since the early portion of the season.
Auburn has won its last two games with LSU, giving head coach Tommy Tuberville a 4-2 lifetime mark against the Tigers dating back to his time as the head coach at Ole Miss.
Tuberville won his first game against LSU as Auburn's head coach in 1999, plastering a 41-7 loss on Gerry DiNardo's team in Tiger Stadium. Rohan Davey started at quarterback in the game and was pulled after early turnovers led directly to Auburn scoring chances.
A kickoff return for a touchdown from Tim Carter allowed Auburn to seize control of last year's game with LSU, and Tuberville took flack for adding an unneeded touchdown late in the 34-17 Auburn win at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
LSU linebacker Bradie James says there is no need for the Tigers to dwell on their past difficulties against Auburn or to use revenge as a motive for playing well on Saturday. The stakes are already high, he says, given that the winner gets to play in the SEC Championship game.
"If you need added motivation, you can get that," said James. "But we should be motivated enough to go out there and not worry about the past records. This is a big rivalry for LSU. People talk about the Alabama rivalry, but it always comes down to the wire with Auburn. We're all playing for the same thing so it's going to be a definite dogfight."
Auburn enters the LSU game looking for offensive consistency. Tuberville said after the loss to Alabama that the starting quarterback position was again up for grabs between Jason Campbell and Daniel Cobb. Both players have enjoyed standout performances this year, but neither has played with much consistency.
Another factor that could hamper the Auburn offense is the absence of its leading rusher, Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who broke his collarbone against Alabama. The Tigers will use Ronnie Brown and Casinious Moore in his place.
LSU, on the other hand, has enjoyed an offensive explosion in the month of November. Davey has eclipsed the 3,000-yard mark in passing, and wide receiver Josh Reed leads the nation in receiving yards per game. In addition, running back LaBrandon Toefield is fresh off a 173-yard rushing performance against Arkansas in which he scored three touchdowns.
"It seems like we're finally putting it all together," said Reed. "We're finally playing like we all know we're capable of."
Even in its clutch win over Arkansas, the Tigers stumbled at times and allowed the Razorbacks to pose a comeback threat late in the game. Such letdowns have plagued LSU throughout the season, and senior defensive end Kyle Kipps recognizes the need to eliminate these lapses.
"I think against Arkansas sometimes we weren't very consistent," he said. "But we played hard and that's what got us through the game. If we can be just more consistent against Auburn and still play with the toughness and the effort that we've been playing with, we should be OK."Kickoff between Auburn and LSU is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. Saturday night at Tiger Stadium. The game is being televised nationally on ESPN.