LSU vs. AUBURN

It is hard to imagine losing four starters to the first round of the NFL Draft and still bouncing back the following season.

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville and his team have done just that. Even after the controversy surrounding the Tigers postseason in which they defended an undefeated season in both the SEC championship and the Sugar Bowl; none of these accolades were enough to convince the voters or computer polls Auburn was worthy for a shot at a national title. It resulted in the most successful No. 3 ranked team in the history of college football.

The losses of quarterback Jason Campbell, running back combo Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, and safety Carlos Rogers seemed an impossible void to replace on the depth chart. And if that was not enough, the Tigers lost eight other starters to boot.

But Tuberville, who won over a restless Auburn fan base with an undefeated record a year ago, vowed at SEC Media Days that the 2005 Auburn Tigers were more talented than last year's juggernaut. And from the looks of it, he might not be as delusional as previously thought. Auburn is 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the SEC, while holding down the No. 22 spot in the AP poll.

Aside from a season opening loss to Georgia Tech, the Tigers have been largely untested. Their wins have come against the likes of Ball State, Western Kentucky, and SEC cellar dwellers Mississippi State, South Carolina, and Arkansas.

According to Auburn's head coach, this is an ideal start for the season. After the loss to Georgia Tech, he announced, "Consistency is the theme of this team and we have to get better each week."

The weak schedule has given the team that opportunity as they continue to improve offensively each week – at home. The Tigers finally left the friendly confines of Jordan-Haire Stadium last weekend traveling to Arkansas for their first road game of the season. Despite trailing at the half, Auburn pulled away from the Razorbacks in the second half defeating the Hawgs 34-17.

The true test for Auburn will come this week against LSU at Death Valley. Narrowly defeating the defending national champions 10-9 a year ago on the Plains, one can bet Auburn will be expecting the Bayou Bengals' best efforts Saturday.

While War Eagle hasn't lost since the season opener, there were major questions surrounding Tuberville's troops following the early defeat.

The victory cigars stayed in a humidor as the Tigers fell 23-14 against Georgia Tech, snapping Auburn's 15-game winning streak. Newly minted quarterback Brandon Cox went 22 of 44 with 342 yards and two touchdowns. But that was only half of the story. Cox threw for four interceptions – all in the second half - and one fumbled once. Two of those costly turnovers came on the Yellow Jackets end of the field.

The Georgia Tech defense might have unlocked the secret to stopping Auburn - blitzing. Their constant pressure on the unproven Cox led to the a bevy of costly turnovers. Another bonus came in the Yellow Jackets holding the Tiger rushing game to a mere 50 yards rushing in the first half and 102 for the game. Tre Smith had 13 carries for 68 yards.

Auburn took out some frustrations the following week easily disposing of Miss. State 28-0. The damage was inflicted in the first half with Cox throwing two touchdown passes. He ended the game 12 of 18 for 202 yards. The running game was equally formidable as the group raced for 118 yards on 41 carries.

But the defense was the story. They held Bulldog menace Jerious Norwood to 39 yards on 10 carries. Tuberville called it "the best defense I've seen out of us in awhile."

The Ball State victory was a walk through with Auburn nearly shut them out by the tally of 63-3. Running backs Kenny Irons and Tre Smith both stepped up in a big way. Tuberville highlighted their importance as the team prepared for seven straight SEC games. Also, he smugly commented that, "confidence makes you better."

Even a downed quarterback could not stop the Tigers from beating Western Kentucky 37-14. A pre-game stomach virus prevented Cox from playing leaving Blake Field to handle the reins. In his first career start, Field involved 10 different receivers in the action completing 13 of 20 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns. Kenny Irons added to the effort with 111 yards on 18 carries for one touchdown. The running backs combined for 209 total rushing yards.

Auburn took a 24-0 halftime lead into the locker room and never looked back. The defense held Western Kentucky to 98 yards in total offense in the first half. Two fourth quarter touchdowns by WKU proved too little, too late as the Tigers improved their record to 3-1.

Auburn's next opponent was a struggling South Carolina team.

In a way, it was a match of two similar sidelines. During Steve Spurrier's heyday, Tuberville was always considered a poor man's version of Spurrier. But, Tuberville finally got his revenge. The Tiger's 48-7 victory marked the first time in Spurrier's career he had lost three straight SEC games. Cox was 19 of 29 for 245 yards and one touchdown. The running back trio of Brad Lester, Irons, and Carl Stewart scored a touchdown. And for the fourth straight game, the Tiger defense held their opponent scoreless in the first half. The Gamecocks did not dent the scoreboard until a 45 yard touchdown pass with 6:14 left to play in the game.

Auburn continued to cruise, winning 34-17 against Arkansas. Cox threw three second half touchdowns and Kenny Irons had a career-high 182 yards on 33 carries. He replaced Brad Lester in the first half when a strained right groin caused him to leave the game. Lester's status for the LSU contest is still in question.

Brandon Cox will decide how the offense runs. When he is on, the offense is seamless. But when he is not, as evident in the Georgia Tech game, the offense sputters along with no continuity. If LSU wants to establish control early, defensive coordinator Bo Pellini will need to let his front four attack often. Although Cox is a senior and has performed well, this is his first season to see significant playing time. He is still largely unproven against quality defenses and LSU could expose those inadequacies with an aggressive blitz package.

With the departure of Brown and Williams, the running back position was open for business. With no clear cut winner, the backfield is a roving commission. Irons, Smith, Stewart, and Lester have all excelled at different times in the season and will be expected to continue to split the load early. Most times they all rotate possessions at the beginning and then one will emerge to get the important carries. There is no way to tell who that will be this week.

One thing that is certain is the play of the receivers. All the big names return to aide Cox in his maturation. The group of Courtney Taylor, Aromashodu, Obomanu, Anthony Mix, and Cooper Wallace will test the progress of Chevis Jackson, Ronnie Prude and the rest of the developing cornerbacks. All of the receivers are game breakers who can change to direction of the game on the simplest of catches. Wallace, at tight end, provides one of the surest hands on the team. Recall in 2004 how the ball always seemed to find Wallace in tough spots as Auburn mounted their comeback against LSU. Expect much of the same.

The offensive line sees the return of three starters. Future NFL players Marcus McNeil will lead the way at left tackle. At left guard is Ben Grubbs. Joe Cope will play center. On the right side is Tim Duckworth at guard and Troy Reddick at tackle.

The defense was also effected after the house cleaning this summer. Safety Carlos Rogers turned pro and corner Junior Rosegreen finished his eligibility. Everywhere else is still solid from a year ago. The defense has given up 55 points this season and held many of their opponents scoreless in the first half.

The reason begins on the defensive line. The defensive ends are two incredible athletes still peaking. Stanley McClover emerged last year as a freshman force with 7.5 sacks, earning All-SEC honors. The other end is Quentin Groves. The interior is ran by nose tackle T.J. Jackson and tackle Wayne Dickens. Marquis Gunn will provide relief to the ends.

The linebackers are a dynamic group. Middle linebacker Travis Williams had 80 tackles last year and will be the leader of the defense. Antarrious Williams possesses every attribute of a dominant linebacker and uses them effectively at outside linebacker. The other linebacker will be played by both Kevin Sears and Karibi Dede.

The D-line and linebackers should provide worthy competition for LSU's own running back stable. Expect explosive collisions between Joseph Addai and the Auburn defense.

The secondary lives and dies by strong safety Will Herring. Eric Brock accompanies Herring at free safety. The corners have David Irons at one spot and Montavis Pitts at the other. They, like LSU, have experienced some growing pains this year. Evidence comes in the 116 yard passing performance by Conner in the Miss St game.

John Vaughn and Kody Bliss continue to be special teams weapons at kicker and punter.

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