AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn needs an SEC home win in a bad kind of way. If he gets it in Week 4, it’ll have to come against a rival head coach who has plenty of recent experience with hot seat talk.
Auburn (1-2, 0-1 SEC) will play host to No. 18 LSU (2-1, 1-0 SEC) on Saturday night inside Jordan-Hare Stadium (5 p.m. CT on ESPN) in a game that could loom large over Malzahn’s future with the Tigers.
A Week 3 loss to Texas A&M featured more offensive frustrations for Malzahn and some missed opportunities on the defensive side of the ball. Now the Tigers are looking to avoid the dreaded 0-3 start against Power 5 opponents as Miles brings his talented team from Baton Rouge.
Auburn has lost 7 of its last 9 matchups to LSU, but its two wins in that span have come inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. Malzahn will want some of that home-field magic to come back in this storied SEC West rivalry as he looks to turn the early season around with a much-needed win.
Plenty of storylines will swirl around this matchup between these two teams of Tigers. Here are the five key ones to know.
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Needing a flash of genius vs. ‘The Mad Scientist’
Heading into Saturday’s game, Malzahn made it clear that he believes Auburn’s offensive woes fall squarely on the coaching staff. He said his play-calling “hasn’t been very good” through the first three weeks of the season and that the Tigers needed to do a better job of making in-game adjustments.
“We just have to make better adjustments,” Malzahn said. “With defensive guys, when something works, they are all going to do it …You have to adjust from a coach’s standpoint to put your guys in the best situation possible. Whether it’s personnel, down and distance or alignments, you have to do your homework. You have to be thinking ahead.”
This weekend, Malzahn will look to return to his past success on offense against one of the brightest defensive minds in all of football. Dave Aranda, who took over as LSU’s defensive coordinator after Kevin Steele left for the same job at Auburn, became known as “The Mad Scientist” at Wisconsin for his unique formations and on-the-fly tweaks, especially in the area of pass-rushing.
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Auburn will stick with sophomore quarterback Sean White as the starter, but John Franklin III is there to provide the explosive spark he had in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M if necessary. While Malzahn won’t say if there would be any key personnel changes, something different has to be done offensively in order for Auburn to avoid its sixth straight SEC home loss.
Major Key alert
Aranda has quite a few weapons at his disposal on LSU’s experienced defense, with his biggest being sophomore pass-rusher Arden Key. The 6’6″ Georgia native is currently tied for second in the FBS in total sacks through the first three weeks of the season with 5.5.
“He is a factor. You have to know where he is,” Malzahn said. “When he knows it’s a pass, he is a factor. He was a factor last year against us as a true freshman. We definitely have to be aware of him.”
Key’s trip to Auburn with LSU comes on the heels of the Tigers’ rough performance against Texas A&M defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. Garrett had a sack on the first play of the game, and the Aggies finished with a whopping 13 tackles for loss.
Auburn has allowed the most tackles for loss of any team in the FBS through the first weeks of the season, and now it’s going against a stellar pass-rusher who plays for a coordinator that excels at generating pressure on quarterbacks in unorthodox ways. LSU has playmakers all over its defense, but Key stands out above the rest, especially considering the Tigers’ recent pass-protection problems.
It’s all about No. 7
Last season, LSU running back Leonard Fournette took a commanding lead on the Heisman Trophy race with his performance against Auburn — a 228-yard, 3-touchdown, highlight-heavy day on just 19 carries.
Auburn has done a better overall job of stopping the run in 2016 under Steele, but Texas A&M gashed the Tigers for 6 carries of 10 or more yards last Saturday night. That number was capped by Trayveon Williams’ 81-yard back-breaker of a touchdown run in the fourth quarter that virtually sealed the win for the Aggies.
Preventing Fournette from getting into the open field is priority No. 1 for Steele’s defense. Auburn’s defensive players placed a lot of blame on Fournette’s big day in 2015 on their errors. Now on the other sideline for this game, Steele has the same mindset in going up against his former employer.
“Well, obviously, (Fournette is) a very talented young man,” Steele said. “But it still goes back to what you’ve heard me say before …It’s about how we line up. It’s about controlling our gap. We’re not going to ask anybody out there to take more than one zone, one man, one gap. That’s every week. That’s every play.”
Turning things over
After forcing a fumble and an interception in the season opener against Clemson, Auburn’s defense hasn’t gotten a turnover in the last two weeks. The Tigers are focused on changing that Saturday night against LSU in order to pull off the upset.
“We’ve got to get strips and pressure on the quarterback,” Auburn senior defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “If we get that pressure and don’t get that sack, that’s a chance for the DB to come up with the interception. … When the DBs get their opportunities, they’ve got to catch the ball.”
The Tigers have an opportunity to force those turnovers in Week 4. LSU has lost six turnovers through the first three weeks of the season, including three in its only game away from Tiger Stadium — a season-opening loss to Wisconsin. As SEC Country’s LSU beat writer Alex Hickey wrote this week, Fournette had two fumbles in the Bayou Bengals’ 23-20 escape against Mississippi State last Saturday night.
On the flip side, ball security will be even more precious for Auburn’s offense. Auburn has fumbled the ball away in back-to-back games, and LSU’s aggressive defense has forced 5 turnovers through the first six weeks of the season. Whoever can win the turnover battle will have a great chance at getting the win.
Is this the biggest game of Gus Malzahn’s career?
Sure, Malzahn has coached for a national championship and won an SEC Championship Game during his Auburn tenure. But if things don’t go his way Saturday against LSU, the job security shouts will grow even louder on the Plains.
“I look at each game as being the biggest game,” Malzahn said. “Every time we coach against someone, we need to get over that hump. We’re close, very close. It’s a big game, no doubt.”
If Auburn loses, it’ll fall to 1-3 on the season for the first time since Gene Chizik’s final season in 2012, which finished 3-9. Malzahn would fall to .500 in the SEC for his Auburn tenure and have just 2 wins in his last 13 league games. A win over Louisiana-Monroe in Week 5 would presumably stop the bleeding some, but then the Tigers would go right back into the heart of the SEC schedule.
On the other hand, if Auburn manages to beat LSU for the seventh time in its last 10 meetings inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers could easily be 4-2 heading into a bye week next month. This could be the swing game of all swing games for the future of Malzahn at Auburn.