AUBURN, Ala. — Two teams of Tigers will collide Saturday evening in Jordan-Hare Stadium for an important SEC West victory and the chance to ease the pressure on their head coaches.
That means the loser of the 2016 Auburn vs. LSU game could be in an extremely bad spot Sunday morning.
Auburn (1-2, 0-1 SEC) is coming off another lackluster offensive performance against a Power 5 opponent at home under Gus Malzahn. No. 18 LSU (2-1, 1-0 SEC) held off a late charge from Mississippi State in Week 3, and the way that second half went didn’t help matters for Les Miles.
This is a clash of different styles but familiar situations — and assistant coaches —that could go a long way in determining the fate of both programs for the 2016 season. With that in mind, let’s go position by position and break down who has the edge in this edition of the Tiger Bowl.
Auburn: Sean White’s production came crashing back down last Saturday after a strong performance against Arkansas State. He averaged a paltry 4.7 yards per attempt — which was aided by a few bad drops from his receivers — and didn’t get many opportunities to throw the ball past the sticks against Texas A&M. John Franklin III provided a “shot in the arm” in the fourth quarter, with the offense averaging almost 7 yards per snap with the JUCO transfer in the game. White will start, but a move to Franklin might come quicker if the offense struggles again.
LSU: After Brandon Harris struggled in a season-opening loss to Wisconsin and the early portion of a win against Jacksonville State, LSU turned to Purdue transfer Danny Etling to command the offense. So far, Etling has had modest success with the Tigers. In his first start last week against Mississippi State, he completed 19 of his 30 passes for 215 yards and 1 touchdown. This will be his first start in a hostile SEC road environment, though. How he handles that will show how much better LSU’s offense truly is with Etling in charge.
Auburn: Kamryn Pettway is coming off of back-to-back 100-yard games, as he was the catalyst in Auburn’s lightning-fast touchdown drive on the second possession of the Texas A&M game. Kerryon Johnson continues to be a go-to option whenever Auburn gets inside the red zone, and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he considers the two as co-starters at running back. These two running backs continue to produce at a good level for first-time starters despite inconsistent play from Auburn’s offensive line.
LSU: This section could’ve easily just read “Leonard Fournette,” and that’s all that would’ve needed to be said. Last year’s FBS rushing champion in terms of yards per game ripped through Auburn’s defense last season with 228 yards on 19 carries. This season, he’s already at 285 yards through 2 games after sitting out the Jacksonville State game. He had a pair of fumbles against Mississippi State, so keep an eye on that from what is usually an otherworldly running back. Behind him, the talented Derrius Guice is currently averaging a meaty 6.81 yards per carry.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Auburn: The surprising few drops against Texas A&M aside, Auburn’s wide receivers continue to improve as a whole each week. Senior Tony Stevens leads the team with 13 receptions, 177 yards and 2 touchdowns after underperforming for most of his Auburn career. Will Hastings has become a regular contributor at slot receiver, and Marcus Davis has plenty of experience. Auburn’s blue-chip trio of true freshman receivers — Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove — should see the field more Saturday as Auburn tries to attack a talented LSU secondary.
LSU: Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre create one of the best combinations of wide receivers in the SEC. These two Tigers are experienced and explosive, and they are No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in both receptions and yardage for the third straight season. Junior D.J. Chark is stepping up his game this season as well, along with senior tight end DeSean Smith. The Tigers have plenty of talent out wide, as always. It’s just a matter of getting the ball to them at the right times, which is what LSU is trying to do with its switch to Etling.
Auburn: Auburn’s offensive line hasn’t been dreadful over the last couple of weeks, but it’s played a big role in the FBS-high amount of negative plays the Tigers have had so far in 2016. Tackles Austin Golson and Robert Leff need better performances on the edges, especially in the area of pass protection. The run blocking has been solid with top-tier guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith leading the way. However, Auburn expected more out of a unit returning three starters, and it needs improvement in order for the offense to succeed against LSU.
LSU: Injuries and a suspension for Josh Boutte have made LSU’s offensive line a work-in-progress through the first three weeks of the season. The Tigers shuffled some pieces around from their returning talent in the offseason to try and compensate for the departure of two starting tackles. Health will be a concern — four different linemen missed some time with injuries against Mississippi State — but this unit has had decent production through the chaos heading into Week 4.
Auburn: Defensive line Rodney Garner has an insanely deep rotation up front this season, and that’s contributed to constant pressure and run-stopping success for the Auburn defense. While the defensive linemen haven’t consistently cashed in with sacks and tackles for loss, they’ve done a good job of impacting opposing offenses. True freshman Marlon Davidson continues to make impact plays all over the field, and senior Montravius Adams is as reliable as they come down the middle. Auburn’s depth and star power up front has paid off in a big way through the first quarter of the 2016 regular season.
LSU: While LSU might not boast as deep of a line rotation as Auburn, it does have the Power 5’s sack leader — sophomore pass-rushing specialist Arden Key . The 6-foot-6 Key will provide another stiff test up front for Auburn’s offensive line, as he is extremely long and agile for a pass rusher in the SEC. (He’s technically listed at outside linebacker, but he’s put his hand in the dirt quite a bit this season.) Lewis Neal and Davon Godchaux have made several big plays in the backfield as well for the Bayou Bengals, which are coached up front by the memorable Ed Orgeron. Auburn might have more talent on the defensive line due to its deep rotation, but LSU has the most productive star in this game.
Auburn: For Auburn fans, the linebackers have to be the most pleasant surprise of the young season. Auburn had only one returning option with experience — Tre’ Williams — and he’s been replaced in the starting lineup thanks to the play of sophomore Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams. All three have double-digit tackles early in the season and have been rock-solid in run support. The biggest change for the Tigers’ defense in 2016 has been at linebacker, and it’s been a huge positive. These linebackers set the tone for an improving defense.
LSU: Kendell Beckwith is one of the SEC’s most prolific tackling machines, and he’s well on his way to being one of LSU’s tackle leaders for a third straight season. New LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda likes to get creative with his linebackers in pass-rushing situations, but Beckwith is the only one that has recorded a sack this season. Duke Riley and Tashawn Bower are veterans in the unit, and Donnie Alexander has gotten off to a strong start this season. All in all, this is a solid unit that one has come to expect from an LSU defense.
Auburn: Auburn’s secondary has done a better job in tightening up against coverage busts, which have been a real problem for the unit in the past several seasons. Rudy Ford continues to be a leader wherever he lines up in the secondary. Cornerback Carlton Davis is coming off a strong game against Texas A&M, and Javaris Davis delivered one of the biggest hits of the season in a pass breakup. Safety Tray Matthews needs to cut down on his mistakes, as he personally was responsible for two of Texas A&M’s three big plays last Saturday.
LSU: LSU loves to call itself “DBU,” and it’s easy to see why this season. According to Pro Football Focus, cornerback Tre’Davious White has the lowest allowed passer rating in attempts thrown his way of any cornerback in the Power 5 conferences. The ultra-fast Donte Jackson is performing well early, as well as fellow cornerback Kevin Toliver II. Jamal Adams is one of college football’s best safeties, and Rickey Jefferson is getting plenty of production in Aranda’s scheme. LSU could go three-deep at every defensive back position with proven players and former blue-chips.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson will continue his race toward becoming the best kicker in all of college football this season, as he’s perfect through the first three games with an additional fake field goal touchdown. Punter Kevin Phillips needs to cut down on the mis-kicks, but he’s boomed several great punts this season and hasn’t allowed a return all season. Kerryon Johnson had a good kick return against Texas A&M to lead an experienced unit. There are no big weaknesses here.
LSU: Colby Delahoussaye has hit his only field goal attempt of the season but has already missed a pair of extra points — miscues that have loomed large historically in this Auburn vs. LSU rivalry. Freshman Josh Growden is averaging a shade under 40 yards per punt. White has run a punt back for a touchdown, and Jackson has reeled off a long kick return already in the early season.
The Bottom Line
LSU is the better team heading into this game and has the momentum of coming off a win against Mississippi State. But the gap isn’t large between these two programs which have played quite a few tight games in their past, especially at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn has the talent to compete with LSU — it just hasn’t consistently showcased that talent in 2016.
Auburn’s defensive line and improved linebacker play will be big boosts against Fournette and a quarterback making his first career road start in SEC play. If Auburn’s offensive line can play better against LSU’s attacking defensive front, it has the playmakers at running back and wide receiver to take advantage.
Quarterback and offensive line play will most likely determine this edition of the Tiger Bowl. LSU’s offense has had more success but hasn’t been the model of stability through three weeks. Auburn will be counting on the home crowd to be a factor in what should be a much closer game than the 2015 rout in Baton Rouge.