People are already calling this edition of Auburn-LSU “The Buyout Bowl” thanks to popular perception that one of two coaches skating on thin ice, Gus Malzahn and Les Miles, will be forced to adhere to the playground principle of “loser walks” if they’re on the wrong side of the scoreboard Saturday.
Personally I don’t see either coach departing in some dramatic midseason gesture, but certainly the pitchforks will be sharpening for the loser just because it will be an enormous challenge to salvage the rest of the season in either case.
We talked to SEC Country Auburn beat writer Justin Ferguson about how things have developed on The Plains this year heading into the showdown with LSU.
Q: Does Auburn’s quarterback situation put even more fun into the word “dysfunctional” than LSU’s? And why?
JF: So Auburn’s quarterback situation is one of the most bizarre in college football. Sean White has been named the starter by Gus Malzahn on three different occasions this season, and it’s only Week 4. White is a solid quarterback, but it’s still unclear whether he can lead a classic Malzahn offense to great success. His record as a starter is underwhelming, and his best production has come against weak competition or in last year’s marathon overtime loss to Arkansas.
When John Franklin III comes into the game, things change. Auburn is more explosive offensively thanks to Franklin’s speed. He just hasn’t had many opportunities to show how he’s improved throwing the ball. I think the fourth quarter of the Texas A&M game showed White isn’t on as long of a leash as people think. Franklin provides a spark with some clear rough edges.
I think LSU has found a legitimate answer at quarterback in Danny Etling, although he hasn’t had his first big SEC road start yet. I think the position is more of a question mark at Auburn, even with the Tigers narrowing their three-quarterback rotation in Week 1 to two. If a White-led offense doesn’t make things happen Saturday against LSU, I believe Franklin has a great chance to take the reins.
Q: What has Kevin Steele done to improve the Auburn defense? Is it schematic? Are guys just playing better?
JF: Kevin Steele runs a scheme that’s nearly identical to what Will Muschamp used in his one and only year back at Auburn last year. Even with a new coordinator and several new position coaches, I think Auburn is playing better defensively because of that continuity with that 4-3 scheme with the “Buck” defensive end.
Auburn has an experienced front thanks to the return of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, and the new starting linebackers — sophomores Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams — are playing much better under position coach Travis Williams. The secondary is building off its development last season under Travaris Robinson, especially at the cornerback positions.
The Steele hire was far from the most inspiring one on the Plains this offseason, but it’s been successful so far because he’s built on the foundation Muschamp laid last season. Auburn has quite a few playmakers who have gained more experience in the same scheme and picked up a few new rotation pieces who have improved under the new leadership.
Q: How much motivation is Auburn’s defense drawing from last year’s humiliation from Leonard Fournette?
JF: This has been an interesting topic this week around the Auburn athletics complex. A few defensive players over the last few days have talked about how they circled this game way ahead of time after what Fournette did to Auburn last season. Auburn is much better at stopping the run this season than it was when it when to Baton Rouge last year, and now it’s ready for the ultimate test of Fournette.
Malzahn, on the other hand, has made it clear in his press conferences that he wants Auburn looking back to last year’s loss to LSU for learning opportunities more than motivation for revenge or anything like that. He doesn’t want them to get over-hyped or too focused on making sure Fournette doesn’t humiliate them. There’s an attitude of staying grounded and ready for the challenge ahead.
So, to fully answer your question, I think some of the defensive players are drawing some motivation from it, but it’s not a huge talking point for them. They’re more eager to prove that the Auburn defense as a whole is for real.
Q: It’s difficult to statistically assess an offensive line that has allowed a league-high 9 sacks while clearing way for a league-high 261 yards per game on the ground. Are Auburn’s backs outperforming a “meh” line? Do they just struggle against the pass? Are QBs holding the ball too long? How the heck are they gonna stop Arden Key? Sorry for ruining the five-question concept.
JF: The interior of Auburn’s offensive line, especially at the guard spots, is strong. Together, Alex Kozan and Braden Smith are one of the best combos in the SEC and possibly the country. Xavier Dampeer has been reliable at center. These guys have had a good amount of success in paving the way for some of Auburn’s better rushing attacks in the last few years.
Auburn’s biggest problems are coming at offensive tackle. Austin Golson moved from center to left tackle and hasn’t impressed there. Robert Leff moved to right tackle after reserve work on the left, and he’s had major struggles in pass protection. They’re the major reasons why Auburn has allowed the most tackles for loss in the FBS through the first three weeks of the season.
When Auburn gets rolling on the ground, it’s an impressive offense, even up front. The rushing talent is there. But with White as the starting quarterback, Auburn is forced to throw the ball more than it’s used to doing with, say, a Nick Marshall. Right now, Auburn’s offensive line is having plenty of troubles when White is dropping back to pass, which makes facing Arden Key on Saturday a huge issue. Auburn has to make adjustments and do it quickly.
Q: Is this game really a referendum on Gus Malzahn’s future at Auburn?
JF: This game comes at such an intriguing time on Auburn’s schedule. A win here could become the boost Auburn has been looking for — a home victory in the SEC that leads right into a paycheck game against Louisiana-Monroe. Win there, and the Tigers are back above .500 heading into games against Mississippi State and Arkansas, which are beatable.
If Malzahn’s offense doesn’t get its act together and LSU wins Saturday, he might have to make a big change at starting quarterback in order to salvage the season. That would give Auburn a game against Louisiana-Monroe to figure things out with Franklin before facing Mississippi State on the road. But if the Tigers are looking at 2-4 with their only wins against Sun Belt teams, Malzahn will need a huge second half of the season in order to ensure his safety.
I believe Auburn needs to get to the halfway point in the season to get a better glimpse of Malzahn’s job security. A win here against LSU could do wonders if Auburn can follow it up with a road win in Starkville. A loss to LSU, while not the end of the world, would make things even tougher. Either result on Saturday needs to come with better production from Auburn’s offense for Malzahn’s sake.
Ferguson’s Pick: LSU 28, Auburn 23