Ask anybody in or around The Plains … it’s a different year.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has maintained that countless times through the first three weeks of the season, but even this year’s theme can’t overshadow the major storyline heading into Saturday’s showdown with No. 18 LSU.
Last year, LSU running back Leonard Fournette ran over Auburn in Tiger Stadium. This time, the venue shifts to Jordan-Hare Stadium, where the attention again will be on No. 7 in purple and gold, whose success could have major ramifications for the future of the Auburn program.
“We’re playing a very good LSU team,” Malzahn said on Wednesday during the SEC teleconference. “Offensively, they run the football with Fournette, one of the best football players in college football. He got the best of us last year, so we need to do a good job of containing him.”
“Our team is very close,” he added. “We’re looking forward to playing LSU at home.”
Malzahn is hopeful that the home crowd will inject some energy into Auburn, which is looking to even its record to 2-2 and pick up its first SEC victory.
Perhaps playing in Jordan-Hare will help to counteract a LSU rushing attack that dominated in last year’s meeting. Last fall, Fournette amassed 228 yards and found the end zone three times in LSU’s 45-21 rout of Auburn.
LSU’s victory was the team’s fourth in the last five years, but don’t tell that to Malzahn, who will remind you that 2016 is a different sort of year.
“It’s a big game,” he said. “This year, every year is different. Last year, they got the best of us, no doubt. They can run the football. The running back had one of those Heisman-type games. But it’s a different year, it’s a big game, so we need to tackle, gang tackle and offensively, score points.”
Malzahn may be right about it being a new year, but Fournette is yielding similar numbers.
In two starts, Fournette has rushed for 287 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’s averaging a whopping 5.6 yards per carry.
In the last meeting, then-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was charged with slowing down the all-world running back. That task has been relayed onto Kevin Steele, who last year at this time was calling the defensive calls for LSU.
Steele has a level of familiarity with Fournette and LSU after one season in Baton Rouge, La. His Auburn defense ranks 65th in the nation against the run (149.33 yards per game) and has its hands full with the major task that comes on Saturday.
“We’re glad we have him,” Malzahn said of his defensive coordinator. “Our defensive players have really responded to him. They’re having fun, playing defense and flying around, playing solid defense. They’re still learning, and the encouraging thing is we think that we can still get better.”
No. 7 should be a good test for Steele’s unit and if, in fact, Malzahn is right about it being a different year.
All ratings are from the 247Sports composite rankings unless otherwise noted.
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