War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football opponent preview. In week 4, defending SEC Champ LSU travels to Auburn. For the visiting Bengal Tigers, it’s the first serious game of the year. For Auburn, it’s a key matchup in a brutal September. Auburn opens with Clemson in Atlanta, Mississippi State in Starkville, and Louisiana Monroe prior to this contest. LSU starts with 3 home games: North Texas, Washington and Idaho. This should give Auburn a “tough game” experience advantage, as Auburn has only one tomato can to this point, compared to LSU’s 2 (or arguably 3). Washington gave up 467 points in 2011, including 51 to Nebraska, 65 to Stanford, and 67 to Baylor. On the other hand, Auburn may be a lot more beat-up by this point than LSU. Fortunately, Auburn’s open date comes the week after LSU.
While the last game most of us have seen LSU play was the disappointing BCS Title Game last January, it’s easy to forget that LSU was an exceedingly dominant football team for much of 2011. Many of their best players return for 2012, with only a few key losses. LSU played 12 games against teams not named “Alabama,” and had a double-digit win in each of them, with the closest game being a 40-27 win over Oregon in the season opener. In the 2011-2012 season, LSU’s average score was 36-11, including the two games with the Tide.
All eyes are on the LSU offense, where part-time starting quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee must be replaced. Emerging as the unquestioned starter is junior Zach Mettenberger. Results were mixed in the spring game, with some early inconsistency and a couple of interceptions (one was a receiver drop) but some big plays and 2 touchdowns. On the day, Mettenberger hit 14 of 25 for 270 yards. That’s only a 56 percent average, but a whopping 10.8 yards per pass. We all know head coach Les Miles likes to take his shots down the field. LSU returns a bruising, veteran offensive line, and possibly the most loaded running back corps in the country. Receivers are young, and didn’t get much opportunity to pad stats in last season’s run-heavy offense.
Defensively, LSU lost an NFL tackle, two starting linebackers, and a likely starting NFL cornerback during the offseason. Despite that, they’ll still have a loaded defense, including Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary, and the near-unblockable Barkevious Mingo at defensive end. Junior Kevin Minter is the lone returning starter at linebacker, but LSU has a lot of young talent, and they’ll be playing behind a deep defensive line.
LSU had the best special teams in the SEC last season, and with most specialists returning, figures to be outstanding once again. Senior field goal kicker Drew Allemanis nearly automatic, and sophomore punter Brad Wing has a monster leg. LSU was among the SEC leaders in both coverage units, and has ridiculous big play return ability with Odell Beckham Jr, Russell Sheppard and Tyrann Mathieu deep.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. LSU offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. No one whipped this unit worse than LSU did last season. Hopefully Auburn will field a bigger, stronger unit this fall that wants to even the score. LSU’s likely starters are headlined by junior left tackle Chris Faulk, who has All-American potential. He’s a massive, strong specimen with deceptively quick feet, and long, powerful arms. Senior center P. J. Lonergan has logged a lot of playing time, but has also battled injury. Junior Josh Williford will hold down one guard spot. The other spot will go either to sophomore La’el Collins, or veteran senior Josh Dworaczyk. At right tackle LSU has senior Alex Hurst. Hurst is a massive 340 pound run-blocking force, but at times has had trouble with speed rushers. Auburn will likely line Dee Ford up on that side, which could be a matchup problem for LSU. LSU’s use of tight ends and fullbacks in the blocking package may mitigate that, though. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn linebackers vs. LSU backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. LSU’s literally six deep at running back, and uses multiple folk to keep fresh legs in the game. The list includes juniors Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Michael Ford, sophomore Kenny Hilliard, as well as freshman Jeremy Hill, who shined in spring drills. At fullback is 280 pound junior J. C. Copeland, who was a nightmare blocking load for Tiger tacklers last season. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn corners vs. LSU receivers: This was an area where Auburn was torched last season, but much of it was due to a non-existent pass rush. This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there’s fast, talented guys two deep behind them. LSU suffered a bit in the offseason with the departure of star Reuben Randle. The top returning big play threat might be sophomore Odell Beckham, who made some noise as a freshman with 41 grabs. No other returning LSU receiver caught more than 14 balls in 2011. Starting with Beckham will likely be some combination of senior Russell Sheppard and junior James Wright. Wright looked like a solid, medium distance possession receiver this spring. Sheppard’s a curious case. Used during his career as a receiver, runner, wildcat quarterback, and general-purpose threat, Sheppard’s production cratered last season. Despite playing in 11 games, Sheppard only managed 52 rushing yards, 190 receiving yards, and 48 yards on kick returns. Sheppard did score 4 times. Sophomore Jarvis Landry also should play a good bit. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. LSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Auburn’s young here, and the safeties in vanGorder’s system have to make a lot of defensive calls. Fortunately, LSU’s offense isn’t terribly complex. The Bengal Tigers know what they want to do; pound it at your front seven, and hit a few play action passes. It’s a quandry for defensive coordinators. Play two deep safeties, and there’s probably no team in America that can stop LSU’s running game. Roll one down, and big plays usually start happening. LSU’s top returning secondary receiver is senior tight end Chase Clement, who caught 7 balls in 2011. LSU will also swing a pass or two out to the running backs from time to time. We can only guess how junior starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger will do in his first SEC start on the road. Mettenberger has been highly hyped for a number of years, dating back to challenging for the starting QB job at Georgia in 2009. Despite the hype, he’s only thrown 11 career passes. Mettenberger is somewhat mobile, but it’s doubtful he’ll be able to show the burst Jordan Jefferson did at times scrambling. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: The best two punters in the SEC may be on display in this game, and defense and special teams usually carry this matchup. Since 2002, Auburn has not scored more than 24 points on LSU, and has won when defense and field position hold. Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent’s 20. LSU senior Brad Wing hammered 59 kicks for a 44.4 yard average. An astounding 20 of those traveled over 50 yards. Despite kicking deep, LSU allowed only 3.7 yards per return. LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu was a weapon last year, averaging 15.6 yards per return, and took two to the house. Auburn’s Quan Brayaveraged just 7.4 yards per return. Advantage: LSU.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. With the tee spot moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line this season, Parkey could improve that ratio, unless the coaches decide more sky-kicks are in order. Auburn’s spring game didn’t provide any clues, there. LSU sophomore James Hairston averaged 65.7 yards per kickoff last year, with 16 touchbacks on 70 kickoffs. LSU must replace the dangerous Mo Claiborne in the return game, but Odell Beckham and Russell Sheppard were capable last season, averaging 24.0 yards per return each. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. On coverage, LSU gave up 20.0 yards per return, and Auburn gave up 22.1. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. LSU senior Drew Alleman was near-automatic, hitting 16 of 18, including a pressure-packed game winner in Tuscaloosa. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line: Auburn’s starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. I’ll be shocked if Miller is still starting this fall, but stranger things have happened. The most likely result is for Slade to move to right tackle, and either sophomore Eric Mackor redshirt freshman Christian Westerman to start at right guard. In any event, Auburn is very young, if talented on the o-line. The good news is that most of these guys were bloodied early and often last season. The bad news is that one tackle or the other will face the tall task of dealing with deadly junior end Barkevious Mingo. Mingo had a ridiculous 15 tackles for loss and 11 QB hurries as a sophomore last season. Despite the loss of tackle Michael Brockers to the NFL, LSU is loaded up front, and will be able to rotate good players and stay fresh. Probable starting lineup at defensive end is Mingo and junior Sam Montgomery, who’s also very good. LSU has an array of reserve ends, including senior Lavar Edwards. At tackle, senior Josh Downs and junior Bennie Logan will hold down the fort, with lots of minutes by big sophomore Anthony “Freak” Johnson, who looks like the latest in the Chad Lavalais-style series of line-wrecking LSU tackles. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn backs vs. LSU linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the “between the tackles” back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. LSU must replace two starters in the linebacking corps, but veteran junior Kevin Minter returns. He’s your classic good-sized run-stopping force. LSU is somewhat light, but very fast behind Minter. If part of a defense must be inexperienced, it’s said that it hurts less when the linebackers are green, particularly if they can fly around. And of course, it may not matter if the LSU D-line is as destructive on the field as they are on paper! Likely starters at outside linebacker are juniors Tajh Jones and Lamin Barrow. Jones is the Sam linebacker, and is only 202 pounds. That could be a matchup problem against Auburn’s Jay Prosch and Phillip Lutzenkirchen. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. LSU corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. LSU must replace lock-down corner Mo Claiborne, but the cupboard is hardly bare. The biggest LSU loss on defense may have been defensive backs coach Ron Cooper, who left for a coordinator job with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Can replacement Corey Raymond coach ‘em up as well as Cooper did? Raymond had some decent defensive backfields at Utah State and Nebraska in recent years. Junior Tyrann Mathieu returns, after an electric season. He’s blazingly fast, and has a nose for the ball. He’s only 5’9″ and 175 pounds. Alabama had success in the BCS title game matching big receivers and tight ends up on him. The other corner starter is unsung hero Tharold Simon. Simon’s a big corner at 6″3″, but has uncommon agility and speed. He had a couple of interceptions and 10 pass breakups (the most on the team) last season, mostly coming off the bench. LSU has a couple of scary-good redshirt freshmen who emerged this spring at corner, Jalen Collins and David Jenkins. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. LSU safeties: All eyes will be on the Auburn quarterback, at this point likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. This will be his first SEC start at home. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. The LSU safeties are juniors Eric Reid and Craig Loston. LSU safeties don’t tend to put up the huge numbers many deep defenders do, but that’s mostly because the 9 guys in front of them have already wiped out the ball carrier. Reid did lead LSU with 76 tackles last year, even so. Honestly, Auburn never managed to challenge the LSU safeties last season, and must do a lot better job up front for this matchup to even matter. Smart money is on the veteran guys. Advantage: LSU.
On paper, LSU wins about 70 percent of these matchups. When Auburn’s had the defensive players, they’ve historically been able to make LSU offenses play below their level in Auburn. Whether this was forcing Marcus Randle to throw it up for grabs in 2002, holding LSU down in 2004 and 2006, or even the attacking defense and ball control win in 2010, Auburn’s had a tendency to make LSU’s offensive life difficult in Jordan Hare Stadium, as long as they can prevent big passes downfield. Mettenberger has the arm to hit those big plays, but as he showed in the LSU spring game, he also can make a poor throw or two. There are reasons Mettenberger hasn’t played much in the SEC the past three seasons. Can he make a big debut in Auburn? Bottom line: if the Auburn defense doesn’t hold up in this one, the home Tigers have no chance.
LSU’s defense absolutely crushed Auburn’s offense the last two trips to Baton Rouge. With a running quarterback in 2010 in Auburn, Jon Chavis’ defense was nicked, slashed and bruised to the tune of 440 rushing yards. Auburn is NOT going to beat LSU’s defense with a big passing game from a true sophomore quarterback. What Auburn must do is block up front, be creative in the running game, not fumble, and grind on LSU. In Auburn’s 4 wins in 10 years over LSU, the key in every one has been hard running moving the chains and resting the defense. That will be no different in 2012.
Against LSU, Auburn can afford no special teams letdowns. In particular last year, Auburn melted down on the kick return blocking as the game went on, costing Auburn a couple of injured return men, and an easy LSU touchdown. That must not happen again!
The big overall question is whether LSU can be ready for a big physical SEC game after their opening slate at home, and can Auburn bring that sort of game? Auburn will have already played Clemson and Mississippi State in Starkville by this time. It’s also a battle of inexperienced quarterbacks. Auburn’s Khiel Frazier does have more time spent on the field in the SEC, and he’s at home.
Prediction: It’s a defensive slug-fest, and Auburn pulls a shocking 17-16 upset!