War Eagle, everybody! Time now to preview another 2009 Auburn football opponent! On October 24th, Auburn travels to Baton Rouge to battle the LSU Tigers. With any luck, Auburn will be sporting at least a 5-2 record coming into this contest. LSU’s season opens with a long distance trip to Washington, to play the Huskies in Seattle. After that, comes a veritable training camp/exhibition season, featuring Vanderbilt, UL Lafayette, then Mississippi State on the road. Then the meat of the LSU schedule hits, with Georgia on the road, and Florida at home. After the Gator bash, LSU has a week off, to recuperate for the Auburn battle. I figure LSU will be at least 5-1 at that point, possibly 6-0, if the Gators tank as the heavy favorite.
Normally, the Auburn/LSU game is a fight to stay in the SEC Western Division race. This year, most experts don’t give Auburn any chance, and many feel that Ole Miss or Alabama will rule the West. LSU returns 13 starters, plus a whole lot more good players with experience. In addition, Co-defensive coordinators Peveto and Mallory are gone, after the LSU defense gave up 50+ points to Georgia and Florida, and 30+ to their last 3 regular season opponents. Taking over the defense is former Tennessee Vol coordinator John Chavis. Chavis does have some holes to fill, especially on the defensive line, where only one starter returns, senior tackle Charles Alexander. There is talent and depth still up front, though, and some experience. LSU will rotate front seven guys frequently, ensuring stamina deep into the 4th quarter of most games. One of the league’s worst secondaries figures to be improved, after throwing some young guys like cornerback Patrick Peterson to the wolves, last season. Peterson started the last 4 games of 2008 as a true freshman.
The LSU offense will be led again by the huge, rampaging Charles Scott, with depth at running back behind him. LSU’s spotty quarterback play, and interception returns for touchdowns cost them dearly last season, and all indications from this spring are that things will be better, under center. There is some youth on the LSU offensive line, especially at center and left guard, where sophomores T-Bob Hebert and Josh Dworaczyk appear poised to start. Veteran mammoth all SEC senior tackle Ciron Black anchors the all important left tackle spot. The receiver corps should be a strength, led by all-SEC senior Brandon LaFell, and senior tight end Richard Dixon.
The LSU special teams should remain special, again in 2009. The highlight would have to be the electrifying return man, senior Trindon Holliday. LSU returns solid coverage, but has to replace placekicker Colt David and punter Brady Dalfrey. At placekicker, LSU will look to junior Josh Jasper, a kickoff specialist. At punter, the leader is junior college transfer Derek Helton.
Auburn defensive line vs. LSU offensive line: Auburn will be strong on the D-line in 2009, led by Antonio Coleman, and LSU will have two new starters. But, the LSU line is a strong one, featuring a pair of huge tackles in senior Ciron Black and junior Joseph Barksdale. The pair bring 53 starts into the season. Senior guard Lyle Hitt adds 26 starts to the mix. One might think that the chink in the LSU armor is with new center, sophomore T-Bob Hebert. It’s not likely the case. Hebert is an SEC academic honor-role guy, and he’s also 301 pounds. Where Auburn’s best shot is, is attacking the LSU guards. They are smaller, around 285 pounds, than the other three. Might be a good opportunity to utilize bull-rushing specialists Mike Blanc and Jake Ricks. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. LSU runners: Auburn’s Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes have faced LSU’s Charles Scott before, and were a bit worse for the wear, giving up 6.3 yards per carry. However, Scott didn’t manage any touchdowns in 2008 against Auburn. Unfortunately, those two are the only Auburn linebackers with significant experience. Scott’s a senior, and led the SEC in rushing touchdowns last year. He’s got an interesting lead blocker ahead of him, in 221 pound sophomore Stevan Ridley. Ridley was redshirted his first season, then worked mostly as a mop-up power back, last year. LSU also has change-of-pace guys they can bring off the bench, including the ever-dangerous burner Trindan Holliday, and senior Keiland Williams. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn corners vs. LSU receivers: For the past two seasons, the Auburn secondary has been carved up by LSU passers in the 2nd half. Auburn’s Walter McFadden should be seasoned enough to hold his own against the likes of Brandon LaFell, but on the other side, and at nickel, young corners like Neiko Thorpe will likely struggle. And it’s not just the senior LaFell that Auburn has to cover. Junior Terrance Toliver has been around the block a few times, as has senior Chris Mitchel. LSU won a recruiting war with Auburn, for prize receiver Reuben Randle, who figures to leap immediately into LSU’s playing rotation. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn safeties vs. LSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s safeties will be a year older and wiser, this season, and hopefully healthy by game seven. There is danger in the LSU slot guys, too. Senior all-SEC tight end Richard Dickson has surprising speed for a tight end, and great hands. There is young talent behind him, too. Slot receiver R. J. Jackson has had a good spring. Don’t forget, LSU moves Trindan Holliday into the slot, from time to time. LSU’s Achilles heel last season, was bad quarterback play. Andrew Hatch is gone, and the nation’s leader in pick-sixes, Jarrett Lee, is on the bench. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson will start, and he’s looked good this spring, hitting 8 of 10 in the spring game. Jefferson seems to have great mobility, and a strong arm. Even if Jefferson doesn’t pan out, one would have to think Lee would be better, with a year of experience under his belt. Advantage: LSU.
Punting: Clinton Durst brings his 42.1 yard average back for another season on the Plains. LSU seems to have settled on junior college transfer Derek Helton. Helton managed only about 39 yards per kick in the spring, but he does kick it very high. Auburn’s returner hasn’t been decided. LSU will go with Chad Jones, who averaged 11.9 yards per return in limited work last year. Auburn’s coverage unit gave up 7.0 yards per return last year, LSU gave up 8.5. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn’s Wes Byrum averaged about 67 yards per kickoff during the spring, and appeared very consistent during the A-Day game. LSU will go with junior Josh Jasper, who averaged 60.9 in 2008. Auburn junior Mario Fannin is the most experienced kick return man, averaging 22.5 yards per return. LSU’s senior Trindan Holliday averaged 22.9. Auburn’s coverage unit gave up 21.5 yards per return, LSU’s gave up only 17.6. Advantage: LSU.
Placekicking: Wes Byrum returns for his third year for Auburn, having hit 27 of his 42 career attempts. Kickoff specialist Josh Jasper takes over as the placekicker, for LSU. Jasper hit 2 of 2 field goals last season, but was 0-1 in the spring game, missing a 50-yard attempt. On experience, it’s Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line: By all accounts, the fire is back in the Auburn offensive line, this year. With 4 veteran starters, plus 5th year senior Andrew McCain, Auburn will field a good unit, led by junior preseason All-SEC tackle Lee Ziemba. LSU will rotate about 8 guys up front on defense, and while only one starter returns, they still should be nasty. 310-pound senior tackle Charles Alexander anchors the middle. Watch out for vicious senior end Rahim Alem. While he only started one game in 2008, he was still second team All-SEC. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn backs vs. LSU linebackers: Auburn should have some weapons in the backfield, led by senior running back Ben Tate. LSU has returning senior strong side linebacker Perry Riley, who was a Butkus finalist in 2008. Backup middle linebacker, senior Jacob Cutrera moves up to start. Cutrera has a LOT of experience. Projected to start on the weak side is a converted safety, senior Harry Coleman. If there’s a weakness on the LSU squad, it’s linebacker depth. Several true freshmen will be likely backups. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. LSU corners: Gone is leading receiver Rod Smith, for Auburn, as well as veterans Robert Dunn and Chris Slaughter. The leaders going into fall camp appear to be Tim Hawthorne, Montez Billings, and Darvin Adams. Signee DeAngelo Benton is reportedly turning heads in summer workouts. Hawthorne has a knack for missing preseason practice, and likely will miss two a days, after breaking a foot in summer workouts. Sophomore LSU corner Patrick Peterson started the last 4 games of 2008, and had a bit of a baptism by fire. Peterson has the potential to become a lock-down corner. Senior Chris Hawkins IS a lock-down corner. Some of the players that were frequently torched last year, such as Jai Eugene, come back a year stronger and wiser. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. LSU safeties: Senior tight end Tommy Trott should be solid, and junior Mario Fannin showed flashes in the slot, but quarterback play for Auburn is still a question. LSU junior free safety Chad Jones is a phenom. Jones has safety size at 6′-3″, 214 pounds, but corner speed, with great hands. Senior Danny McCray will likely start at the other safety spot, and LSU has some athletic depth behind that. Advantage: LSU.
On paper, the only places Auburn appears to have an advantage is at placekicker and punter. If Auburn has capable quarterbacking in place by late October, they should be able to give LSU a battle, taking advantage of a slightly thinner than usual linebacking corps. If Auburn’s quarterbacks haven’t improved from last year , this game will be very ugly. Auburn may also be able to capitalize if LSU’s quarterbacking hasn’t improved over last season. In addition, the off date gives LSU an extra week to work on Gus Malzhan’s unconventional offense. Of all the matchups Auburn faces in 2009, this one appears to be the most difficult.
Prediction: A rested, schooled LSU squad is too much for Auburn. The visiting Tigers play hard, but take a 41-27 loss.