Can Auburn handle LSU up front like 2010?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On September 21st, Auburn gears up for its first road trip of the season, to face LSU in Baton Rouge. At first glance, LSU is a team gutted by graduation and early entries to the NFL. The Tigers lost 11 underclassmen off last year’s roster, and only return 2 defensive starters. Add in new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and some off the field problems, and LSU looks vulnerable in week four.
However, recent history is against Auburn in this one. Not since the infamous “Cigar Game” in 1999 has Auburn won in Baton Rouge. The game has not even been competitive in Death Valley since Tommy Tuberville left Auburn. One of the keys has been the quarterback position. Auburn took rookie Jason Campbell in there in 2001 and lost 27-14 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. A dysfunctional offense in 2003 did no better, in a 31-7 blowout. Brandon Cox got only his second road start in 2005, and if Auburn would have had any semblance of a passing game in that one, history would not remember 5 missed field goals and an overtime loss. With veteran Cox in 2007, Auburn held a lead for much of the game, but a 17 point 4th quarter meltdown left the visiting Tigers with a 30-24 loss. In 2009, Chris Todd’s arm was ailing, and Auburn took a 31-10 beating. In 2011, Clint Moseley was given his first start ever, and it was an exceptionally ugly game for the Tigers, a 45-10 loss. Can Auburn go into Baton Rouge and win with the current crop of QBs on the Plains?
If you’ve ever wanted to know what a “trap game” is, LSU’s opener is exactly that. They play former BCS-buster TCU in Arlington, Texas in a made for TV evening matchup. LSU will be tested early in the Jerry Dome. Following the opener, LSU has moribund UAB at home, followed by bowl team Kent State, before playing Auburn. LSU follows the Tiger battle with Georgia in Athens, MSU in Starkville, Florida at home, Ole Miss in Oxford, Furman for homecoming, then an off week. Following the break, LSU has Alabama in Tuscaloosa, then Texas A&M at home. LSU finishes the regular season with a black Friday matchup with Arkansas in Baton Rouge. I don’t think I’d trade schedules with them!
It’s another year, and another round of questions about the LSU offense. It seems each year that LSU is seen as a team with strong defense and special teams, and an average at best offense. That will need to change this year, with a lot of new faces on the opposite side of the ball. LSU does have the advantage of 9 returning starters on offense, including starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger. What’s odd about this year’s offense is a thinning tailback situation. The past few years, it’s seemed like LSU had a bottomless stable of great backs. With the multiple arrests and suspension of formerly likely starter Jeremy Hill, LSU has only three scholarship guys right now, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, and Terrance Magee. That’s a pretty good trio, though. LSU worked extensively on the passing game this past spring, with mixed results in the spring game. There were a lot of big plays down the field on the reserves, there was clearly work still to be done on the screen game.
The only returning starters on the defense are senior linebacker Lamin Barrow, and senior safety Craig Loston. However, a number of the new starters on defense have contributed significant minutes in the past, starting with junior tackle Anthony Johnson, who was for all intents and purposes a third tackle starter in 2012. Regardless of who winds up starting, LSU does have the talent to be strong in the front seven, and will try to force Auburn to pass. LSU’s last look at a Gus Malzhan-style offense was last New Year’s Eve in Atlanta, against Clemson. Tajh Boyd had a big day throwing the ball in the Clemson upset win, but LSU shut down the run, holding Clemson to just 99 yards on the ground. Auburn will have to have some success throwing the ball to have a chance in this one.
LSU seems to always field brutally effective special teams units, and this year may be as well, although a good number of newer players should be on the field this time. Gone are the spectacular legs of Brad Wing and Drew Allemon, though. Can LSU continue to be special in the kicking game with a couple of walk-on starters replacing those two? Junior kicker James Hairston was the kickoff man last season, and he was effective there. Heir-apparent sophomore punter Jamie Keehn did have 12 punts last season, for a 43.7 yard average.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. LSU offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. Last season against LSU, Auburn’s D-line had its best game of the season. LSU returns four starters on a re-shuffled offensive line, but the starting lineup might not be settled till fall, as a number of younger guys seemed to make a move during spring on this unit. Right now, the starting lineup from left to right is junion La’el Collins, senior Josh Williford, junior Elliot Porter, sophomore Trai Turner, and sophomore Vadal Alexander. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. LSU backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. While we touched on LSU’s depth issues above, returnees are all talented. In addition, 270-pound senior fullback J. C. Copeland will be a load for Auburn to handle up front. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn corners vs. LSU receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and will need good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy to slow LSU down. From all indications this spring, Auburn corners are tackling well. LSU is explosive at wide receiver, with veteran juniors Odell Beckham Jr, and Jarvis Landry. Senior Kadron Boone provides depth. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. LSU secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because I’ve done that in earlier previews, and LSU will likely try to pass more this season. This may be another game where one will see both stars on the field, Garrett and Robensen Therezie. Both have the speed to stay with wide receivers, and Therezie does have a cornerback background. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, but senior Demetruce McNeal will return this fall and likely make a serious run. LSU’s returning backs and tight ends were not much of a factor catching the ball last season, but that may change with a new coordinator. Leading returning receiver out of the backfield is Alfred Blue, with 7 catches. Starting tight end Travis Dickson had 6 catches last season. Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger gives LSU a veteran signal-caller in this game. He was inconsistent at times last season, and word from this year’s spring game is that his accuracy is still “streaky.” Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. LSU will likely go with sophomore Jamie Keehn, who had 12 punts for a 43.7 yard average. He killed 3 of those punts inside the 20. LSU’s coverage team was excellent, giving up only 3.5 yards per return. Auburn still hadn’t settled on a return man at the end of spring, while LSU returns veteran Odell Beckham Jr, who took two punts to the house last season. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. LSU’s James Hairston hit touchbacks on 27 of 79 kickoffs. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff in the stands, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. LSU gave up 18.1. LSU does not have a kickoff returner coming back who averaged over 20 yards per return. Auburn’s Quan Bray averaged 20.2, and Tre Mason averaged 26.3. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. We’ll have to see how junior James Hairston does this fall in his new role. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. LSU rebuilds up front this season. Projected starters at tackle are juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson. Depth behind those two might come from true freshmen this fall. Starting ends should be juniors Jordan Allen and Jermauria Rascoe. Sophomore Danielle Hunter is the depth there. Johnson’s clearly the star on LSU’s line, but Auburn counters with Dismukes. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. LSU linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. LSU returns starting will linebacker Lamin Barrow, who had 104 total tackles last season. Likely strong side starter is senior Tahj Jones, and in the middle is junior D. J. Welter. Sophomore Kwon Alexander is the most talented of the backups, and will likely see a lot of playing time. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. LSU corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. LSU does return veteran Jalen Mills on one side. He played extensively last season, starting several games and contributing 57 tackles and 7 passes defended. Penciled in on the other side is sophomore Jalen Collins, who had 30 tackles last season and 8 passes defended. He’s green, but he’s agile and fast. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. LSU safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. The real question is who’ll pull the trigger for the Auburn offense. The QB competition is said to be neck and neck between junior Khiel Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. Neither distinguished himself on A-Day. The race will become five-headed for a while when the newcomers arrive this fall. Senior strong safety Craig Loston has been through the wars, and he does a great job. He’ll be joined by junior Ronald Martin, who played in all 13 games last season and contributed 35 tackles. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn’s first road game is a tough matchup. Auburn must win up front to have any chance in this game. LSU puts a lot of new starters on the field on defense, but it won’t matter if the Auburn offense doesn’t execute well. LSU’s talented enough to win a club fight. The defense must stop the run and force some bad throws from Mettenberger.
Looking at the Auburn roster, quarterback Khiel Frazier’s only road start was last season at Mississippi State, and Jonathan Wallace’s only one was against Alabama in the 49-0 debacle. Neither looked good in those games, and the job may fall to an incoming guy, who’ll have never seen the road in the SEC. It’s a tall order for any new quarterback to win in Baton Rouge, and realistically it’s hard to pick a win in this game.
Prediction: It’s more of the same in this series, as the home-standing LSU Tigers take advantage of visitor mistakes. LSU wins, 27-10.