A Daunting Trip to Baton Rouge (Previewing Auburn at LSU)
Can the Auburn defense slow down Derrius Guice?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! On October 14th Auburn will travel to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers. It is a venue where Auburn has not won since 1999. In the past decade, the game here has not usually even been close. Auburn did win the SEC West 4 years ago without beating LSU in Baton Rouge, but it will be a difficult road if Auburn loses this one.
The Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer before traveling to Missouri prior to a home clash with Mississippi State. The Rebels follow at Jordan-Hare Stadium the following week before the trip to Louisiana. LSU opens in Houston, Texas with BYU. Chattanooga in Baton Rouge follows, then a tricky trip to Starkville to play Mississippi State. LSU then hosts Syracuse, followed by Troy and travels to Gainesville, Florida to play the Gators before hosting Auburn. It’s a tricky schedule for LSU. If the offense sputters out of the gate, a loss to the Cougars is certainly possible. Mississippi State and Florida won’t be easy, either.
On offense, LSU hopes to break out of their accustomed conservative mindset. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada ran about 20 plays in LSU’s spring game before we saw a fullback in the game. What we did see was lots of jet sweep motions and misdirection. LSU charged down the field to the 1-yard line in that game, then with no fullback and shotgun snaps had to settle for a field goal. Yes, Auburn fans have become quite familiar with that scenario over the past few years.
LSU lost quite a bit of skill talent to graduation at the end of last year. However, LSU is always loaded with replacements. The main issue will be experience, not talent. Three starting offensive linemen return along with star running back Derrius Guice. Quarterback Danny Etling returns as well, although the competition is declared still open. Etling was 4 of 11 for 53 yards in the spring game, hardly daunting numbers. A receiving corps will have to be rebuilt along with depth in the backfield.
Defensively, LSU lost its top 6 tacklers, including leaders like Jamal Adams, Kendall Beckwith and Duke Riley. Monster defensive end Arden Key returns, maybe. He took the dreaded “leave of absence for personal reasons” this past spring. LSU also retains big body Christian LaCouture on the line and star cornerback Donté Jackson. Most importantly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda field less than at least a decent defense.
On special teams, place kicker Colby Delahoussaye will have to be replaced, but punter Josh Growden returns after doing a passable job as a freshman last season. LSU also has some decisions to make as to return men. They showed none of those units during the spring game. Derrius Guice was the leading kick returner last season, but can LSU afford to use him there if he’s now the feature back? Based on what I’ve seen, cornerback Donté Jackson may take over on both punt returns and kick returns. Jackson certainly has track star speed. LSU was good at both kick and punt coverage, and figures to be again this year.
Auburn defensive line vs. LSU offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters as well. From left to right, LSU will likely start senior K. J. Malone, junior Garrett Brumfield, junior William Clapp, junior Maea Teuhema, and junior Toby Weathersby. Clapp and Weathersby are all-SEC caliber players, and the rest of these guys should be pretty good. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. LSU backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tré Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players on the field at a given time. LSU will counter with junior running back Derrius Guice, and behind him will be some combination of senior Darrel Williams, junior Nick Brosette and sophomore Lanard Fournette (Leonard Fournette’s little brother!). LSU has a good pair of behemoth fullbacks on the roster, too, in senior John David Moore and junior Bry’Kiethon Mouton. It remains to be seen if fullbacks will see much playing time this year. Auburn’s linebackers did a good job slowing the elder Fournette down, but Guice was a dagger to the Auburn defense, averaging over 20 yards a carry. We were lucky that head coach Les Miles had Guice on the bench most of the game. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. LSU receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickel back, if needed. For LSU, senior D. J. Chark has the most returning experience. Chark caught 26 balls last season for a gaudy 17.9 yard average per catch. Other candidates have less experience, but there is talent there. I saw enough mixing and matching in LSU’s spring game that I can’t put a definitive label on who’s an inside or outside receiver. The younger guys include senior Russell Gage and sophomores Drake Davis, Stephen Sullivan, Dee Anderson, and Derrick Dillon. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. LSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here as long as no one gets hurt. LSU secondary receivers start with junior tight end Foster Moreau, who only caught 6 balls last season. We’ll also likely see some of the receivers from the previous section in the slot. Canada also likes to use backs out of the backfield in the passing game. Last season, LSU quarterback Etling was efficient but not flashy. As a senior, he’ll be a veteran presence on the field, if he’s not overtaken by one of the younger guys. None of the younger guys made a move in the spring, and I think it’s a safe bet that Etling will be the man. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon looked good on A-Day a year ago in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season on 6 punts for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. Sophomore Josh Growden will punt for LSU after averaging 41.4 yards per punt last season. LSU gave up only 3.5 yards per return last season. Like Auburn, LSU is auditioning for a new punt-return man. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man returning, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Senior Cameron Gamble was LSU’s kickoff man last season and figures to be again. Gamble posted 14 touchbacks on 63 kickoffs. LSU gave up only 18.8 yards per kick return last season as its primary strategy seemed to be to try to coffin kick the ball down inside the 5 towards the sideline. LSU averaged just 19.1 yards per kick return last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt. Word from LSU is that this year’s placekicker is an ongoing battle between sophomore Jack Gonsoulin and redshirt freshman Connor Culp. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. It seems the tackle spots are set with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat Golson out, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. For LSU, senior Greg Gilmore will anchor the middle along with senior Christian LaCouture and sophomore Rashard Lawrence on a traditional 3-man front. Buck end/LB will be junior Arden Key, if he’s back this fall. LSU has plenty of depth here as well. Both Auburn and LSU lines will be good, if not great. I think Auburn’s upside is higher, if everything gels. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. LSU linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway with the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson in reserve. LSU’s linebackers are a question. Right now, it looks like senior Donnie Alexander will be in a traditional strong side position with sophomore Devin White in the middle. Senior Corey Thompson leads at the weakside position, which in LSU’s scheme often amounts to a nickel sort of spot. These guys aren’t completely green, but there isn’t a huge amount of starting experience in there, either. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. LSU corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Junior corner Donté Jackson is good enough probably to neutralize one Auburn receiver outside. On the other side, it’s still a battle between sophomore Saivion Smith and junior Kevin Tolliver II. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. LSU safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter in the opener. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring as Stidham was deadly accurate and showed great mobility. LSU has a couple of veteran senior safeties that have worked their way up through the ranks, John Battle and Ed Paris. However, freshman Grant Delpit is a future star and might take one of those starting spots. Advantage: Auburn.
Last season, Auburn had one of the best defenses in the conference for dealing with pesky sideline sweeps and screen passes. LSU’s new shift to that sort of philosophy plays right into Auburn’s hands on paper. LSU will have to have some inside success and a willingness to throw downfield on first down to back the Auburn defense off.
Auburn must not be intimidated by the venue. Not since 2007 has Auburn really come in and hit LSU in the mouth early in Baton Rouge. Teams in 2009, 2011, and 2015 played timidly and were out of the game early. The 2013 unit also had a rough start but battled back. This time, Auburn has to come in and serve notice that it will be a long evening for LSU, or this game could get out of hand quickly.
Prediction: Neither team lets the other one run the ball consistently. Big plays will decide this one. It’s my belief that Auburn’s Stidham will make more plays that Etling, and Auburn will get its first win in Baton Rouge this millenium. Auburn ekes it out, 20-19.