Tigers vs. Tigers at Jordan-Hare! (Previewing Auburn’s SEC opening matchup against the LSU Tigers)
A titanic war in the trenches awaits!
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the first Auburn SEC game preview of the year! On September 15th, Auburn will host the LSU Tigers in the SEC opener for both teams. This is an important battle in a loaded SEC Western Division. Last year, LSU nipped Auburn in Baton Rouge, but that did not prevent Auburn from winning the division while LSU finished 3rd with a 6–2 league record. It is important to note that LSU had the best record of any SEC team not involved in a championship game.
I have to like taking on LSU early in the season at home, and there are good reasons for that this year, as well. I can remember classic early donnybrook games, such as the 10–9 game in 2004, and the 7–3 scrum in 2006. More recently, Auburn bombed LSU 41–7 in 2014, and ended Les Miles’ career a couple of years ago, 18–13. Typically, LSU is a deep and physical team. Auburn usually doesn’t have the depth teams like Alabama and LSU have, so waiting till game 8 or 9 to play them is tough.
Auburn opens the 2018 season in Atlanta against Washington, then has a tuneup home game against Alabama State before hosting LSU in game 3. LSU opens in Arlington, Texas against the Miami Hurricanes, and we’ll find out a lot about both clubs in this game. LSU then hosts Louisiana Tech before traveling to Auburn. Louisiana Tech won’t be an easy out, either. Coached by Skip Holtz, the Bulldogs were close last season, and lost some 1-point games, finishing 7–6.
This year is a major rebuilding process on offense for LSU. I thought LSU had a tricky, talented and difficult offense to prepare for last year, at least when head coach Ed Orgeron wasn’t meddling with it. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada and Orgeron evidently didn’t see eye to eye and parted ways after last season. Canada’s offense featured lots of presnap motion and unbalanced lines, and it often caught defenses misaligned.
This year, the offensive reins have been handed to offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Color me dubious. We watched Ensminger take a talented Georgia offense to mediocrity during the Ray Goff years in the early 1990’s. We watched Ensminger call plays for an Auburn offense that had Jason Campbell, Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, Brandon Jacobs, Courtney Taylor, Devin Aromashodu, and Ben Obomanu. Auburn went 7–5 that year. A few years later Ensminger took over the 2008 Auburn offense at midseason. Auburn scored 7 on Ole Miss, 13 on Georgia, and a big fat zero against Alabama.
There are other issues on the LSU offense beside the coordinator choice. Quarterback Danny Etling is now in the NFL along with LSU’s star runner Darius Guice and top receiver D. J. Chark. A 3-headed quarterback battle did not get settled during spring, and coach Ensminger admits that only 35 percent of his offense was installed. Now, LSU is eyeing bringing in Ohio State grad transfer quarterback Joe Burrow, who right now knows zero percent of the Ensminger offense.
On defense, however, watch out. LSU returns a lot of tough, talented players, and LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has proven to be one of the sharper defensive minds in the country. Auburn cannot afford to shut its offense down and play conservative against these guys.
On special teams, LSU will have to replace punter Zach von Rosenberg’s 43-yard-per-punt average, and it hopes to do it with last year’s pooch punter Josh Growden. Gone is D. J. Chark and his gaudy return average on punts. LSU was good last season on punt coverage and mediocre on kick coverage. Aside from Chark, there was nothing to home about in the return department. Connor Culp came in after a shaky place-kicking start and did a good job last season.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. LSU offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. I suppose what I noticed most from the LSU spring game was that no one on the offensive line could handle LSU’s defensive ends, even way down the depth chart. Right now, the LSU starters from left to right appear to be sophomore Saahdiq Charles, senior Garrett Brumfield, sophomore Lloyd Cushenberry, III at center, sophomore Edward Ingram and junior Adrian McGee. That’s a tough matchup against Auburn up front. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. LSU backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. LSU’s one-two punch this season appears to be senior Nick Brossette and sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire at running back. Brossette is more of a burly banger, and Edwards-Helaire is elusive and fast. In LSU’s spring game, they mostly lined up in 3 and 4 or even 5 wide receiver sets, mostly from the shotgun. I’m thinking the big mammoth LSU fullback days are gone, although big sophomore Tory Carter is still on the roster and checks in at 260 pounds or thereabouts. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. LSU receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. LSU needed a big-play guy to replace D. J. Chark, and in its spring game appeared to have found one. Sophomore Justin Jefferson took a one-handed checkdown pass, eluded tacklers and went 94 yards for a score against LSU’s starting defense, early. Jefferson appears to have good size and speed to burn. On the other side, I expect junior Stephen Sullivan to start. Sullivan is big, at 6′ 6” and 235 pounds, and he’ll be a likely mismatch physically for Auburn’s corners. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. LSU secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. Quarterback is very much a big question at LSU. I think the most likely result is that last year’s backup, sophomore Myles Brennon, gets the nod early. The issue is that Brennon is the least mobile of any quarterback on the roster, and the LSU protection was quite spotty in the spring game. It’s going to be tough to be balanced on offense, if the offense is spread out and the quarterback is getting hit. LSU has installed some RPO’s to read and take advantage of the number of defenders in the box, but it will be moot if LSU can’t complete some easy passes on the flanks. Secondary receivers for LSU include junior slot receiver Derrick Dillon and senior tight end Foster Moreau. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Arryn Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Junior Josh Growden takes over as the LSU punter. Growden averaged only 36.0 yards per punt last year but was often brought in with a short field.Auburn was poor on coverage (11.4 yards per return), and LSU was good, allowing just 6.3. Both teams are still auditioning return men. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair catch rule in effect this season, that puts the ball at the 20. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5 this season. Sophomore Connor Culp projects to take over kicking off for LSU. Culp had 3 touchbacks on 10 kickoffs, last season in spot work. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. LSU averaged only 18.3 yards per return last year and is still trying to find answers in the return game. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. LSU’s Connor Culp hit 11 of 16 field goal attempts and 20 of 23 extra point attempts. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. LSU defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who has reputedly taken the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn has turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. This line has a long way to go before September rolls around. For LSU, everything starts around huge junior nose tackle Ed Alexander. At 340 pounds, Alexander is small, compared to his backup, freshman Tyler Shelvin, who weighs in at 378. And Auburn might be asking a walk-on center to block these guys? LSU is well set at defensive ends, with juniors Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko. LSU might be a little down here after losing Christian LaCouture and Frank Herron. Advantage: LSU.
Auburn backs vs. LSU linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking and running sideways or backward. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. LSU essentially runs a hybrid 3–3–5 defense. Starters on the outsides should be junior Michael Divinity Jr., and sophomore K’lavon Chaisson with young depth behind those talented guys. There’s still a battle in the middle between sophomores Tyler Taylor and Jacob Phillips. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. LSU corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. One side is set for LSU with sophomore Greedy Williams, who had a phenomenal freshman year last season. The other side is a battle between junior Kristian Fulton (who missed last season with an injury) and freshman Kelvin Joseph. Auburn did some damage last season against the LSU secondary early before going way too conservative in the 2nd half. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. LSU safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket, and can make every throw. It will be incumbent for Stidham to get off to a quick start this year. LSU returns a pair of effective safeties in senior John Battle and sophomore Grant Delpit, who had a good freshman campaign last year. Battle has had injury issues through his career, and if he can’t go, sophomore Jacoby Stevens looks like a rising star. LSU plays a rover as the 5th man in the secondary or a nickel against true spread concepts. Junior Delvin White is the signal-caller and rover of the unit, while sophomore Kary Vincent is more of a true nickel. Advantage: Auburn.
Last season, both teams struggled on offense up front, and I expect that trend to continue. Auburn was successful when spreading the ball around on LSU but could not run effectively. With a younger offensive line, I expect that trend to continue. I think LSU has an even worse matchup against a veteran Auburn defense. I also think Auburn has more upside on special teams and has the game at home. When Auburn has winning seasons, they have beaten LSU at Auburn every time since 1996.
Prediction: This game is just too early in the season for a rebuilding LSU unit. Auburn shuts down LSU, 19–6.