Auburn vs. LSU preview: Tigers aiming for Gus Malzahn's first signature win

Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn's 3-0 record is nice, but the competition steps up to another level in Baton Rouge Saturday night.

For the first time in what seems like forever, Auburn will play a game with some hype around it when the Tigers take on LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday night. It's a primetime game on ESPN, and the network has been going heavy on the promos all week.

Yes, there aren't a ton of great games this weekend, giving the World Wide Leader more incentive to advertise Auburn-LSU, and yes, Auburn's perfect record is just three games old. But the good Tigers finally have a chance to win an important game, and that hasn't really been the case since really early in the 2011 season. Can Gus Malzahn's team come through and shock the world in Tiger Stadium? The answers to five key questions will likely determine whether or not it's possible,

How will Nick Marshall fare in his first road test?

Marshall wowed fans with his performance against Mississippi State. The 339 passing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions were impressive as a whole, but it was the 6-of-8 for 66 yards, three rushes for 19 yards and winning touchdown pass on the final drive that really made pundits take notice. Marshall appeared to have great poise and confidence as a passer going into the game, and in his first chance to prove it, he showed that he doesn't get rattled when the pressure is on.

Now it's time to see if the quarterback can pass another test. Marshall is making his first start away from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and it just so happens to be in the toughest road environment in college football. Barring Auburn jumping out early to a big lead, which isn't likely, the loudest crowd he's ever heard will be in Marshall's ears all night. If he can keep calm like he does in front of friendly fans on the Plains, he should be able to lead Auburn's offense to some success. But if he is shaken up or lets the adrenaline start running a little too high, and he starts forcing passes into coverage or missing badly on throws, Auburn will almost certainly find itself in a deep hole pretty early.

Will Auburn get any pressure on Zach Mettenberger?

For much of the 2012 season Mettenberger wasn't too impressive, and that was certainly the case in LSU's much-closer-than-expected 12-10 win over Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. In that game, he completed 15 of 27 passes for 169 yards without a touchdown or interception, and he was sacked twice. This season, it's been a different story for the LSU QB. He's completed 65.2 percent of his through three games for nine touchdowns, zero interceptions and 265.7 yards per game, third-best in the SEC.

Mettenberger has certainly improved as a quarterback, but one of the biggest reasons for his success is that he's received great protection from his offensive line. LSU has given up just two sacks so far, tied for fifth-best in the country. If Auburn wants to keep LSU's improved offense under Cam Cameron from going wild, the Tigers have to find a way to get pressure on Mettenberger. Defensive end Dee Ford should be rust-free in his second game back from a knee injury, and the while the rest of the line has been good at times, it can't be as inconsistent in Baton Rouge.

Whether it's from the front four or through blitzing, Ellis Johnson can't let Mettenberger sit comfortable in the pocket all night. LSU's quarterback isn't nearly as mobile as the signal callers Auburn faced in the first three games, and if he is hit and forced to scramble, he won't have nearly as much success.

Will Auburn's run game have any success against LSU's front seven?

Auburn averaged just under 300 yards per game and picked up more than six yards a carry in the first two weeks of the season, but against State, those numbers dropped to 120 and 3.3. Malzahn's offense is without a doubt run-first, and the Tigers won't win too many games when the ground game can't get rolling.

It likely won't be any easier to run against LSU. The bad Tigers have had some inconsistent play from their linebackers, but that hasn't kept the team from ranking third in the SEC by allowing only 105.3 yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. Although, they've only compiled 15 tackles for loss, tied for ninth in the conference. Auburn will probably have to change up the attack a little bit -- and ask Marshall to carry a few more times -- to have success rushing the ball.

Will Auburn's linebackers be a liability?

The linebacker position: It's the No. 1 thing fans talk about when discussing the negative aspects of Auburn's play so far. For the most part, there has been plenty of reason to complain. The linebackers looked awful against the pass and run against Washington State, and in the last two weeks, they've been inconsistent at best. LSU has a solid running game and teams have learned to kill Auburn with the underneath routes. If the good Tigers can't get a handle on those, they're going to give up a ton of yards and points.

But, maybe there's reason for hope in this game. So far, Auburn has played three spread teams with schemes that really attack linebackers. While LSU will surely attempt to exploit the weakness, too, the bad Tigers are pro style and much more straight forward. Last year, Jake Holland and Daren bates compiled the second- and third-most tackles against LSU, and whether it's Holland or Kris Frost in the middle and Cassanova McKinzy or Justin Garrett on the weakside. This game really could be a better matchup for the whole group.

Will Les Miles leave his mark on the game?

When Auburn and LSU get together, weird things often happen. And when Les Miles is coaching a football game, really weird things often happen. For better or worse, the Mad Hatter usually influences the outcome of close games with bold -- and sometimes strange -- decision making on the sideline. If this one is close and decided in the fourth quarter, don't be surprised if we're talking about a call LSU's coach made that determined the result.

Prediction

Auburn enters the game as a 17-point underdog, and the Tigers haven't won a game in Baton Rouge since 1999. For the most part, nobody is giving them a chance to make it out of Louisiana as a victory. But, LSU' 3-0 record hasn't come against the stiffest of competition. UAB and Kent State were nothing more than paycheck games, and the 37-27 win over TCU looks a little worse after the Horned Frogs' 20-10 loss at Texas Tech. LSU is good, but how good?

Auburn should look good on both sides of the ball at times, but it's still too early in the rebuilding project to expect a massive road victory against LSU. Look for the good Tigers to have some success running and with Nick Marshall's arm, but too many stalled out drives will leave points off the board. On defense, Auburn will get a couple of red zone stops and force field goals, but LSU's offense is too balanced to shut down. Marshall be above average running and throwing, but Mettenberger's passing game will be better. Malzahn's team won't come up with the win, but it will stay competitive until the end. LSU 33, Auburn 20.

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