For months, I thought the Louisville and LSU games were crucial to this season's success. Survive those challenges and Auburn would be in good position to have a chance to accomplish their goals. After last Saturday's near disaster, this game takes on even more importance.
Forget the thoughts of Atlanta and being picked to win the SEC. Forget the College Football Playoff. This game is about the identity of the 2015 Tigers. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Auburn play much better this week. For whatever reason, Auburn's recent history is filled with examples of playing up and down to its level of competition. What would surprise me greatly is another historic 2012-like collapse. I just can't imagine these players and this set of coaches folding without a fight.
Perhaps a better comparison for this team might be 2008. A team that began in the top 10 nationally with hopes of winning the west struggled early and often. They survived Mississippi State in the infamous 3-2 game, but then played probably their best game of the year in a narrow loss to LSU, 26-21. Their defense was good enough to keep them in nearly every game, but they couldn't find the offensive consistency to capitalize and finish. The team eventually finished 5-7 and the entire coaching staff was changed.
Obviously, we all hope this team will finish with a different result. A change in direction seemingly must happen in the next two weeks as SEC play starts. A blowout in Baton Rouge could spell disaster for the momentum and confidence of this team. A competitive loss could restore faith in the systems and players we have in place. And a win, clearly, would put everything back on track.
Questions abound. Where will these players be mentally as they enter a hostile environment for the first time? Can Jeremy Johnson play a cleaner game at quarterback? Will Gus open up the playbook? Which injured players will be available to play and how effective will they be?
LSU is always immensely talented. Brandon Harris is now the clear starter at quarterback. He's clearly further along than he was in last year's matchup with Auburn, but I still have questions as to his ability to win a game on his own. He won't have to do that much, due to the presence of Leonard Fournette. He's one of the top backs in the country who scored three times on the ground against Mississippi State last week.
The Bengal Tigers are a solid offensive unit as a whole, but they're not the kind of team who will run away from you like a Baylor might. If Auburn can limit the turnovers, I think our defense can get some stops and keep us in the game, especially if Tray Matthews, Justin Garrett, and (WE PRAY) Carl Lawson return.
Defensively, LSU did a very nice job against Dak Prescott until the fourth quarter. They always seem to have tremendous athletes at each position. I personally worry about the ability and athleticism of their secondary. Jeremy will have to be confident, but careful with where he places throws. Perhaps their eagerness to read Johnson will leave them vulnerable to double moves and passes down the field? It'll be interesting to see how Gus chooses to attack.
Overall, I think this game is more about attitude and mindset than the result. People have been asking me all week if Auburn is really that bad. I've been saying that I'll have a good idea by the second quarter. Here are some keys from my vantage point:
- Quick Start - I'm just not sure how Auburn would react to going down 14-0 in the first quarter. An early defensive stop, scoring first, or manufacturing a big play on defense or special teams would go a long way to settling Auburn into this football game and give them a shot.
- Returning Players - Who will play from our injured group? It seems that Avery Young and Jovon Robinson will be ready to go on offense. Most expect Tray Matthews and Justin Garrett to return on defense. The big wildcard is Carl Lawson, and I don't expect us to know an answer on that until close to gametime. All of those players have the ability to impact the game in a positive way for Auburn.
- Turnovers - This is everyone's natural focus. Can Jeremy (or Sean?) avoid giving the ball to the other team on a short field? Some people have forgotten about the value of defensive turnovers. T-Rob and Muschamp have both emphasized wanting three takeaways per game. That would be extremely helpful for our cause in Death Valley.
- Run the Ball - LSU is likely to go all out to stop our running attack and make Jeremy beat them. But our offense is extremely reliant on establishing the run and playing off of that. It's important that Jeremy gets help from the entire offensive unit, including a strong run game. Peyton Barber has shown the ability to be the workhorse. Can he have the kind of success that Tre Mason did in Baton Rouge two years ago?
I'm glad Auburn is back to being an underdog and doubted by many. It's a fun, familiar role for those of us who have been Tigers fans for a long time. Hopefully this team has some of that same ability that has led to surprising turnarounds and upsets in the past. War Eagle!