Because we at ATVS like to think of ourselves as a full-service LSU blog, we even deign to talk to opposing fans on occasion. It's kind of rude that we hold our noses while we do it, but hey, nobody's perfect. One of my colleagues at College Football News, Barrett Sallee, happens to be an Auburn fan and alum, so we had a little email Q & A exchange to talk about Saturday's Tiger face-off. Barrett happens to love hate mail, so if any of you are so inclined, you can catch him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BSallee_CFN.
Without further adieu...
The Gene Chizik hire was almost universally panned this offseason in the beginning, but how would you grade his performance thus far?
I would give it a B+. The last two games brought the fan base back to Earth a bit, and has brought back some of the criticism that was prevalent during the off-season. But, what it really shows is the severe lack of depth that was left on the Plains by the previous regime. The first five games gave the fans hope. Auburn is still looking at a low-to-mid-level bowl game, which is what I predicted pre-season. But the winning streak to start the season re-assured fans that Chizik is a pretty darn good coach and has brought in the right guy (Gus Malzahn) to fix the offense. It's a rebuilding year, no doubt. But the start to the season solidified the perception inside the fan base that Chizik is doing it the right way, contrary to what's being done in Knoxville.
The Auburn offense started off the season like gamebusters, but seems to have come back down to Earth these last two weeks. Are opponents merely catching up or is the talent limitations causing the regression to the mean?
A little from column A and a little from column B. Auburn started off scoring offensive points in every quarter through the first five games, but have only scored in two of the last eight. Nobody really knew how this offense was going to be run with these players. Once the rest of the nation had game tape, defensive coordinators across the country were able to develop schemes to stop the Tigers. In addition to the secret being out, Onterrio McCalebb got a little dinged up and Chris Todd reverted back to 2008 form a bit, which hurt the Tigers in the last two games.
Plus, they really have shot themselves in the foot. The final drive against Kentucky is a microcosm of what's been going wrong for the offense the last two games. After giving up the go-ahead TD, Auburn gets the ball with 1:30 to play and immediately moves the ball to midfield in just a few plays. They get to 3rd and 1, and then have an illegal shift followed by a false start. They can't convert, give the ball back, game over. It's been a matter of discipline more than execution. The plays have been working, they've just been making too many mental mistakes.
Most expected this team to have a solid defense while the offense transitioned from the disaster of 2008, but the defense has been pretty bad at times -- what's the story on that side of the ball?
That's all about depth - or lack thereof. Auburn is this close to going out and holding open tryouts for linebackers, Necessary Roughness-style.
(Ed. Note: well there's your first problem - everybody knows you save the tryouts for kickers)
Eltoro Freeman hasn't caught on to the defense, and Ted Roof was really relying on him to step right in from JUCO, but it hasn't happened. That thrust Adam Herring into the starting lineup, after not practicing for almost a year following a heel injury. With the LB corps thin already, that has really taken a toll on the entire defense. The defensive line hasn't been getting any pass rush and there seems to be missed tackles abound. In my opinion, those problems are a result of the coaching staff being conservative in the pre-season with how much contact the defense got, knowing that there were already major depth issues.
Statistically speaking, Auburn has been very bad on defense. But, a closer look at the defense will reveal that they Tigers gave up miles upon miles to Ball State with the second teamers in, and, in reality, actually won the West Virginia game. Roof's D is predicated on forcing turnovers, which is exactly what Jarrett Brown did on that rainy night in Jordan-Hare. Sure, the Tigers gave up 500-plus yards to the Mountaineers, but if it weren't for the defense, that game was an easy win for WVU.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the Tigers are good, or even decent, on defense. But, they aren't as bad as the numbers indicate.
Aside from the obvious -- Ben Tate -- who are the Auburn players LSU has to watch for, on both offense and defense?
On offense, it's RB Onterio McCalebb. He's been banged up the last few weeks with an ankle injury, which has really limited his ability to cut. When healthy, the dude is lightning in a bottle. He is a home run hitter in the truest sense of the term. He can take it to the house at any time. On Saturday night, when he gets his first few touches of the night, if LSU fans don't collectively take notice, then he's still not 100 percent. If he is 100 percent, watch out.
Defensively, the guy to watch is DE Antonio Coleman. He's been pretty quiet the last few weeks while nursing a nagging wrist injury. If he gets any semblance of pass rush, it could reverse the fortunes of the entire Auburn defense. If he's silent, it could make for a LONG night in Death Valley.
Weird things happen in this game. The Earth has quaked, barns have been burned, late-game heroics have been had by both teams, flags have been picked up, there have been missed field goals and PATs (that get re-kicked), even the 2008 Jarrett Lee-led comeback for LSU last season looks out-of-place compared to his overall body of work for that season. Any predictions for what will leave us scratching our heads after this year's edition of LSU-Auburn?
I hope there are no fires, earthquakes or any other natural disasters on Saturday night. Additionally, I hope there are no projectiles hurled at the orange and blue faithful (deny all you want LSU fans, some of those stories are, in fact, true). Jamie Howard is no longer in Baton Rouge, so there won't be eleventy-billion interceptions. John Vaughn is no longer in orange and blue, so your uprights are safe (relatively). With the way Malzahn calls a game, there most certainly will be some trickeration. It probably won't match the legendary status of Jacob Allen's behind-the-back flip to Damon Duval in the 1999 Cigar Game, but it will still count.
I do think that Chris Todd will bounce back to have a good day against the LSU. If you saw him play the last few weeks, that would definitely be a bit of a surprise. It's no secret that their philosophy will be to make Chris Todd beat them. I don't know if he will do that, but he won't be as erratic as he has been the last two games. If Ben Tate can get his yards and get Todd a little more room to operate, Todd is capable of rebounding in a big way.
In all honesty, I think this game is going to be pretty ugly. From an Auburn perspective, every game remaining on the schedule prior to Alabama (LSU, Ole Miss, Furman and Georgia) is very winnable. All of those teams have major problems in some way, shape or form. Conversely, all of those except for Furman are very losable too. Fortunately for LSU fans, I think Auburn's losing streak continues on to next week. In might not be pretty, but LSU will beat Auburn for the third straight year.
Below are a few of my answers to some of Barrett's questions:
All the talk coming into the season for LSU surrounded John Chavis fixing the defense, but the offense has been awful. What's the problem?
It's hard for me to say it, but there's a little bit of everything wrong. The foundation of the issues is clearly a young and inexperienced quarterback behind an offensive line that is struggling in its own right - but the play-calling hasn't made much of an effort to cover those deficiencies. Clearly, LSU's biggest offensive losses from last season were guard Herman Johnson and fullback Quinn Johnson, because this front has really struggled to get any push in the running game, especially out of the I-formation. It's improved somewhat through the course of the year, but now Gary Crowton seems gun-shy to rely on it.
Jordan Jefferson is struggling to get through his reads quickly, and while he's not turning the ball over, he's taking way too many sacks and just not moving the offense. But what's been really frustrating has been the playcalling - rather than simplifying things with more running, play-action passing and quicker reads, Crowton seems to be throwing everything out there to see what sticks.
Jordan Jefferson still seems to be learning on the job. How far can he go, and will Auburn' defense help that progression?
From a talent standpoint, Jefferson can go as far as any LSU fan would like. He definitely has the skills with his arm and legs, and he has an icy calmness about him that I think can help. But right now, he just doesn't appear to be progressing in his decision-making. But again, LSU's play-calling (and malfunctioning attempt at a no-huddle offense) is not helping. Regardless of how bad Auburn's defense has played this year, we're going to have to see some improvement from LSU's playcalling for Jefferson to get back on track.
Auburn's problems the last two weeks have been the lack of a sustained passing game. How good is that LSU secondary, and will Auburn's passing woes continue?
LSU's secondary isn't the kind of group you want to try and solve your problems against - it's been the clear strength of this team despite a pronounced lack of pass-rush. Patrick Peterson may be the league's best corner, and whoever he's covered is effectively erased from the called play. Chad Jones has improved - he's still more of an athlete playing football then football player, but he's fitting in well at free safety and you don't want any errant passes going his way. Brandon Taylor and Chris Hawkins have been solid enough. Only Washington's had any real passing success against this defense - so the question is do you think Chris Todd can make the same kind of plays Jake Locker can?
When exactly did Charles Scott forget that he was an All-SEC running back?
Scott's problems have been two-fold - the aforementioned offensive line and playcalling issues. Let's be real, Scott is a between-the-tackles power-runner first and foremost, and through the first few games LSU really couldn't get much push in that area. LSU finally managed to start getting that movement against Georgia, and really was able to against Florida, but there just wasn't a lot of dedication to the run by Crowton. When you look at LSU's worst offensive series this year - mostly in the third quarters of those last two games - they've generally come from trying to do to throw the ball when the run might have been more effective.
Some seem to believe that Les Miles isn't the coach he's cracked up to be (including yours truly). Now that he's got a full cycle of recruiting on campus, is this season the start of the "true" Les Miles era?
Make no mistake; the Les Miles Era began at his introduction as coach. The "Other Coach's Players" line is, was, and always will be a straw man argument. In four-and-a-half seasons, Miles has led the program through the greatest natural disaster in Louisiana history (and its man-made aftermath) won 50 games, a 4-0 record in bowl games (by a combined score of 149-44), earned two trips to Atlanta and two to the BCS with a conference and national title. Few coaches anywhere would be hard-pressed to match that type of record. Can he maintain that level of success is a question that is yet to be answered, but it's important to keep in mind it's a question every coach has to answer. Remember, five years ago Bob Stoops was "Big Game Bob," the guy who crushed every ranked opponent he faced. Five years later he's the guy who can't win a BCS game. There have always been coaches who can be successful in short-term situations -only the great ones have maintained it over time. Last season things took a clear step back - just as they did for Florida in 2007. While a national championship probably isn't in the cards for this team, the story of whether or not Miles and LSU can rebound in a similar fashion is still being written.
Miles has always suffered from perception. He may be one of the most misunderstood coaches in America. Media, pundits and even LSU fans have always sought to justify their first impressions of him - many of which were formed simply because he wasn't Nick Saban. Some say he's a reckless, crazy gambler. Some say he's an overly conservative Bo-Schembechler-wannabe. The truth is, of course, somewhere in the middle, but then people have never really been fans of the truth. In the end, history will be the judge of his tenure at LSU, and that won't be written until he is gone. The question is, will that be on his own terms, or not.
I do, for the record, think that it's funny that in the ultimate bottom-line business of college football, the only thing nobody wants to judge the guy on is his record.