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LSU vs. Auburn: What to Watch For

Look, we all know that the state of Alabama exists for…I don’t know…reasons, I guess. And so long as there’s a state of Alabama, there has to be somebody else hanging around in there to keep the old money snobs in Tuscaloosa on their toes. Auburn’s about as close as we’re going to get to that.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

And so those so-called other Tigers come to Baton Rouge, with a first-year head coach looking to make his mark with a marquee victory.

What To Watch For On Saturday

Litmus Test

LSU is a 17-point favorite in this one, and no matter how bad Auburn may or may not be, I'm never going to be comfortable with a line like that in this game. Because two Tigers on the field somehow creates some sort of polarized shitstorm of weirdness.

Last year, LSU went to the plains of Alabama and somehow wobbled out of one of the weirder games of 2012; a 12-10 victory over an Auburn team that would not win a single game and allowed 35 points on average to SEC opponents. That game was the first big sign that the '12 (real) Tigers didn't have the right mental makeup to match the 2011 squad.

Auburn is better this season -- that much is all but certain. But is LSU ready to raise its game against a different team from Alabama? Is this thus-far explosive and efficient Tiger offense ready to take up the slack for a defense that is still finding its way? We're about to find out.

Old Is New Again

Gus Malzahn's offense is something that we've covered before, so if you're somewhat new to the general principles, I suggest reading this preview from back in 2010, as well as this preview of the Clemson offense from last year's Chick-Fil-A Bowl, which is run by Malzahn protégé Chad Morris and uses many of the same principles.

It should be no surprise that Auburn has hit the ground running with Malzahn -- he was involved in the evaluation and recruitment of most of this team. Guys like Tre Mason, Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Sammie Coates fit this style much, much better than they did the semi-pro-style offense that Scott Loeffler tried to implement last year (if you know of players that DO fit Loeffler's style, be nice and let him know so he can find them), and they've taken to it to the tune of 31 points per game and 6.4 yards per play.

The biggest addition is clearly new quarterback Nick Marshall. He arrived this spring as a junior-college transfer, and didn't exactly light things on fire, but this summer he managed to lock up the job enough to push incumbent Kiehl Frazier over to safety this summer. His start to the season was a bit rocky at times, but he came into his own last week against Mississippi State and passed for 339 yards and two touchdowns, including the game winner in to tight end C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left.

Watching tape, Marshall is raw -- he was recruited as a defensive back out of high school and spent a year at Georgia before dropping down to junior college and returning to offense. But the athleticism really jumps out at you. There aren't that many quarterbacks that can catch their own batted pass and then run for a nice gain the way Marshall did last weekend. He really reminds me of one of his coaches, former Auburn signal-caller Dameyune Craig. At 6-1 and about 200 pounds, he's not going to be the workhorse runner that Cam Newton was in this offense three years ago, but he's still dangerous. Marshall is incredibly fluid on the move, and throws a really beautiful ball. It's probably a good thing that LSU is catching him early in the season, and next year it would not surprise me at all if he becomes one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC.

We know by now a lot of the basics we'll see out of Auburn: some zone read, switched up with a midline read of the defensive tackle on occasion, along with a lot of powers, counters and sweeps that use pulling guards along with fullback Jay Prosch. As Chris noted yesterday, Mason serves in primary running role, while Cameron Artis-Payne works in between the tackles and Corey Grant outside in the slot/sweep runner role that Onterio McCalebb was so good at. I'm quite certain that Malzahn has seen the issues LSU has had at linebacker and DB handling some wide and misdirection runs/passes, and he'll almost certainly attack them.

I'm curious as to how John Chavis will attack this offense personnel-wise. Auburn runs on first down about 75 percent of the time, and their preference for power plays could easily call for a lot of base, three-linebacker looks. My best guess, though, is that LSU will likely spend most of the game in nickel and mustang packages, which would likely mean that most of the snaps will go to Lamin Barrow and Kwon Alexander. Although Chief is almost certainly still trying to figure out what group he trusts the most. This style of offense lives on getting a defense's second level -- linebackers, nickel/dimebacks and safeties -- crisscrossed on their responsibilities. Staying at home and maintaining gap and pursuit responsibilities are going to be crucial. Likewise, coming off of blocks and taking the right angles when Auburn goes to the edge. Nickel backs like Micah Eugene and possibly Jalen Mills, or safeties like Craig Loston, Ronald Martin or Corey Thompson, will all take their turn with alley responsibilities. They will have to break down and make the tackles when put in that position.

When Auburn does go with the zone read or its variants, LSU needs to try and steer the play the way they want it to go, i.e. with the least dangerous runner carrying the ball. Look for scrape exchanges on the zone plays, meaning that Alexander or Barrow have to be ready to take Marshall. When Auburn switches to the midline read, Freago need to maintain their block-down, step-down responsibilities and keep the play moving laterally.

In the passing game, Auburn has really made its living in the flats, first and foremost. Quick screens, swing passes and flat routes set up the intermediate and deeper throws for Marshall, along with the play-action game. Look for Auburn to go to its quick game early on to get Marshall in rhythm. They may try to take a deep shot off or one of their more elaborate play-fakes as well, because those are relatively simple reads where the receiver will either be wide open or not at all, with Marshall scrambling in the latter case. Malzahn knows the Road Upset Playbook, and taking the crowd out of the game early with a big play is always useful.

Tre'davious White showed nice instincts when Kent State tried some tunnel screens to his side of the field last weekend. He could be in the crosshairs again. Ditto Jalen Mills, especially if he lines up in nickel on occasions. If Auburn can spread the safeties wide, watch for Uzomah in the middle of the field as well.

On defense, Ellis Johnson is an old hand that has been around the SEC in some capacity for the better part of 10 years now, either at Mississippi State or South Carolina. It was at the latter where he really developed his own version of the 4-2-5 defense. Much like the Gary Patterson/TCU defense, it's the classic "speed/numbers" combination designed to deal with spread offenses. Likewise, it also employs an extra safety in the bandit/rover/whip/[insert name] position (at USC they called it the "spur").

The major difference in the two styles is that whereas TCU likes to stay relatively static in an eight-man front with the two safeties up near the line, Ellis' style is much more flexible. Junior Robenson Therezie man that "star" position, and will line up anywhere from the traditional "Sam" linebacker position, to more of a nickel corner over a slot receiver or even farther back in passing situations. He will, however, almost always align to the "field" or wide side of the formation, which means that with some clever formations and motions, Cam Cameron can create some numbers advantages with regards to blocking against the run. The free and bandit safeties will often line up in more traditional positions, and if Auburn can stop the run with seven, they won't bring that extra man up. Really, this defense looks more like a typical 4-3 than the 4-2-5; it's the personnel that make the difference.

Johnson doesn't reinvent the wheel as a coordinator. He's much more of a back-to-basics guy that consistently fields aggressive, fundamentally sound units that tackle really well. Anecdotally, Auburn observers think their defense is much improved on those fronts as compared to the recent run of Ted Roof/Gene Chizik/Brian Van Gorder. Statistically, the pass defense appears to be a bit better, but the run defense is really struggling. The Other Tigers' best performance against the run this season came against Washington State in the opener -- and they still allowed 5.2 yards per carry and 120 yards to a team that is averaging just 60 yards a game (and that's with the extreme outlier). Auburn's done a pretty strong job of keeping teams out of the endzone (17 points allowed per game so far), but if they keep on allowing 430-plus yards, that stat will regress.

The corners, like TCU's, will play off, but don't mistake that for pacifism. They pattern read on short routes and will fly up. That said, teams have had a lot of luck with intermediate and deeper routes, especially the comeback route that LSU has executed damn-near flawlessly in recent weeks. Keeping the star or bandit safeties away from jumping the flats or hook/curl area and undercutting the throw will be a key, and that can be accomplished with some inside routes from the slot receivers or tight ends, or an effective run game and play-action.

Do NOT Expect

Rolling With the New

I know that we're all loving the Cam Cameron Air Show through the first three weeks, but don't be surprised if LSU buttons the gameplan up a bit again this week. Hitting the 300-yard mark in rushing last weekend was important, because no matter how well Mettenberger, ODB and Landry are executing, this team will still need to run the football.

Make no mistake; LSU has a mismatch through the air here, and I fully expect to see ODB and Landry make some big plays early on Auburn's cornerbacks. But Auburn's offense is an awfully tough match-up for LSU's defense right now, and if this game does get into a shootout, the visiting team will be much more comfortable playing that style than the home team. Pass to get a lead, and win the battle up front and use the running game to keep it. Party like its 2011 and rip the Other Tigers' soul out in the second half.

This would be a great time for Jeremy Hill to see his first significant workload of the season -- and the great part about that is that he's still a big-play threat, even as he's punishing the defense on the shorter runs. In addition to the carries, I expect Hill and Terrence Magee will also see a few more pass targets as well, particularly in the screen game. Johnson likes to bring pressure with his linebackers through the A-gaps, and a well-timed running back screen is the perfect counter. Similarly, watch for that play-action waggle play to a fullback -- or to a tight end, perhaps -- when Auburn brings a blitzer from the edge (either Therezie or a cornerback).

Chaos Theory

You know...we really should get Les a black leather jacket to wear.

I have to admit that this game scares me a bit more than it probably should. When I say that Auburn is a bad matchup for this defense, what I really mean is that Auburn's style of play matches up near-perfect with the weaknesses that LSU has shown thus far. This offense thrives on misdirection, attacking a defense's containment and the gap responsibilities of a defense's second level. Those are exactly what the Tiger linebackers have struggled with to this point. Yeah, young guys like Alexander and Kendell Beckwith are going to improve in these areas, but this will kind of be like boot camp for them.

I would expect Auburn to try and find some sort of way to silence the Tiger Stadium crowd and grab momentum early. It could be a well-crafted offensive drive, a big play or an onside kick or some other way to steal possession. Every first-year coach wants a marquee win, and this is as good a chance as any for Malzahn to grab his.

Plus...this is Auburn. Weird things happen to one side or another. Yeah, last year's game was just plain ugly, but it was probably the best game the Other Tigers played all season long. Natural disasters, property damage, last-second have to figure that any or all of the above could be in play on Saturday night.

And I, for one, would not want to be anywhere else than in those seats.