1. Auburn is playing some big-time football right now — what is really working for this team at the moment?
Honestly, it's all clicking at the moment. The offense has scored 51, 49, and 44 in our first three conference games, and the defense has been spectacular all year long (not just as we hit SEC play), while our kicker just became the SEC's all-time leading scorer. The Auburn fan in me that was groomed during the Tuberville years says that this is a perfect time to go down to Baton Rouge and get our asses kicked, but on paper it looks good for us.
The defense stops the run with regularity, and gets great pressure in the backfield. We've seen the front seven handle different styles of quarterback, from the mobile guys like Kelly Bryant at Clemson, to the passers like Drew Lock and Shea Patterson. They're really good at finishing drives and preventing teams from scoring once they reach Auburn's side of the field. I'm sure you're aware of the woes that plagued the offense earlier in the year, what with the 11 sacks at Clemson, and how we only scored 24 against Mercer. Since conference play began, however, it's been a great mixture of deep shots and intermediate passes, and the running game has started to click as the correct offensive line combination has been discovered. This team has the potential to run any opponent short of Alabama out of the building with the way the season's shaping up.
2. Chip Lindsey was brought in by Gus Malzahn to add some different elements to the offense. What have y'all seen on that front so far?
Someone with a bit more of an Xs and Os pedigree can probably add to this better than I can, but to the fairly untrained eye it looks like a combination of Gus Malzahn's early offense with Chris Todd at quarterback and one of the more run-heavy schemes he used with either Cam Newton or Nick Marshall, only with a lot less zone read. Lindsey's definitely improved the passing over what we've seen the last few years with Rhett Lashlee running the show. He's implemented actual route trees, and progressions for Jarrett Stidham that are a little more complicated than throwing it away or running it if your first option is covered. The deep ball is back on the Plains, as Stidham hit several 40-plus yard passes in the wins over Missouri and MSU. Then this past weekend he went almost exclusively to the short/intermediate game and picked Ole Miss apart.
In the run game, we've been dealing with some injuries at the tailback spot. Kerryon Johnson has scored 11 touchdowns in the past three games despite being around 90 percent, and Kam Pettway's been missing in action for the past few weeks as he nurses a foot injury. That hasn't stopped the run game from finally gelling as the offensive line has undergone some reworking in finding the right group. Our receivers are getting much more involved in the plan as well, with several different guys able to make the big play at any given time.
3. Jarrett Stidham came in this season with a ton of hype, and after a slow start seems to really be cooking the last two weeks. What has been the difference for him so far?
I think it's a couple of things — finally he's been able to get into the swing of things in terms of live football once again. We forget that he went nearly two calendar years without playing in an actual game, so he needed a little time to get acclimated. Anyone that watched him at Baylor knew that he was capable of making all the throws and has a legit NFL arm, so that was never the issue. It was his comfort level with the team on the field and with his offensive scheme. I feel like after a couple of clunker games offensively, the scheme clicked for Stidham and the rest of the offense and they've been unstoppable since conference play started. Or it could just be that the SEC is really bad defensively.
4. This offensive line has allowed 19 sacks on the season, but 11 of those came in one game -- how much of a concern is this?
The Clemson game was a complete and utter breakdown on the offensive line, but not all of the sacks were on the front five. There were multiple times where Stidham had a fairly clean pocket and the coverage was too good, or where he escaped the pressure and got taken down on the boundary while still looking downfield. I put that performance just as much on him as on the line. The receivers also didn't do much at all to help out by not getting open.
Right now, Stidham's got a better feel for the game and knows when to throw the ball away to live another day, but we've still seen teams get pressure on him in some capacity over the past couple of weeks. He's been sacked at least once in each of our conference games, and Mississippi State should have had a scoop and score as he fumbled on one of those sacks. I don't think the kind of onslaught that Clemson brought will be duplicated again on us, but we're still a little gunshy.
5. Having undergone one year of the Kevin Steele Experience, we have been somewhat mystified by the job he's done with Auburn. Can you explain what has worked so well for him and this defense so far?
To be frank, I wasn't all that impressed when we hired him. I too knew of the fact that he hadn't had a ton of success at high-profile jobs, and so it was with a bit confusing when he was brought on board. Still, things picked up immediately starting with the loss to Clemson last year. We allowed only 19 points to Deshaun Watson and company (with any semblance of offense the past two meetings, we'd have won easily), and that continued all year. I don't put any of the losses since he came along on the defense.
What he's brought in has pretty much been a return to the basics. Where in the past you would have seen a linebacker meet a running back at the line, the back would've escaped and gotten a few extra yards. Now, offensive players aren't breaking tackles. Once they're hit, they're wrapped up and they go down. Meanwhile, our defenders are in the right position nearly all the time. That probably plays along with experience, as we've got a good few upperclassmen starting on D, but Steele's the guy who's made them play this way. It also doesn't hurt that some of our highly-touted recruits have started to pan out. Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson up front, and Tre Williams, Deshaun Davis, and Darrell Williams at the linebacker spot have all been fantastic this year. Real leaders that like to play defense. It's been really fun to watch.
6. Prediction as to how you see this game playing out?
I'll give you my optimistic/pessimistic/ realistic outlook here.
Optimistically, it would be a near carbon-copy of the 2014 game. Auburn hits a couple of deep balls early, and LSU has to play from behind with Danny Etling trying to rally a comeback with his arm and our defense pinning its ears back. I don't feel either way that LSU's offense can score all that much on Auburn, and in a perfect world I'd see us winning big in Baton Rouge — 38-7.
Pessimistically, the offensive line breaks down, and your front seven has a late lunch on Jarrett Stidham. Our nicked-up running backs can't go as well as they'd like to, and there's no time for our receivers to get open due to the pressure. The defense still plays up to the task, but it's not quite enough as LSU springs the upset 13-10.
Realistically, it's somewhere in the middle. I hope that LSU used it's anger to play well against Florida and they'll settle back down a bit this week. I think the day game helps Auburn, and should we weather the early storm, I think our offense is capable of putting a few methodical drives together to get points each quarter. Defense holds serve for most of the game, save for LSU points on an early scripted drive, and a late desperation drive, and Auburn wins 29-10.