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Selling Short on the Tigers

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2018 looks like a possible step back.

LSU v Auburn
You. No, you.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Skepticism is perfectly fair for this year’s Tigers.

The Tigers must replace its elite All-SEC running back plus his top backup. The offensive line has been absolutely gutted by graduation, with only one starter returning to the fold. The team’s standout corner declared early for the NFL draft, leaving a hole in the secondary. Their pass-rushing linebacker with double digit sacks also declared early, though he disappointingly tumbled down draft boards.

And that’s to say nothing of this year’s monster schedule. The Tigers open with a national title contender at a neutral site, albeit one closer to their home. They draw both Alabama and Georgia, and have a difficult slate of road games. The Tigers have a coordinator no one really trusts given their history, and speaking of history, the team’s recent history does not inspire confidence.

I speak, of course, of the Auburn Tigers.

Now, having an established quarterback who oozes talent certainly helps a lot. But I’m not sure why the entire college football world is downplaying LSU while simultaneously hyping up Auburn as a can’t miss contender. They look pretty similar on paper.

And, yes, the defending SEC West champions will get a little bit more of the benefit of the doubt than most teams, but it’s not like LSU limped to the finish line last year. LSU won six conference games last year. An SEC West team not named Alabama had won six games or more only three times from 2013-2016. Last year was the first time two teams did it since 2012, when LSU and Texas A&M each went 6-2.

Auburn’s performance since the last round of SEC expansion does not inspire any sort of confidence, as they have been the most erratic and unpredictable program in the conference, maybe the nation. Here’s their win progression by year:

0 – 7 – 4 – 2 – 5 – 7

Meanwhile, while LSU has definitely taken a step back from the highs of 2011, the program has been remarkably consistent. You could almost set your watch by LSU’s SEC win total, as they have finished within one win of 5-3 every season since expansion:

6 – 5 – 4 – 5 – 5 – 6

And believe it or not, LSU averaged more yards per play than Auburn last season, albeit marginally, 6.19 to 6.17. While we’re all familiar here with the hit LSU has taken, it’s roughly equivalent to Auburn’s losses. Auburn also returns just one starting lineman, and loses Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway from the backfield.

The loss of cornerback Carlton Davis and pass-rusher Jeff Holland will likely hurt the defense. Now, are these losses debilitating? No, of course not. But last year, Auburn ranked seventh in Phil Steele’s returning starters rankings, and this year they rank 66th.

When Kevin Steele was hired at LSU, Paul and I argued about the wisdom of the hire. I argued that Steele usually was good for a year or two before disaster struck while Paul argued he would stink right away. Paul won the argument regarding his LSU tenure, but we are now on Year Three of his Auburn tenure, usually the time Steele’s defenses turn into a pumpkin.

They have their work cut out for them, with a schedule probably even more difficult than LSU’s. Auburn kicks off the season with Washington, a possible national title contender. Auburn also plays Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi St. all on the road. LSU’s nightmare schedule gets thrown around a lot for reasons for a poor season, but Auburn likely has a more difficult one.

The SEC media and fanbase are all worried for LSU and how the deck seems stacked against this season. Maybe, just maybe, everyone is worried about the wrong group of Tigers.