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LSU vs. Auburn: What to Watch For

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Time to open SEC play with a second top-10 opponent in just three weeks.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing like starting off the season with a second top-10 opponent in less than 14 days, right?

LSU heads to Jordan-Hare Stadium for a week three matchup with the seventh-ranked Tigers as a 10-point underdog. Both teams still feel like a bit of an unknown here; yes, Auburn held on for a five-point win over a very good Washington team, but in a game where they seemed to only barely make fewer mistakes. LSU absolutely waxed a top-10 Miami game, but has looked underwhelming on offense since.

We’ll learn more about which team has a real chance to compete with the SEC West on Saturday, but three weeks in, there’s still a lot of this story left to write.

I’ve never been a big believer in home-field advantage. For one, it usually correlates more with team quality than anything to do with the actual venue (Miami was undefeated in the Orange Bowl for years despite playing mostly in front of sparse crowds — having a roster loaded with future NFL studs has a funny effect like that). And in the age of 100,000 seat stadiums, some places are loud because, well, with that many people it can’t NOT be loud, especially with the PA involved.

Jordan-Hare Stadium is on the short list of venues that provide a legit advantage. That crowd stays loud in big games, and they know how to use their PA very well. It’s a damn hard place to win, and LSU hasn’t done it often. Just three wins in the last 20 years, and all three (1998, 2008 and 2012) came over coaches that were fired shortly thereafter.

This is a more even matchup than it probably seems, which in this series, tends to mean weird things.

Weird things can be good — remember last year when Auburn blew a 20-point lead to LSU? Oh did you not remember? Because that happened. Auburn blew a 20-point lead to LSU in Tiger Stadium.

And now we see where weird takes us in 2018.

What To Watch For On Saturday


Familiarity

We’ve been up and down the road with the WhateverYouCallems over the years, and in particular the Gus Malzahn program. Offensively, we know what to expect — past primers on the Malzahn offense are available here and here — and on defense, this coaching staff knows a thing or two about defensive coordinator Kevin Steele as well.

And the gameplans will likely be pretty similar as well. Auburn wants to spread the field with tempo and attack the edges and flats to open up the interior running game, to then later the play-action passing game. That’s what their personnel is built to do, and that hasn’t changed much from last year, although the running game is much less proven without Kerryon Johnson.

That gameplan seems unlikely to change based on the limited snaps we’ve seen from LSU’s defense.

Pancake

Early on, the flat areas of the field are going to be huge for both teams. Auburn lives on getting the ball into the flats quickly, especially to Ryan Davis. They’ll use bubble screens, tunnel screens, quick pitches, play-action passes, on and on with multiple fakes and paired with an inside run look designed to hold the linebackers and defensive ends.

That’s going to put a lot of pressure on LSU’s nickel defenders, and particularly safeties Grant Delpit and Jacoby Stevens. Both players have gotten a ton of work in a newer defensive set that Dave Aranda has worked into LSU’s defense this year. Something of a modified 3-3-5 type of front, with the strong safety rolled up in place of the F-linebacker and the nickel corner playing at depth more similar to a safety.

LSU’s new 3-3-5 nickel defensive look.
Billy Gomila

It’s been a great fit for Delpit, who has three tackles for loss and leads the team in sacks through the first two games. But it will also likely put he and Stevens (who will rotate in quite often — so much that he’s been erroneously listed as moving to linebacker full time by some) in some one-on-one tackling situations. They cannot miss, and both Devin White and Jacob Phillips will have to play discipline football to work around it.

One of the Malzahn offense’s staple constraints is to have the blocking slot receivers take off deep, so Terrence Alexander and Kary Vincent will also have to be alert at the nickel position. Having sprinter’s speed at that spot is nothing new for Auburn, and both Alexander and Vincent are no slouches in the speed department, as former state-champion-caliber runners themselves.

But making the defense run sideline-to-sideline will be a key for LSU as well. Some quick throws — option routes to the slot, throws to the backs and tight ends in the flat — are things LSU hasn’t shown much of through two games, but they’ll be needed early on in this one to try and loosen up Auburn’s linebackers and create some room on for the zone running game.

One thing to watch could be “Buck” defensive end Nick Coe. Steele likes to line up wide in more of a nine-technique position. That could make the Tigers a little more vulnerable to pin-and-pull schemes to the weak side, although the pullers would need to get to their marks quickly.

Line in the Sand

Quarterback is a position where Auburn has a definitive edge based on experience, but to my eye Jarrett Stidham and Joe Burrow have very similar games. Good mobility, strong passers. Stidham seems to have the better arm, but I think Burrow may be better on the shorter routes.

Against Washington, Auburn looked more comfortable with their drop-back passing game, but they still want to do most of their flying off of play fakes and misdirection. The skill players, backs included, are still more of a function of the offense than the other way around. LSU is going to man up outside and try to deal with the receivers and get after Stidham, and this game may come down to which quarterback can make more plays on third down — which has been a struggle for Burrow to date.

There aren’t a ton of dynamic speed rushers on the Auburn front, but they’re an athletic, disciplined bunch and when you get them in third-and-long, Steele can hide his coverages and turn them loose and they’re tough for any offensive line to dealwith. Managing those first down situations to set up third-and-manageable will be the big challenge for Steve Ensminger and LSU’s offense. In addition to the backs and tight ends, this would be a good time to get Jonathan Giles involved with option routes out of the slot.

The team that can do the best job of moving the line of scrimmage outside of the tackles will likely wind up winning inside of them as well. As has been said, this is likely to look more like a mid-Aughts LSU-Auburn matchup, with the team that can make the least mistakes on offense, or win the special teams battle, coming out on top.