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LSU vs. Auburn: What To Watch For

Time to welcome that other team from Alabama to Tiger Stadium.

LSU v Mississippi State Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It always makes me nervous when there doesn’t seem to be juice to an LSU-Auburn game.

I don’t believe that to be the case inside of the LSU program, but between the talk about the impending Bama game via Tua Tagovailoa’s injury or of long winning streaks in Tiger Stadium, some of y’all are whistling past the graveyard a little too much for my tastes.

No matter how heavy of a favorite LSU looks like right now, this is still a top-10 Auburn football team that’s riding in here 6-1 against a damn difficult schedule. A match-up that came down to a walk-off field goal last year and a 20-point comeback the year before.

It’s the third top-10 opponent of the season, and a chance to take this team’s ambitions to another level. Let’s strap it up.

What To Watch For On Saturday


I’d say that familiarity breeds contempt, but we hate Auburn anyway.

We are excessively familiar, nonetheless. We know what the Gus Malzahn offense looks like with it’s wing-T running sequence principles and misdirection/playaction-based passing game. Ditto the Kevin Steele defense — 4-3 under with aggressive pattern-match zone coverage.

Yes, Auburn has it’s shiny new quarterback in Bo Nix. And yes, he’s a heck of a young talent. But we all should know by now that the running game is what makes Auburn go. If the quarterback is beating you, it’s because the running game is already effective and play-action and misdirection has your secondary out of whack. Take that away, and this isn’t a passing game designed to just drop back and chuck it around.

That’s an advantage when you can score points like LSU. Of course, that’s IF LSU can score points on a very good Auburn defense.

Look for Auburn to back off of the up-tempo style that Malzahn was originally known for, and try to nibble away a-la Florida and Mississippi State. Lower the possession count and try to limit LSU’s chances with the ball. In truth, Auburn seems to use less of the fast pace each year. I’m not really sure why.

Identity Crisis

Malzahn and Les Miles have more in common than people think. On top of the infamous “loser leaves town” match-up of 2016, there’s the fact that the Auburn offense, for better and worse, remains the same no matter who has his offensive coordinator title. There’s been good and bad to that fact, to the consternation of his fan base. Maybe he needs to call the plays himself? It’s the OC’s fault! No, maybe it’s that Gus won’t let him run HIS offense?Maybe he needs to let someone else coach the quarterbacks?

It’s a rigmarole we all got used to over the years.

And of course, the offense hasn’t changed. It’s a run-heavy spread offense that relies mostly on Wing-T-style sequence principles for it’s success, and is at its best when it moves at a faster tempo.

But it isn’t always at it’s best. Auburn’s averaged less than 26 points per conference game in three out of the last four seasons. This season, the numbers have been big against Arkansas and Mississippi State, but just 28 points against Texas A&M and 13 points in the loss to Florida, with three games under five yards per play.

What’s funny is that when you watch this offense through it’s fits and starts of recent years, the successes always seem to come when it starts to look more like what we saw in years like 2010, 2013 or 2017. When it’s moving fast, running sequence and catching defenses off guard for big plays through tempo. For lack of a better phrase, when it’s doing “the Gus shit.”

When it’s running power, counter, buck sweep, reverse — using the running game to set up play-action, and using the quick passing game to set up double moves down the field.

But for some reason, you’ll see them get away from those principles for stretches. And slow down the tempo. And quite frankly, no matter how talented Nix might be, this offense just isn’t built to drop back and bomb away on good defenses without everything else clicking.

And while there isn’t that true workhorse on this team with Jartavious Whitlow injured, there are still enough pieces. There are veteran backs, two quarterbacks with plenty of mobility, slot guys with speed like Anthony Schwartz and Will Hastings, plus a big, rangy downfield target in Seth Williams.

Maybe it’s a desire to move beyond the “high school” moniker people branded him with years ago. Maybe it’s about trying to develop a five-star stud like Nix for the NFL. He certainly has a ton of talent, big arm and enough mobility to be a real weapon in the running game.

Either way, LSU will be happy if Auburn continues to deny itself.

And regardless, you’ll see the Tiger defense roll the safeties down into the box and challenge the Auburn receivers with man-to-man coverage. Control the line of scrimmage and keep numbers sideline to sideline, and force Nix to try and make plays down the field. Last week, we saw Grant Delpit get back to playing that kind of role against Mississippi State, and he broke out controlling the flats last year against the Other Tigers. He’s going to have another opportunity for that type of performance.

Strong Style

Auburn definitely presents the best defensive unit the Tiger offense has seen to date. Sixth nationally in defensive SP+, fifth in defensive FEI, and in the top-20 range in most of the conventional stats like yards per play, rushing and pass-defense efficiency.

It’s very much the typical Kevin Steele, 4-3 under-front defense, and one of the best defensive lines in the country makes it go. The best one that LSU will see this season. It’s an amazingly balanced unit too — Derrick Brown is almost certainly a high first-rounder, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe both project high as well, and Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant has all the talent in the world, even if he hasn’t put it together yet. Brown makes it all go in the middle. He’s the right combination of size, strength and speed to play one- or two-gap techniques as needed.

The back seven doesn’t have the same star power, but they have a lot of upperclassmen that understand the scheme and their role in it.

They’re also a physical, grabby bunch, and after watching Mississippi State have some limited success by trying to push LSU’s receivers around in the red zone Auburn’s likely to try the same tactics. Look for them to try and set a tone early, test the limits of the officiating and essentially dare the referees to keep throwing flags. Clutch, grab, everything but try to put the receivers in a kimura.

The Other Tigers have played a little more man-to-man on early downs this year, which is probably a product of having such a strong front. But if LSU’s going to spread the field look for them to try and keep the safeties deep and fill the passing lanes with zone coverage.

The obvious counter to that for LSU is to run the football and force them to roll down a safety. But that’s where that dominant defensive line comes in. So don’t be surprised if Steve Ensminger and Joe Brady look to involve Thaddeus Moss or Stephen Sullivan inside a little more to back the linebackers out, or bring one of the safeties down and single up the receivers outside.

This is also where Justin Jefferson’s role in the slot comes in as well. Florida was able to create big plays matching up inside receivers on linebackers. That’s something LSU’s had a lot of success doing to date.

Keeping the offensive pace up will be key. Auburn’s offense lives and dies on that running game and if LSU can get a few scores they’ll struggle to keep pace throwing it. Much like the Florida game, if it comes down to making big calls, Malzahn can get creative. And having mobile quarterbacks is a big asset in short-yardage situations — Auburn can run Nix and they can also bring in big, physical backup Joey Gatewood as well to run between the tackles.

That means Joe Burrow and the Tiger receivers need to be dialed in right away. LSU wants to avoid the slow start we saw last week in Starkville. Put the pedal to the floor early on. Push the tempo and force Auburn to try and counter. Spread the field, shift and move receivers around. Play with zone assignments. Get that defensive line on the move with stretches and screens as well.

We’ve seen this LSU offense answer the bell so many times this year. But if they can put Auburn on that kind of defensive early on, that will play into the home team’s hands.