No. 9 Auburn at No. 2 LSU
When and Where: Saturday, Oct. 26, Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La., 3:30 p.m. EDT.
The round-robin to determine the West Division champion of the Southeastern Conference has its first chapter Saturday when No. 2 LSU hosts ninth-ranked Auburn.
Auburn (6-1, 3-1 SEC West) enters this contest as a potential spoiler to a much-anticipated showdown between LSU (6-0, 3-0) and No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9. Auburn closes its season hosting the Crimson Tide in the annual "Iron Bowl" grudge match Nov. 30, and with every other team in the West already with two conference losses, this three-way tango is all but certain to determine the division winner.
Gus Malzahn's team bounced back from its loss at Florida by thrashing Arkansas 51-10 on the road last Saturday. Freshman Bo Nix threw for three touchdowns and ran for a fourth as Auburn scored two touchdowns in the first 4:12 and never looked back, running for 298 yards and totaling 491 overall.
The three TD passes were a season-high for Nix, who has 11 overall while throwing for 1,301 yards. The concern, though, is his level of play against elite teams. Nix has failed to complete 50 percent of his passes in two of his three matchups with ranked teams, and all five of his interceptions have come in those games.
LSU maintained its spot in the poll after dismantling Mississippi State 36-13 on the road last Saturday. Joe Burrow continued his Heisman push, throwing four touchdown passes in a 14:37 span bridging the second and third quarters to break open a tight game. Burrow finished with 327 yards on 25-of-32 passing, lifting his numbers to 2,484 yards and 29 TD passes while completing 79.4 percent of his passes.
Ed Orgeron's team has already defeated a pair of AP Top 10 teams, knocking off Texas on the road and edging Florida. LSU has won seven of its last nine games against top 10 teams, with the two losses coming to Alabama in each of the last two seasons.
LSU edged Auburn 22-21 on the road last as Burrow rallied his team from an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit, throwing a 71-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Dillon before engineering a 14-play, 52-yard drive to set up Cole Tracy's 42-yard field goal as time expired.
LSU has won nine straight games in Death Valley over Auburn since a 41-7 loss in 1999, with seven of those wins coming against ranked Auburn squads.
Malzahn counting on Nix to deliver in prime timeThis is Nix's fourth game against a ranked opponent, and all three previous ones have come on the road or at a neutral setting. In addition to the five interceptions, what also has stood out has been an inability to get consistent chunk plays in the passing game.
Nix has averaged 5.41 yards per attempt in those three contests while completing 46.2 percent (36 for 78) of his passes. With LSU having a high-quality secondary that appears primed for this game after JaCoby Stevens and Kristian Fulton recording interceptions against Mississippi State, more than a few things have to improve in contrast to their loss to Florida.
Bo Nix finds the wide open receiver for 6! pic.twitter.com/1Lwhq92H9B— No Huddle College Football (@NoHuddle_CFB) October 19, 2019
For starters, communication in what will be a wall of noise in Death Valley will be important. Nix and the offense struggled with that at Florida, and the team has been trying to simulate that at practice all week while also making sure the play clock does not become an enemy and allow LSU an advantage in terms of timing the snap.
“It’s hard timing-wise,” right tackle Jack Driscoll told The Athletic. “Bo can’t just yell. If we’re switching a play or protection, Bo can’t just sit back and yell at all of us. He’s got to go each and every one of us so we can hear him. So that just takes time. And at times, we just let the play clock get low, and we just kind of bit the bullet with the penalties.”
Nix also got a history lesson about LSU from his father Jared Nix, who also was a quarterback for Auburn. He recounted a story from the 1995 game in which the offense stopped playing after hearing a whistle and failing to discern it as one from the crowd. The elder Nix was thrown like a rag doll to the turf in the end zone for a safety as Auburn won 12-6.
"We’ve talked about that a lot, the phantom whistle game and how he got thrown on his head,” the freshman QB said. “But obviously (my dad has) done everything he can to tell me how loud it’s going to be, but until you’re there in person, nobody can really fathom how loud it is.”
Auburn must again show the ability to run the ball without leading rusher JaTarvious "Boobee" Whitlow, who is expected to miss at least two more weeks with a knee injury. Malzahn's team use a running back-by-committee approach and overwhelmed Arkansas as six players finished with at least 24 yards.
Kam Martin and D.J. Williams got the bulk of the carries, finishing with a combined 21 and 132 yards between them as Martin had a team-best 84 yards.
"Not having Boobee obviously is a tough one," Malzahn said at his media availability Tuesday. "But the good thing is they (the young backs) did get some experience last week on the road. We do know it’s going to be louder and everything that goes with it.
"But they got that experience and we’ve got a lot of trust in them. This is why they came to Auburn. They’ve just got to seize the moment."
Auburn will also be relying on its standout defense, which has recorded 20 sacks and ranks 23rd in the nation in total defense at 319 yards allowed per game. Its deep defensive line has been the driving force of a run defense that has limited opponents to 94.3 yards per game, good for 12th in the country.
Despite having just three interceptions, Auburn does have 13 takeaways and a plus-1 turnover margin after forcing eight turnovers in the last two games.
Orgeron counting on line to impose will to help BurrowHaving one of the best quarterbacks in the country means giving him every chance to succeed, and that is what Orgeron has done with Burrow, who appears poised to rewrite most of LSU's single-season records in his bid to become the school's second Heisman winner along with 1959 recipient Billy Cannon.
Orgeron realizes his team's success on offense will boil down to his line's ability to at least neutralize Derrick Brown, who has five tackles for loss and three sacks, and Marlon Davidson -- who leads Auburn with 5.5 sacks -- to allow Burrow to run the standard five-wide offense. LSU ranks second in the nation in passing yards (385.7) and is one of just three FBS teams to score on 100 percent of its red zone possessions with 31 touchdowns and eight field goals in 39 opportunities.
"Here is what is going to happen. We're going to run our offense, we are going to have to five-man protect. That's the offense, five-man protect," Orgeron said in his usual straightforward style at his Monday availability. "That means some one-on-ones Derrick Brown, going to have to win. If we can do that, we're happy. If we can't, we're going to have to make adjustments, keep a tight end in, keep a back in, chip, whatever it may take.
We want to get five receivers out all the time, and that gives Joe obviously a better option, gives us a better option. When you spread guys out, they have to declare man or zone. It's hard to disguise. It gives us a better look. It all starts with protection. If we can beat those guys one-on-one, we'll be fine."
Justin Jefferson already has a career-high with nine touchdowns and is six catches and 116 yards shy of matching his 2018 totals of 54 receptions and 875 yards. Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, and Terrace Marshall have combined for 24 touchdown receptions, and Marshall -- who got off to a blazing start with 20 catches for 304 yards and six TDs in four games -- is expected to return after missing the last three games due to a foot injury.
"We plan on easing him along, see how much he can do," Orgeron told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "He's going to want to do everything and be ready to go. We feel that by game time, he should be ready to play."
Stevens and Fulton, along with safety Grant Dulprit and cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. will be tasked with containing Nix and Auburn's passing offense. The quartet has rarely often had their best games simultaneously despite LSU's unbeaten record, and could prove as the X-factor in knocking Alabama off the throne in the SEC West. It is something not lost on Stevens as LSU figures out how to best deploy its two safeties from play to play.
“In my head, we were always the best safety duo in the country,” Stevens told The Athletic, “and today now that we actually kind of put together a good game together, it just shows what me and Grant know.”
- 3-7 ATS in its last 10 road games vs. teams with an above-.500 home record.
- 1-4 ATS in its last five road games vs. LSU.
- The road team is 2-8 ATS in the last 10 games between the teams.
- 13-4 ATS in its last 17 games vs. SEC opponents.
- 7-2 ATS in its last nine games after totaling 280 or more passing yards in the previous game.
- 7-2 ATS in its last nine games.