Which band of Tigers will take early control of SEC West race?
Posted: Friday September 17, 2004 3:24PM; Updated: Friday September 17, 2004 4:01PM
LSU puts its 10-game winning streak on the line when the defending co-national champs face a difficult road test. Auburn has rolled in its first two games against Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State, but the Tigers haven't been tested. LSU should have lost its opener to Oregon State, but rallied to tie in the final minute of regulation and then won in 22-21 overtime. Auburn has won two of the past three meetings, but lost 31-7 last year in Baton Rouge. LSU's tenacious defense held Auburn running backs Carnell (Cadillac) Williams and Ronnie Brown to a combined 91 yards.
Sizing up LSU:
Though the Tigers may not be as dominant as they were last season, they still have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. LSU has been successful in platooning quarterbacks Marcus Randall and JaMarcus Russell. The duo has combined to throw for 421 yards and five touchdowns. Russell, a redshirt freshman, is the better passer, but senior Randall gives the Tigers another dimension with his ability to run and scramble. Expect both players to see significant time in this one, and whoever is hot will likely be the guy down the stretch.
Coming off an outstanding freshman season, Justin Vincent is a breakaway threat in the backfield and seems to step it up in big games. An elusive back with breakaway speed, Vincent has 150 yards and two touchdowns this season. Joseph Addai (108 yards, one TD), gives LSU another good option in the backfield. Whomever is running the ball has the luxury of running behind an outstanding offensive line led by senior center Ben Wilkerson and junior tackle Andrew Whitworth. The Tigers have two big-play receivers in sophomore Dwayne Bowe, who leads the SEC with three touchdown receptions and is averaging 22.7 yards per catch, and junior Skyler Green. Green didn't play in the Tigers' last game against Arkansas State after injuring his ankle in the opener, but he is expected to be ready for this one. LSU also has an outstanding tight end in junior David Jones.
Head coach Nick Saban has long been known for his swarming, aggressive defenses, and this one is no different. Expect the Tigers to blitz often to stuff up Auburn's running holes. Senior defensive end Marcus Spears is almost impossible to block one-on-one and will open things up for his teammates. Senior linebacker Lionel Turner is a ball-hawk and leads the team with 21 tackles. But as strong as the front seven is, the strength of this unit is the secondary. Senior Corey Webster is one of the nation's top cover corners and has 14 career interceptions. Senior Travis Daniels is an experienced corner on the other side and can afford to gamble with hard-hitting sophomore free safety LaRon Landry backing him up.
Sizing up Auburn:
Auburn's offense is centered around its running game. With two talented backs in seniors Williams and Brown, the Tigers are going to try to continually pound the ball. Williams, who has rushed for at least 100 yards in eight of his past 11 games, is a speed back who can either bounce off tacklers and break off big runs to the outside or quickly burst through holes up the middle. Brown, who has 202 yards and one TD this season, is more of a bruiser. Senior quarterback Jason Campbell, who is 20-9 as a starter, is an underrated passer, but has been plagued with bouts of inconsistency. He has a couple of reliable receivers in juniors Anthony Mix and Ben Obomanu.
The Tigers' defense has been completely rebuilt after losing five of their front seven. Though it hasn't really been tested, this unit has been solid in giving up just 14 points in two games, all in the fourth quarter in a rout of Mississippi State. Junior linebackers Antarrious Williams and Travis Williams have been the playmakers. Senior safety Junior Rosegreen is the leader in the secondary, while senior defensive tackle Jay Ratliff has been Auburn's best player up front.
Special teams breakdown:
LSU has a veteran kicker in sophomore Chris Jackson, who has a strong leg and handles all of the kicking duties. Green is a return threat as is Webster. Auburn is unproven in this area. Sophomore kicker John Vaughn has only attempted two field goals this season, making one.
Auburn RB Cadillac Williams
When healthy, Cadillac is a luxury model. He's quick, elusive and has tremendous cutback ability. When he sees the hole, he puts it into overdrive and is as good as gone.
LSU DE Marcus Spears
Spears is a ferocious defender who can wreak havoc on offenses and blow up plays. If he's able to get to Campbell and Auburn's backs consistently, the home Tigers will be tamed.
It's Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville's 50th birthday on Saturday and his players would love to give him a victory as a special present. That will be easier said than done. In marquee games, the team with the better defense normally has a clear advantage, and LSU's D is far superior to Auburn's. LSU is going to stack nine in the box and challenge Auburn to beat it in the air. That's a mighty task with LSU's lockdown secondary. LSU's near-loss to Oregon State was a clear wake-up call, and the Tigers will prove that they have what it takes to defend their national title with a close, hard-fought win on the Plains.
The pick: LSU 24, Auburn 17
B.J. Schecter is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated. Marquee Matchup appears every Friday on SI.com during the season.