70F Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, LA
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- - It's hard for the sixth-ranked LSU Tigers to argue they're being underrated and overlooked now.
Their circumstances have shifted markedly since August, when the program was surrounded by questions stemming from defensive player losses to the NFL, the offseason arrest of a top running back and an unproven passing game under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Tigers began the season ranked 12th, behind five other Southeastern Conference teams. Now, as LSU (3-0) enters its SEC schedule Saturday night at home against Auburn, the "Bayou Bengals" are ranked below only one team in their league: No. 1 Alabama.
After three convincing wins, LSU coach Les Miles said his team is ready and eager for a league game against an Auburn team that has surprisingly also started 3-0.
"This is the kind of game we need," Miles said. "We recognize the conference we play in. Our team is ambitious. We're a team with real designs on the back end of the season. The time to work is now."
The offense under Cameron has looked as efficient as at any time since the 2007 national title team with Matt Flynn at quarterback. Zach Mettenberger has nine touchdowns passes and has eclipsed the 250-yard passing mark in each game.
Wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham have combined for 32 catches for 576 yards. Those two receivers have caught all nine of Mettenberger's touchdown passes. The top three tailbacks - Jeremy Hill, Terrence Magee and Alfred Blue - have combined for 530 rushing yards.
"We're building a great offense here," Landry said. "Each week, we correct the mental mistakes and we correct the physical mistakes. We watch tape each week and just try to get better. The execution is much better this year. Guys have a year under their belt. They are not nicked up. They are healthy."
The offensive balance is something Miles has been seeking for a few seasons. A productive passing game will open things up for the Tigers' power running attack.
"I am encouraged as we start conference," guard Trai Turner said. "Teams have to play both the run and the pass now. Teams have to be concerned about our versatility this year."
Defensive coordinator John Chavis faced a challenging task with just three returning full-time starters. There has been little dip in defensive effectiveness while Chavis has been developing depth by using a number of his young backups in the first three games.
"Chief (Chavis) is doing a good job," Miles said. "He's bringing young guys along - veterans and newcomers all at the same time. We're making progress defensively. We get better and better with each quarter. The young guys and the veterans are feeling more comfortable understanding their roles."
The defense has allowed five touchdowns in the first three games, but two of those were set up by turnovers. Opposing teams are averaging 268 yards per game, but the Tigers say they've seen an improvement as the young players have gained more experience.
"We had effort the first two games, but we had mental mistakes," defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. "There were not as many busted assignments last week against Kent State. The communication was better. There are a lot of new faces. We have had to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses."
Cornerback Jalen Mills, who started last season as a true freshman, knows there is an adjustment for newcomers to the lineup. This group of defensive players has adopted the proper attitude.
"We are better as a whole on defense now than we were three weeks ago," Mills said. "The important thing is that everybody comes ready to work every day. You never hear anybody say 'I don't want to practice today.' We don't ever want to be satisfied."
Miles stressed that his team must be prepared for a rigorous eight-game SEC schedule.
"You better be ready," Miles said. "A conference game is going to be a highly contested game. It generally comes down to the end. If you enjoy competition at the very highest level, you love these games."
LSU has won two straight and five of six in this series, including a 12-10 road win last year as Auburn was held to 183 total yards. Plus, Auburn has lost six straight in Baton Rouge since 1999 and has dropped seven consecutive road games overall.
"LSU has a pretty awesome stadium to play in. They get real loud," kicker Cody Parkey said. "I'm a senior, so I've played there before. We're just going to have to execute. There isn't any room for mistakes."
Auburn's three wins this season have all been at home, including 24-20 over Mississippi State last Saturday in its SEC opener.
Nick Marshall's 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to go helped end Auburn's 10-game losing streak in conference play. Marshall had 339 yards passing after totaling 246 through the first two games.
"It does something for our whole team," first-year coach Gus Malzahn told the school's official website. "I mean, I think it gives you a shot in the arm. They know they can do it, and they found a way to do it at home. And I thought that was huge."
Auburn never totaled more than 335 yards of total offense during its conference losing streak, but had 459 against the Bulldogs despite three turnovers.
"We're a work in progress," Malzahn said, "but it's a good progress."