Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews #4: LSU

This series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition. Nonetheless, the hope is that you will find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming, and as such it is unofficially sponsored by:

Yes, I am wearing my "HELLO MY NAME IS: Homer McHomerson" name tag. Yes, I'm sure I'm blissfully unaware of some rivalry in Conference USA or Oregon or someplace where they put the losers' heads on pikes and dye a seven-mile stretch of the Missouri River in the winners' colors. Yes, I am aware that making definitive statements about how things are "rated" is akin to taking careful aim before throwing a dart at the moon.

But as I wholeheartedly believe the following definitive statement anyway and believe this to be the appropriate context in which to make it, I feel compelled to state: Auburn-LSU is the most underrated college football rivalry in America.

Sounds like 99.4 percent pure Auburn Blogger bluster, I know. But there's court-admissible evidence, I swear to you. For starters, there's the two series tidbits most sea urchins (at least the ones in the Gulf of Mexico) could tell you by now: the winner has won the SEC West six out of eight years, and the last four entries have been decided by a total of .078 points (OK, it's actually 14, 13 in regulation, if you like).

But even if those indicators are a good start, they still fall well short of fully illustrating how ridiculously good this series has become. Consider, for instance, that of late the winner of this game has generally done more than simply win the SEC West. Since 2001, the Auburn-LSU winner has won two national titles and *cough* finished an additional undefeated season; is a perfect 7-0 in bowl games, including four wins in BCS bowls, two more victories on New Year's Day, and one 40-3 whipping of Miami in the Peach (none of which even counts the Sugar Bowl demolition of Notre Dame by 2006 loser LSU); has won four of seven SEC titles; has won no fewer than nine games; and has averaged a final AP ranking of 5.7th.

Consider also that since 2004 neither team, winner or loser, has finished with fewer than nine wins. In that four-season span, Auburn and LSU have combined to post an 85-18 overall record, for a winning percentage of .825. The only two rivalries in the country that come within even a handful of games of matching that particular record of quality are Texas-Oklahoma, a half-game better at 86-18 (.827), and Louisville-West Virginia, at 79-20 (.798) and declining.

It's not just that Auburn-LSU has grown into one of the most reliable collisions of college football colossi on the national schedule, though. It's also that it's the next-best-thing to impossible for another rivalry to have matched Auburn-LSU's brand of drama over its past four meetings. Speaking as someone who can't remember the last time he breathed in the fourth quarter (or overtime) of one of these things, just reciting "14 points over four games" doesn't even approach doing justice to them; they aren't the "close" games of the "Team A scores touchdown with 27 seconds remaining to pull within five and fails to recover the onside kick" variety. To wit:

2004: Jason Campbell comes of age, and the greatest SEC team of the BCS era to date (don't argue) wins the game on their final drive when they're handed a do-over on the extra point.

2005: Neither team should let it get to overtime tied at 17--LSU drops a touchdown pass in the dying moments and Auburn outgains them by a mile--but LSU prevails because, as fans on both sides will recall forever with either giggly glee or the gnashing of teeth, this is the J**n motherhumping V****n game.

2006: The 7-3 slugfest, with the terror of Dorsey, Highsmith, and Landry on one defense and Groves, Marks, and a singularly possessed Will Herring playing the game of his life on the other. The most physically brutal game yours truly has likely ever seen.

2007: Ho-hum, just more of the same, as the eventual national champion wins on the final play of the game with the most debated, (in)famous playcall of the year.

Here comes the bluster again, but: If you can show me another rivalry that combines those kinds of Alcoa Fantastic Finishes with both the level of play these programs have achieved this decade and the steady increase in full-blown hate flowing between the Plains and the bayou, I'll gladly send you a choice selection from my fine collection of leprechaun eggs. Free of charge.

Now, to slow the hyperbole train for just one second, Auburn-LSU doesn't carry anything like the grand historical weight of Auburn-Georgia. For yours truly, at least, it won't ever come within shouting distance of the bone-deep intensity of the Iron Bowl. A sizable chunk of Auburn fans would still prefer a win over Florida. As things stand today, I'm not arguing Auburn-LSU is even the "biggest" or "best" rivalry game on Auburn's schedule, much less in the SEC or the country or anything like that.

Nonetheless: Auburn-LSU is a hell of a game. It's unquestionably one of the two or three capital-H Highlights not only of Auburn's schedule but the SEC's at-large, and deserves a spot in any national "10 games to watch" list you'd care to put together. The 2008 version has a lot to live up to--but looking back at the last few years and with only 45 blessed days between now and then, it's hard to find any reason to believe it won't.

Last year: Maybe you heard, but LSU had quite the eventful season last year: the merciless slaughter of Virginia Tech, the fourth-down-a-thon against Florida, a death-defying escape against Auburn, slip-ups against Kentucky and Arkansas, and finally a nice hatful of redemption against the bumbling Buckeyes. I'm not sure that by the end of the year LSU was entirely deserving of their reputation as a Stihl-endowed great ape so memorably portrayed thusly:

but 12-2 and a crystal football sure ain't bad.

Meanwhile, behind a frightfully green-but-improving offensive line, Auburn rebounded from early upset losses to South Florida and Mississippi St. to upset top-five Florida on the road, take eventual national champion LSU to the wire, and stretch their school-record Iron Bowl winning streak to six on their way to a satisfying 9-4 final record.

Notable previous meeting: LSU tradition states that the Bayou Bengals will score one touchdown for every roar live mascot Mike the Tiger unleashes in his pregame appearance before the LSU crowd. So it was more than little unsettling for the Tiger faithful when, before hosting Auburn in the third week of the 1993 season, Mike was wheeled onto the field and failed to offer so much as a soft growl during his entire "performance." He instead sat meekly in one corner of the cage and despite the best efforts by the costumed "Mascot Mike" and his handlers to rouse him, Mike gave no response other than to stand briefly, take a single wobbly step, and lay down again. True to form, the LSU offense under Curley Hallman provided little enthusiasm or energy of its own as Terry Bowden's visiting Tigers ran away with a 34-10 victory that would help springboard them into a perfect 11-0 season.

With the veterinary students in charge of Mike's care reporting immediately after his visit to the stadium that he appeared "glassy-eyed" and "unusually sluggish," a toxicology report was administered and came back with surprising results: although he would make a full and routine recovery before the end of the evening, Mike had been given a mild sedative by unknown persons sometime in the three-to-four hours before the game.

An internal investigation by campus law enforcement failed to produce any viable suspects and the case remained closed until its 10-year anniversary in 2003, when a typed message bearing the official letterhead of the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine arrived in Baton Rouge. The letter had been signed by "Dr. Gideon V. Wainright" and "Dr. Brown V. Boardofeducation" and claimed that while vet students at Auburn, the pair had been responsible for slipping a tranquilizer into Mike's food. "Bowden's boys may not have needed the help," the letter read, "but we thought we'd do what we could anyway. War Eagle!" Attempts by law enforcement to identify the authors of the letter proved unsuccessful. Although the letter made no indication of any future attempts to sedate Mike a second time, the handling of his food and medical care have since come under dramatically increased scrutiny from the LSU administration, resulting in substantially stricter guidelines regarding security and access to the animal.

Actual series history: The important recent stuff is covered above, though it's probably worth noting--as if neither you nor the aforementioned sea urchins didn't already know--that the home team has won the last eight in the series. LSU leads the all-time series 22-19-1.

Causes for Alarm

1. The argument I've heard most often from the Auburn fans and Auburn-backing media predicting an Auburn win in this game doesn't have much to do with Auburn itself, actually. It goes, simply: Auburn's the home team. Even the occasional LSU fan is following the meme.

This troubles me, not necessarily because it's a faulty argument in and of itself--I mean, eight-out-of-eight is a pretty good track record, even when the margins have been so ridiculously slim of late--but because of the unsettling resemblance between this line of thinking and the consensus amongst the Auburn faithful (the JCCW most certainly included) ahead of the Tigers' date at Athens last November: We'll be fine. We own the Dawgs in Athens. One 45-20 bludgeoning later, I'm a little less high on expecting the Jordan-Hare Stadium genie to pop out and grant Auburn a win when Tubby rubs his glasses on the hem of his shirt.

I'm not saying home-field advantage doesn't matter, mind you, not saying I don't like Auburn's odds on the Plains a metric ton better than I would if they were headed to Baton Rouge again. But I worry that expecting a victory because of the field the players are playing on as opposed to what the, you know, players do is asking the football gods to teach us (and a few media types taking the lazy way out) a second lesson.

2. Look, there's no need to pretend that watching a 5-foot-5-inch Olympic-quality sprinter do things on a football field like this:

isn't awesome, damn him.

Causes for Confidence

1. Seriously, who wears purple in football? The Northwesterns of the college world, the Minnesota Vikings of the professional world. (you don't think zero Super Bowl titles in 42 years is an accident, do you?)

Yes, I know it's a Cajun thing, and sure, things have been swell this decade. But there's a reason the Tigers were cursed with Mike Archer, Curley Hallman, and Gerry DiNardo for back-to-back-to-back regimes and wallowed in mediocrity like a pig in slop for so many years--all despite lying smack in the middle of one of the country's most fertile recruiting areas. And that reason is that purple is not an appropriate color for football uniforms, unless you somehow believe Tulane hanging with LSU for a half last year somehow wasn't related to this.

2. I touched on this briefly earlier this week, but the pendulum of luck seems to swing more violently between Auburn and LSU than between any two other teams I can think of. 2004: LSU misses their lone extra point while Auburn controversially gets two cracks at theirs. 2005: V****n. 2006: Auburn gets the (right, if debatable) call on the big late fourth down. 2007: Not only does Miles's (intelligent) end-of-gamble pay off, but the officials also return the 2006 favor when they pick up an illegal formation flag on an LSU touchdown based on replay.

Whether the officials will have as noticeable a role in this year's game is TBD (let's hope not, as fans from both sides could do more to let the zebras' decisions go), but the pendulum is due to swing away from the visitors in some fashion or another. And not just in terms of this particular matchup, either--LSU finished an unreal (and unsustainable) plus-20 in turnover margin in 2007.

Actual alleged analysis: Frankly, save the one great big giant glaring neon-lit EXCEPTION, it's hard to point out where exactly on paper Auburn has an advantage on LSU. Our defensive line should be nigh-unstoppable terrors; unfortunately LSU's got one of the most experienced, best o-lines in the league. But hey, our o-line returns all five guys and should be pretty special, too; too bad LSU has the consensus best d-line in the country. In Williams, Scott, Holliday, and others, they have nearly as many strong and explosive running backs as we've got strong and explosive linebackers. Their corners might be unproven, but it's debatable how stiffly Smith, Dunn and our unproven receivers will challenge them. And particularly now that Aairon Savage is done for the year, I don't even want to think about Demetrius Byrd, Brandon LaFell, Richard Dickson, Terrance Tolliver, and the rest of that flock of freaks lining up against our nickel and dime corners. I'm getting the shakes. Let's just move on.

Namely, to the one place Auburn can claim an advantage: LSU's quarterback situation. Remember, this won't just be the first road game in the career of whoever lines up under center; it'll be the first game of Quarterback X's career in which he's faced a defense with a pulse at all, given that LSU's first three opponents are Appy St., Troy, and North Texas. And it will be a night game. And the crowd will be very loud indeed. And most importantly, I expect Tuberville and Rhoads will have prepared some lovely housewarming gifts to welcome him into the SEC neighborhood.

It's possible Quarterback X will handle all of this. The candidates at hand are either very well-regarded raw prospects (Lee, Jefferson) or already intimately familiar with Gary Growton's system (Hatch). The potential will be there for Quarterback X. He'll be capable of facing down the aforementioned obstacles, getting the ball into the ready hands of his dozens of stupidly talented teammates, and calmly walking out of Jordan-Hare the bayou's newest hero.

But he'll have to, because LSU will not win if Quarterback X fails. As immovable as the LSU defensive line will be, as physically gifted as the new linebackers, corners, and safety will be, the Tiger defense must replace five starters from their 2007 back seven and--in an arguably even bigger blow--shrewd coordinator Bo Pelini. If the 2007 edition of the Auburn offense could put up 24 points on the road, the 2008 edition--improved, at home, against a defense that hypothetically won't be quite as fearsome as last year's (or, at least, won't be so early in the season)--should be good for 21 points, minimum. Right? (Particularly since the sharpest teeth on the LSU D belong to a pass rush the Franklin system is designed to neutralize ... I think.) Provided Auburn's own quarterback-to-be-announced isn't a total train wreck, this won't be another 7-3 deathslog.

And so, as this incredible rivalry has taught us, it will all fall on the shoulders of Quarterback X: the season, the division, the conference, the long, long memories of every Auburn and LSU fan alive. It will all hang in the balance. The last thing I will say is this: it will be a heavy, heavy load for any player to carry, and the player carrying it will be a freshman. I wish him luck. He will need it.

1 comment:

Quinton McDawg said...

I can recall some other notable LSU/Auburn games that qualify as spectacular. 1996 - the old coliseum turned into an inferno and the game was decided on a intercepted point after TD returned for two points. 1997 - Cecil Collins runs for 230+, but LSU still loses by two. Then you have a lot of games of pure hatred like the cigar game, the game where LSU's band got in a fight with Damon Duval, etc.

It's always fun and an extremely underrated rivalry. Well done.