Thursday, September 18, 2008

Friday preview: LSU

Auburn this Saturday: a slightly less cushier job for Andrew Hatch than the BCS title game.

Before this really gets going, is there already a lengthy LSU preview at this website with less analytical substance than this one, one that might remind me of an air-puffed, unnaturally-colored nutritionally-valueless snack food? Indeed, there is.

At stake: If you have arrived at the Joe Cribbs Car Wash and you're unaware of what's at stake when Auburn faces LSU on Saturday, you've probably stumbled here accidentally while looking for actual car wash information. I suggest you try these nice-looking people here.

As for the rest of us, we can recite it line (yadda six out of eight years yadda winner yadda SEC West) and verse (blah blah sets the tone for the season blah decided by a touchdown or less blah blah) by now. Though thanks to the wheezing Auburn offense there's a new wrinkle for Tommy Tuberville and his still-fresh-out-of-the-box offensive wingman: prove there's some hope for this offense in bareknuckle SEC games like this one, or those whispers that Franklin's out of his depth and that Tubby's lost his coordinator-hirin' knack* are going to grow perhaps uncomfortably loud.

Just so's we're all totally clear, though, about both how critical this game really is and how damn good the two teams playing in it are likely to be when all the 2008 dust settles, allow me to quote from the Cheese Puff Preview linked above:
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.
Lose, and you can still have a good season. Win, though, and greatness awaits.

When LSU has the ball: Charles Scott is going to become very, very familiar with it. Why?

Before we get to that: Trivia Time! Which team got both more yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion out of the quarterback position during Saturday's action: Auburn, with Chris "Enemy of the People" Todd at the helm of Tony "Scourge of All That is Good and Beautiful in This World" Franklin's Spread Eagle? Or LSU, with the "Eh, whatever" tag-team of Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee? Before you answer, remember that Auburn played on the road at the home of one of the SEC's top secondaries while LSU was in Baton Rouge facing North Texas, the 113th-ranked defense in Division I in 2007.

Do you have an answer?

Time's up! The answer is Auburn, 5.9-5.8 in YPA, 11.0-10.4 in YPC. (Hatch also threw a pick; Todd did not.) Yes, that's right: Chris Todd in the 3-2 atrocity Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda called "an occasion for sadness and mourning, for all peoples, everywhere" was still a better quarterback than Hatch and Lee managed to be against North Texas.

If you are an Auburn fan, this is an exciting development. Logic would seem to dictate that if Hatch and Lee are incapable of producing decent numbers against the Mean Green, you may as well ask them to climb Mount Everest in bunny slippers as to ask them to take it up a notch, in Jordan-Hare, in their first road game, at night, against an Auburn defense Stephen King has already optioned for his next screenplay.

So, quite frankly, I doubt Gary Crowton--having proved to skeptics like yours truly that the loss of Jimbo Fisher was not, in fact, really that much of a loss at all--will be dumb enough to make that request. We're going to see a lot of Scott, who to this point is averaging an eye-popping (regardless of the Sisters of the Poor slate-to-date) 11.4 yards-per-carry to date. We'll probably see some Richard Murphy, and a dash of Keiland Williams, and maybe even some designed runs for Hatch, who's moved along at 6.1 a carry and is, for the moment, the team's second-leading rusher. I firmly believe the LSU passing game will be almost-strictly an If All Else Fails measure.

Which begs the $64,000 question: will All Else fail? The Bayou Bengals are positively Godzillan across their offensive line, going 314-351-283-284-315 left to right, and as much as I love me some Michael Goggans and Antoine Carter, some Tray Blackmon and Zac Etheridge (yes, Etheridge, you on'tthink they'll have the strong saftey in run support?), it's going to be hard as all get out for ever-so-slightly-undersized guys like them to handle that kind of beef. There will be holes here and there. And Scott's emergence means LSU will take advantage of them when they appear.

But the Auburn defense I've watched over the first three games is simply too crafty, too well-coached, too damn good to get beaten by a one-dimensional team. Some yards will come via the ground game alone, yes. (More than ULM, USM, or MSU managed, anyway.) But Hatch and Lee will have to throw the ball to maintain any kind of actual drive. To be fair, when he does, he's got an impressive array of targets: Demetrius Byrd and Brandon LaFell are prototypical LSU size-n'-speed receivers, tight end Richard Dickson might be just about as good as Southern Miss's Shawn Nelson and might tear Auburn to just about as many shreds, and the second-string is littered with more studs. Given how much trouble Auburn had with Nelson and that a three-receiver set will likely** put good-freshman-but-still-a-freshman Neiko Thorpe on one of the thoroughbreds. Hatch and Lee will have open receivers; while we know Scott can hit a hole in the line, can the LSU QBs hit a hole in the coverage?

Looking at the North Texas results and knowing how far down Jordan-Hare would be on Miles's list of "Best Places for First Road Game of New Quarterback Starter's Career," I have to say I'll believe it when I see it. Even Jamarcus Russell could only get LSU to three points last time they were here; forgive me if I don't see the combination of Hatch and Lee managing a whole lot more.

When Auburn has the ball: Like I did watching scary movies when I was little, I'm going to hold my hands over my eyes the whole time, peek through my fingers if it seems quiet and safe, and keep 'em closed shut when I hear things breaking and those monsters growling. I doubt I'll be able to watch a third down the whole game.

OK, so that's not entirely true. Auburn's offense isn't without its hopes, however meager. This game was Kenny Irons's coming-out party three years ago; I'm holding onto a silly wish it might be something similar for Tristan Davis, who's looked studly in his limited time. (When he hasn't been dropping pitches, anyway.) The offensive line looked a bit of a train wreck last week, but there's too much talent, too much experience there to look that bad two weeks in a row. Tate, Lester, Dunn, Fannin, Smith, maybe even Billings ... these are all worthwhile pieces with which to put an offense together.

That's what we assumed Tony Franklin spent the offseason doing: putting together an offense. What we saw against Mississippi State, however, was not an offense. It was just 11 guys running plays. There was no philosophy, no attitude, no feel to what Auburn was doing Saturday, and it turned the Bulldog defense into the unit that was doing the attacking. If Franklin has indeed not been keeping some of his better tricks and treats in mothballs--if the Spread Eagle's "philosophy" really does amount to little more than spreading the field and then running almost nothing but the most basic plays available to that formation--LSU will grind the Auburn offense into a fine orange-and-blue substance they can call "Tiger Powder" and market as an aphrodisiac in the Far East.

For both the Wu-Tang Clan and the LSU defense are, indeed, nothing to [mess] with. The loss of Darry Beckwith in the middle of the linebacking unit might give Tate/Lester/Davis a touch more room to work with, but even before that comes into play they'll have to get past what might be the best defensive line in the country and is certainly the deepest. (I'd like to think Auburn might have a claim on the former depending on what we see tomorrow. The latter, though, forget it.) I'd wager there are NFL teams that don't have a foursome at DT as effective as Ricky-Jean Francois, Marlon Favorite, Al Woods, and Charles Alexander. Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman haven't set the world on fire yet this year, but c'mon, they're Tyson Jackson and Kirston Pittman. (Though I have to say, even if he's probably going to nab 11 sacks tomorrow just to spite me, that Jackson may be a hair overrated. He's been very good-not-great the times I've seen him. Then again, look who he's playing beside--it's hard to keep a viewer's attention that way.)

The rest of the defense is made up of guys who are good enough to play defense for LSU. That says an awful lot about them just by itself, but particularly with Beckwith's absence it's also fair to say that, on paper, they don't quite match some of the LSU defenders of recent vintage. There's no Ali Highsmith in the somewhat anonymous (by Tiger standards) linebacking crew. There's no LaRon Landry or Craig Steltz patrolling the secondary, where LSU's breaking in three new starters. There aren't a ton of yards to made out here beyond the d-line, but there's more than there are battling the likes of Jean-Francois and Woods.

This is the challenge presented to Tony Franklin: find a way, by hook or crook (though not in our own end zone this week, thanks) to force LSU's linebackers and secondary members to make plays instead of the defensive line. Maybe they will, maybe they won't. But it seems like the only shot we've got, and it's a shot that's going to rely awfully heavy on the execution of Chris Todd and the creativity of Tony Franklin.

I'm not confident, no. But that doesn't mean there's not hope.

When special teams are on the field: Trindon Holliday's going to do something I probably won't enjoy. He's fielded four punts thus far this season and averaged returning them 40.8 yards. He and Keiland Williams have likewise fielded four kickoffs and averaged a respectable 24 and 27.5 yards a return, respectively. I feel like the kickoffs are almost a lost cause: if we can keep LSU anywhere on the right side of their 40-yard line, that's going to be quite a success. (With Byrum unable to stick in the end zone, might we see more squibbing? And if we do, could someone please reassure me Byrum's been practicing this?) As for punts, "Saturn V" Durst's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to kick the ball into the waiting arms of the ESPN sound guy. There's no point in kicking to Holliday. None.

The other key figures on special teams are the placekickers. The way both these teams play defense (and offense), it's entirely possible that after all the titanic struggles in the trenches, all the deathblows delivered by linebackers on the running backs, all the sweat and blood and hoarse fans and entire lives lived out on the field, over the course of the 60 minutes the whole ball of wax will boil down to what amounts to a soccer shootout: Wes Byrum gets his shots from 46, 40, and 29, the usual two-headed LSU kicker of Colt Davis and Josh Jasper get theirs from 31, 38, and 45. Whoever hits the most, his team wins. The way Byrum kicked last week, I don't like this scenarios; the way Byrum has kicked with the weight of the world on his shoulders the rest of his career, I'm fine with it. Who knows.

If Dunn and Davis break off a return or two, yes, that would be a very, very big deal in a game in which every yard is hyuuuuuuge. That there's legitimate hope of that only reinforces my feeling that this is, top-to-bottom, the best Auburn special teams units in quite a while. But after the special teams debacles of '05 and '07, even if they just wind up breaking even with LSU, I'll be pleased as punch.

Intangible reason for worry: Ever since Georgia left the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry's "Road team always wins!" meme in tiny, white-jerseyed tatters last fall, I've felt apprehensive about ascribing too much weight to the Auburn-LSU win "Home team always wins!" meme. When we're talking about a series that's been as razor-thin as this one has been over the past four years, I'm not sure it's home-field advantage as much as it is just good ol'-fashioned luck. Move V****n's kick six inches inside the upright, make Campell's fourth-down pass to Taylor a fraction of a second later, have Matt Flynn throw that last-second ball a foot behind where he did, and maybe we're talking about why the home team always loses this game rather than vice versa.

All of which makes me think: at some point the other shoe is going to drop. At some point the home team isn't going to catch the break they need. And as supremely likely as this game is to come down to that one single break (yet again) and with the specter of Georgia rearranging the momentum of that rivalry still hanging over us, it worries me like hell.

Intangible reason for confidence: If the continued success of home teams in this particular series has reached at-least-a-little-fluky status, Tommy Tuberville's continued success in capital-B capital G Big Games like this one has not. The track record is too long, the difference in Auburn's execution, focus, and intensity when the "smart money" is on the opponent just too great to attribute it to anything but Tubby. I'm wouldn't claim to have any insight on how he does it (or how coaches like Tommy Bowden and--yeah, let's go ahead and toss him in here--Jim Tressel fail so miserably at it) but his teams play their best games against the best teams they have to face, over and over and over again.

Even if Auburn came into this game with North Texas's defense and Auburn's UAB's offense, as long as they came in arm-in-arm through the Fog of Intimidation with Tommy Tuberville, I'd have hope. That they'll do so with what may prove to be one of the greatest defenses I'll ever see and with 85,000-plus Auburn fans behind them gives me something that might even be called confidence.

Three Wishes. 1. Like everyone else: could Kodi Burns play in the red zone plz ok thx. 2. That the Auburn defense force a turnover or two in LSU territory; you shouldn't have any complaints at all about Auburn's defense, but if you're the sort who just has to make one, they haven't been responsible for any points of their own (either via returns or a deliciously short field for the offense) since Coleman mauled the ULM QB on the D's first snap of the season. It would be a fine, fine time for the defense to produce something similar. 3. That our second-string defenders play like first-string defenders; as good as Marks, Blackmon, Coleman, Stevens, etc. are, they can't play an entire game's worth of snaps throwing themselves at the behemoths on LSU's offensive line. Doolittle, Carter, Bynes, whichever of Johnson or Evans comes off the bench: the defense's margin-for-error in this game is almost nothing, and so the same applies to you.

Success is / Failure is: A win / a loss.

Your bottom line: In some ways, we know exactly what's going to happen in this game. Both defenses are going to strangle the lifeblood out of these offenses. Both teams are going to deliver enough body blows to make the Thrila in Manila proud. The game is going to be more taut and more tense than any you can remember right at that moment, partially becuase it is so taut and tense you have hard time remembering your own middle name. And eventually, it's going to come down to one drive, one play, maybe one single yard. The possibility of a blowout exists, but these past four years have taught me that it is a possibility so remote it's not even worth discussing. We know what will happen, and it will take our breath away.

But we also have no clue what will happen. Anyone who will tell you they can do more than take a blind guess at which team will win this game is either a liar or, more likely, hasn't done his or her homework on how lopsided the Auburn defense vs. Hatch and Lee match-up truly is. Once again, fate is going to look at Auburn and LSU, toss a coin, and it's going to come down in the palms of a new set of heroes on one side or the other.

That doesn't mean I can't envision how certain parts of this game will play out. I think Auburn finds a way to get the ball to their running backs in space, against LSU's linebackers and secondary, and has some success with it. I think LSU generally wins the field position battle via the grinding of Scott and flicks to Dickson. I think Hatch and Lee bring almost nothing but that Auburn's straight-ahead running game brings almost as little against that line. I think a huge special teams play causes a major momentum swing, quite possibly via one punt returner or the other. I think both placekickers have at least two crucial opportunities.

But how does it all add up? I don't know. Neither do you. What I do know is that as the miles go by and the minutes tick off the clock towards kickoff, my ability to wait to find out what happens in this game slips away as well. These precious hours before a college football game like this, when the whole world seems to buzz and there's an omen around every corner and you feel like you would give anything not to face the pain of defeat at this same time tomorrow ... this is why we follow the sport. This is why we care. This is Auburn-LSU, folks. Let's see how it goes.

War Eagle.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong ...

Auburn 3, LSU 2

*This sort of view ignores that Rhoads has been a revelation, but then again, the question's never been about whether Tubby could find a decent DC, has it?

**Rhoads sorta ignored this and went with a base 4-3 at times even against USM's spread, expecting the Auburn 'backers to be good enough in zone. At least, I think I remember this happening. So we'll see.


Anonymous said...

Best preview I've seen on the game... BY FAR. Fantastic work!! While Auburn has a good secondary, I think you missed one crucial match-up in your summary, though: in addition to pounding Scott, LSU WILL line-up three and four wides in an attempt to expose young secondary players. LSU has some great athletes at receiver so you'll see some short passes with attempts at big gains with runs after the catch. This doesn't take a great QB to pull-off (and I agree with your assessment of the LSU QB's). I expect LSU to have a couple of big gains in this fashion that will turn the field position battle in LSU's favor. Geaux Damn Tigers!

Anonymous said...

Great preview, but I'm gonna nitpick your history re: AU/UGA myth of the road team always winning. Home team won in 2000, 2003, and 2004.

Sullivan013 said...

Well done. Spot on with all the emotions true fans experience before the Tigers play.

Still thinking back to last year's Henry V analogy.

It almost works every year with this crowd.

War Eagle!