BATON ROUGE, La. – Make no mistake: Beating Florida on the road last week was a bundle of catharsis for an LSU team left woozy after a stunning loss to Troy the week before.
What the Tigers do for an encore opens up a wide array of possibilities for a team still on the hunt for consistency and an offensive identity.
Surviving the 17-16 decision over the Gators showed the grit that LSU (4-2, 1-1 SEC) had been missing since early in the season, particularly on defense with the game on the line.
That was against Florida, though, a team and an offense with as much dysfunction (maybe more) than the Tigers. The buildup to LSU-UF gurgled and boiled at nasty levels for nearly a year, which gave LSU an extra jolt of motivation.
Turning the page to a showdown with 10th-ranked Auburn (5-1, 3-0) creates an altogether different challenge.
The Tigers from The Plains have rediscovered their footing since a 14-6 loss at No. 2 Clemson in the second week, surviving a hangover game with a 24-10 decision over Mercer and catching fire since then.
Once conference play commenced, Auburn has hit a new gear on offense, averaging 48 points to steamroll Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
LSU benefited from Florida coach Jim McElwain’s hesitancy to open things up with redshirt freshman quarterback Feliepe Franks last week, evidenced by only 16 pass attempts, very few downfield.
That won’t be the case with Auburn and QB Jarrett Stidham.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has opened things up with the transfer from Baylor, creating the SEC’s most balanced offensive attack. Auburn has rushed for 1,368 yards while passing for 1,348 – Stidham has accounted for all but three of those passing yards.
As effective as LSU’s defense proved to be against Florida, that was Florida. The Gators might not have the worst offense in the Power 5, but they are certainly in the final group through the door. Had the Tigers’ defense not showed up better last week, that would have been a major concern.
To make the complete turn around the corner this week — perhaps completely redirect a season that went off the rails in the loss to Troy — LSU’s defense has to play the best it has all season. More precisely, it needs that performance and effort against the best offense the Tigers have encountered this fall.
While Stidham is the key figure in the showdown between Auburn’s offense and the LSU defense, he is also LSU’s quickest means to a strong showing in this sense: Forcing him to throw the ball needs to be a priority.
LSU’s two losses were marred by a total breakdown defending the run: Mississippi State gashed the Tigers for 285 yards and Troy piled up 206. Neither the Bulldogs nor the Trojans ever changed their approach because they didn’t have to. Picking up yards in chunks on the ground was working just fine.
Auburn is absolutely capable of doing exactly that, with a powerful and experienced offensive line paving the way for Kerryon Johnson, the kind of grind-it-out back who can dictate the pace of a game. Johnson averages 5.9 yards a carry and an SEC-best 126 yards a game.
Clogging up the ground game has to be on the top of LSU’s to-do list. That becomes more feasible with veterans Rashard Lawrence and Ed Alexander back and healthy, dynamic end Arden Key showing signs of playing into a more productive role, and senior Frank Herron set to return to bolster depth on the defensive line. Devin White gives LSU a rock-solid tackler in the middle of the defense, so a stout performance from the D-line could be an important foundation.
While Stidham is unquestionably the best passer LSU has faced, the Bayou Bengal secondary is a primary strength. As comfortable as Stidham is throwing the ball, LSU needs to create uncomfortable passing situations – third-and-longs when the line can apply pressure and quicken Stidham’s pace as Clemson did. In that loss, Stidham was 13-for-24 but finished with only 79 yards because he had to dump the ball to receivers on shallow routes, usually much sooner than he or Malzahn wanted.
Beating Auburn will take LSU’s best performance of the season – a combination of scheme, execution and likely some good fortune. LSU has a blueprint to follow, thanks to Clemson, and now the purple-and-gold Tigers have renewed confidence after their much-needed victory at Florida.