Friday, September 20, 2013

The Auburn Realist: The LSU Preview

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I don't think 3-0 has ever felt so precarious. Or is it just me? I haven't bought in or cashed out yet, which really bothers me. My wife has bought in to this team and she is riding me because I haven't. This team is like a fledgling eagle. It has great potential, it can become the top tier Bird of Prey, but it has to manage not to fall out of the nest.

So, last week wasn't too great for me as far as calling scores and predictions. But, it was an odd game that featured a backup QB starting. Oh well, upon further review, I was on the right track. Check out my Mississippi State Review with pics!

None of it matters since it's time to travel to LSU. I can promise Ole Les doesn't care what your record is when you walk into Death Valley...the place where dreams.....ok, you know the saying.

I gotta say, I love that this game is getting some love from ESPN. It's probably the first time that a team coming off of 3-8 and being unranked has ever gotten its own commercial on the air.

One thing I can promise is: You will hear about the Fire Game. The Earthquake Game. And, my personal favorite....the 1994 INT game. But, the LSU/Auburn rivalry is deeper and more bitter than that. How about the 10-9 win in Auburn? I was there. That was amazing. Or Cecil the Diesel coming out of obscurity and  running to something like 245 yards on the ground against Auburn....in a loss! The kid breaks his leg and we never heard from him again. ***Update** I was enlightened that he actually did make it to the NFL and then prison shortly after. WOW!

There have only been a few lopsided victories, and despite the lack of...well...anything last year, Auburn made it close.

But, I gotta tell ya. Initially,  I didn't like this game in any form or fashion. I'll just come out and say it. I didn't think Auburn has much of a chance. Cue all the AUFamily calling me a "'Bammer" or a "Mullet" or whatever for being real. (update) But then I wrote the rest of this Preview......

Even if I put aside last year (and every other year), these teams don't even compare. Do they?

LSU continues to churn out amazing running backs who all have to share carries. There hasn't been a full time starter in a while. It seems to work for Les, who must have a heck of a Voodoo fortune teller in New Orleans who tells him what back starts when. This team has something that LSU hasn't had in years...even in the Championship years. A game WINNING QB. Yes...not a game manager and not a here today and gone tomorrow bust. Mettenberger looks like a winner. LSU is finally putting that receiver core to use after producing multiple NFL receivers who couldn't get a ball thrown to them in college. At least that's what ESPN is telling us...The defense? Well, it's LSU and Chavis is a winner. Again, so we are told.

But, hold up...who have they played? The only marketable game has been the TCU game to open up the season. Everyone seemed to be impressed with the victory. But, apparently, not too many watched that TCU team play Texas Tech the next week. They were sloppy. Penalty prone. And simply made stupid decisions time and time again. They let a Tech team playing a walk-on QB (BTW...he is the backup to ANOTHER walk-on who got hurt) beat them in a 2 minute drill! Ironically, if Tucker Tuberville were still at Texas Tech, he would be a starting QB instead of a scout teamer at Auburn.

The sportscasters made many remarks about players the coaches "couldn't get on the same page with" and "when he gets rid of that attitude"....blah blah. So, I am forced to throw out LSU's only legitimate win. So, they beat an over-hyped TCU and two high school teams. Now what?

On the flipside, Auburn has beaten what seems to be a very good WSU team, an ASU team that may very well 3-peat a conference title, and Mississippi State. I don't have any superlatives for MSU. Why? Because I am not impressed with them. I am not impressed with Mullen. While they gave Auburn everything the Tigers wanted...they always do, it wasn't enough. More importantly,  it's what happens after the SEC opener that matters, and 2010 aside, MSU hasn't done much. In fact, I see them declining further. Get used to being #7 in the SEC-W.

Auburn clawed out a 2-minute drill that no one will forget...until this weekend. Was I impressed with Marshall? Yes. It was amazing to see it live. He showed what MIGHT be possible. But, the key to this game is: the "go to" receivers can't catch a cold most of the time and the RBs can't do much against 9 man fronts. The defense has improved mightily after last years class, specifically in the secondary. But, the LB play from Holland was a real set back last week. Luckily Frost came in at the half and stopped the bleeding that Prescott was wreaking on the D. The D-line has not impressed me. Again, a reoccurring theme for a position that Auburn *supposedly* puts a premium on.

Way back when, before the season started I previewed the first half of the season. I called a win for Auburn based on containing the stable of LSU RBs and forcing Mettenberger to beat them with his arm. The problem was, I didn't see him coming on so strong....even against inferior talent. I'm not so sure I can stick with my call of  35-21 in favor of AU. After watching him last year, I just shrugged and figured he was the perfect continuation to the Periloux, Jefferson, etc al line of QBs at LSU.

What can we expect from AU?

Offense
There have been several articles from the beat reporters about taking the chains off the offense. But, honestly, I don't expect anything crazy. Sure, the pace has been slow at times and we haven't seen Marshall really break loose. So, I have to make the assumption that they will let Marshall run around a bit and they MIGHT finally get the pace up. One really depends on the other, however. Pace doesn't matter if you can't move the chains and it's tough to move the chains when you play behind them. More on that later.

We have seen about 2 deep balls a game, which is what I would expect. The problem is, you MUST connect on at least 1 of them. While Bray took one to the house last week, it was a broken play. I can't count it. What I can count were the all too painful drops. While the coaches and players have beat it to death, you can't fix it in a week. Without the deep ball, it's hard to win games with this offense. You have to stretch the field. Otherwise, you have to win with the run against the 8 and 9 man fronts. And LSU is NOT the team you want to go to war in the trenches against. Right?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even in the loss, TCU had two players that had high per rush averages and a pair of TDs. The issue was the inability to make passes down field against the LSU defense. Turns out, that may suit Gus just fine. Zone stretch here. Jet sweep there. QB pull. Next thing you know, you have an offense that's rolling.

And that's my prediction. Everyone thinks that Auburn must throw the ball to beat LSU. While it sure would help, the run is what can win the day. LSU is softer than people think they are, based upon their reputation. I do think they have the speed from sideline to sideline to stuff the jet sweep and keep Grant in check. I do think they know what to expect when CAP gets in the game. But, like I said last week....this week is all about #21. Yep. Mason will have his day. It won't be easy. It won't be quick. But he will produce. 1 TD for Mason. He hits the 100 all-purpose yard mark.

CAP will be limited on the ground, being used in short yardage situations. But, it WOULD be sneaky for this to be the game the Gus starts using him in the passing game. We saw his production in the A-Day game through the air and haven't seen him targeted yet. Sure would be a great play to use on a critical 3rd down.......

I do think a deep ball connection could be a game breaker, though I don't think they win or loose because of it. Last year, Auburn was in it and they never could throw the ball. They had that drop in the middle of the field that could have won the game, if we recall. But, I do expect Coates to get open. He has gotten open against EVERYONE. The difference this time is simply statistics. He can't drop them all and it's time to take one to the house. Alas, I just have no faith in it, though. Like I said, drops can't be fixed in a week.

I believe the WR who helps keep Auburn in this game is Marcus Davis. He has a nose for the ball and Marshall seems to like him as a comfort blanket. I think he sees 4 receptions and 6 targets this week. He isn't the game buster, but he gets his catches. I see 4 catches for 28 yards, but they all move the chains and it will be vitally important, though understated.

Marshall....ugh....I still feel the skies the limit for this guy, but I am very wary of expecting big things from him. I still feel he is too raw to win big games. I don't like his touch on the ball or his throwing motion. I don't like how he has made some grievous errors throwing the ball. But,  In Gus We Trust, right? One of my preseason fears with this game was that Gus would take the chains off and let Marshall go. The problem I saw was, if they got down early, he would force things and it would cost them the game. We have seen it in JUCO. He had something like 25 turn overs and the line was always the same "he tried to take the game on his back." While he is surrounded with superior talent than he had at JUCO, it's still a team that isn't quite on the level as most of the SEC-W competition, so the same logic applies. He doesn't even have to give up turnovers. If he takes a deep sacks because he is scrambling, Auburn will be in trouble. This team can't play behind the chains. We all recall that the LSU game in 2010 is essentially what put Cam on the map.  I contend that it's what really won his the Heisman. He couldn't be stopped and won the game himself. I DO think this is the game where we see the true value in Marshall, but I think it's also the game where he learns exactly what he is up against and how to win in the SEC-W.....by losing. He still posts good numbers, especially on the ground, but it will be the individual negative plays that make the difference, not the 100 yards he gains on the ground.

Defense
I am starting to think that we have seen the emergence of a player at MLB in Frost. He still has some growing room, but he is young and experienced no development with the last staff, which can be said for most all of the team. His play has greatly improved, as could be seen last week. Though, that was against a State team who didn't throw the ball and force him into coverage, which has been his weakness. Garrett moves to LB to shore up the position and that's good for Therezie who suddenly finds himself as the true starter. Two things to worry about: Garret couldn't break the rotation last year or the year before as a "mis-typed LB", so I am not sure what this move means. What I HOPE it means is, he had "the light come on" and now he can play in the box. The other thing is, I worry about Therezie staying hungry. I can identify with his plight, so called. His first 3 weeks have been lights-out in order to prove he belongs. Will he maintain the same level of play? I hope so. I have never seen him take a play off.

Can the D-Line emerge this week? Lots of talk about them and Johnson's attempt to elevate the production out of them. I just don't see the play improving against the best offensive line they have seen thus far. If you can't stuff the run between the tackles and you can't pressure Mettenbuger to make mistakes (which he will make), then you don't have a chance. But, if you can do ONE of these, you can stay in this game. This Auburn defense has had its run stopping games and its pass stopping games, but never both. If I had my pick, I would expect the D-Line to stuff the run, which requires little penetration, and force Mettenburger to pass. That's still a precarious situation, but it can work. I do see one sack, but it will be a coverage sack.

Now, I may have devalued the defensive backs a little to this point. But, after the WSU where they doubled last years pick count, they haven't hauled another one in. Their play has been adequate in the other two games and at times we have seen fantastic individual plays. The thing I like in this game is that Mettenburger is overly confident in his ability to make passes fit. That has worked against inferior opponents. I don't think it works against Auburn's defensive backs. I am picturing a tide-turning pick on a deep post where the deep safety makes a good read and steps in front of a streaking receiver. It's time for a defensive TD and this very well may be the game we see it.

Important Stats
Penalties. Auburn gives up 2 critical holding penalties. LSU gives up at least 1 pass interference to keep an AU receiver from getting loose. We will see 1 fake injury from LSU to slow down the pace from Auburn. Most likely, in a 2-minute drill at the end of the 1st half.
Missed field goals. Parkey misses a FG in the 3rd quarter that would help pull Auburn within a score. LSU buries one in the 4th for insurance.

The Line
Back and forth I go. I think they can win, then I think they can't. Truth is, I know they can win. Deep in my bones, I TRULY feel that losing this game will be the best thing that happens to this team. A drop by a receiver will prove how costly dropping both the deep balls in a game can hurt. Marshall will show just how high the ceiling is, but will learn that it's more important to win with a team then to take the world on your back. A games worth of brilliance isn't worth a moments error. The young D-line will find out how they stack up against the best in the SEC and will elevate all aspects their game from practice to preparation. The world will know just how good this AU secondary really is, and most importantly, a unit that has been criticized for years will understand that they can compete and win. This team, while it has all the same players, is different from last year. How? After this games last year, they folded. They gave up. This team and this coaching staff will be hungry. They will learn from this and they will win the Iron Bowl. So, I have to swap my preseason expectations.

24-17 LSU