In under three weeks, one of college football's signature moments will reach its silver anniversary. On October 8, 1988, Death Valley moved the seismograph.
That night in Baton Rouge, an unranked LSU squad reeling after losses at Ohio State and Florida met No. 4 Auburn and survived, 7-6, with fierce defense and the timeliest of touchdowns. A month later, LSU beat a ranked Alabama team by one point in Tuscaloosa.
The parallels are minimal between the 1988 LSU-Auburn game and Saturday's contest -- the game is indeed at night, but LSU is the top-10 team this time around, and by no means should this game go down to the wire in a defensive slugfest -- but Tiger fans are hoping that the result and the eventual punchline are the same.
The moment Alabama's Amari Cooper recovered a Texas A&M onside kick to put away the Aggies in College Station, we all fast-forwarded a few weeks. Those hoping for Anybody But Bama to win the national title in 2013 immediately began to look to the November 9 Alabama-LSU game as the next great opportunity for the Tide to fall. And to be sure, LSU has a lot to offer in this regard. But what are the chances that the Bayou Bengals are also playing for the highest stakes at that point in the season?
In my 2013 LSU preview, I noted that we might be underrating Les Miles' Tigers.
And while we're writing them off to a certain degree in 2013 following some solid attrition on both lines, we probably shouldn't. This coming fall, LSU will once again pass the eyeball test with flying colors, once again swarm viciously on passing downs, and once again play maddening, inconsistent, and occasionally powerful and unstoppable offense. And its season will once again be defined by the eight (or so) down-to-the-wire games that take years off of the lives of every LSU fan in the Bayou. […]
LSU is going to once again be ridiculously big, strong, fast, and, yes, unstable in 2013. The Tigers will also play six teams projected in the top 30. They get huge home games versus Florida and Texas A&M, a huge neutral-site game versus TCU to start the season, and tough road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama. Most of these games will be close, and LSU's season will once again be defined by its ability to muddy up the water, make plays in the fourth quarter, and win a majority of its close games.
That's what the Les Miles Tigers do. They went 5-3 in one-possession games in 2012, 1-0 in 2011 (a major outlier), 6-2 in 2010, 5-2 in 2009, 2-2 in 2008, 4-2 in 2007, 2-1 in 2006, and 4-1 in 2005. They have never had a losing record in such games in the Miles era, and while this could portend the most vicious, damaging regression-toward-the-mean ever at some point, for now we'll just say that Les Miles teams win close games. And for the seventh time in nine seasons in Baton Rouge, this Les Miles team will probably win 10 or more games, too.
Thus far, I'm feeling pretty good about talking up the Tigers. In the season opener, LSU handled No. 20 TCU, 37-27, in a game that probably wasn't quite as close as the score. And against both UAB and Kent State, the Tigers put things away quickly. They led UAB, 28-0, after 16 minutes and cruised, 56-17; and it was 31-7 after 26 minutes against Kent State in an eventual 45-13 win.
There have been some defensive issues on passing downs, where a rebuilt pass rush has only been decent and not great, and while defenders are breaking up passes, they have only picked off one thus far. But the standard-downs defense has been as good as anybody's, and an experienced offense has proven capable of some serious damage via the air. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger is completing 65 percent of his passes at nearly 18 yards per completion, and he has nine touchdowns to zero interceptions.
There are certainly red flags, as there are with most teams thus far. The passing-downs defense is an issue for now, and LSU's running game hasn't necessarily been consistent. But if LSU's success comes down to pressuring the quarterback on third-and-long and eventually establishing the run, I'd say the Tigers' reputation suggests they'll be alright. And hell, after last Saturday, the run game might already be fixed.
The biggest roadblock for LSU between now and the Alabama game is the schedule. Before the trip to Tuscaloosa come trips to Athens and Oxford and an October 12 visit from Florida. Using the current (and still drastically in flux) F/+ ratings, No. 7 LSU is a favorite in five of its six pre-Alabama games, but the odds aren't in the Tigers' favor.
LSU's chances of winning at Georgia might be better than you think, but its margin for error against Florida and Ole Miss will be minimal, and the odds of finishing this stretch without a blemish are only around 11 percent.
Les Miles lives for uncertainty. He throws smoke bombs and trusts his squad to maneuver through the clouds better than the opponent. And he's usually right in that judgment. He'll almost certainly have his team ready to play in Tuscaloosa, but the stakes for which the Tigers will be playing are not yet clear.
A 15.2 percent chance is still a chance
Auburn's odds of leaving Death Valley with a win clearly aren't very good, but this game will be a nice checkpoint for growth in Gus Malzahn's first season in charge. Again using F/+, Auburn's win expectancy has risen from 5.3 games in the preseason projections to 6.6 today, and the Tigers have improved to 51st overall. They survived a serious gut check against Mississippi State at home last Saturday; costly turnovers almost gave MSU a big road win, but Auburn rallied with a 12-play, 88-yard drive in the final two minutes, and quarterback Nick Marshall found C.J. Uzomah on an 11-yard touchdown strike with 10 seconds remaining to score a 24-20 win.
If LSU's defense really does have some passing-downs issues, then Marshall could be advanced enough to take advantage. Thus far, he's completed 61 percent of his passes at 13.6 yards per completion, and both his sack (4.1 percent) and interception rates (2.9) are tolerable. The run game never really got going against Mississippi State -- Corey Grant, Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne combined to just 90 yards on 24 carries (3.8 per carry) -- which could obviously be an issue. But Marshall is spreading the ball around (nine Tigers are averaging at least one catch per game), and it is possible that Auburn can find a little bit of success against an LSU defense still working through glitches.
So what about the defense? It is on this side of the ball where Auburn might still be lagging behind a bit. AU opponents are averaging 5.5 yards per play, which is neither great nor terrible, but it's average at best considering the competition (Washington State, Arkansas State, Mississippi State). The Tigers' full-season rushing numbers have been underwhelming, but a lot of that is because of the success of MSU quarterback Dak Prescott (22 carries, 133 yards); Zach Mettenberger is most certainly not going to carry the ball 22 times.
LSU's full-season rushing numbers haven't been amazing either, but the Tigers were devastating on the ground versus Kent State; Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, and Terrence Magee combined for 281 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. If the Tigers run game has begun to hum, that will make an already strong passing game nearly unstoppable. Mettenberger completed at least one 20-yard pass to five different LSU receivers last week. As with much of the SEC, the experience advantage has shifted dramatically toward the offensive end, and despite Les Miles' all-defense, just-enough-offense reputation, his team has seen the same shift. Auburn will have to force some turnovers to fulfill its 15.2 percent chance of winning, and even if AU keeps things close, one has to like LSU's chance to prevail in the end. It's what Les Miles teams tend to do.
Aside, of course, from the Iron Bowl, the biggest game on Auburn's docket might be the home game versus Ole Miss in two weeks. The Tigers will probably be 3-1 after Saturday but have very good odds of being Western Carolina (Oct. 12) and Florida Atlantic (Oct. 26). That's five wins, but a sixth will require either a win at Tennessee (44.8), Arkansas (38.6), or Texas A&M (21.3), or a home win over Alabama (16.4), Georgia (31.3), or Hugh Freeze's Rebels (37.5). Beat Ole Miss, and suddenly you're aiming at seven or eight wins. Lose, and you probably have to pull a road upset to have a chance at bowl eligibility.