LSU Tigers: Jordan Jefferson
BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will become a familiar scenario for No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) for at least the foreseeable future. Entering Saturday's game against No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0), LSU probably can't afford another division loss if it wants to remain in contention in the SEC West -- much less a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
That's a tall order this weekend, considering Auburn hasn't lost at Jordan-Hare Stadium since Gus Malzahn became coach last season (11-0) and LSU will have a true freshman quarterback, Brandon Harris, making his first career start.
LSU has won six of the past seven games in this series, but getting a win Saturday will be a major challenge. Let's look at three key factors as kickoff approaches, with some help from ESPN's Stats & Information group:
Who can run and who can stop it
Both starting quarterbacks -- Harris and Auburn's Nick Marshall -- are understandably getting plenty of attention ahead of this game. But it's the teams' respective running games -- and whether the defenses can slow them -- that might be the most important factors.
Auburn ranks 17th nationally with 260.5 rushing yards per game and boasts two of the SEC's most productive runners in Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 468 yards, 5 touchdowns, fourth in the SEC with 97.2 YPG) and Marshall (42 carries, 273 yards, 2 touchdowns).
Meanwhile, LSU has struggled against the run, ranking 12th in the SEC and 70th nationally by allowing 161.6 rushing YPG. Coordinator John Chavis' defense is thin at defensive tackle, and its problems there were evident against Mississippi State, which rushed for 302 yards against LSU two weeks ago. Wisconsin also rushed for more than 250 yards against LSU.
Auburn is 13-0 when it runs for at least 250 yards under Malzahn and 3-2 when it does not.
On the other side, LSU's struggling run game got a boost last week when it picked up 363 yards on 54 attempts against New Mexico State. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 226.2 rushing YPG, but Auburn has been stingy against the run (third in the SEC with 90.8 YPG). If coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense is able to shut down Leonard Fournette (LSU's leading rusher with 322 yards on 56 attempts, 64.4 YPG), Kenny Hilliard (57 carries, 298 yards, 59.6 YPG), Darrel Williams (33 carries, 165 yards, 41.2 YPG) and Terrence Magee (34 carries, 144 yards, 28.8 YPG), that will place even more pressure on Harris' shoulders.
Defending the zone read/QB run
Let's dig a little deeper into the running game. To have any chance on Saturday, LSU must contain Marshall and Auburn's option runs.
Auburn has been one of the nation's most effective teams at using the zone-read run since the start of last season. It is averaging 144.39 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in those games.
It's worth noting, however, that Kansas State kept itself in the game against Auburn two weeks ago by slowing Marshall and the zone-read runs. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 62 yards and 3.1 yards per carry off the zone-read, holding them below 200 total rushing yards for only the second time in Malzhn's tenure as Auburn's coach.
LSU was atrocious against the zone-read in its 34-29 loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago. The Bulldogs ran 20 times for 192 yards from that look, averaging 9.1 yards per carry and breaking five runs of at least 10 yards.
The key element here is slowing Marshall, but LSU has struggled to do that against mobile quarterbacks. LSU has allowed the sixth-most rushing yards to opposing quarterbacks (56 carries for 260 yards) of all FBS programs this season. That includes a 79-yard touchdown last week against New Mexico State and a 56-yard run by Mississippi State's Dak Prescott.
Marshall has 1,341 rushing yards since the start of last season, which ranks third among active FBS quarterbacks.
Harris vs. Auburn pass defense
This subject has been beaten to death all week, but Harris is in rare air for an LSU quarterback. He's the first LSU true freshman to start at the position since Jordan Jefferson in 2008 and the first since Jamie Howard in 1992 to start by Game 6.
He clearly outplayed Anthony Jennings against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but both of those outings were off the bench. Making his first road start against a better-than-average Auburn defense -- Johnson's defense is fourth in the SEC in total defense (313.2 ypg) and sixth in scoring defense (16.2 ppg) -- won't be easy.
However, Auburn has yet to face a prolific passing team. Its opponents thus far rank 107th nationally (Arkansas, 167.8 ypg), 62nd (San Jose State, 243.0), 59th (Kansas State, 246.3) and 55th (Louisiana Tech, 248.4) in passing offense and yet Auburn still ranks seventh in the SEC in pass defense at 222.5 ypg.
We'll see whether Harris can settle his nerves enough to exploit it, but Auburn is vulnerable against the pass -- especially if veteran safety Jermaine Whitehead remains on suspension for a third straight game.
When AJ McCarron steps behind center on Saturday night for Alabama's first offensive snap in its showdown against LSU, he'll be making his fourth start against the Tigers.
The senior has been the picture of stability the last three years as Alabama’s starting quarterback. His first start against LSU was Nov. 5, 2011, dubbed "The Game of the Century," one that LSU won 9-6 in overtime at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, McCarron's counterpart on Saturday night, will make his second start against the Tide. LSU hasn't quite enjoyed the same stability that Alabama has, though Mettenberger has provided a steady hand and productive play this season, making LSU's offense the talk of the program for once; hard to do in a program known for its defense.
That's simply a microcosm of these two power programs. Both are championship-caliber teams that are annually in the BCS national championship discussion. Both have stable coaching staffs and a foundation built on great defense and the ability to run the football. Both recruit at a high level and, of course, play in the same division, the SEC West.
But since the Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have had just three quarterbacks start against LSU: McCarron, Greg McElroy (2009-10) and John Parker Wilson, who predated Saban and started for the Tide from 2006-08.
In that same time span, the Tigers have had a different starter vs. Alabama six times. In 2007 it was Matt Flynn, who was a senior. Jarrett Lee started the 2008 game, while Jordan Jefferson started in 2009 and 2010. In 2011 Lee started the November "Game of the Century," and Jefferson started the BCS national championship later that season. Though the Tigers have had four different quarterbacks in that span, it's been rare that the same one has started twice in a row against the Tide like Mettenberger will do Saturday.
Despite that contrast, the series has been back-and-forth. Alabama has won four times since 2007, LSU three. The Tigers' success despite quarterback turnover is even more fascinating in an age where quarterbacks dominate the headlines and up-tempo spread offenses are en vogue.
Take last season as an example, one in which the Tigers didn't make a change at quarterback but didn't get strong play from the position either. Florida (3rd), Oregon State (13th) and Kent State (25th) were the only schools other than LSU with a Total QBR of less than 55 for the season to finish in the top 25 of the BCS standings at the end of the regular season. The team with the worst QBR of thos, LSU (38), finished eighth in the final BCS standings last season.
Even in 2011, when the Tigers went 13-1 and went to the BCS title game before falling to Alabama, the quarterback situation was far from stable. Lee made nine starts that season, Jefferson made five. There was even discussion in the aftermath of the 21-0 title game loss to the Crimson Tide about LSU coach Les Miles' decision to not play Lee at all that night and leave Jefferson in, which Miles later said was because he wanted a mobile quarterback who could avoid Alabama's tenacious pass rush in the game.
The reason the Tigers were able to succeed despite a sometimes uncertain quarterback situation is their defense. LSU finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense each season from 2010-2012 and had a 34-5 record in that time span. They've also had a reliable running game to turn to move the chains offensively.
Alabama has enjoyed the fruits of both of those traits during their run of three BCS titles in four seasons, but the stability at quarterback is evident. The Tide have finished the season with a better QBR than LSU each of the last five seasons.
Stable or not, life is tough for the quarterbacks in this game. During the Saban era, Alabama quarterbacks have a QBR of 42.8 against LSU, while LSU's is 33.1 against the Tide. The touchdown-to-interception ratios aren't pretty (8-to-6 for Alabama, 7-to-11 for LSU) as the defenses take center stage in this matchup.
But the Tigers have shown that even in this era of offensive dominance, good defense can still get you far. And now, they just might have the quarterback to knock off the nation’s top team.
But with so many players to choose from, how do you determine the best athletes to compete in the rivalry, the ones who have shown up and played their best when the two schools met on the football field each year?
TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney did their best to answer that difficult question.
Head to head, the Crimson Tide and Tigers have had some of the most thrilling games in recent memory, often propelling one team or another on to the SEC championship and beyond. Each matchup has had its defining play or its defining performance, whether it was T.J. Yeldon's last-second touchdown in 2012 or Eric Reid's acrobatic interception the year before.
Breaking down each game was no easy matter. In fact, when TideNation writer Alex Scarborough and GeauxTigerNation writer Gary Laney sat down to make up a top 10 list of the best games since 2007, determining No. 1 was so difficult they had to split the difference and stop just short of calling it a tie.
Looking at numbers three through seven wasn't much simpler. But they persevered and ranked the games from best to worst, and here's the order they came up with:
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But are the Tigers destined to stay there? What could propel the Tigers even higher in the next three years? And what could cause them to stumble?
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All three are from New Orleans, which, as a metropolitan area, has not been the most loyal Louisiana city to the Tigers.
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The blue-chip, dual-threat high school quarterback turned underachieving college receiver was worked out by NFL scouts Wednesday during LSU's Pro Day at, of all places, defensive back.
"Never played there in my life," Shepard said. "About six teams asked me to work out there. I thought I did pretty good. Like they told me, it's added value."
Shepard ran a 4.5 electronic 40-yard dash and also had a 38.5-inch vertical leap, results that do not suggest a player who struggled to get involved in LSU's offense in his four years and was so marginalized, he was not invited to the NFL combine.
He wasn't the only Tiger to test well. Running back Michael Ford ran a 4.44 40-yard dash and had a 39.5-inch vertical leap, both results slightly better than his combine results. Linebacker Kevin Minter ran a 4.67 40 and had a 34.5-inch vertical leap, both significant improvements over the combine.
"We were at home," Minter said. "Makes all the difference."
Here are some other notables:
- Defensive end Barkevious Mingo did not participate in testing, but like former teammate Tyrann Mathieu got involved in position-specific drills.
- Defensive end Lavar Edwards ran a 4.78 and hit 21 repetitions in the bench press, looking like the next LSU player who might be drafted after not starting for the Tigers.
LSU's Pro Day on Wednesday will feature a whopping 28 participants, the result of a year where the Tigers sent 13 players to the NFL combine. Among the players will will participate is former LSU player Tyrann Mathieu.
Of the 28, 21 were members of LSU's 2012 team, while seven more participants were members of past LSU teams and are trying to catch the interest of teams as free agents.
Fans can watch the event live on ESPN3 at 1 p.m. ET.
Here are the players who are participating, according to LSU:
2012 team members: DE Chauncey Aghayere, K Drew Alleman, TE Chase Clement, DT Josh Downs, OT Josh Dworaczyk, DE Lavar Edwards, OT Chris Faulk, RB Michael Ford, DT Bennie Logan, C P.J. Lonergan, DB-KR Tyrann Mathieu, DE Barkevious Mingo, LB Kevin Minter, DE Sam Montgomery, S Eric Reid, WR Russell Shepard, CB Tharold Simon, RB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing, DT Cleveland Davis, TE Tyler Edwards
Past Players (last year at LSU): OG Will Blackwell (2011), LB-DB Karnell Hatcher (2011), OL T-Bob Hebert (2011), QB Jordan Jefferson (2011), QB Jarrett Lee (2011), DS Alex Russian (2011), RB Charles Scott (2009).
In postseason games, that was largely true...until last season.
When Alabama dominated the Tigers, 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game, it not only ended LSU's dreams for one of the great seasons of the BCS era, it also put a damper to the notion that the Tigers, 5-1 in bowls under Les Miles, were at their best in postseason games.
That part of its swagger compromised, LSU will look to regain some of that reputation in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the site of two of the previous five Miles LSU bowl wins.
"Our football team really is anxious for a quality game. We’re looking for a bowl game that’s a great matchup, and certainly those Clemson Tigers are a very, very talented football team," Miles said.
The Tigers coach has certainly done a masterful job of motivating his teams for bowl games. In 2008, an LSU team that limped to the finish in the worst year of the Miles tenure gouged Georgia Tech at the Chick-fil-A. Miles' Tigers teams have maimed Miami at the Chick-fil-A, knocked out Notre Dame at the Sugar Bowl, tamed Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl and, of course, owned Ohio State in the 2008 BCS national championship game.
The one blemish in all that came in the 2009 season when LSU met Penn State on a field that was so muddy, it was nearly unplayable, and lost 19-17 in the Capital One Bowl, the only loss to a non-SEC team in Miles' eight years as head coach at LSU. That's what it seemed to take to beat LSU in the postseason, a freakishly muddy field that negated LSU's speed advantage and took away the edge the Tigers seemed to have when Miles had time to prepare.
But that was before Jan. 9, 2012, the day that changed everybody's perception about how Miles-coached LSU teams prepared in bowls. LSU was so inept on offense, it crossed midfield just once. The Tigers looked lethargic, over-matched and ill-prepared at the tail end of what some were calling the greatest regular season college football has seen.
With LSU facing a 10-2 Clemson team averaging 42 points a game, Les Miles will have a chance to prove that last year an anomaly. And maybe restore that swagger.
Mathieu was dismissed from LSU's football team over the summer, after reportedly failing a drug test. He then entered a rehab center in Houston and later returned to LSU to resume classes with hopes of playing football somewhere in 2013.
That place likely won't be LSU now.
Remember when coach Les Miles said he expected there to be a happy ending for Mathieu in all of this? Well, this certainly isn't what he meant. Mathieu appeared to be doing all the right things. He was getting help and getting back to school without focusing on football. While it looked like he wanted to return to LSU's football team in the future, he knew it was going to be a tough road back.
He had to stay clean -- and he had to show he was ready to put his team first. Thursday's incident proved that Mathieu wasn't ready for that, and it really is sad to see someone with all that ability waste it again and again.
The Honey Badger was such an iconic figure in college football. As the original YouTube video claimed, Mathieu really did take what he wanted when he stepped out onto the playing field. Wherever the ball went, he was sure to follow. If LSU needed a spark or a big play, the Honey Badger was there to provide it.
Now, it looks like LSU can kiss any hope of that returning in the future goodbye. If Mathieu wants another shot at football, it might be best at this point if he and LSU officially part ways. His name was already muddied after a Sports Illustrated story revealed that Mathieu might have violated NCAA rules by promoting a nightclub while he was still a member of the team, and this arrest all but shuts the door on the Honey Badger's return to LSU's football team.
It wasn't the ending he was looking for, but here's to hoping he eventually finds one that makes him happy.
Still, wide receiver Jarvis Landry doesn't want to portray the group as "struggling."
"We're not struggling at all," Landry said. "We're just trying to put [quarterback Zach Mettenberger] into a rhythm."
It adds up to a passing game that is 12th in the SEC (195.7 yards per game) and eighth in pass efficiency.
One would think the Tigers need to drastically improve to have any chance to rebound from last week's 14-6 loss to Florida. The Tigers continue to face a gantlet going forward, starting with Saturday's home game against South Carolina and continuing with games against Texas A&M and Alabama.
South Carolina leads the SEC in sacks, while A&M has the SEC's individual sack leader (Damontre Moore). Alabama has the nation's best defense.
It's hard to imagine LSU being able to simply run at any of the three. And if the Tigers are to balance the run with the pass, they will have to be much more in rhythm with each other than they have been, particularly recently.
The problems, they say, are largely ones that are correctable, which had many of those involved in the passing game frustrated a bit this week.
"We're so close to being a good offense," Mettenberger insisted.
What keeps it from happening?
"Little things," Landry said.
With it, the dark clouds over Tiger Stadium and the LSU passing game seemed to lift.
He added another touchdown on a 53-yard bomb from Mettenberger in the fourth quarter of the 38-22 win, capping a night in which he seemed to put the troubles of a bad game a few weeks earlier against Washington behind him and, perhaps, shook LSU's passing offense to life.
"It's definitely a confidence builder," said Beckham after he caught five passes for a career-high 128 yards and also added a 30-yard punt return. "You have to take it as a learning experience and keep working every single day."
Beckham has had to learn to deal with the humility of a bad performance this season. Coming off a freshman season where he was second on the team in receiving with 41 catches for 475 yards and two touchdowns, the New Orleans native had struggled since the season's second game, when he fumbled the opening kickoff and dropped three passes during the Tigers' otherwise near-flawless 41-3 blowout of Washington.
The Towson game was the first all season where Beckham led the Tigers in receiving, a sign that he was getting back to his old self.
"Receiver, it's all about confidence," Metterberger said. "He had a great week of practice. He came into the week with confidence."
Self-confidence is not something that had been lacking for Beckham. He quickly made a name for himself as a true freshman in 2011, passing by many older receivers to become the Tigers No. 2 receiver and the starter opposite Rueben Randle. He was a reliable secondary target for both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee when defenses focused their attention on Randle.
Mettenberger said Beckham's natural self-confidence was part of his freshman success and he saw it again against Towson.
Alfred Blue, the running back who emerged from the Tigers' five-man competition at the position, carrying the ball behind bruising 270-pound fullback J.C. Copeland to the left side of the line and through a hole opened by arguably the Tigers' most talented offensive lineman, left tackle Chris Faulk.
A daunting sight for defenses, indeed, but not one No. 11 Florida will have to worry about when No. 4 LSU visits The Swamp Saturday.
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Playing the entire second half, Mettenberger completed 8 of 11 passes (the only passes he threw all season) for 92 yards, including his first, and only, touchdown pass of the season, a 19-yard fourth-quarter touchdown to little-used receiver Kadron Boone.
It was, evidently, a sign of things to come.
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After getting just two carries -- for no yards -- in his first two seasons, the junior already has two rushing touchdowns in his junior season with six carries for 35 yards in the first two games.
"I worked on it all summer," said Copeland, a converted defensive tackle. "I worked on catching the ball, hanging on to the ball, being a better overall player."
He had little background in anything involving ball skills. When offensive line coach (and now offensive coordinator) Greg Studrawa asked Copeland if he had ever played fullback during his freshman year, Copeland said he had in high school, but only as part of a "crazy package" his prep team put together. He embraced the move and got playing time, splitting time last season with senior James Stampley. But he was mostly called on to be a battering ram at the position.
This season, not only have his snaps gone up as he's become the unquestioned starter, but also because of a change of offensive focus. After the departure of Jordan Jefferson, a quarterback whose talents led to the Tigers running a lot of plays from the spread, LSU has been more of an I-formation team this season with drop-back passer Zach Mettenberger at quarterback. That means more plays for Copeland because fullbacks would normally not be part of the a spread personnel package.
LSU has run only 30 offensive plays this season that have not included the use of a fullback. Opponents have struggled to slow down a rushing attack averaging 5.7 yards a carry, most of which come behind Copeland, who has slimmed down to a still-powerful 272 pounds this season.
"It's great," running back Kenny Hilliard said of following Copeland. "A fullback, 270, in front of you, crushing linebackers ... you know what I'm saying? I'll run behind him any day of the week. I just love what he's doing."
Now, Copeland added ball skills to his game. With two touchdowns in two games on the ground, the next step would be to catch a pass, something coach Les Miles said is in his repertoire.
"He's capable," Miles said. "It's an advantage to have a guy who can run as well as he does and block as well as he does and, we'll see if we can get him some receptions because we really think he's that guy."
ULM provides lesson: Don't think for a minute that Louisiana-Monroe's upset of Arkansas won't be a topic of conversation at LSU this week as the Tigers prepare to play Idaho.
Can LSU Establish Run Against Ole Miss?
12:00 PM ET UAB Arkansas 3:30 PM ET 1 Mississippi State Kentucky 4:00 PM ET Vanderbilt Missouri 7:15 PM ET 3 Ole Miss 24 LSU 7:30 PM ET South Carolina 5 Auburn 7:30 PM ET 4 Alabama Tennessee