Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Seven Preview
Todd Van Ernst/Opelika-Auburn News
Believe it or not, Auburn's halfway through its season (as are most teams). That doesn't feel right, given how few big matchups we've seen this year involving Auburn or any team, really, but as we draw towards mid-October, that is the case. This weekend's slate is again a touch underwhelming, as has appeared to be the case for several weeks now (really since week three). But never mind that expletive deleted, it's LSU Week. (Note: ESPN's report of an academic fraud scandal at Auburn came out during the writing of this article. I have little to offer on this subject aside from feeling pretty strongly that the university's clear position on this matter probably means there's not much to this story. If there were, the school would be a lot more mealy-mouthed about it.)
The Deep Dive
Here's where I normally go off on some tangent or other about the state of college football, the NCAA, the playoff, or what have you. But as stated above, it's LSU Week, so let's get into Remember When mode. The Auburn/LSU series has cleared a special place in the hearts of both fanbases over the years. What was once a somewhat random SEC rotation game has now, for Auburn fans, supplanted the Tennessee and Florida rivalries (now themselves random rotation games) as the third big rivalry game of the season along with Alabama and Georgia. LSU, for their part, doesn't have a big in-state rival, and their rivalries with Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M definitely have some fierceness to them (the Ole Miss one, in particular, has the weight of history behind it), but I don't know if any of them rise to the level of the Bayou Bengals' clashes with the two Alabama schools. Obviously, Nick Saban (first on one side, then on the other) has added plenty of gasoline to the LSU/Bammer fire, but Auburn/LSU has subsisted on a steady diet of high-stakes contests, wild finishes, and downright bizarre occurrences. The Iron Bowl and the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry may burn hotter, but nothing burns weirder than Auburn/LSU.
Alluded to above, Auburn's lost, lamented rivalries with Tennessee and Florida are still a sore spot for many fans. Bring up old Auburn/Tennessee games (like the one in 1971 or any of several in the '80s) to my dad (or any of a number of Auburn fans of his generation) and be prepared for several stories about how fierce the game was and how it was an early litmus test for both teams in conference play. While the rivalry was big in its day, it's prime stretch was relatively short-lived, as the two schools have "only" met 52 times, with the vast majority of that coming during an unbroken stretch between 1956 and 1991.
If anything, the LSU games of the '90s (instituted as a yearly matchup when the SEC expanded and split into divisions in 1992) served as essentially a replacement for the UT rivalry. The games during those years were always played fairly early in the season and quickly became a good measuring stick for each program. (Coincidentally, this season will mark the 52nd meeting between the two universities, equalling the number of games in the Auburn/Tennessee series. They'll remain equal next year, as Auburn has both schools on the schedule in 2018, before LSU pulls ahead possibly for good in 2019.)
But things would change in the early 2000s. As much at Tennessee/Auburn meant to fans who grew up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the Auburn/Florida rivalry had an even longer history behind it. Those two schools have met 83 times, with a stretch of almost-annual play beginning in 1927 and carrying on to 2002 (only World War II kept the game from being played during these years). There were several notable moments spread through the series' history, but the rivalry began to heat up in the '80s, and the arrival of Steve Spurrier in Gainesville in the '90s pretty much made Florida everybody's biggest rival to some extent. I'll plainly admit that the Tigers' big wins over Florida in '93, '94, '01, '06, and '07 are some of my all-time favorite Auburn football memories. If the Tennessee rivalry was better during its shorter existence, the Florida rivalry was something with more years behind it (Auburn's first varsity game at what would eventually be named Jordan-Hare Stadium was against UF in 1939), and something that was getting killed off just as it had hit its peak. Again, LSU filled the void, as an AU program that was emerging as a national contender under Tommy Tuberville began butting heads with a similarly ascendant LSU program under Nick Saban. Swap Nicky out for one Leslie Edwin Miles in 2005, but the stakes remained the same for quite a while between the schools. In the '90s, Auburn/LSU was an important game in the SEC West. In the 2000s, it was an important game nationally. But going back to the Earthquake Game in 1988, the series has always managed to produce indelible memory after indelible memory.
And hell, let's start with the Earthquake Game and get it out of the way. If not for Tommy Hodson's 4th down, 11-yard TD pass to Eddie Fuller, Auburn probably plays Notre Dame for the national title in the Sugar Bowl. As it played out, the two sets of Tigers split the SEC title, with one-loss Auburn playing Deion Sanders and Florida State in New Orleans at year's end instead. Auburn took a tough loss to the 'Noles, and unbeaten Notre Dame played an overmatched West Virginia team for the national title in the Fiesta Bowl. Even though the series wouldn't become an annual thing until '92, the modern Auburn/LSU rivalry was essentially born here, with this becoming one of, if not the most famous moment in LSU football history. (It's definitely added to the lore of Death Valley more than any other game, that's for sure.)
SEC expansion and the then-radical divisional alignment (what sweet summer children we all were) came in 1992, and the two Tigers would quickly become more acquainted with one another. Auburn won each of the first two meetings under this new system, winning a close game between mediocre teams in '92 and blowing LSU out in Red Stick in '93 as part of the famed 11-0 season. But the '94 game would prove that simply causing a minor earthquake wouldn't be enough wackiness for this rivalry. What's forgotten in Auburn's furious, Jamie Howard-aided rally is just how poorly the homestanding Tigers (in the midst of a 20-game winning streak) played for most of this game. That LSU had such a lead was a bit of an upset in and of itself, only to then see the Bayou Bengals quite literally throw the game away in the 4th quarter. What were LSU head coach Curly Hallman and offensive coordinator Lynn Amedee thinking? Who knows? But this is about as unlikely a win as Auburn has ever pulled out, considering the situation AU was facing early in the 4th quarter. (Also notable is the dying voice of the Jefferson-Pilot play-by-play guy. I don't remember his name - it was probably Dave - but his call of this game is etched in my brain just for his mix of incredulousness and early-onset laryngitis.)
LSU clapped back at us the following year, upsetting the fifth-ranked visiting Tigers 12-6 in a game that they've dubbed the "Bring Back the Magic" game. (Auburn fans call it "The Whistle Game" because an LSU fan blew a whistle during a play, which led AU QB Patrick Nix to stop while in his own end zone. He was thrown for a safety.) Notable for LSU here was that they got to wear white at home for the first time in over a decade. The no-fun NCAA had forced them to wear purple at home for the decade prior (seeing the home Tigers in purple is still the weirdest thing about seeing pictures or video of the Earthquake Game or Auburn's road rout in '93). Then-new Tiger coach Gerry DiNardo (otherwise known as the guy they fired before they hired Nick Saban) was persistent enough with the NCAA to get them to waive the rule (though only for SEC games for some reason) and this was their first white-at-home game since 1982.
The 1996 game was a relatively interesting game (visiting LSU won 19-15, with an injury to Auburn QB Dameyune Craig playing a huge role), but the real story was just outside the stadium on "The Night the Barn Burned". (Several of these games have really cool nicknames.) The old Sports Arena next to Jordan-Hare Stadium burned to the ground during the game. It's not often a game is being played while flames are visible just outside the stadium, but if any series would have such a game, it's this one.
There's not really a nickname for the 1997 game, but it may still be the most exciting, evenly-contested matchup between the schools. #12 Auburn knocked off #10 LSU after Craig, injured in the previous meeting between the teams, engineered an incredible game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes in Death Valley. Somewhat ironically, an Auburn team that was almost allergic to running the football scored the game-winner on the ground, with Rusty Williams' one-yard score putting the visitors in front with 30 seconds left. But never let us forget the one-game magic of LSU's Cecil "The Diesel" Collins, who ripped off 232 yards on 27 carries in a losing effort. (The Diesel couldn't stay out of trouble after that, and a promising career went in the ditch.)
The rivalry sagged a bit between 1998 and 2003, with every game being at least kind of one-sided. Still notable amongst these is Auburn's 41-7 slaughter of LSU in Baton Rouge in 1999, still AU's last road win in the series (when the clock expired, the great former ESPNer Charley Steiner said, "The killing has ceased." And, of course, the December 2001 game that decided the SEC West (LSU won 27-14 in a game that had been postponed by 9/11). LSU's 31-7 smackdown in 2003 was also a coming out party for the eventual co-national champs. But the rivalry went back into crazy mode in 2004, with Auburn pulling out a 10-9 win in a game that featured loads of future NFL talent, controversial penalties, Jason Campbell's awesome 4th down completion to Courtney Taylor, and the looming threat of Hurricane Ivan. Fun times. It was about as exciting as a 10-9 game can be.
The Bayou Bengals subbed out Nick Saban for Les Miles in 2005, and the Mad Hatter's first foray into the series was another memorable one. Auburn's taken a lot of brutal losses over the years, games where the Tigers have more than played well enough to win but still come up short (Georgia in 2002, the BCS Title Game against Florida State, and another in this series that I'll get to in a second all come to mind), but this one still stings a little. John Vaughn is one of the best kickers Auburn's ever had, but he had a night straight out of a Stephen King novel at Tiger Stadium in October '05. Five missed field goals, with the last one doinking off the upright. (ESPN play-by-play man Ron Franklin's suggested name of "The Upright Game" didn't stick.) Again, a huge effort from a running back went by the boards, with Auburn's Kenny Irons ripping off 218 yards in the loss.
If 2004 was the most exciting low-scoring game I could imagine, 2006 may have been the most physical. LSU fans mostly remember 7-3 defeat for the controversial non-pass interference call on their second-to-last possession, but what I remember from it was just how brutal the game was. It was played in the September heat and guys were dropping like flies. You could seriously argue that Auburn QB Brandon Cox was never the same after he sustained what seemed like a minor injury in the middle of the game. He came back and finished the contest, but just never looked fully healthy afterwards. While there have been more exciting games in the series, I don't know if any matchup between the schools was this nationally relevant, as Auburn entered the game ranked third and LSU sixth.
The other brutal Auburn loss I referred to earlier came in 2007, with the game culminating in what may be Les Miles' Les Miles-iest moment (at least his most successful Les Miles moment). In field goal range and down by one with just seconds left, LSU throws into the end zone instead of attempting to line up a very makable game-winning kick. Sure, Demetrius Byrd caught the pass for the game-winning touchdown, but even LSU fans have to admit that they got away with one there. Of course, when asked about it after the game, Miles simply said, "We saw a chance to kick their expletive deleted," which is an incredibly Les Miles thing to say.
LSU won another close one in 2008, but that year ended up sucking pretty hard for both teams, so let's not waste any more time on it. 2009 began what has been a string of fairly convincing LSU home wins in the series, with only Auburn's attempted rally in 2013 kind of breaking that trend. (That was an important game for AU, though, as Gus Malzahn's aggressive coaching in the second half of a near-lost cause I think helped Auburn regain their edge after the terrible 2012 season.) The only other non-blowouts to discuss during the Chizik/Malzahn years are 2010 and last year, both Auburn wins. The 2010 game should have been (and statistically was) a fairly easy Auburn victory, but unbelievably good special teams play plus a well-timed halfback pass kept the Bayou Bengals in it. Just a reminder, Auburn ran for 440 yards in that game, which included one of the three or four greatest individual plays in school history.
And that brings us to last year. With the game quite possibly a "loser leaves town match" for the head coaches (and it ended up being one for The Hat), a wounded Auburn team held off a beat-up LSU team 18-13 behind Daniel Carlson's leg, strong defense, and whatever the f*** this was. (It may have made me literally the angriest I've ever been for a few short moments. I had to apologize to the wife a few times after my blood cooled.) I know LSU fans still want to act like they got cheated, but there's no way in hell that last play should've counted. They definitely didn't get the ball snapped in time, they had wide receivers who weren't close to set when the ball was snapped, and there's literally no way to legally snap the ball in that situation anyway. (The offense has to come set for a complete second with no more than one man in motion before the ball can be snapped or else it's an illegal motion penalty. Given the scenario, that one second would have to have been the final second of the game, thus ruling out any play being able to be run.) Still, what a perfectly fitting way for the Miles era at LSU to end, with a giant clusterf***. (We all miss ya, Les, perhaps LSU fans most of all.)
And so we end this Deep Dive Director's Cut, this paean to one of college football's truly fun rivalries, with this. Auburn/LSU isn't an in-state battle, or even a border war. It's not really old enough for all of us to have stories of our grandpappy telling us about a bunch of crazy games between the two from when he was a kid (instead we'll be the grandpappies telling our young 'uns about the crazy Auburn/LSU games someday). No, the greatness of this rivalry has been born purely from the wild, wooly nature of the games themselves. Earthquakes, fires, hurricanes (almost), crucial penalties being marked off and then un-marked off, game-winning touchdowns being scored then overturned on review, phantom whistles, cigars (they'll never get over the cigars), kickers almost brawling with an entire marching band, a defense pulling an Al Bundy, Cam Newton's signature moment, and I don't know...locusts, maybe. Personally, I hope Auburn goes to Tiger Stadium Saturday and beats the ever-lovin' crap out of LSU. But if it gets crazy, at least we'll know that some things in this universe never change.
Tigers This Week
Well, I've gone on forever about old games, so let's talk about a new one. The biggest concern here is Death Valley. I know it didn't bother Troy too much, but methinks the atmosphere for this game's gonna be a tad more electric. (It may not be for long if Auburn comes out sharp however.) Does beating Florida, however ugly it was, give the Bayou Bengals enough juice to pull off the upset? I don't think so mainly because I don't see how Danny Etling provides enough at QB for LSU to do much offensively. With Derrius Guice also banged up, it'll take a huge effort from LSU's defense or a giant egg from Auburn's offense for this game to go wrong for the visitors. Normally, getting out to a good start is something everybody keys on for a visiting team in a tough environment, but I think the real key for Auburn's gonna be the grind. The Tigers in blue will be deeper and more talented than the Tigers in white, and as long as they keeps their heads about them, I think Auburn can eventually outlast LSU and their lousy offense. Just keep executing and don't let the environment get to you. Either that, or start fast and blow them out of the water, but I'll be happy with any kind of win this week.
Auburn 27, LSU 16
Rest of the Menu
Tom Reel/Houston Chronicle
I'm gonna keep this brief since the Deep Dive carried on and on so long. (Also, there's no Game of the Millennium of the Week because the schedule this week kinda sucks.) The Thursday night game we were supposed to get (Georgia Tech/Miami) got pushed back to Saturday due to Hurricane Irma-related schedule fallout. But that's fine, since we actually have a pretty tasty Thursday NFL matchup for seemingly the first time ever (Eagles/Panthers at 7:25 CT on CBS and NFL Network). I'd recommend checking that one out. Those teams are playing solid football right now.
Friday brings a couple of pretty highly-ranked squads visiting lousy conference opponents. #2 Clemson visits Syracuse (6 CT on ESPN) first. Hey, remember when Syracuse used to be good? Whatever happened to them? Anybody?
Washington State sails its pirate ship to Cal at 9:30 CT on ESPN, immediately after Clemson gets done scraping orange residue off its cleats. I was really impressed with how Mike Leach's squad followed up that huge win over USC two weeks ago with an strong road performance at Oregon. They should be able to do it again, and this looks like a team worth taking some time to watch. (Also watch Mike Leach's thoughts on the College Football Playoff, as the man continues to be wonderful in front of a mic. I'm not personally a huge fan of adding more teams to the playoff, which could be a later Deep Dive topic, but the prevailing mood among coaches is to push to at least an 8-team playoff, which Gus Malzahn has favored in past comments on the subject.)
For Saturday, the notables include a sneaky trip to Manhattan, Kansas for TCU (11 CT on FS1). K-State isn't all that good this year (remember they lost to Vanderbilt), but this one could be a bit of a trap for the Horned Frogs, fresh off their win over West Virginia last week. Also in the Big 12 early, newly-ranked Texas Tech visits those same Mountaineers of West Virginia in a game that should see some serious offense.
The corpse of BYU visits Mississippi State (11 CT on SEC Network), while South Carolina visits the soon-to-be-corpse of Butch Jones' tenure on Rocky Top at the same time on ESPN. A win won't save Jones, but a loss could certainly make things worse with a trip to T-Town coming up next week.
Up against our game at 2:30 CT is the rescheduled Georgia Tech/Miami game (ABC), the Red River Rivalry (ESPN, and gotta say, Texas might win), and Vandy at Ole Miss (SEC Network). Texas A&M travels to the Swamp to battle something that won't look much like Florida (6 CT on ESPN2). (Do college-age kids really love gray uniforms this much? Really?) The remnants of Arkansas travel to Alabama (6:15 CT on ESPN) for a game that may resemble a snuff film. (But don't say too many nice things about Alabama, dammit!) #4 Georgia gets to feast on Missouri (6:30 CT on SEC Network), while Ohio State visits disappointing and soon-to-be coach-less Nebraska (6:30 CT on FOX).
ABC's Game of the Universe is Utah traveling to USC, which would have been more interesting had Utah not just lost to Stanford. Still, this is probably the most meaningful Pac-12 South game remaining, so I guess there's that. (All the action out west is in the North right now). Speaking of, #5 Washington visits Arizona State for yet another late kickoff for the Huskies (9:45 CT on ESPN). Chris Petersen's fighting the good fight for his club in the media (using ESPN as his target), but the truth is that UW hasn't played anybody worth a damn yet and really won't until November. Maybe don't schedule Rutgers as your big non-conference game. (Of course, that'll change next year.)
Massacre Island Forecast
A few options this week. 0-5 Baylor seems to be on this watchlist every week, and this week's no different. The Bears visit #14 Flow-klahoma State (2:30 CT on FS1) this Saturday, and we're definitely in range of a mulleted massacre. I also mentioned the BYU/State game above, and I wouldn't be surprised if a recharged-off-a-bye Bullies team just throttles the Cougars all the way back across the country. BYU is putrid this year, which is kinda weird. And even though Bammer didn't house A&M last week, this week figures to be a different story with a surprisingly terrible Arkansas team visiting Bryant-Denny. Bret Bielema's winless against the Tahd thus far, and I expect that to very loudly continue Saturday night. With Georgia hosting even worse Mizzou, there could be a slaughter-off going on Saturday night in SEC country.
The Shield (Like Fantasy Football but for Real)
Aaron Rodgers is better than Tom Brady. There, I said it. I'm a homer, sure, whatever. Rodgers is better. Brady has five rings, and that's awesome, but he's also got Bill Belichick, who's the greatest head coach in NFL history. Brady is a tremendous player, one of the all-time greats. But Rodgers is better. He makes throws no other quarterback ever could make, like this one, or this one, or this one. (Rodgers seems to favor the Hail Mary in Detroit, but those last two throws, the not-actually-a-Hail-Mary-because-he-was-throwing-specifically-to-Jeff-Janis in Arizona and the pass to Jared Cook to set up the game-winner at Dallas last year are the two greatest throws I've ever seen anyone make in some order.) Mike McCarthy isn't a terrible coach, but he's no Belichick, and the Packers' organization seems content with only managing one Super Bowl win with Rodgers the same way they only managed one with Brett Favre. These things make me sad inside, as I know that New England and their Neanderthal fanbase are gonna whack us upside the head with Brady's five rings from now until the sun expands and swallows up the solar system, but Rodgers is better. Come at me, bros.
I had to condense this one a little bit to make room for all the old-timey Auburn/LSU talk, but I think it was worth it. Rivalries like that are what keep us coming back year after year. Let's hope this year leads to Auburn snapping their Death Valley drought. I expect it will happen, but never take anything down there for granted. Check back on Monday for the weekend recap.