In 2004, as it was in 2003, all of the news coming out of Auburn, Ala., centers around the strength of the Tigers’ ground game.
Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams. Ronnie Brown.
Who can stop the orange and blue two-headed rushing monster?
The answer in 2003 was LSU. The highly-touted Auburn running backs were unable to muster any offense whatsoever in the face of the nations’ top-rated defense, and LSU ran away with a 31-7 victory in Death Valley.
But the tables have turned somewhat ahead of the 2004 rematch, and the LSU (2-0) defense is not the fearsome wrecking ball it was during the run to the 2003 national championship. Oregon State at one point had a 9-0 lead in the season opener before losing on a missed point-after attempt in extra time, and Arkansas State receiver Chuck Walker was able to make several big plays against an underperforming purple and gold secondary.
On the other side of the field, Williams and Brown ran all over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on September 11, ensuring Sylvester Croom’s honeymoon with the maroon and white would be short-lived. Brown picked up 147 yards to Williams’ 122 and two touchdowns as the No. 18 Tigers (2-0) won 43-14 in Starkville, Miss., and the plainsmen outrushed their conference opponent by a remarkable 3:1 margin.
For Williams, the 100-yard effort was his second in as many attempts in 2004, and was made easier by the domination Auburn experienced in the trenches as its offensive line completely dominated its Mississippi State defensive counterpart.
Through two games, the Auburn Tigers are enjoying a comfortable 37-7 average final scoreline, and are averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the ground.
The orange and blue have also found success through the air, as quarterback Jason Campbell has already thrown five touchdown passes and is averaging a fraction above 124 passing yards per game – mostly to Anthony Mix, who has two touchdowns and 85 receiving yards through the first two games.
The LSU Tigers meanwhile are averaging fewer yards per carry, and fewer yards per game, on the ground than Auburn, although they are picking up more yardage through the air than their namesake counterparts.
The reason for the discrepancy is simple to anyone who saw LSU take on Oregon State on September 4 – the two teams played in a mud pit, and neither was successful at moving the ball on the ground. While Auburn has enjoyed relatively dry tracks through its first two games, against Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State, LSU has waded through a monsoon against Oregon State and then a blowout against Arkansas State that saw the starters pulled after three quarters.
LSU finally found rhythm and consistency against the Indians on Saturday night, and appears to be on track heading into their conference opener on the plains. While neither team has been especially tested – Mississippi State may have won their season opener, but they reverted back to 2003 form against the Tigers – both have momentum heading into the showdown that could end up deciding who represents the Western Division in Atlanta at the SEC Championship Game at the end of the season.
Both teams moved the ball with ease in their most recent games, and neither had any problem putting points on the board in blowout victories.
Both teams have relied heavily on the ground game to get the offense started.
Neither team has had any problem stopping their opponent from running the ball.
The matchup is strength against strength, two strong rushing attacks facing off against strong rushing defenses. While it was not a problem in 2003 – Auburn’s talented running back trio was a complete and utter non-factor in LSU’s blowout win – the LSU defense has struggled to replace safety Jack Hunt and linemen Marquise Hill and Chad Lavalais, and has looked vulnerable at times. The LSU defense has been solid but not spectacular, and has been prone to giving up long plays in the passing game in 2004, including a 60-yard Nick Noce-to-Chuck Walker reception on Saturday night that saw Walker drag preseason All-American Corey Webster 20 yards downfield trying to stop him.
“Defensively, I thought we played okay except for the couple of big plays that we gave up that we definitely have to work on,” said LSU head coach Nick Saban. “That’s happened two weeks in a row now and it’s not something we would like to continue.”
However, LSU made huge adjustments between the Oregon State and Arkansas State games, and finally began to look like a national champion against the hapless Indians. Auburn, on the other hand, has looked like a team eager to prove it is a conference championship berth-worthy team from the moment it kicked off against Louisiana-Monroe two weeks ago.
Which leaves college football fans right where they were at this stage last year – looking at two teams who are almost mirror-images of each other.
Neither Jason Campbell nor Marcus Randall are likely to win Heisman trophies for their performances under center, but as LSU showed last year, you don’t need an all-star quarterback to win a national championship.
Ask Peyton Manning about that and I’m sure he would agree.
The two teams feature multiple dominant running backs, all equipped to take pressure off the signal-callers, and neither team has shown themselves to be as strong defensively as they were in 2003.
LSU has the clear edge out wide, with Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis, Xavier Carter, Early Doucet and David Jones all combining to make sure the transition to the post-Michael Clayton/Devery Henderson era is a smooth one – and that isn’t even mentioning the possibility that Skyler Green could be healthy for the showdown on the plains.
Auburn, however, will be playing at home, in front of a sold-out crowd that will have two thoughts foremost in their minds. One, that LSU beat them convincingly in Death Valley in 2003, and two, that the last time LSU traveled to Auburn, they – and in particular starting quarterback Marcus Randall – struggled mightily in the rain.
While Randall improved after that game, leading LSU to the Cotton Bowl, he looked nervous against Oregon State at times, and the purple and gold Tigers have yet to prove to anyone they can be dominant in adverse weather conditions – not good news with Hurricane Ivan poised to dump several inches of rain on Auburn late in the week.
The two teams could not be more evenly suited on paper – Auburn is a step below LSU in terms of overall talent, while LSU has yet to hit full stride in 2004, and has had problems working freshmen and sophomore receivers into an offense that features a redshirt freshman quarterback and a fifth-year senior that until the Oregon State game had not started since 2002.
“We’ve got an SEC game [coming up] and the players have got to be able to do whatever they need to do to make this team better,” said Saban. “I’m sure in watching (film) we’ll have a lot of work and corrections to make and obviously we are playing a good football team and we’ve got to get ready for that.”