AUBURN, Ala. — Let’s take a trip back to Aug. 21. On that day, the Associated Press preseason college football poll came out, and Auburn and LSU were right next to each other at No. 12 and No. 13, respectively.
That spoke volumes for the Auburn trip to LSU that would come less than two months later. Auburn and LSU were close in stature heading into the season. Both were seen as possible challengers to Alabama’s grip on the SEC West.
Earlier in the summer, LSU was listed as a 4.5-point favorite over Auburn for its Oct. 14 matchup in Death Valley. The Bayou Bengals were seen on the same level as Clemson, Georgia and Alabama on Auburn’s schedule — Gus Malzahn’s team needed to split those tough matchups in order to have a strong 10-win season.
But a little more than a month after the AP preseason poll, Auburn and LSU were far apart. No. 10 Auburn rebounded from an ugly but close early-season loss at Clemson to fire off back-to-back routs of Missouri and Mississippi State.
Unranked LSU, on the other hand, lost 37-7 to that same Mississippi State team. It had to pull away late from a Syracuse team that lost to Middle Tennessee. It also lost to Sun Belt opponent Troy, capping a frustrating September down on the bayou.
The month of September dramatically shifted the expectations for the annual Tigers vs. Tigers matchup. The almighty transitive property was in play. If LSU lost by 30 to Mississippi State and Auburn beat Mississippi State by 39, this game couldn’t possibly be close.
It’s nowhere near that simple, though.
Auburn beat Ole Miss by 21 last weekend in a game that featured a red-hot first half and just enough of a bland second half to frustrate some inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. It was another big win for Malzahn’s Tigers, but it just wasn’t the fireworks show of the last two weeks.
LSU went to Florida, where it went from clear underdog to last-second road favorite, and pulled out a 17-16 win in The Swamp. The Bayou Bengals’ offense wasn’t impressive, and the defense didn’t put the total clamps on a struggling Florida attack.
Auburn would’ve undoubtedly loved for LSU to slump back into Tiger Stadium on the heels of its third loss in four games. But LSU got some momentum back in Gainesville last Saturday with a 17-16 win.
Auburn knows it won’t get the same LSU that Mississippi State ran over in Starkville. It won’t get the same one that Troy beat on both sides of the ball.
The Tigers from Alabama are only 7-point favorites against the Tigers from Louisiana. That’s still an impressive swing from the preseason projections, but it still seems low to some fans.
The fact is LSU — with its execution flaws, lack of line depth and health concerns — still has a talented roster that is built off of elite recruiting classes. Derrius Guice is a superstar talent when he’s got the right blocking in front of him, and Dave Aranda is one of the smartest defensive coordinators in America.
Another fact looms even larger. Auburn hasn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1999. It’s taken strong teams like the one it will have Saturday into Death Valley and left with a loss. Call it a cigar curse or Louisiana voodoo or plain bad luck, but Auburn hasn’t been able to get over the hump at LSU.
That is part of the reason the feel around this game keeps shifting. Auburn is clicking enough right now on both sides of the ball to handle LSU by double-digits. But nothing has come easy for Auburn in the state of Louisiana in quite some time.
Auburn coaches and players say they expect LSU’s best in Baton Rouge on Saturday afternoon. If that’s the case, it could be another classic in this rivalry. If not, Auburn could let out some long-seated frustration.
While another lopsided win in SEC play would be huge, they’ll gladly take whatever victory they can get in a series that has a long history of changing on the fly. Besides, this was supposed to be a matchup of two of the nation’s most-talented football teams.
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