Baton Rouge, LA (CBS Local)- With the final weekend of October upon us, the true heavyweight matchups of the college football season are beginning to line up.
The first official set of rankings from the College Football Playoff committee arrives in just two weeks, and there are some marquee games with ranking implications that are scheduled to play out over these two weekends. This week, it’s a battle of Tigers on the Bayou in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as the #9 Auburn Tigers meet the #2 LSU Tigers in the SEC on CBS game of the week.
LSU has been one of the biggest surprises of the college football season, thanks to a revamped offense that appears to have them ready to take on the perennial favorite, Alabama for SEC West supremacy. Senior quarterback Joe Burrow is being mentioned in the Heisman conversation, and expectations on the Bayou are growing with each passing week. But Gus Malzahn’s group poses a threat to the Tigers’ SEC West hopes this weekend due to a defensive line that ranks as one of the country’s best.
“The defensive line for Auburn is elite. You get one of the great matchups in the SEC with a great offensive line against a great defensive line,” said CBS Sports college football announcer Carter Blackburn. “LSU’s offensive line is veteran, experienced and big. And they have been a big reason why the LSU Tigers have been so successful. But, Auburn’s front four is really, really good. You can take your eyes off of Joe Burrow the entire game and still watch a very entertaining matchup.”
That battle in the trenches, one that most fans gloss over during these types of matchups, is, as Blackburn notes, a key to watch come Saturday afternoon. Auburn ranks in the top 40 in the country in sack rate, according to Football Outsiders, generating a sack on 6.8 percent of all opponents non-garbage time pass attempts. The LSU offensive line ranks in the top 50 of that same metric, allowing sacks on just 5.1% of non-garbage time pass attempts. The individual battles along the line will be interesting, with Auburn defensive tackles Derrick Brown and Tyrone Truesdell matching up against LSU’s interior line of Adrian Magee, Damien Lewis and Lloyd Cushenberry III. On the outside, tackles Saadhiq Charles and Austin Deculus will have their hands full against Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe and Big Kat Bryant.
While watching that matchup will certainly entertain fans, one of the biggest questions in this game is how Auburn’s true freshman quarterback, Bo Nix, will handle this latest SEC test. As Blackburn notes, despite inconsistent moments one would expect from a freshman, Nix has led the Tigers to two big wins already over Oregon to open the season and on the road at Texas A&M. Those wins did show a level of calm from the freshman, but there was one big factor in those two games that will be missing here.
“The bigger concern for Auburn is without (JaTarvious) Whitlow at running back,” said Blackburn.
Whitlow, who is the team’s leading rusher this season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, had surgery on his knee and is expected to be out for four to six weeks. While Blackburn acknowledges that Malzahn’s rushing attack is perhaps better designed than anyone to withstand the loss of a running back, Whitlow’s absence does take away a security blanket for a young quarterback.
“JaTarvious Whitlow is a big loss, because if you’re trying to take pressure off of Bo Nix, your true freshman quarterback, which is something Gus Malzahn has told us over and over again since the spring, ‘we have to take pressure off of Bo.’ You lose your star running back, [and] that is more of an issue,” said Blackburn.
Still, even with Whitlow out, the Auburn offense could find some success against LSU’s defense, which does not appear to be the same dominant unit of old. The Tigers rank 29th in defensive efficiency, according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly. While that number is far from bad, it’s a 24-spot drop from last year’s group that finished fifth.
Saturday’s matchup in Baton Rouge could either keep LSU on track to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title, or put Auburn right back in the thick of things in the division race. Either way, the matchup is an intriguing one, with a focus on a battle between two of the better position groups in the country.
Brad Nessler, Gary Danielson and Jamie Erdahl will have all the action for you on Saturday, October 26th with kickoff set for 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS. You can also stream the SEC Game of the Week on CBS via the CBS All Access app.