Rudy Ford probably wishes he could take back what he said earlier this week. A few days before facing LSU in his team’s SEC opener, the Auburn junior safety suggested that defending tailback Leonard Fournette, “shouldn't be difficult, that much of a challenge.” Ford added: “We've got a great front seven and even on the back end we’re all going to be ready to tackle, but our biggest thing is our energy level. As soon as we get off that bus, we’re ready to tackle. Don’t take anything lightly. We all have to be ready to go.”
Ford was wrong: His Tigers had an incredibly difficult time stopping Fournette. The sophomore ran all over Auburn’s defense in leading LSU to a 45–21 victory in Tiger Stadium. Fournette ripped off a 71-yard run on his team’s first play from scrimmage, delivered a 40-yard touchdown late in the second quarter in which he made one Auburn defender look like a JV scrub trying to tackle an all-state stud and finished with 228 yards and three touchdowns over three quarters. When Fournette left the game after absorbing a minor knock on his knee, it marked the end of a 15-quarter stretch in which he totaled 676 yards with nine touchdowns.
When you watch Fournette, it’s difficult not to have sympathy for the defenders standing in his way. It can’t be fun trying to tackle a 6' 1", 230-pound wrecking ball with top-end running instincts and better speed than many receivers. Fournette can outrun defensive backs, plow through linebackers and dance around defensive linemen. Tackling him low is a bad idea, and hitting him above the waist simply doesn’t work. And to think: The defensive coordinators who will have nightmares devising ways to stop Fournette this season have to deal with him in 2016, too. Will Muschamp’s unit got roasted on Saturday, but his won’t be the last.
While it’s rare that a five-star recruit actually exceeds the hype that preceded his arrival on campus, particularly at a football-mad place like LSU, Fournette—the top-rated running back and No. 4 overall prospect in the class of 2014, according to Rivals.com—is better than most observers expected he would be. Fournette’s numbers are impressive, and he’s so dominant that NFL observers are already comparing him to one of the best running backs of this century. Though he was already considered a Heisman Trophy contender, Saturday’s performance may have vaulted Fournette into the front of the race.
Opposing teams will find more effective ways to defend Fournette, but even so, his performance raises the question of whether we should adjust our expectations for what LSU can accomplish this season. With the nation’s top running back and a strong defense, it’s not unreasonable to suggest the Tigers could compete with Alabama or any other program in the SEC West. While it remains to be seen how Brandon Harris will perform as the full-time starting quarterback, his play to this point is cause for optimism. The sophomore has looked composed in the pocket; he has extended drives with timely throws and provided a running threat.
By contrast, Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson continued to fail to live up to expectations in Week 3. The player hailed as a preseason Heisman contender followed up two ugly games by completing fewer than 60% of his passes for 100 yards. Johnson lofted passes off target, threw into coverage and generally left the impression that he was holding back an offense with immense potential. A Tigers team voted by the media as the preseason favorite to win the SEC fell in convincing fashion.
As for LSU, it should be favored in each of its next four games: Eastern Michigan, at South Carolina, Florida and Western Kentucky. Then the Tigers begin a brutal November slate with a trip to Tuscaloosa to face the Crimson Tide on Nov. 7. A lot can change between now and then, but Fournette gives LSU an offensive talent no team in the SEC can match.