An argument can be made that the best football in the nation is being played in the SEC West, where five of the six teams are ranked this week. The top two, No. 5 Auburn and No. 6 LSU, square off at Auburn on Saturday in a contest that will give the winner an inside track to the SEC Championship Game. Both teams still have to face defending national champion Alabama, however, so the winner shouldn't book hotel rooms in Atlanta just yet. The West will be more defined following this epic tilt, but it won't necessarily be won.
1. Something's gotta give. This game is a simple case of strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. First, the former: Auburn leads the SEC in three offensive categories (passing efficiency, total offense, scoring offense). LSU leads the SEC in three defensive categories (rushing defense, passing defense, total defense). Clearly, this is a matchup to watch, as the electric Cam Newton will be facing his toughest test to date. The Auburn quarterback has yet to be shut down in 2010, but he's also yet to face a team like LSU, which is loaded with size, strength and future NFL draft picks on defense. On the other side of the ball, a sorry Auburn defense that has given up 118 points in four SEC games meets an equally sorry LSU offense that ranks 10th in the SEC in scoring and last in passing. Neither matchup offers a clear edge on paper, though it's always nice to go into a showcase game with the better quarterback.
2. Auburn's secondary is banged up, but can LSU take advantage? Auburn is 11th in the SEC in passing defense and was victimized by second-string Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson last week. Wilson was 25-of-34 for 334 yards and four touchdowns after Auburn knocked Ryan Mallett out of the game, and that was with starting safety Aairon Savage, who is out this week with an ankle injury. Reserve defensive back T'Sharvan Bell is nursing a sore hamstring, meaning a struggling secondary will be forced to turn to inexperienced players. Facing LSU may be the cure, however. Quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee have combined for just four touchdown passes (and eight interceptions) this season. Jefferson will continue to start and will likely be used in a run-first manner, while Lee will come off the bench as the passer. Coach Les Miles says that plan of attack will stay in place this week despite the struggles, and despite the fact that Lee has been much more successful than Jefferson lately in directing LSU to points. Interestingly, both have played well against Auburn, with Jefferson throwing for 242 yards and two scores in a 31-10 win last year and Lee throwing for the winning touchdown with 1:03 to play in a 26-21 LSU win at Auburn in 2008. If ever the LSU quarterback situation was going to improve, this would be the week for it to happen.
3. Lights, Cameron, Action. For the third time in four weeks, a prominent Heisman candidate is being previewed in this space with a chance to make his stamp on the race. Mallett's two late interceptions doomed his team's chances against Alabama in late September. Michigan's Denard Robinson was not up to the task in a 34-17 loss to Michigan State two weeks ago. Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor looked average in a 31-18 loss to Wisconsin last week. Can Newton succeed where others have failed? The dual-threat quarterback leads the SEC in rushing (123 yards per game), shares the NCAA lead in rushing touchdowns (12) and is second in the nation in passing efficiency (10 yards per attempt). He has the body of a defensive end (6-foot-6, 250 pounds) and can weave his way through a defense, yet his arm can be trusted when he stays in the pocket. Big games have not been kind to Heisman hopefuls so far this year. Newton will need to change that for Auburn to get the win.
Auburn enters the game as a six-point favorite. Auburn is 7-1 against the spread in its last eight games as a home favorite of seven points or less. LSU boasts just an 11-25-3 mark against the number in regular season games since Week 4 of 2007. The betting trends point to Auburn's Tigers in this one.
In four SEC games, LSU has 11 touchdowns as a team. In four SEC games, Auburn's Newton has 15 touchdowns (10 rushing, five passing).
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
CB Patrick Peterson, LSU: Peterson grades as one of the best junior cornerbacks in the nation. The ability to impact games as a return specialist only enhances his NFL value. He possesses the size and athleticism to start at the next level, yet his ball skills are very rough around the edges. Auburn's underrated receivers will be a good challenge for him. Grade: First-round prospect.
DL Nick Fairley, Auburn: Fairley came out of nowhere after moving into the starting lineup this season and is flying up draft boards. The junior is cat-quick, athletic and deceptively strong. Fairley's main appeal for the next level is his ability to line up at several positions (two-gap end, three-technique tackle) in a variety of defensive schemes (3-4 alignment or conventional four-man front). Grade: First-round prospect.
LB Kelvin Sheppard, LSU: Sheppard is developing into a three-down linebacker and has significantly improved his draft stock this season. He displays a great head for the ball, toughness in run defense and, most importantly, the athleticism and moxie to cover running backs on passing downs. Grade: Second-round prospect.
DL Drake Nevis, LSU: Nevis is another defensive lineman flying up draft boards. He's been virtually unstoppable this season and has given scouts much to think about. He lacks classic NFL size, yet would be a nice fit for a one-gap defense at the next level. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
T Lee Ziemba, Auburn: Ziemba has been productive and durable on the college level and is well-liked in scouting circles. He's a workman-like player who can line up at right tackle or either guard position. Grade: Third-round prospect.
With Newton at the controls, Auburn's offense looks very difficult to contain. And as good as LSU is, it surrendered 29 points to a mediocre Florida team in its last road game, thanks mostly to a shoddy offense that left the defense in bad spots. Another effort like that, and this one will be over early. LSU has to hope for a low-scoring affair, because despite Auburn's defensive struggles, LSU is not capable of scoring a lot of points. With an emotional home crowd watching, Newton enjoys another big day and Auburn cruises. AUBURN 38, LSU 17.