Auburn vs LSU football preview: Five keys to the Death Valley showdown

Photo: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s showdown between Auburn and LSU will be the 47th meeting between the two big-time programs. More importantly, however, the game will serve as coach Les Miles’ squad’s first against an SEC West opponent this season.

When the final whistle blows in Death Valley, one of these 3-0 teams will be headed home with both their first loss of the year and their first in the division.

There are five factors that we will be keeping an eye on come Saturday night. The team that wins the battle of these will most likely be looking at a 4-0 start to the season.

1. Which former JUCO transfer will out-perform the other under center?

The 2013 season is former Georgia and JUCO quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s second at LSU. However, it is his first working with highly-regarded offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Mettenberger disappointed in 2012, but through the Tigers’ first three games, the results have been absolutely sparkling: 65.2 completion percentage, 797 yards, nine touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Auburn fans, on the other hand, have seen their very first glimpses of Nick Marshall after he transferred from junior college prior to this season. Thus far, there has been plenty to be impressed with. Working with offensive guru and first-year head coach Gus Malzan, Marshall threw the game-winning touchdown pass with only seconds remaining against Mississippi State last Saturday to give Malzahn his first conference win. Overall, he boasts a solid 61.4 completion percentage with four touchdowns and two picks. Marshall has only been working with his receivers for a short period of time, so those numbers should only get better. He has also tacked on 102 yards on the ground.

Who is going to wither under the pressure of the opposing team’s stout pass rush, and who is going to stand tall in the pocket?

2. How much will each team lean on the running game?

This is closely related to our first item of interest, but it is an important one. Even teams in the SEC are moving to the popular, no-huddle read-option attacks that have already become so prominent in the Pac-12 and Big 12. However, games in this league are still won on the ground and in the trenches.

Auburn boasts three juniors who can all pound the rock with authority: Corey Grant (230 yards, 9.58 yards per carry), Tre Mason (206, 5.28; 1,002 yards in 2012) and Cameron Artis-Payne (166, 4.74). The three have combined for five rushing touchdowns already. If they can break through an LSU defensive line consisting of Ego Ferguson (2.5 tackles for loss), Anthony Johnson (2.5 TFL), Jermauria Rasco (1.5 sacks) and others, LSU could have a big problem on its hands.

Likewise for Auburn, of course. Les Miles has given Cameron plenty of room to diversify the offense, but the elite recruiter will always bring in talent at the running back position. This year, Terrence Magee (210, 8.08), Jeremy Hill (167, 9.82) and Alfred Blue (153, 4.78) can all handle the load.

We can’t wait to see which running game, or which individual back, steps up, especially if the passing game for either school falters.

3. Can LSU keep its penalty count down at home?

There is no doubt to which team between the two is more talented on Saturday. Everyone knows the Mad Hatter can recruit.

However, his teams have faltered once or twice in each of the previous few seasons. This year it could be because the penalty bug comes back to bite his squad squarely in the rear. The team has compiled a whopping 23 penalties in its first three games, tying it for the No. 115 spot nationally. The worst, at No. 129, is Rutgers with 29 – not too many more than Miles’ squad. The team is losing 57.7 yards per game thanks to the lack of discipline.

Auburn, on the other hand, has shown far better poise despite still learning the new system under Malzahn. War Eagle has only accrued 15 total penalties, good for No. 48.

Will yellow flags be flying around in Death Valley on Saturday?

4. Underrated matchup: Auburn’s cornerbacks vs. LSU’s wide receivers

Take your eyes off the quarterbacks and off the sidelines – a game-changing matchup may just be materializing near the fringes of the playing field. We have already talked about Mettenberger and Cameron, as well as LSU’s running backs.

However, a huge portion of the program’s offensive resurgence in the early going has been the spectacular play of its two-headed receiving monster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

To counter, Malzahn will be trotting out defensive backs Robenson Therezie, Ryan White and Joshua Holsey. Malzahn, formerly an offensive coordinator, obviously is not known for his defensive schematics. He will have to prove he has learned a thing or two on Saturday, however. Beckham and Landry are absolute game-changers at the position.

Auburn’s defense has transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 look under first year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. The addition of the “Star” defender – a hybrid safety/linebacker – should make it easier to keep extra eyes on Beckham and Landry. Our eyes will be watching to see if that actually happens.

5. How will Auburn fare in Malzahn’s first-ever road game with Auburn?

Malzahn and Auburn have already matched last season’s win total in just the Tigers’ first three games in 2013. All of the games, however, have taken place in the comfy confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Tiger Stadium, as Miles has so eloquently put it in the past, is “Where dreams come to die.”

This is the first SEC West game of the season for LSU. The fans are excited over their team’s rebuilt defense and increasingly entertaining offense. This Saturday matchup is kicking off under the lights at night. The crowd will be loud and it will get rowdy.

If Malzahn’s squad falters early, an inexperienced War Eagle bunch may just be swallowed whole. Can he stop that from happening in his first time away from The Plains as Auburn’s head coach?

Settle It: Auburn-LSU, who will win this battle of SEC West undefeateds?