LSU-Auburn offers stout defenses, wild finishes

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, September 18, 2008

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — It’s an electric rivalry with major Southeastern Conference implications and a growing tradition of wild finishes and heart-thumping gambles.

If those aren’t strong enough selling points for Saturday night’s clash between SEC West rivals No. 10 Auburn and No. 6 LSU, here’s another: Tommy Tuberville really doesn’t think you should miss it.

“If you like defense, watch this game,” the Auburn coach said. “If you like athletic ability, watch this game. If you like excitement, watch this game. It usually comes down to one or two plays.

“It’s an unbelievable scenario. And usually the game means something.”

This one certainly does. Plus it offers speedy defenses, quarterback controversies and running backs galore. Throw in a defending national champion and this divisional squabble does seem like a pretty enticing follow-up to last weekend’s Southern California-Ohio State game, if not as L.A. chic.

Don’t believe it? Here’s Tuberville again.

“It’s one of the best college football games of the last 10 years, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “For some reason a lot of these other games get built up, but there’s not been a better one year in and year out than the LSU-Auburn game.”

Either Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC) or LSU (2-0, 0-0) has represented the West in the SEC championship game six of the last eight seasons. They join Alabama as division teams ranked in the Top 10.

But for one end-of-game, gutsy touchdown pass from Matt Flynn to Demetrius Byrd in last year’s 30-24 win, LSU wouldn’t have won the SEC West much less the national title. Coach Les Miles passed on a field goal attempt that would have won the game even with too little time on the clock to be certain of another play.

If it failed, Auburn would have gone to the league title game instead. Tuberville called it “the play of the year” this week.

Auburn preserved its perfect 2004 season with a 10-9 win on a TD pass from Jason Campbell to Courtney Taylor with just over a minute to play. LSU, by the way, had missed its extra point. So did Auburn’s John Vaughn, but he got a second try because of an LSU personal foul.

The home team has won the last eight meetings and the last four by a collective 14 points with one overtime game tossed in. Auburn has the best SEC record since 2000 at 48-17; LSU is 47-17 with a chance to take the lead this weekend.

“To me, Auburn is our biggest rival,” LSU guard Herman Johnson said. “It’s been like that since I’ve been here. Since I’ve been here, we have never beaten them on the road. Last year, I circled the Auburn game on my schedule. This is my senior year. I want to beat them. I want it to be special.

“You can find a number of teams on the schedule you want to beat. For other players, it may be another team. For me, I really want to beat Auburn.”

LSU coach Les Miles stops short of placing the Auburn rivalry above other SEC opponents, taking a low-key approach unlike Tuberville. Then he gives a pretty apt description of it when asked to define what makes a good college football rivalry.

“Tradition. Historic matchups. Certainly very competitive games and games that have real significant conference implications,” Miles said. “At the end of the year, the winner of that game stands atop the conference or atop the West. Obviously this game and many other teams that we play in this conference would be very capable of being called rivals.”

Few of them have waged the kind of defensive struggles sprinkled in this one. LSU has managed just 19 points combined in its last three visits to Jordan-Hare Stadium. These teams have stout defenses and not entirely stable quarterback situations. Both have played two quarterbacks.

Both teams have had success against highly ranked opponents. Miles is 7-3 at LSU against Top 10 teams. Auburn and Tuberville have fared even better against that kind of competition, winning nine of their last 12 and six in a row at home.

“This is what I came to Auburn for,” Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman said. “This is what I wake up for, these types of games. I love challenges. We’ll see who can come out and win at the end.”

Like Tuberville, Coleman isn’t downplaying the stakes. He knows how important this game has been in the West race in recent seasons. The latest meeting proved that.

“I’ve been thinking about that since last year,” Coleman said. “That’s the key every year. If you beat LSU, you are in the driver’s seat getting to the SEC Championship and, hopefully, the national championship. That’s the key. If we want to go to those places, we have to come out and do our job Saturday.”

Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers is also taking his cue from his head coach.

His prediction: “This is going to be another one that’s going to go down to the wire.”