Recent history suggests LSU game will decide which direction Auburn’s football season goes
AUBURN — LSU sits just below Alabama and Georgia in the hierarchy of Auburn football rivals.
The two sets of Tigers don’t share a state or a border. They’ve met 54 times, compared to 84 Iron Bowls and 125 editions of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. They didn’t begin meeting annually until the 1990s.
But recent history suggests that the series against LSU is just as important. The Georgia and Alabama games, until this year, were traditionally played over the final two or three weeks of November. LSU pops up on the schedule in September or October.
The latest edition of the rivalry will take place Saturday (2:30 p.m. CBS) at Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU has won three straight Auburn’s last win in 2016. Those four games were decided by five, four, one and three points, respectively.
No other opponent during that span has served as a better barometer of what kind of team Auburn would be at the end of the season.
Sept. 24, 2016 – Auburn 18, LSU 13
What happened: After a 1-2 start, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn turned over play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee for the first time. It got the offense close enough for Daniel Carlson to kick six field goals. LSU celebrated first, as Danny Etling appeared to hit D.J. Chark for a 15-yard, game-winning touchdown on the final play of regulation, but a review determined that he did not get the snap off before the game clock expired.
What came next: Longtime LSU coach Les Miles was fired the next day. Auburn rode momentum, bruising running back Kamryn Pettway and efficient quarterback Sean White to five more consecutive victories. Had Pettway and White not suffered injuries late in the season, the results against Georgia and Alabama might have been different.
Oct. 14, 2017 – LSU 27, Auburn 23
What happened: Auburn traveled to Death Valley on a four-game winning streak and had a 20-0 lead by early in the second quarter. But LSU’s offense came alive with two touchdowns before halftime, and Auburn’s crumbled in a scoreless second half. Chark’s 75-yard punt return touchdown to start the fourth quarter completely deflated Auburn.
What came next: This was the rare loss that turned into something positive. Emboldened by their ability to jump out to a three-touchdown lead on the road and furious at how they let it slip away, the Tigers won five straight games — including ones over top-ranked Georgia and Alabama — and the SEC West.
Sept. 15, 2018 – LSU 22, Auburn 21
What happened: Auburn scored three touchdowns in four possessions, but that was all the offense could muster. And the defense could hold on for only so long. Joe Burrow hit Derrick Dillion for a 71-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, and two pass interference penalties on the final drive put LSU in position for Cole Tracy to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.
What came next: That game summarized Auburn’s season — the defense was good, but because the offense wasn’t, it needed to be perfect to win. The Tigers went 5-4 down the stretch. The offense didn’t score more than 31 points against an FBS team until the Music City Bowl against Purdue.
Oct. 26, 2019 – LSU 23, Auburn 20
What happened: Auburn held a record-setting LSU offense to its lowest-scoring output of the season. It was the only game of the year where Burrow didn’t throw multiple touchdowns. Auburn led, 13-10, early in the second half. But LSU responded to an Anders Carlson field goal with two unanswered touchdowns, and Auburn didn’t make it a one-score game again until there were fewer than three minutes to play.
What came next: A loss at Florida a few weeks earlier indicated it, and the loss at LSU confirmed it — Auburn, despite a championship-caliber defense, didn’t have enough offense to compete with the nation’s best, save for in a helter-skelter Iron Bowl.
It’s easy to imagine Saturday’s game being just as closely contested. Auburn (3-2) has played three consecutive one-score games, winning two in the final minutes. LSU (2-2) has played a pair of high-scoring shootouts, losing 44-34 to Mississippi State and 45-41 to Missouri.
“We got to figure out a way, if it does (go down to the wire), to make those one or two plays to get in the win column,” Malzahn said.
Because while the national implications are different – this marks the first meeting since 1999 that neither team is ranked, but the game is no less important for both sides. Ed Orgeron is trying to prove that last year’s undefeated run to SEC and national championships wasn’t just a case of every star perfectly aligning. Malzahn is trying to keep the wolves at bay.
They might become rabid if Malzahn falls to 2-6 against LSU as Auburn falls to .500 more than halfway through this 10-game, SEC-only season.
If Auburn wins, though, now you’re talking about a team that takes a 4-2 record and some momentum into its bye week. The loss at South Carolina still hurts, but with winnable games against Mississippi State and Tennessee on the schedule after that, it’s not out of the question that the Tigers could build a 6-2 record before playing Alabama and Texas A&M.
The fact that they've come so close but fallen just short against LSU the past three season only adds to the incentive.
“I feel like we're highly motivated,” junior cornerback Roger McCreary said. “Coach Malzahn said when we get this win, the only way to go is for us to go up.”
Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.