Commentary

Home field has ruled in SEC West rivals' series

Originally Published: September 19, 2008
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

There are no guarantees in college football, where the power of tradition and the muscle-flexing of eight-figure budgets run headlong into the occasionally scattered brains of 20-year-olds.

Yet, if the past four seasons are any indication, if history, high stakes and high rankings count for anything, No. 6 LSU and No. 10 Auburn will play the kind of game Saturday night (ESPN, 7:45 ET) that will put millions of Tigers hearts into millions of Tigers throats.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Icon SMILes Miles says it's only one game, but Tiger fans on both sides understand what's at stake.

LSU coach Les Miles, at his news conference Monday, felt compelled to say on two different occasions that the Auburn game counts as only one game in the SEC race. Miles gets a 100 in math and a failing grade in perception.

When LSU All-SEC guard Herman Johnson described the game in The Times-Picayune as his Super Bowl, he captured the fever raging on both campuses.

"Both teams kind of realize that [this game] is the big step between the two of us to make it to Atlanta," said Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, referring to the SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 6.

In this decade, LSU has won the SEC West in every odd-numbered year, when it has beaten Auburn in Baton Rouge. And LSU has failed to win the SEC West in every even-numbered season, when it has lost to Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Six times LSU has been the higher-ranked team, but home field has overruled all.

"They've had good, good players," Tuberville said. "We've had good, good players. It's always a real physical game. It's hard to explain. It's one of the better rivalries in our league. We have been their rival game in the last 10 years. They try to make it their Arkansas game. That doesn't fly."

The past four games have been decided by one, three, four and six points, respectively, with the largest margin being the closest game. LSU won last season, 30-24, when quarterback Matt Flynn threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with :01 on the clock. If Auburn corner Jarraud Powers had covered Byrd any closer, he would have been wearing him. Yet Byrd made a sliding catch in the back left corner of the end zone.

[+] EnlargeDemetrius Byrd
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesDemetrius Byrd's game-winning TD last season was another close call in the LSU-Auburn series.

"That pass he threw," Tuberville said this week, referring to Flynn, "That was the play of his life. There aren't many quarterbacks who can throw that."

That loss didn't hurt Auburn as much as the 2005 one, when kicker John Vaughn missed five field goals, including a 39-yarder in overtime that hit the upright, and Auburn lost 20-17. But LSU has known its share of heartache as well. In 2006, Auburn won 7-3, with LSU at the Auburn 4-yard line as time expired. In 2004, Auburn won 10-9, scoring a touchdown with 1:14 to play. Auburn missed the extra point, but got a second chance to kick it after LSU's Ronnie Prude leapt in the air in an attempt to block the PAT and landed on Auburn snapper Pete Compton.

To recap, LSU, in its past two visits to Jordan-Hare Stadium, has scored 12 points. LSU gained 311 yards of total offense in 2006 and 308 yards in 2004.

The 2008 Auburn defense, coached by Paul Rhoads, its third defensive coordinator in five seasons, has allowed 5.0 points and 213.7 yards per game in its first three games. If history did not declare it loudly enough, points still would come scarcely, if at all, on Saturday night.

Both teams are struggling to identify a starting quarterback. LSU redshirt sophomore Andrew Hatch, the transfer from Harvard, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee have been adequate in one-sided victories over Appalachian State and North Texas. Auburn junior Chris Todd and sophomore Kodi Burns have struggled in their attempts to master the up-tempo spread installed by new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.

Todd, a transfer from Texas Tech and Hutchinson (Kan.) Junior College, has been hampered by missing spring practice with a shoulder injury. Burns has been hampered by an 8-inch gash on his shin, suffered in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe, that needed 80 stitches to close.

Neither coach expresses alarm that his offense is lagging behind his defense. After all, this is the Southeastern Conference, where defense is worshipped on Saturday just about as fervently as any worshipping done on Sunday. But even if these teams had been putting up big numbers, there's something that happens when they line up opposite each other at Jordan-Hare.

There's something that doesn't happen as well. That would be stepping in the end zone.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com. His new book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com