October 22, 2010

QBs the focus as SEC's Tigers square off

Perhaps something is in the water. Or maybe it's in the ice cream.

The ice cream always has been good.

Whatever, there must be some positive aura emitting from Brenham, Texas, the home of Blue Bell ice cream, Blinn College and Jarrett Lee.

Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton returned to the SEC rejuvenated after spending a year at Blinn and has emerged as the front-runner in the Heisman race and is the primary reason Auburn is undefeated.

Meanwhile, Lee, once a highly regarded quarterback prospect out of Brenham High, finally has found a measure of redemption after sitting on the bench last season because he couldn't stop throwing touchdown passes to the opposing team.

Both should key figures in Saturday's SEC West showdown between Auburn and LSU.

Newton originally started his career at Florida. But off-season issues and the return of Tim Tebow led to a transfer to Blinn, which he guided to the junior college national championship last season.

He may be on the way to another national championship at Auburn, which is unbeaten and has the highest-scoring offense in the SEC. The Tigers are ninth in the nation in total offense and sixth in scoring.

Newton said his year at Blinn proved valuable.

"I think it was one of the most influential changes in my life, hands down," Newton said. "Everybody has a turning point in their life they can pinpoint. That's when I really decided to get my life together. There wasn't much more to do than enjoy the company and get to know your teammates.

"I'm happy I went there because of my relationship with Coach [Brad] Franchione [Dennis' son] and how I improved as a person."

Newton definitely has proved himself as a football player. He has passed for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 860 yards and 12 touchdowns.

But though Auburn has played some good teams, Newton hasn't faced an elite defense. That changes against LSU, which is ranked third in the nation in total defense and has held five opponents to 14 or fewer points.

Cornerback Patrick Peterson is the best in the country at his position. Defensive tackle Drake Nevis as good as anyone. Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard is second in the league in tackles per game.

"They're a very physical team," Newton said. "They have some elite players that will one day play in the NFL. We know they have talented players left and right. They're loaded with talent. We're going to have to come out and put our best foot forward."

While Newton has Auburn moving forward, Lee is coming full circle.

Two years ago, he appeared to establish himself as LSU's starting quarterback when he threw two touchdown passes, including an 18-yarder with just over a minute remaining, in a 26-21 victory at Auburn.

"I'm really looking forward to going back there," Lee said. "I didn't have a great game, but I got a lot of confidence by leading the team to a victory."

But Lee also threw an interception that Auburn's Gabe McKenzie returned for a touchdown. That proved prophetic.

In the next seven weeks, he threw interceptions that were returned for touchdowns by Florida's Brandon Spikes, Georgia's Darryl Gamble (two), Tulane's Travis Burks, Alabama's Rashad Johnson and Troy's Terrence Moore.

Eventually, he was benched in favor of Jordan Jefferson. He didn't play in the last two games of the '08 season, played sparingly in seven games last season and threw two passes in the first four games this season.

But because LSU's passing game was one of the least efficient in the country - Jefferson has completed just 53.2 percent of his attempts, with two touchdowns and seven interceptions - Lee was afforded another opportunity. He played extensively in Game 5 - the infamous victory over Tennessee - and has been part of a quarterback rotation the past two weeks.

Lee is 36-of-50 for 405 yards and two touchdowns, and coach Les Miles has said his receivers have chances to make big plays when Lee is in the game.

Jefferson remains the starter, but expect Lee to see ample time Saturday because Auburn is ranked 108th in the nation in pass defense and has allowed 13 touchdown passes. Lee provides LSU its best chance to exploit that shaky pass defense.

"Jarrett Lee is really improving," Miles said. "He'll have his chances."

Expect some celebratory ice cream at some homes in Brenham if Lee guides LSU to the win.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

Auburn rush offense vs. LSU rush defense: Cameron Newton leads the Auburn running game with 860 yards, but he's by no means the only threat. Freshman RB Michael Dyer has contributed 443 yards and Onterio McCalebb has 373 yards and is averaging 7.3 yards per carry. The Tigers also have a strong, physical offensive line. Auburn is sixth in the nation in rushing offense (283.7 ypg). Coincidentally, LSU is sixth in the nation in run defense (83.6 ypg). LSU has held five opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards, and Tennessee's Tauren Poole is the only player to reach triple-digits against LSU. LB Kelvin Sheppard has 66 tackles, and DT Drake Nevis has 11.5 tackles for loss. Edge: Auburn

Auburn pass offense vs. LSU pass defense: Newton is such a great runner that his passing is overlooked. Yet he's second in the nation in passing efficiency. Still, he has passed for fewer than 200 yards in four games. Explosive WR Darvin Adams is a deep threat. Auburn's line doesn't allow many sacks, but with a mobile quarterback like Newton, that's to be expected. LSU is ranked eighth in the nation in pass defense and has allowed just six touchdown passes. Peterson is the country's premier shutdown corner and can take away half the field. CB Morris Claiborne has a team-leading four interceptions. Nevis has five sacks, and undersized LB Ryan Baker has four. Edge: LSU

LSU rush offense vs. Auburn rush defense: RB Stevan Ridley is having an excellent season. He has 686 yards, with three 100-yard games. He's not a breakaway threat, but he's durable and is averaging 4.9 yards per carry with six TDs. QB Jordan Jefferson also is also a threat to run and gives LSU the ability to run the option. LSU has rushed for at least 160 yards in every game. Auburn has been OK against the run, though there was a sub-par showing against Clemson. LB Josh Bynes is a standout and DT Nick Fairley is having a tremendous season with 13.5 tackles for loss. Edge: Auburn

LSU pass offense vs. Auburn pass defense: Talk about a matchup of weakness vs. weakness. LSU is 113th in the nation in pass offense and Auburn is 108th in pass defense. But LSU does throw more efficiently when backup QB Jarrett Lee is in the game. Although Lee has as many interceptions as touchdown passes in his career, he's showing improvement and has thrown well. Terrence Toliver and Rueben Randle are both big-play receivers. Auburn has given up 13 touchdown passes and an average of more than 266 passing yards per game. And that was before losing starting S Aairon Savage to injury last week Savage was the Tigers' third-leading tackler. He'll be replaced in the starting lineup by Mike McNeil. Edge: LSU

Auburn special teams vs. LSU special teams: LSU's Peterson is among the nation's most dangerous return men; he has returned two punts for scores this season, his first in the role. The Tigers are solid in coverage, too. K Josh Jasper has converted 13-of-16 field goal attempts and has hit from 51 yards. P Derek Helton is averaging 41.6 yards. Auburn has good return teams, but they're not as explosive as LSU's. P Ryan Shoemaker averages 38.9 yards. K Wes Byrum has converted 11-of-14 attempts and had one blocked. But he's a proven clutch performer, with five game-winning kicks in his career, including two this season. Edge: LSU

Auburn coaching staff vs. LSU coaching staff: Gene Chizik was a puzzling hire for many, but he is 15-5 record in his second season on the Plains. He's a former defensive coordinator, and Auburn's struggles on that side of the ball last season and this season have to bother him. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is highly regarded and likely will get some head-coaching opportunities after this season. His counterpart, LSU's Gary Crowton, has come under criticism for LSU's offensive struggles. There has been no such criticism for LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, a long-time SEC assistant who is viewed as among the best at his profession. Then, there's coach Les Miles, who is 58-15 in his sixth season at LSU. In case you haven't heard, he has a knack for making bold calls that usually - somehow - work out. Edge: LSU

X-factor: Call him a daredevil. Call him a gambler. Call him the luckiest man alive. Whatever, Miles is a walking, talking X-factor. It's become almost routine for him to make a controversial move in a big game and it usually works, whether it be a faked field goal, calling for a pass into the end zone in the final seconds when a field goal will suffice or going for it on fourth down multiple times. But clock management has not been a strength. Bizarre occurrences actually are quite common when LSU and Auburn meet, so expect the unexpected.

Auburn will win if: First of all, Newton needs another big performance. Auburn needs to be successful on early downs to avoid obvious passing situations that will give LSU an advantage. An effective pass rush also is needed to prevent LSU quarterbacks from having time to find holes in Auburn's secondary.

LSU will win if: The top priority is containing Newton. He's going to get yards, that's a given. But LSU needs to keep him from making big plays, especially on third down. LSU may need a spark from its special teams, and Peterson certainly can provide that. LSU also needs a strong performance from Ridley. There's no way LSU coaches want to have to rely on Jefferson and/or Lee to have to make plays.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: Auburn 24, LSU 21. Cameron Newton has more ability than Les Miles has good luck. That's a lot of ability.

Tom Dienhart: LSU 31, Auburn 24. Auburn hasn't seen a defense like this, which is the major reason it will lose. Look for the Bayou Bengals to run the ball effectively, hit some play-action passes and generally keep the ball away from explosive Auburn QB Cameron Newton for extended stretches in getting the win and remaining unbeaten.

David Fox: Auburn 27, LSU 14. LSU's defense will challenge Cameron Newton and Auburn like no one else this season, but LSU's offense won't be able to keep up.

Mike Huguenin: LSU 27, Auburn 24. This is strength vs. strength (Auburn's offense vs. LSU's defense) and weakness vs. weakness (LSU's offense vs. Auburn's defense). Clemson had the blueprint on how to beat Auburn in the first Tigers vs. Tigers tussle: Run the ball right at Auburn and use play-action. But those Tigers didn't have enough defense; LSU's Tigers do.

Steve Megargee: Auburn 20, LSU 13. LSU should have more success than most defenses in slowing down Cameron Newton, but the Heisman favorite should do well enough to get Auburn to the 20-point mark And that might be too high a threshold for LSU's offense to reach.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.




 

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