There’s a lot on the line Saturday when No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1) travels to No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0). Les Miles is seeking his 100th win as LSU’s head coach, and Auburn is seeking its 300th all-time win in SEC play. There’s also a good chance the outcome will have an effect on the SEC West race and who makes the inaugural college football playoff.
Let’s break it down:
Auburn’s key to victory: Who wins the turnover battle? A true freshman quarterback making his first start on the road for LSU would seem to give Auburn the advantage, but Miles’ team has been very good this season at forcing turnovers and capitalizing off them. His defense leads the SEC in takeaways (12) and points off turnover margin (plus-55). Auburn has to find a way to protect the football and not give freshman Brandon Harris any advantages such as a short field. The good news for Auburn is that it has only four turnovers this season, and opponents have yet to score off those turnovers.
LSU’s key to victory: LSU has to defend the run better -- particularly the quarterback run. Only one Power 5 team (Iowa State with 306) has surrendered more yards on the QB runs this season than LSU’s 260. That’s a terrible sign considering how well Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall (eighth in the SEC with an average of 84.7 rushing ypg) runs. If LSU fails to do a better job than it did defending Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott (105 yards and a TD on 22 carries in the Bulldogs’ 34-29 win two weeks ago), LSU might be in for a long night.
Auburn’s X-factor: For the second straight season, the Auburn defense has been anchored by its defensive line, and nobody is playing better right now than defensive tackle Montravius Adams. The sophomore arrived last summer with all the talent in the world, but he was inconsistent as a freshman. That’s no longer the case. Through the first four games, he has 13 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack and an interception that he nearly took to the house. Adams struggled against LSU last year, but he’ll be key Saturday in stopping the run and getting in the face of Harris. Will he respond to the challenge?
LSU X-factor: Harris is an obvious choice here. The true freshman is making his first career start after taking over for the slumping Anthony Jennings in the second quarter last week against New Mexico State. All he did was lead LSU’s offense to seven touchdowns in seven possessions. The kid is oozing with talent, but is he ready to handle the noise and the pressure of this moment? Auburn has an opportunistic defense that surely will throw lots of looks at Harris in an effort to confuse him. If he clears this obstacle, LSU might become a legitimate Western Division contender after all.
Playoff impact: These are both top-15 teams so the playoff implications are obviously huge. It’s more of a must-win situation for LSU since it already has one loss. Another loss would almost certainly eliminate Miles’ club. Auburn might be able to afford a loss, but whoever loses this game can’t feel great about their playoff chances. ESPN’s Football Power Index shows that LSU has the nation’s toughest remaining schedule and Auburn’s is second.