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Auburn takes step back at quarterback, and on defense

Auburn, the preseason choice of media members to win the SEC, opens its conference season Saturday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, against LSU. Auburn will try to live down last week – when it needed overtime to fend off FCS Jacksonville State – and LSU will try to live down last year.

Auburn beat LSU 41-7 last season, LSU’s worst loss since Les Miles became coach in 2005. LSU surrendered 13 rushes of 10 or more yards and watched Nick Marshall account for four touchdowns.

The site of this year’s game is a historical strike against the visitors. Auburn has lost seven consecutive games at LSU and is 1-10 all-time in Baton Rouge when ranked in the AP poll. Auburn’s only win at LSU while ranked came in 1997 under Terry Bowden.

Auburn starting slow

Auburn, a 41-point favorite against Jacksonville State, paid for the underwhelming performance in the AP poll. The Tigers dropped from sixth to 18th. The 12-spot drop was the most by a ranked team after a win in the last eight seasons.

A lot of the Tigers’ struggles revolve around Gus Malzahn’s offense and quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who has five interceptions this season. For perspective, consider that Marshall, Johnson’s predecessor, had seven interceptions all of last season. Overall, Auburn has seen a decline in production from the quarterback position with Johnson’s numbers this season not measuring up to Marshall’s last season.

Johnson has struggled when he has thrown downfield under standard pressure this season. On plays with four or fewer pass rushers, Johnson has thrown 17 passes longer than 10 yards downfield and has as many completions as interceptions (five). Throwing 10 yards or less against such pressure, Johnson has completed 15-of-19 for 145 yards.

In Auburn’s two games, 29 percent of the team’s drives have ended in a turnover, which is the highest rate among Power 5 teams.

Hungry LSU in comfortable position

August and September have been good to LSU with Miles in charge. The Tigers’ 40-4 record (.909) in August and September since 2005 is the second-best record for those months in the FBS, trailing only Alabama (42-4, .913).

LSU is 16-6 (.727) in games against ranked teams at home under Miles.

Last week against Mississippi State, running back Leonard Fournette was the driver of the offense against a ranked Mississippi State team. Fournette posted a career-high 159 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.

Fournette was exceptional fighting for yards as he leads the SEC in yards after contact per game. Of his 159 rushing yards in Week 2 (LSU’s first game), 75 came after contact.

What the metrics say

After beating Jacksonville State, Auburn fell eight spots from 19th to 27th in ESPN's Football Power Index, the second-biggest fall among AP Top 25 teams behind Boise State. LSU is currently sixth in FPI.

According to ESPN’s efficiency ratings –- an opponent-adjusted measure of a team’s per-play contribution to its scoring margin -– Auburn is below average on offense and on defense, despite the addition of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.

In fact, Auburn has taken a step back defensively, from ranking 45th last season to 79th this season.

Auburn ranks 46th in Game Control, which is essentially an extension of the eye test, one spot behind Hawaii. (Game Control measures how well a team controls its games from start to finish, given its schedule.)

FPI projects that LSU has an 85 percent likelihood of winning Saturday. As of Friday morning, the Westgate line had LSU favored by six-and-a-half points.