Auburn, LSU jockeying for SEC West supremacy

One team owns the Southeastern Conference's only national championship since the turn of the century.

The other owns the best overall record against SEC teams during that same span, not to mention the only unbeaten season.

In a conference that has produced its share of compelling showdowns, LSU at Auburn is about as good as it gets.

And within the parameters of this decade, it's supplanted Alabama-Auburn, Florida-Tennessee, Georgia-Florida and Auburn-Georgia as the annual grudge match that matters most.

"Usually, the team that wins this game has the best opportunity to go to [the championship in] Atlanta," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "If you fall behind two games after this game, which is basically what you do if you lose, it makes it pretty difficult. And both teams have had good teams for the last few years. We've been the two best teams in the West.

"Whether it's that way this year or not, we'll have to wait and see. But in the past, that's the way it's been. One will be chasing the other for the rest of the year."

The numbers don't lie.

In five of the last six years, the winner of this game has represented the Western Division in the SEC Championship Game. Three of those years, the winner has gone on to win the title.

It's difficult to see that trend ending this season.

"Certainly, the greatest rivalries are the ones with championship implications, and this is," LSU head coach Les Miles said. "It's early in the season and counts just one. You don't want to necessarily make it the championship game, because the championship is not on the line.

"It counts one, but it's a very big one."

While Georgia has clearly asserted itself as the Eastern Division kingpin, it's been a dead heat in the West between Auburn and LSU. In fact, they're the only two teams in the league to post winning records against top-10 teams since the 2000 season. Auburn is 12-7 and LSU 7-6.

Yet, there's a feeling in the LSU camp that the Bayou Bengals have gotten the short end of the stick in the respect category.

"It's No. 3 Auburn. They get all the hype," LSU offensive guard Will Arnold said. "Do we get talked about like them? No. Do I think we should? Yes."

The more the LSU players talked this week, the more obvious it was that their team will head into Saturday's game at Jordan-Hare Stadium with a chip on its shoulder.

"They always seem to get more attention than us no matter if we beat them or not," LSU strong safety Jessie Daniels said. "I have no idea why. It's always been like that since I've been here."

Part of the reason may be that Tuberville has established himself in the SEC. Miles is still somewhat of an unknown quantity in this conference, even though his debut season was anything but shabby.

He led LSU to an 11-2 record in his first season in Baton Rouge. LSU reached the SEC Championship Game, where it lost to Georgia, and then destroyed Miami in the Peach Bowl.

Following in Nick Saban's footsteps was daunting enough for Miles. But he also had to deal with the tragedy of the hurricanes. Much of last September was spent helping others as part of the relief effort. Football was secondary.

Still, with the exception of a second-half collapse against Tennessee, LSU made it through unscathed and climbed to No. 7 in the polls by the time Auburn visited the Bayou in late October.

LSU won 20-17 in overtime in a game most people remember for the five field goals missed by Auburn kicker John Vaughn. Then again, LSU dropped a couple of touchdown passes in the second half that would have put the game away in regulation.

"I guess we got lucky and beat them," Arnold says sarcastically.

Beating Tuberville in this type of game was no small feat. He's 6-1 against top-10 opponents the last two years.

That one loss came a year ago to LSU, which like Auburn, hasn't been tested this season. In two games, the two teams have combined to score 164 points.

"We need to go out there and prove ourselves to everyone," Arnold said. "I want our team to do that. People have been worried about our offensive line and all the seniors we lost. I want us to go out there and prove ourselves. We need a big game like this to go out and prove that we're a dominant team. We have been dominant this season, but people say we haven't beaten proven opponents."

Tuberville said he started thinking about LSU last week about the time his club went up 14-0 on Mississippi State. He had plenty of time to think, too. Auburn breezed to a 34-0 victory and has won 18 of its last 19 SEC games.

Given the way the last two LSU-Auburn games unfolded, Tuberville wouldn't be surprised to see one mistake or even one play wind up being the difference Saturday.

"Two years ago, we beat them here 10-9, and they had a mental mistake on a guy trying to block an extra point," Tuberville recalled. "Is it going to make a difference? You don't know. But as coaches, to me, that is how you coach a big game."

Tough to argue, especially when it's coming from the best big-game coach in the conference.

At least, for now.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.