When No. 10 Auburn visits LSU on Saturday, both sets of Tigers will have something to prove.
After losing to No. 2 Clemson and handling an otherwise relatively soft schedule, Auburn (5-1, 3-0) aims to prove worthy of its ranking and should be taken seriously as an SEC and College Football Playoff contender. This game is the first of three straight SEC road games.
After being routed by Mississippi State in its SEC opener and being stunned by Troy, LSU beat then-No. 21 Florida on the road last week. Now a second consecutive victory against a ranked team would show that LSU (4-2, 1-1) is an SEC contender despite the slow start.
Auburn has won four in a row since the 14-6 loss at Clemson. The last three have come against SEC opponents Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, who have a combined conference record of 1-7 with the only victory being Mississippi State’s 37-7 victory against LSU.
“Our message has been each week to get better, and the last three weeks I feel like we’ve done that,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “I told our team we have not arrived and that I will let them know when we arrive.”
After visiting LSU, where Auburn has lost eight consecutive games, Auburn travels to Arkansas, has an open date and visits Texas A&M. The next home game is Nov. 11 against No. 4 Georgia and two weeks later, Auburn hosts No. 1 Alabama.
“The meat of our schedule is coming up,” Malzahn said.
Auburn’s only road games have been against defending national champion Clemson and Missouri.
“It’s going to be a long stretch not playing (at home), but we’re ready for it,” Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham told AL.com. “We’re a very confident team right now. We’re jelling at the right time, but we’re not complacent. Obviously, we’ve had some really good games the last couple of weeks.”
Auburn has scored at least 44 points in each of the SEC wins. Kerryon Johnson has scored 11 of his nation-leading 12 touchdowns in those games, and Stidham has completed 79.1 percent of his passes in the last four games.
“We knew we were underachieving the first couple of weeks,” Johnson told AL.com. “That’s almost 50 points for three straight weeks; that’s a pretty good stride.”
So is the performance of Auburn’s defense, which ranks in the Top 25 nationally in most defensive categories, including No. 6 in scoring defense.
LSU hopes it started to hit its stride in the victory against Florida. After the loss to Mississippi State, LSU had trouble shaking off Syracuse before prevailing 35-26, and then lost to Troy.
That three-game stretch had many supporters questioning whether LSU made a mistake when it hired Ed Orgeron as its full-time head coach after last season. Orgeron had been promoted from defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator to interim head coach after an 18-13 loss at Auburn dropped LSU to 2-2 last season. The team went 6-2 under Orgeron.
“We gave it all we had all week,” Orgeron said of the bounce-back win at Florida. “It was every ounce of energy, every person in the building gave it. And that’s what it takes, and our mindset was of that.
“And we finally galvanized as a team. I don’t think before we were playing as a team. I think we galvanized as a staff. I think that was important. We had better practices.”
LSU running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams have been hobbled by leg injuries, but both should be ready to go Saturday.
Guice, who led the SEC in rushing last season, has not had a 100-yard game since Sept. 9.
“Is he hurting? Yes,” Orgeron said of Guice. “Is he limited right now? Yes. But he is getting better.”
So too is defensive end Rashard Lawrence, who has been nagged by ankle injuries most of the season. Fellow end Frank Herron will make his season debut after being sidelined for an undisclosed reason.
With LSU getting key players back, it has a chance to show it’s a better team than it was in its two losses. This game is also a chance for Auburn to show it’s in the upper tier of teams in the SEC and the country.