By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the second part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
No team has beaten LSU in the Les Miles Era as badly as Auburn did last season—a 41-7 shellacking that was over before it even got started. But in Week 3 of the 2015 slate, the Louisiana-based Tigers will get a chance to enact some revenge.
After traveling to Starkvegas to battle Mississippi State in week two, LSU will head home for an early-season conference showdown with Auburn on Sept. 19—a game that’s already been pegged into CBS’s 2:30 p.m. timeslot.
For LSU, the game is about avenging last year’s defeat and starting the year on a roll. For the other Tigers, the 2015 season marks an exciting time, as offensive guru and head coach Gus Malzahn hired former Florida head coach, and great defensive mind, Will Muschamp to be Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
Muschamp’s hiring combined with several talented returnees has many pundits thinking Auburn will be a force in the conference this fall, as evidenced by the Tigers’ selection to win the SEC Championship (but not the Western Division) at SEC Media Days this summer.
“In my opinion, (Muschamp) is the best defensive mind in all of football, not even just college football,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “Our defensive players have taken on his personality, which I really like. … The bottom line is that our future is very bright at Auburn.”
Offensively, that bright future will play out with a new quarterback. With former quarterback Nick Marshall graduating, Malzahn’s Tigers will be handing the keys to little-known Jeremy Johnson.
Marshall was a runner—a dual threat guy who rushed for 1,866 combined yards in the past two seasons. Johnson is less likely to scramble. He’s not quick on his feet, but has a cannon for an arm. Johnson will be a rare pocket passer in a Malzahn offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers return most of its front seven, which should allow Muschamp to scheme up ways to stop opponents on the ground.
Auburn may have trouble this season in secondary because of attrition. The Tigers had five defensive backs leave the team in the offseason—either by transfer or dismissal.
Being near the top of defensive statistics is all Muschamp knows, so it’s easy to see where one would think that it’ll become a reality for the Tigers.
“Muschamp has a good plan for our guys,” Malzahn said. “I really feel like you’ll see us improve every game. … I feel very good about our defense moving forward in the future.”
2014 record: 8-5
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: With Auburn in need of a starting halfback after losing Cameron Artis-Payne to the NFL Draft, Roc Thomas used Auburn’s spring game to position himself for the job. The halfback rushed seven times for 69 yards and two touchdowns in the game, which was the lowest scoring spring game in Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn – 24-14.
Guy you may know: A graduate of East St. John High School in Reserve and a one-time LSU commitment, D’haquille “Duke” Williams returned for his senior season. A polished pass catcher with the ability to run after the catch, the former No. 1 overall JUCO recruit made a splash in his first season with Auburn in 2014. Williams caught 45 passes for 730 yards and five touchdowns in 2014, establish himself as one of the most feared returning players in the SEC this season.
Fun fact: The Auburn defense was an absolute mess in the second half of the 2014 season. The Tigers allowed 275 points in the final eight games of the season (34.4 points allowed per game). The defense’s worse outing was a 55-44 loss at Alabama to close out the season—the highest-scoring Iron Bowl in the history of the rivalry.
FROM DEATH VALLEY TO THE BIG APPLE
After the Battle of the Tigers in Death Valley, LSU will do something that it does not often do: load the caravan and head to New York State for a rare, road non-conference game.
On September 26, the Tigers will take on Syracuse, an Atlantic Coast Conference foe that struggled to a 3-9 mark in 2014, including just one conference win.
The ballgame will mark the first true non-conference road tilt for the Tigers since the 2011 season when LSU traveled to West Virginia.
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said that he knows his team is building, but added that his expectations are that the Orange will be better in 2015—a squad more capable of challenging the best teams in the country.
“(This season) marks a great opportunity,” Shafer said. “We’re excited for it. We’re looking forward to putting a great product on the field for our fans.”
For the Orange, the challenge will be to combat the offensive ineptitude of 2015. Last season, Syracuse simply could not score points, ranking near the bottom in the country in virtually every offensive statistic.
The Orange were held under 20 points in seven of their 12 games, including all five of the final games of the season.
The good news for Syracuse is that it is one of the only ACC teams to return a quarterback with significant playing experience in senior Terrel Hunt.
But the bad news is Hunt was largely ineffective last season, completing only 83-of-145 passes for 983 yards, just one touchdown and four interceptions, before getting injured.
Hunt’s progression will be needed, because the Orange graduated both their leading rusher and receiver.
On defense Syracuse lost eight starters off a group that was the strength of Syracuse’s 2014 team. Last year’s Orange defense was No. 38 in the country in scoring defense, despite being left on the field far too often by the struggling offense.
Shafer, a defensive coach, said he thinks his team has talented younger players who can step up and fill the void.
“The faces with the jersey numbers will be different,” Shafer said. “But the attitude, the effort, the attacking mentality we’ve always had will continue to be the same.”
For as bad as the Orange were in 2014, they were markedly better at home in the Carrier Dome than on the road. That fact has Shafer optimistic his team can challenge the Tigers and make the game interesting late.
“We have some great people coming into the Dome,” Shafer said. “Starting with LSU. It will be a great challenge for us. But really, the goal is to win the day—one day at a time.”
2014 record: 3-9
Conference: Atlantic Coast (Atlantic Division)
Spring Game Standout: With Syracuse’s offense struggling mightily to find a rhythm throughout the spring, it was the Orange’s defense that dominated the spring game. Defensive end Ron Thompson recorded three sacks on the afternoon, recording constant pressure on Syracuse’s quarterbacks in the game.
Guy you may know: Syracuse’s roster may not be as loaded today as it was in the program’s glory days, but the program is home to one of the best special teams players in America. Punter Riley Dixon is a consensus Preseason All-ACC selection after netting 42.4 yards per punt one season ago. He recorded 17 punts of 50 or more yards on the season.
Fun fact: Believe it or not, but Syracuse will actually enter the LSU game with a winning streak against both SEC and also programs from Louisiana. The Orange last competed with an SEC school on Nov. 17, 2012 when they defeated Missouri 31-27 in a comeback thriller in Columbia. A year later, Syracuse pummeled Tulane 52-17 in a game played in the Carrier Dome.