Jared Brodtmann: Hi y’all! I’m honored to be joined this week for a Q&A on LSU’s big game with Auburn with The Auburn Plainsman’s sports editor Caleb Jones. He’s a phenomenal talent and extremely knowledgeable on Auburn football.
Caleb Jones: Hey everybody! I’m Caleb Jones with The Auburn Plainsman, I’ve been working in the sports section since 2019 and I am pumped to talk about the Tiger Bowl this weekend. Jared’s a fantastic journalist and really knows his stuff on LSU football to give insight Auburn fans might not be familiar with!
Brodtmann: I guess the main question on everyone’s mind is: who will be the starting quarterback for Auburn? The ongoing dialogue for Bo Nix or TJ Finley this week has been fascinating.
Jones: I think it’s one of those situations where it’s not going to be known until Saturday, and whoever walks out on the field with the offense, that’s going to be the starting quarterback. They’ve both been taking first team reps this week, but it’s one of those things where [Bryan] Harsin is not going to give LSU an advantage by saying who is or isn’t starting.
If I were to guess, it’s going to be Bo Nix starting again. He’s a proven winner, and he’s got the experience. TJ Finley was good for a couple of drives, but his numbers were not too much better than Nix’s. He was just able to come in at the right time and execute.
Nix knows what it’s like to start in a tough road environment, not just from his last two years as a starter, but as recently as two weeks ago, going to Penn State and playing in the whiteout game. I don’t think he played badly there, either. It’s just one of those things where TJ Finley had a game like he did against Georgia State, it definitely makes things more interesting to where maybe if Bo starts to struggle, TJ gets another shot. If [Finley] does go in there, takes over, and wins that game, maybe then he gets a stronger chance to solidify that starting spot.
Jones: So, how has LSU looked in each game so far?
Brodtmann: I would say the season has been overall an underachievement. The team went into the year with high hopes of establishing themselves as an SEC power again. I think as a whole, they haven’t looked the part of LSU that I think Orgeron wanted to establish after 2019. There’s a variety of things to blame for that: new hires coming in, so much roster turnover, the pandemic, opt-outs, key injuries. It really felt like this year was going to be the year when they turned it back to what they were doing before.
Brodtmann: Cornelius Williams, Auburn’s first year wide receivers coach, was fired earlier this week. Will that have an impact on the receiving core’s performance in the game?
Jones: The firing of Cornelius Williams just came out of nowhere. As far as an impact on the game, I don’t think it will have that much of a change on the game. Auburn’s receiving core has underperformed to a lot of people’s expectations going into the season. It was very visible in the Georgia State where some routes weren’t being run correctly, and several players weren’t on the field when they needed to be. Harsin said this week: “Change needed to be made, and it needed to be made now.” Eric Kiesau has taken over now, another Boise boy. He served under Harsin as the wide receivers and quarterbacks coach. However, I don’t see the firing affecting the game plan too much.
Jones: There’s a lot of talk about Bo Nix on the road and in tough environments, following the whiteout game. Does a night game in Death Valley really live up to the hype? What kind of environment will that be like?
Brodtmann: I am not entirely sure how this one is going to look. I was very optimistic when I heard two weeks ago that the game was going to be played at 8:00 PM. I thought it was going to be a return to normalcy and a packed out Tiger Stadium with 102,000 people with an electric atmosphere. However, I’ve seen some ticket sales being down. People may not be filling it out to 100% capacity as expected.
Regardless, a night game in Tiger Stadium is really different from anything else. I think the players are definitely going to be very excited. For some, this is the first time they’ve played in a full capacity stadium in their time at LSU. It’ll be interesting to see exactly what the turnout is and just how much noise and influence the crowd is going to be able to make.
Jones: Who are some key players that you may feel like Auburn fans may need to keep an eye out for on Saturday?
Brodtmann: I think I’m going to the defensive line, and I want to point out Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari. BJ is leading the SEC in sacks, and Ali, while missing time with an injury early, was a second-team All-SEC player last year. They’re going to be staples in establishing a pass rush and setting the edge for Auburn’s run game. Maason Smith should be joining them in a three-man rotation, but Ali and BJ should be starters and impact players Saturday.
Brodtmann: To continue on defensive impact players, Auburn’s Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are one of the best linebacker duos in the conference. What qualities make them so special, and how will they look to attack LSU’s offense?
Jones: Those are some guys, man. They’re very talented in the secondary, and they’re very talented at what they do skill-wise. But I think the biggest thing that they bring to the table is leadership. Owen is a captain this season, and when they’re on the field, the Auburn defense is just different. Owen did not play against Georgia State due to injury, and Zakoby missed the first half because of a targeting penalty against Penn State. [Georgia State] put up 24 points in the first half, but then Zakoby came back and the defense was completely different. Georgia State didn’t score in that second half. I think the guys on defense really rally around that linebacker core.
Jones: Auburn was practicing yesterday in Jordan-Hare Stadium blaring stadium noise, at levels of up to 80-90 decibels. Auburn actually sent out an email to students alerting them that the team was practicing with the noise. Is there anything LSU has been doing to help prepare for Auburn differently?
Brodtmann: I would imagine that LSU probably won’t prep too much for the environment. I think that they’re pretty comfortable playing in Tiger Stadium. What I do think that the LSU defense is going to prepare for is trying to keep Bo Nix in the pocket. A lot of schemes Auburn is going to try to run involve getting Bo out of the pocket and rolling where he can make plays with his legs or make necessary throws. They want to try to keep him in the pocket and prevent his legs from being a factor in the game.
On the other side of the ball, Orgeron wants the offensive line play to improve. He’s been extremely disappointed with how the team has looked the last couple of weeks on the line of scrimmage. Left tackle is still a huge concern for LSU despite the return of Cam Wire, and I would believe that LSU will improve on their protection packages to help Max Johnson feel more comfortable, as well as attempt to establish a run game, a dimension of the offense that has been lacking this year.
Jones: Speaking of Max, what kind of quarterback is he like? Where is he most dangerous?
Brodtmann: Truthfully? When he throws the ball to Kayshon Boutte. Kayshon has been an animal so far. He has eight touchdowns on the season, leading the SEC, and he’s on pace to break DeVonta Smith’s SEC single-season touchdown record.
As far as Max himself, I would say he’s been inconsistent at times. I worry a lot about his deep ball. It seems like he’s been underthrowing a lot of passes over 40 yards. He had one picked off against Mississippi State where Deion Smith, the talented freshman. He had the cornerback beat down the sideline and was in a position to make a play if Max would have hit him in stride. It ended up being underthrown and turned into a jump ball. Deion was out of position, and the pass was intercepted.
However, Max has been most dangerous finding guys on short crossing routes and downfield throws in that 25-30 yard range. As mentioned before, Kayshon has been the lifeforce of the offense, so if Auburn’s defense can neutralize him, it would be huge for their chances.
Brodtmann: Tank Bigsby has to be a focal point for LSU’s defense if they want to win. He was instrumental in Auburn’s blowout win last year, and I have a feeling if Harsin wants to continue the win streak, he’ll have to utilize him effectively. Where can we expect him to make his biggest impacts? Will it be dependent on the offensive line’s play?
Jones: Tank is exactly what his name implies. He is a tank. He’s a very strong running back, running into defenders and just bowling over as many people as possible. As good as he is, it’s not just him that can give LSU issues. The running back room includes Jarquez Hunter and Shaun Shivers as well, and they all have this trend where they just keep going after being hit.
As far as the offensive line, there’s always questions there. One thing that Auburn has been utilizing this year is the tight ends helping blocking, in particular Luke Deal. Anytime you see Luke check in, it’s more than likely going to be a run to Tank or Jarquez. He’s been instrumental as far as Auburn’s success in the run game.
One thing I’ve noticed from Tank this year is his improvement in his patience. Another great Auburn running back, Tre Mason, was a very patient back, and you can see a little bit of that in Tank. He can see plays start to develop and he’ll hold up a little bit, waiting for the gaps to open up and if one does? Man. The acceleration, the power. It’s relentless. Auburn runs the ball a lot, and just because Tank goes out doesn’t mean you can take a breather, because here comes Jarquez or here comes Shaun. It’s a very exciting running back room to watch.
Score Predictions and X-Factors:
Jones: LSU 34, Auburn 27
I think Max Johnson has had good success on those short passes, and Auburn’s secondary has not looked as good as it should have, especially last week against Georgia State. It was super exposed, showing improvement in the second half, but the passing defense has not looked fantastic. When you have a quarterback like Max and the weapons LSU has, that will be where the game is won or lost for either team. I feel if Auburn’s secondary can make some stops and lock down receivers, they may have a chance to win. I also think Auburn’s chances are reliant on how the quarterback plays, whoever that ends up being.
Brodtmann: LSU 27, Auburn 20
I’m going to the other side of the ball for my X-factor. I think LSU’s offense will muster enough points to survive. The defensive line of LSU and their impact on Auburn’s offensive line, who has struggled at times with protection and blocking at times this year, will be the matchup to watch. I believe LSU’s defensive line is the biggest strength of the team this year. I mentioned Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari earlier, but on the interior you also have a seasoned veteran in Neil Farrell, who played on the national championship team, as well as Joseph Evans, a converted offensive lineman who has been a monster in run stopping and developing pressure from the interior. Behind them, you’re rotating in two more five star prospects in Jaquelin Roy and Jacobian Guillory. Add on Maason Smith, and this position group is so deep. I think they’re going to impose their will on Auburn’s offensive line and make their offense miserable.