Well, Chris, we meet again. The SEC and Pac-12 can’t seem to quit each other, eh?
You actually were a good sport about not gloating too hard over your correct prediction that Auburn would outlast Oregon and win the SEC’s fifth consecutive national championship. My prediction? I can’t recall, but I’ll admit a vague recollection of wrongness.
But here we go again: No. 3 Oregon versus No. 4 LSU in Cowboys Stadium. As good a season-opening matchup as we’ve had in decades. Kudos to both programs for having the courage to give college football fans something to look forward to during this dreary, controversy-laden offseason, from which these teams are not exempt by any means. Lots of intrigue in this one -- on and off the field.
But let’s start with the football part of football. Tell me about LSU: What are the Tigers' strengths and what are their question marks?
Chris Low: Honestly, Ted, the SEC has won so many national championships in a row now that it's not as much fun to talk smack. I guess we're sort of used to it here in SEC land. We do rings and NCAA investigations in these parts.
As for the game Saturday night in Arlington, Texas, I can't wait to see the collection of talent and speed on that field. This LSU defense should be the fastest John Chavis has had, and he's always put a premium on speed dating back to his days as Tennessee's defensive coordinator. Not only are the Tigers fast on defense, but they're deep. They have defensive ends, Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who run like safeties, and Chavis loves to use multiple defensive backs. Just about everybody in LSU's secondary is a former cornerback. The best of the bunch is Morris Claiborne, who can fly. The Tigers are going to play Tyrann Mathieu at nickel and let him roam, which is what he does best. They'll bring him on the blitz one play and drop him into coverage on the next. He had 8.5 tackles for loss as a freshman and forced five turnovers.
While defense will clearly be LSU's strength, the Tigers still have their share of guys on offense capable of making big plays even with quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard sitting this one out. Sophomore running back Spencer Ware is poised to be one of the SEC's top breakout players this season. A former quarterback in high school, he weighs 225 pounds, has great moves and accelerates with the best of them. Senior guard Josh Dworaczyk will miss this game with a knee injury, and that's a blow. He's one of LSU's top offensive linemen. The one thing you don't know about this team is how equipped it would be to have to play from behind. Jarrett Lee is a senior and threw the ball well when he was called upon last season, but it's his show now with Jefferson sidelined. Lee's going to have to be more than just a situational player. I think you'll also see junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger in this game. He has one of the strongest arms in the SEC, but he hasn't played at this level in a game. The Tigers will certainly have to throw it some to win this game. What I don't think they want to happen is to be in a position where they're having to throw it.
Ted Miller: Everyone is pretty focused on the matchup of the LSU defense and the Oregon offense, which makes sense. Most everyone knows the SEC plays defense at a different level than the rest of the country, though some snarky sorts out West wonder if that’s because those defenses play against SEC offenses. We’ll get to that. I’m just as curious about the Ducks' defense against the LSU offense, even more so with Jefferson out. The Ducks' defense was underrated last year. While it ranked only 34th in the nation in total defense, it gave up just 4.67 yards per play and ranked 20th in third-down defense. For comparison, LSU yielded 4.86 yards per play and ranked 16th in third-down defense.
But that is last year. Oregon is replacing five starters from its front seven. While the defense has been stout during preseason camp -- the feeling is it’s less experienced but bigger and more physically talented than last year -- we really don’t know what it will do against Ware and a run-first attack. As for defending the pass, the Ducks felt like they’d have one of the best secondaries in the country -- not unlike LSU -- heading into the season, but that included All-America cornerback Cliff Harris. Harris, you might have heard, is suspended because he was in a 118 mph hurry to get back to Eugene one offseason night.
But back to that Ducks offense versus LSU's defense matchup. The Ducks' up-tempo, spread-option has been stymied in big games of late when opposing defenses had extra time to prepare and loads of NFL talent in their front seven.
What have you heard about the Tigers' preparation and how does their front-seven personnel compare to Auburn's in 2010?
Chris Low: The best news for the Ducks is that Nick Fairley won't be suiting up for LSU on Saturday. He was the difference out in Glendale, Ariz., back in January, and my contention is that interior line play defensively has been what's set the SEC apart from everybody else the past several years. LSU is extremely talented up front with terrific athletes at the end positions and some promising young talent at tackle. They call true freshman tackle Anthony Johnson "Freak" for a reason. He's big, bad and usually bearing down on whoever has the ball. LSU doesn't have a proven difference-maker up front the caliber of Fairley, but LSU is deeper in the defensive line than Auburn was last season. At linebacker, Ryan Brown is an All-SEC caliber player on the weak side, but the Tigers will sorely miss Kelvin Sheppard in the middle. It looks like converted safety Karnell Hatcher is going to play a bunch in the middle.
Not to take anything away from Auburn's performance last season in the BCS National Championship Game, but LSU is a more talented defense across the board, particularly in the secondary, than the Auburn defense Oregon faced last season.
This also isn't John Chavis' first rodeo. His defenses were the backbone of some of Tennessee's best teams in the late 1990s, and with this being his third season in Baton Rouge, look for the Tigers to play even faster and more instinctively in that system this season. They've been working overtime to make sure they're getting the calls in quick enough, but I'd say you're going to see at least five defensive backs on the field for much of the game.
Ted Miller: All right, so we’ve talked about who will be there. The elephant in the room is who won’t be. The Ducks have two suspended players in cornerback Cliff Harris and middle linebacker Kiko Alonso. (We're guessing with Alonso; Chip Kelly won't say for sure.) More than a few folks saw the suspension of Shepard making the loss of Harris a push -- two all-conference types who also are special-teams stars. Alonso is the Ducks' most physical linebacker, so his loss is significant. Dewitt Stuckey has seen action, but his backup is a walk-on. The Ducks seem fairly healthy heading into the game, though there are questions about receiver Josh Huff, who had been walking around in a boot until recently.
Still, all of this seems less important than the loss of Jordan Jefferson. First, what does losing Jefferson mean to LSU, both as a player and leader? Second, tell us a bit about Lee.
Chris Low: The Tigers will miss Jefferson's ability to scramble and extend the play. He didn't throw it very well last season, but he made several big plays with his legs. In Lee, you get a pure pocket passer who's not going to move around much and look to run.
Lee's story is a good one. He had a brutal redshirt freshman season in which he threw 16 interceptions, including seven that were returned for touchdowns. But he persevered and hung around, and here he is with a chance to lead LSU to a special season as a senior. Lee came off the bench several times last season to save the Tigers, and I don't think there's any question that there's a renewed sense of confidence in him among his teammates.
Shepard is another playmaker you take out of the equation for LSU and a guy who can turn missed tackles into touchdowns, and the other key piece on offense the Tigers will be missing is senior guard Josh Dworaczyk, who's out with an injured knee. He was one of the anchors of that offensive line, so that's three key players missing on offense.
If the Tigers are going to win this one, they have to keep the Ducks from dialing up a bunch of big plays.
Enough talking, though. Let's play. How do you see this one shaking out, Ted?
Ted Miller: Chris, after watching Oregon lose games like this to Boise State, Ohio State and Auburn, I’ve got to admit I see a pattern. Further, I think LSU’s front seven is at least as good as Auburn’s was and the LSU secondary is much better. I think the Ducks' defense will hold down the LSU offense fairly well, but I also think it will feel like a road game for Oregon because of a two-to-one Tigers advantage in the stands. I see a good game, but one in which the Tigers prevail 24-21.
Chris Low: I'm picking the Tigers, too. Imagine that. I tried to convince you to pick Auburn out in Arizona back in January, but you were blinded by those Oregon uniforms. The Ducks play fast, but so does the LSU defense. I also think the Tigers will be able to run the ball well enough to keep that Oregon offense off the field. Get ready for Spencer Ware to formally introduce himself to the college football world in a 28-24 LSU win that soothes a few wounds on the Bayou.