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Thursday, September 18, 2008
Updated: September 19, 11:54 PM ET
Seismic deliveries part of LSU-Auburn tradition

By Chris Fowler
ESPN.com

Great defense or bad offense? That is the lingering question in the SEC.

It's 80 percent the former, 20 percent the latter.

It's easy to poke fun at the 3-2 Starkville slugfest. I wasn't quite old enough to remember Clemson's decision over Duke by the same count in 1965. So Auburn's win over Mississippi State was one to file away.

But the fact is, SEC offenses aren't that bad when they are freed from the smothering confines of SEC defenses.

"College GameDay"
GameDay

Set your alarm clock on Saturday. Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso and the rest of the College GameDay crew will be in Auburn, Ala. Tune in to find out about LSU-Auburn, all the Week 4 action and everything else in college football.
When: Sat., 10 a.m. ET (ESPN)
Where: Auburn, Ala.
True, the SEC Offensive Player of the Week was Kentucky sophomore QB Mike Hartline, who helped the Cats squeak by Middle Tennessee with a pair of touchdown passes. Not exactly a scintillating résumé.

True, five teams are debuting new offensive schemes, including Auburn. By the way, how did sales of the DVD package explaining Tony Franklin's offense do this week? Auburn's new offensive guru is under the kind of September scrutiny only possible in the SEC as LSU visits on Saturday night (ESPN, 7:45 ET).

Then there's Tennessee's mysterious game plan in that loss to now-exposed UCLA. Still don't get that one.

But there are other, better examples. The Gators look diverse and dangerous -- and now Percy Harvin is full speed (finally).

Alabama looked plenty potent in running over Clemson.

Knowshon Moreno
Knowshon Moreno and the Dawgs are headed west.

I expect that Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Georgia will feel liberated when they find themselves in Tempe to face Arizona State on Saturday (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). South Carolina always plays lights-out defense against the Dawgs. ASU is not as nasty on that side as Cocky's crew.

And when SEC defenses tee off on nonconference offenses, the results have not been pretty. Ask the Canes. Or Clemson. Or Louisville. Or NC State.

The defenses are clearly ahead of the offenses down there, but that's OK. SEC play will be a nice balance to the wild offensive histrionics of the Big 12.

I am looking forward to the annual sumo match that is LSU versus Auburn. Just like Georgia-South Carolina, this SEC series has followed a strong pattern of close, tight games decided in the final plays. Last year's astounding clock-and-logic-be-damned touchdown pass by LSU was one of the 2007 season's indelible moments. The past four meetings have been decided by six, four, three and one point.

Going back to 1988, 12 of the past 18 have been within a touchdown.

As any fan of either Tiger knows, the home side has won the past eight. The last LSU coach to get Auburn twice in a row? Gerry DiNardo.

Les Miles
Les Miles and LSU face Auburn on Saturday.

The winner has vaulted to the SEC West title five of the past seven seasons.

I have no trouble enjoying these annual collisions from a vantage point just outside the mosh pit. Each foot of ground is hard-earned. Each first down is cause to strike up the school fight song. Reaching the end zone, well, it causes the stadium to shake and rumble. Literally. I was there for LSU's famous "Earthquake Game," when the Bayou Bengals avoided a shutout and won the '88 edition on one fateful fourth-down throw from Tommy Hodson to Eddie Fuller in the final two minutes to spark an SEC title run. Whiskey bottles were flying everywhere. Remember it like it was yesterday.

Then there was Auburn's 7-3 shootout win two years ago, aided by a pair of controversial calls in the secondary. LSU coach Les Miles won't ever forget that one.

Each year, when the wounds from Auburn versus LSU have stopped bleeding, it's time for guys on both sides to spend a few days in the ice bath. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has always told me that it takes his guys a few days or even longer to bounce back physically from one of the these street fights. It's about the same on the LSU side. That's the brutal part of the league. Auburn has no time to waste healing with Tennessee coming in next week.

Speaking of the Vols, here is a bold prediction for Saturday's visit from Florida. Tennessee will have a tailback produce a carry of longer than 6 yards from scrimmage. Is that news? Sort of. Since the Vols have not managed to do that in either of the past two meetings. Amazing stat of the week, I think.

Arian Foster
Arian Foster will be a key for the Vols against the Gators.

Arian Foster, are you listening? You are averaging 7.8 per carry. You must make headway against the Gators. Tennessee cannot be in third-and-long, when all three of Jonathan Crompton's interceptions have occurred. On third-and-10 or more, he is just 2-of-6, with those three picks and just one first-down completion. Not good.

With the Vols unranked and still smarting, this will be a big test for Urban Meyer's Gators, as he tries to go 4-0 versus Fulmer.

One last thought on Georgia's rare, and I mean once-in-a-half-century rare, regular-season trip out West: The last time the Dawgs did it was to face USC in the Coliseum. A puny crowd of about 25,000 showed up. Why so few? Were the Californians so turned off by their deep South visitors that they stayed away in droves?

Nope, it was because the second Nixon-Kennedy debate was on TV that night. That was 1960, when televised debates were uncharted adventures. These days, millions will still watch Obama-McCain. But they will meet on a Friday night. No need to challenge prime-time football for a rating.

Reflections from Ohio State-USC

If there is a better college football team out there than USC, I want to see it. This bunch looks truly special.

I had hoped to compare the Trojans to the Georgia Bulldogs this weekend after doing "College GameDay" from Tempe, but Arizona State's collapse on Saturday night at the hands of gritty UNLV put that plan on hold. Maybe next weekend in Athens.

Catching the Sooners somewhere down the line would be nice -- against an opponent they can't just bully from the get-go. Texas, for example. Sign me up for the Red River clash. Missouri looks the part of a title contender, capable of outscoring the teams they can't shut down.

The Gators were impressive in most phases against Miami. Athletically, Florida certainly belongs on the field with anybody. Seeing LSU and Auburn from ringside is a tremendous fallback plan this Saturday night.

Joe McKnight
Joe McKnight and USC ran past Ohio State.

But I seriously doubt I will witness any team that stacks up to the Men of Troy. USC's systematic dismantling of talented Ohio State was startling. Here's why: The Trojans were wholly within themselves Saturday night. They just did their thing. "Nothing special," as USC coach Pete Carroll put it. Did he mean that to be insulting? I don't know. Maybe not.

But how would you like to be coach Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes and stagger home from a humbling 35-3 crushing, just to hear your opponents say that it was just a regular ole performance ... that they didn't really break a sweat ... that they were waiting for bigger tests in the Pac-10? Ouch.

But that's the truth. This was different from the Brutus' other brutal losses on the big stages. Florida schemed and played out of their minds to ambush Ohio State two years ago in the BCS title game. A stacked LSU bunch fed off the emotion of the Superdome and was still outplayed by OSU for stretches of last season's title game.

This was another matter entirely. USC reminded me of watching Tiger Woods or Roger Federer, circa 2006. They could dominate with relaxed brilliance. It looked effortless, a natural extension of their amazing talent. Tiger and Fed did not appear to be digging deep or reaching back for something special at the boundaries of their abilities. The cliché goes, "They were playing well within themselves," not pressing or "chasing the game" as some coaches put it.

That's USC. The Trojans have been eyeballing Ohio State from afar for the past two years. A quiet animosity had been building. The Trojans' own inexplicable stumbles had prevented them from getting to the BCS championship, so they had to watch OSU and the SEC command center stage. That was their fault, and no regular-season win will ever erase the pain of those missed opportunities.

But given the chance finally to make a statement about where SC stands in the perennial pecking order, they were ready. Not flying-out-the-tunnel geeked up. No hollow emotional posturing. This looked to me like a cold, calculated hit. Just business.

Flip the football to the fullback running free to the end zone. Pop a goal-line pass to a true freshman tight end. Let Joe McKnight hop through defenders. And most of all, just smother the poor Bucks with Rey Maualuga and the collection of freaks on defense.

On the sidelines, Denzel Washington was shaking his head in amazement as the sculpted, freakish frame of Taylor Mays patrolled the secondary. "That's a safety?" he asked in amazement. Yep, Denzel, until some NFL team turns his into an All-Pro outside linebacker.

Truth is, I was back in the bus after halftime, watching to see if Mississippi State could get the tying runner home from third against Auburn in that 3-2 shootout. The last 30 minutes in the Coliseum were a little short on suspense.

The game left me with the strong feeling that the only team that can beat the Trojans is the Trojans.

Talking to quarterback Mark Sanchez after the game left me with the strong feeling that it's not going to happen this time. He has an excellent leader's persona. He has the perspective and wisdom earned in the painful losses last year to Oregon and Stanford.

Sanchez and this veteran group sound determined to not let that happen again. The first chance to test that focus comes next Thursday night at Oregon State (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). The Trojans never led on their last visit to Corvallis. They got mugged, falling behind 33-10 in the third quarter and coming up short in a too-late rally. There will be no excuses for arriving unprepared this time. And they won't.

By the way, Sanchez has to be the most polite and well-mannered guest we've ever had climb the stairs of our set. OK, so he kept us waiting an hour after finishing off Ohio State. But he made up for it with his classy and sincere answers and his insistence on shaking the hand and thanking each and every member of the stage crew, from the guys behind the cameras to the guy who put on his microphone to Donna, GameDay's makeup artist, whose services I don't think he even used.

It made me embarrassed that I don't thank them more often! I mentioned to his dad and mom that he was the first guest to ever go to such lengths. Their answer was, "He'd better have. Or he would answer to us." Great family.

Final Notes

Every quarterback I talk to is amazed by the year Chase Daniel is starting to put together. They are really impressed by his command and leadership, too. Missouri has scored on the past 13 drives that Daniel has quarterbacked, by the way. In passing drills at a Mizzou practice, I'm told that the football hardly hits the ground these days.

Sam Bradford's numbers at OU are amazing, too. But his peers value Daniel's role as the singular signal-caller of Missouri's attack a bit more, it seems.

On the flip side, Michigan's offense has now produced more turnovers than touchdowns through three games. Rich Rodriguez can draw up the same plays that baffled West Virginia opponents, but as the saying goes, "Plays make yards, players make touchdowns." There aren't many of either in Ann Arbor at the moment.

Boise State is 0-12 all time against BCS conference teams in true road games, with a painful average margin of defeat of about 21 points. The Fiesta Bowl surprise of OU was not a road game. Saturday is a big opportunity for the Broncs to break through, especially with Oregon forced to use a QB tandem of third and fourth stringers.

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.