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‘Do or die’: Why a road trip to LSU could define Auburn’s 2019 season

Ninth-ranked Auburn did as good teams should do last week in Fayetteville, Arkansas, disposing a subpar Arkansas Razorbacks team 51-10 in one of the Tigers’ (6-1, 3-1 SEC) more dominating performances of 2019. The Tigers ran for nearly 300 yards, quarterback Bo Nix threw three touchdowns (and did not speak to the media on Monday), and the duo of Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown continued to terrorize opposing offenses, as they’ve done many times this season.

But the Arkansas win, good as it may feel to Tigers fans, is but a pixel in the general picture of 2019 Auburn, mainly because the Tigers have at least three tough games remaining and could very well still end up as a four-loss team.

The brutal back stretch starts this week, with the Tigers’ final road trip of the season to No. 2 LSU (7-0, 3-0 SEC), a game that could make or break the Tigers’ season. The Tigers play No. 10 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama in two of their final three games, but if Auburn wants to call its season a success, a win over LSU (3:30 p.m. EST, CBS) is mandatory. Mainly because a loss in Death Valley would likely end Auburn’s SEC Championship hopes.

“It’s hard to go on the road in our league anyway,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “When you’re playing a very talented team that’s playing well, it’s even bigger of a challenge. That’s part of it. I’ve said that’s a challenge but that’s a challenge that we need to be ready for.”

To overcome this week’s challenge, the Tigers will need to buck some pretty damning trends. A few of them:

  • Nine consecutive losses to the Tigers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to Auburn’s pregame notes.
  • Two straight losses to LSU.
  • Three wins in the previous nine games against No. 1 or No. 2-ranked teams during the Malzahn era, according to Auburn’s pregame notes.

But one element not recorded by stats, that could come into play, is the road environment. Cliche as it sounds, Auburn struggled mightily to handle the crowd noise inside Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Most teams fare similarly.

The noise in The Swamp caused at least three false starts. Malzahn said afterward that the Tigers had “four or five.” But if The Swamp was too tough an environment for Auburn, the Tigers have another thing coming when they travel to Death Valley.

“(Tiger Stadium is) a loud place to play,” Malzahn said. “We didn’t handle the noise very well at Florida. We’ve been focused on that on the off week and even last week. So we’re really expecting our guys to handle the noise better and communicate better than we did at Florida. We not just worked on crowd noise, but some little wrinkles that we feel that can help us as far as communication goes along those lines.”

Malzahn didn’t go into any more detail, so it’s unclear what he means by “wrinkles.” But it’s vital that the Tigers get off to a quicker start than they did against Florida.

Recent history shows that when the Tigers do get off to fast starts, those tough road environments aren’t so daunting. Auburn led 17-0 after 15 minutes at Arkansas, and 14-0 after one quarter at Texas A&M — a quarter that got off to a flying start when Anthony Schwartz silenced Aggieland with a 57-yard touchdown run on an end-around.

LSU has shown it’s one of the best in college football through seven games, but isn’t without a weakness. Gators quarterback Kyle Trask torched the LSU secondary to the tune of 310 yards and three touchdowns, at Tiger Stadium, in primetime.

LSU has a championship-level offense at its best, and a worrying defense at its worst. Joe Burrow, currently the Heisman favorite at 6/5 odds, has already amassed 2,400 passing yards and thrown for 29 touchdowns. He threw for 2,894 yards in all of 2018.

“We came to Auburn for these types of games,” Auburn safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “It is what it is. Burrow’s going to throw the ball in the air. My guys, and myself, when the opportunity comes, they got to take advantage of the opportunity and make plays.”

Opportunities to force Burrow into turnovers may be few and far between Saturday afternoon. He’s only thrown three interceptions on the year, but the Tigers’ defensive front, one that Davidson called the “best in the nation” on Tuesday, has the talent to pressure any quarterback and force unwarranted mistakes.

That may be the key to an Auburn win in Baton Rouge. The offense must keep its strong form going, the secondary can’t get torched like most secondaries have at the hands of Burrow, and the Tigers’ defensive front must force the Tigers into uncharacteristic mistakes.

It’s “do-or-die” time, as Dinson put it. While Auburn’s season most certainly does not end if it loses at LSU, the Tigers’ goals absolutely hang in the balance.

“This is another team in our way,” Davidson said. “Another team in our way to get to the championship. I feel like, if we do what we do, and come out there and play fast, physical and tough, we’ll get the job done.

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.