Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tiger Bowl V

Big one coming up this weekend. Big game, big consequences, big questions to be answered. But that's no surprise; it's Auburn-LSU, and that's serious business.

Of late, the Tiger Bowl is easily the best series in the SEC. Don't give me this Florida-Tennessee or Georgia-Florida or even Auburn-Alabama business. Not one of those has been as competitive, meaningful, or riveting as the Tiger Bowl over the last four years.

After swapping blowouts in the early years of the decade, the two tribes of Tigers have consistently offered up brutal, nail-biting contests in every recent tilt. Not only have the last four games been split evenly and decided by less than a touchdown each, all four went down to the last play, and both teams (and certainly both fan bases) are convinced that they should have won the two games they lost.

Take a look at the rundown:

In 2004, a defensive battle came down to Auburn's final drive. Jason Campbell came into his own by completing a clutch fourth-down pass, and then hit Courteny Taylor for the game-winning touchdown. Campbell lit up every remaining team on AU's schedule, and went on to be the SEC's Player of the Year. Auburn went undefeated, and was never again in serious danger of losing that season.

In 2005, a wild back-and-forth battle ended in a 17-17 deadlock after LSU's Chris Jackson hit a 44-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. Neither team made it to the end zone in overtime, but Auburn's John Vaughn unbelievably missed his fifth field goal of the night when given a chance to answer. The Bengals went on to the SEC Championship Game, losing to Georgia.

2006 featured a defensive slugfest the likes of which I've never seen before or since. The sheer ferocity of the impacts on the field, play after play, still rings out today. Auburn eked out a 7-3 victory, but if you ask me, AU quarterback Brandon Cox never fully recovered from the pounding he absorbed that day. Both teams went on to win marquee bowl games.

Last year's game was another crazy scene, with the heavy-underdog Auburn Tigers roaring out to a 17-7 halftime lead. LSU responded with four unanswered scores, only to see Cox bring Auburn back to lead 20-17 with 3:21 remaining. It all came down to the improbable Flynn-to-Byrd touchdown with two seconds left, saving Les Miles from a likely sideline lynching, as well as the Bengals' hopes for... well, you know:

What's coming up in 2008? Heck if I know. It's one of those odd years when large chunks both fan bases, obsessed with lackluster quarterback play, are going in suspecting they're going to lose (although true to form, and not without reason, given last Saturday's offensive follies, the pessimism is heavier on the Auburn side).

I think I can safely say that these are easily the two best defensive fronts in the SEC. Neither team is going to have an easy time running the ball, and all four of the starting and backup quarterbacks are likely to be spending most of Sunday in the training room. Both teams have explosive kick returners. If you're looking for edges, LSU's receivers are really going to be a challenge for Auburn's secondary--but whether LSU's quarterbacks have enough time to do anything about it is another question. I'd give Auburn the coaching advantage; Tommy Tuberville vs. Les Miles in a big game is a mismatch--unless, of course, The Hat gets lucky. Again.

And this is a big game, for both teams and for the SEC as a whole. There will be few, if any that get any bigger this year.

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