The Southeastern Conference went 2-0 against the best of the Power-5 in last season’s College Football Playoff semifinals, leading many fans to conclude that the SEC is again the most dominant force on the gridiron in Division 1.
But the league has been accused of having a lack of depth – even by yours truly. That’s why partisan SEC supporters are thrilled to have not 1, not 2, not 3, but 4 teams in the Top 15 going into Week 3.
Alabama and Georgia look impressive as usual. But what about Auburn? And LSU? The Crimson Tide’s annual Iron Bowl rivals opened the season by beating Washington 21-16. Ed Orgeron’s LSU Tigers, meanwhile, trounced the Miami Hurricanes 33-17 in their opener.
Auburn and LSU each soundly defeated thrash-for-cash opponents in Week 2, leading to this Saturday’s showdown of as-yet unbeaten squads at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But the betting odds are not what you might expect. Rather than a tight moneyline and even tighter point spread – as you’d think would be in place for a clash of similar programs with 3 physical and speedy units each – the lines cast War Eagle as a pronounced favorite. It’s almost as if Auburn were taking on a decent mid-major school or an average team from the Big 12.
LSU still has much to prove under Orgeron after going 9-4 and losing to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl in January. But the visiting Tigers are a more-threatening opponent than Wake Forest or Oklahoma State or Oregon would be. Or aren’t they?
Auburn vs LSU: Strange Betting Odds for an American Classic
Betting lines for rivalry match-ups are typically set based on a combination of A) how the teams’ respective recruiting bases are ranked, and B) how each program has fared on the season so far.
For example, Navy might be favored to beat Notre Dame if the Midshipmen are undefeated while UND is treading water. But the Middies still won’t be favored by a lot in the point spread. If the schools have similar records, Notre Dame might be favored by a touchdown. If Navy is struggling and Brian Kelly’s squad is flying high, then the Fighting Irish can be forecasted to by (-12) or (-13) favorites in the spread even though the teams’ familiarity with each other tends to lead to close games in an emotional setting.
That’s why it’s almost weird to see #12 ranked LSU marked as almost a double-digit underdog against Auburn.
In fact, the consensus opening point spread in Vegas had the Auburn Tigers (it’s going to be hard to shorthand-reference the teams when they’re both the “Tigers,” so forgive my consistent pomp and formality) favored by (-10) points. Betting action has moved the spread, but not by much – LSU is still a (+9.5) underdog at BetOnline.
The moneyline is just as striking. Auburn is a (-340) favorite with almost a 3-to-1 payoff line on a straight-up LSU victory.
Finally, the Over/Under point total (45) is extremely conservative for a game in which the hosts are expected to win easily. A 27-17 win for Auburn is apparently what football betting sites have in mind.
There is no question that a bet on LSU could carry nice value here. But which of the 3 markets is best? And could the Auburn Tigers prove me wrong and run away for a lopsided win?
Auburn: War Eagle Soaring Through 2 Games
None of this to say Auburn doesn’t deserve to be a favorite at home. Not only do the Tigers have one of the loudest, craziest cheering throngs in football, they’ve got the kind of punishing defense that can make life miserable for an opposing QB…even if there was nobody screaming from the stands.
Jake Browning and the Washington Huskies felt plenty of misery on September 1st. Auburn hit the senior signal-caller from all sides, sacking him 5 times and forcing a fumble. Visiting RB Myles Gaskin was held to a pedestrian 4.4 yards per carry, and his 75 yards amounted to well over half of the Huskies’ rushing output.
Gus Malzahn’s defense used the secondary blitz to great effect against UW, with talented DBs Smoke Monday and Jeremiah Dinson among those who brought the house down with sacks and tackles-for-loss.
Meanwhile, the Tiger offense continued to find its claws, scampering for key 1st downs against a world-class run defense. QB Jarrett Stidham managed the game exceptionally well, hitting 9 different receivers with almost 300 yards in completions. He did not throw an interception.
Stidham was slightly-less accurate in the school’s blow-out win over Alcorn State, which led to some criticism despite the contest being an excuse to play the JV and rest the starters.
What Happened to the Wing-T?
David Pollack of ESPN College Gameday – whose first and only original thought came on a Tuesday in 1996 – took to the airwaves this week to declare that Auburn’s offense isn’t a good fit for Stidham. Pollack implied that the run-heavy Wing-T attack favored by Malzahn doesn’t suit a pocket passer as well as the cookie-cutter spread playbook utilized by 500 other teams would.
Well, yeah, it hurts a quarterback when his coach dares to do something a little different, and regularly bamboozles the best defenses in the SEC.
For instance, the kid can’t just go home and celebrate Christmas like everyone else – he winds up having to practice for some Top 10 opponent in a major bowl game. That really hurts. If only the Tigers had an ordinary, predictable offense, Stidham could kick back and relax on New Year’s Day.
Jokes aside, Auburn’s blocking scheme and commitment to the running game remains intact – and no matter how it might annoy testosterone-addled talking heads on TV, it remains a QB’s best friend over the long haul.
In fact, the Tigers might be adjusting to Stidham’s style too much, not too little. Malzahn’s trademark formations with 2 and 3 backs around the QB before the snap have been mostly MIA this season. Instead, the offense has put extra receivers on the field at every opportunity, leading to a less-deceptive ground game when Auburn does choose to hand off.
Malzahn knows what he’s doing. But a lurch-and-pull running offense with simple QB-RB exchanges might not be the ticket to racking-up a big point total on LSU. Auburn rushed for 400+ yards against Alcorn State thanks to superior athleticism but now must face a defense much closer to Washington’s in size, speed, and agility.
Forget any talk of Stidham’s development being stunted. If it was, Auburn wouldn’t be ranked 7th in the country. But Malzahn must take care not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. His QB has shown a fondness for throwing check-downs (in a good way) and can still fake and throw off of multiple-running back sets. Turning into the Missouri Tigers isn’t the best way to utilize his skills.
LSU Tigers: Where is the Weakness Exactly?
Auburn’s home-field advantage should be worth a few points in the spread against anyone. But I’m curious to know what weakness the sports betting community has spotted in LSU that would lead to the odds being less-tight than they seemingly ought to be for Saturday’s match-up.
It can’t be because of the Week 1 result. The Baton Rouge squad destroyed the highly-touted Hurricanes in all 3 phases. The 33-17 final score is deceiving – a 50+ yard Cole Tracy field goal (his 4th accurate boot of the contest) left the score 33-3 at the end of 3 quarters. LSU held a powerful offensive line and crew of speedy RBs to just 2.4 yards per carry, and exposed Malik Rosier with 2 interceptions.
Senior tailback Nick Brossette rushed for almost 6 yards a pop on his way to a 100+ yard outing. He followed that up with another 100+ yard performance against Southeastern Louisiana in Week 2.
SLU was able to contain the Louisiana State passing attack somewhat last weekend, holding QB Joe Burrow to just 10 completions on 20 attempts. But tall-as-a-mountain WR Stephen Sullivan delighted the Tiger faithful with an amazing Hail-Mary catch to break the game open before halftime.
Advice for LSU Bettors: It’s the Body, not the Skeleton
When John Madden helped Terry O’ Neill revolutionize football broadcasting at CBS Sports, the legendary coach focused on making the blocking schemes and interior-line play of football Boom! Whap! relatable to ordinary fans. Lazy television crews, complained Madden, had reduced the game to a “skeleton drill,” or a practice session involving only QBs and WRs.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the viewing public still sees football that way – as a match-up of one quarterback vs another.
There’s no question that Stidham is a more-prolific passer that Burrow, statistically speaking. But does Orgeron need his quarterback to be a 400+ yard-per-game gun-slinger? There’s more than one way to skin a Tiger, and when the defense is as dominant as LSU’s has looked over the first pair of games, there’s no need for heroics out of the pocket.
Burrow is still a junior and has yet to throw an interception in 2018. What’s more, there is simply no evidence that the 6’4” passer won’t develop into a big-time player as a starter in the SEC. His meager stats from years past (including reps in the Big Ten as a member of the Ohio State Buckeyes) are a product of not getting the starting nod, not a poor skill-set.
Urban Meyer prefers dual-threat QBs who can execute read-option plays and drive through the line for TDs on QB Power and Student Body Right. That has as much to do with Burrow’s transfer to LSU than any discrepancy in talent.
Will the upperclassman turn out to be just another disappointing LSU signal-caller? Maybe. But there’s no way to know that yet. His stat line over the first 2 games hasn’t been great, but he’s done exactly what Orgeron wants – avoid turnovers and take advantage when a dominant D offers the offense a short field.
With runners like Brossette in the backfield and punishing offensive and defensive lines, that could be enough to contend for a championship.
Auburn vs LSU: Recommended Point Spread Bet
Just as we don’t know if Burrow will develop into a star, we also have no reason to assume Stidham won’t continue to play well in the “bad fit” system at Auburn. The hosts are likely to have confidence and rhythm advantages in the passing game if the 2 teams of Tigers blow out the O/U and turn the contest into a shoot-out.
But that’s not likely to happen, given the crushing defense that either side is capable of playing. And when a game is mispriced in Vegas, it’s mispriced in Vegas. (9 ½) points is too wide of a spread.
A bet on LSU to win straight-up is interesting. But I’m liking the visitors ATS, since the possibilities of an LSU win, a close-shave Auburn win and a blow-out for the favorites are all about 33% likely.