Auburn, LSU heading in very different directions

VERSATILE TIGER:  LSU defensive back Jay Ward makes plays in the secondary and also by attacking opposing passers. (Photo by CHAD KEITH, Journal Sports)

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

AUBURN, Ala. — Aside from sharing 120 yards of grass this evening at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and LSU head coach Brian Kelly couldn’t be farther apart when their brands of Tigers clash in a 6:05 game on ESPN.

For Kelly, it’ll be his first Southeastern Conference contest away from Tiger Stadium and his first outing as LSU head coach in an unfriendly environment.

For Harsin, it could be his last – and even with Auburn at home, it’s not an entirely friendly environment.

Both squads enter the matchup 3-1 overall, 1-0 in the SEC. But their trajectories are quite different.

The calls for Harsin’s job — which reached rock-concert level noise in the offseason — have grown louder despite this fall’s record, amidst a quarterback controversy that’s proven fruitless from all options. There’s last week’s 17-14 overtime win against Missouri, where the Tigers managed just 217 yards of total offense. Two more of those wins came against San Jose State and Mercer.

Those lackluster victories, combined with a 41-12 loss to Penn State, have left Harsin as a trendy pick to become the next Power 5 coach likely to be bumped off the coaching carousel.

Those calls could grow much louder if Auburn can’t prevail Saturday, facing an LSU team that’s allowed just three points over its last six quarters. Ramping up the degree of difficulty, LSU expects to bring back star edge rusher BJ Ojulari and safety Joe Foucha.

Harsin said that former LSU quarterback TJ Finley, coming off an injury, has practiced this week but made no indication in Wednesday’s teleconference that Finley would see playing time over Robby Ashford, who’s split snaps with Finley throughout the season.

Auburn will also have to play without starting center Tate Johnson, lost for the season with an elbow injury, leaving ample opportunity for LSU’s healthy front seven to stall an Auburn offense that’s averaged an inflated 376 yards of offense. Those numbers were aided by 497 yards against Mercer and 378 yards against San Jose State.

“I don’t want to talk about matchups in particular, but I will say this: the (LSU) front seven, I’m very impressed with,” Harsin said. “What they’re doing with their front seven and their scheme is very good. Every single one of those guys are impressive in their own way. It’s their length, size, speed, power. It’s a good front, bottom line.”

Kelly’s shuffling of the offensive line will continue Saturday, but not because of inefficiency in the unit: starting guard Garrett Dellinger is “doubtful” after undergoing surgery on a broken hand during the week, according to Kelly. Redshirt sophomore Miles Frazier will start in his place.

A new offensive line starting lineup is something that quarterback Jayden Daniels has gotten used to over his five-week tenure as LSU’s starter: He saw three different starting offensive lines in his first three starts before Kelly found the current combination. Still, Daniels has become more comfortable in Kelly’s offensive scheme with each showing, something that can’t be taken for granted.

“He’s just more comfortable with the offense itself,” Kelly said. “Remember, he was in a totally different offensive structure (previously at Arizona State). He was in a direct snap, much more of a pro-style offense. This is a totally different offensive structure for him. He’s just becoming more comfortable with the offense itself.

“I used this word the other day, he’s become more decisive, because he clearly understands the offense much better. When you become more decisive, the ball comes out, you move more efficiently, and really that’s just what we’re seeing. We knew the talent was there. We’re just seeing a more decisive quarterback.”

Harsin has also seen a different LSU program from this year to last year, though one thing remains the same in his eyes: The talent.

“I think they’re very athletic, they play hard and they’ve always historically been a very good football team,” Harsin said. “Over a lot of years of watching LSU, I’ve always been impressed with them. There’s some differences this year. I think the scheme offensively, defensively, there’s obviously different schemes. They’re on a three-game winning streak. You can see the improvements in all three phases.”

Should that improvement among the offense, defense and special teams continue, it’ll bolster the momentum that Kelly and LSU have managed to build as they charge into the meat of their schedule.

It could also spell the end of Harsin’s time at Auburn.

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com