Auburn at LSU Preview: Three most important matchups to watch for

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Sep 12, 2015; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers defensive coordinator Will Muschamp reacts during the third quarter against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn DC Will Muschamp vs. LSU OC Cam Cameron

Auburn may be very inexperienced in the secondary, especially if Holsey and Matthews are once again missing in action, but because they’ve got new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp on their side, the Tigers will always have a chance.

The former Florida head coach was hired to turn around a unit that allowed 27 points and 399 yards of offense overall last season, but surrendered an average of 33 points and 438 yards in conference play. Generally, the defense was the biggest weakness for the Tigers as they lost four consecutive games against FBS opponents at the end of last season and surrendered at least 31 points and more than 400 yards in a school record seven straight games against FBS opponents.

Specifically, Auburn’s anemic pass rush was to blame. The Tigers recorded just 21 sacks, which allowed opposing quarterbacks plenty of time to pick apart the secondary to the tune of 254 passing yards per game in SEC play.

So far, Muschamp’s impact hasn’t been apparent on the stat sheet. Auburn has allowed an average of 421.5 yards through two games. The Tigers have also allowed teams to convert 48.5 percent of third down opportunities, which is the worst average in the SEC. Auburn does have six sacks, two interceptions, and an 82-yard touchdown following a fumble recovery, which are all good signs – but with star defensive end Carl Lawson sitting out (or rather standing with the help of crutches) last week against Jacksonville State, the pass rush was once again inconsistent.

If Lawson is healthy enough to play Saturday (which is yet to be determined), and Auburn gets another strong performance from defensive tackle Montravius Adams (who has quietly become an elite player) and linebacker Cassanova McKinzy (who had two big sacks last weekend), the Tigers can create problems for LSU and quarterback Brandon Harris. If Muschamp can make LSU one-dimensional, he can load the box to defend against Fournette, which could give Auburn an advantage.

Up in the coaching booth, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be engaged in a battle of wits with Coach Boom, who operates from the sideline. Cameron and Muschamp have tussled before, of course, because LSU and Florida square off annually as SEC cross-division rivals. Last season, Cameron’s unit managed only 305 total yards against the Gators in a dramatic 30-27 victory.

This year, Cameron has the benefit of a more experienced Fournette, as well as a more mature Harris, who has emerged as the team’s clear starting quarterback. With a solid offensive line led by tackles Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander, as well as one of the most talented receiving corps in the SEC, Cameron has plenty of weapons to choose from.

Assuming Muschamp tries to stop the run and play man-to-man on the outside (as he likes to do, and which makes perfect sense given the strength of Fournette and the questions about Harris), Cameron may be forced to allow Harris to take advantage of the height advantage and leaping ability of 6-foot-2 Travin Dural and 6-foot-3 Malachi Dupre. If LSU can establish the running game, the chances for big plays using play-action increase as well.

Plus, because he has the potential to be a dynamic play-maker with the football in his hands, Harris could have a big game running the football should Cameron mix in some designed running plays, or if Harris improvises while Auburn’s corners’ backs are turned. Through the first two games of the season, Auburn has struggled against QB runs; Jacksonville State quarterback Eli Jenkins ran for 37 yards after taking two sacks into account, and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson had 104 yards on the ground in the season opener.

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