BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - As sixth-ranked LSU began practicing for its Southeastern Conference opener against Auburn, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson had to do a double-take when he saw Les Miles stretching on the field with his players.
"I've never seen coach Miles stretch with us," said Johnson, adding that he and his teammates understood the symbolism of their head coach's participation in the pre-practice routine. "Everybody's attitude is set on being dominant and winning the West (Division)." Auburn was one of the worst teams in the SEC last year. That hardly seems to matter now.
Both of the SEC West teams known as the Tigers head into Saturday night's clash in LSU's Tiger Stadium unbeaten. Auburn (3-0, 1-0 SEC) has a new, though familiar, head coach in former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and the team is gaining confidence in new quarterback Nick Marshall after he led a late game-winning drive against Mississippi State last weekend.
Now Auburn could announce its return among the SEC's elite by following that up with a victory in its first road game of the season at LSU (3-0, 0-0).
"We felt like getting that first SEC win was a really big positive step forward," Auburn tight end T.J. Uzomah said. "This game will be a huge measuring stick and we'd really show a lot of people that it is a new day and we are on the right track." LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said he wasn't surprised by Auburn's apparent resurgence.
"When you have a season like they did last year, you're going to come out more motivated the next year. You want to prove everybody wrong and prove that you're not the team that they saw last year," Beckham said. "They're coming out fired up. We just hope to get on top of them early and just never slow down."
LSU has climbed from its season-opening ranking of No. 12 with three double-digit victories highlighted by the superb play of quarterback Zach Mettenberger and strong outings from its young defense. Yet Miles, as only he can, asserts that the week of an SEC opener is no time for his team to start feeling impressed with itself.
"I can tell you when you have a contest that you know is going to be competitive and the need and want to get that to your team and prepare them, there is no responsibility or task that allows you to then, at that point in time, you know, take some personal luxury," Miles said.
Here are five things to know about the Auburn-LSU matchup:
FLYING TIGERS: Zach Mettenberger is on an early pace to have one of the best seasons ever by an LSU quarterback. He is the first in school history to pass for nine TDS in the first three games while eclipsing the 250-yard mark in each game. His top targets have been Odell Beckham (330 yards, four TDs) and Jarvis Landry (246 yards, five TDs).
FINISHING STRONG: Malzahn placed emphasis on toughness and conditioning in the offseason, and it seems to have paid off. Auburn has outscored opponents 20-0 in the fourth quarter so far this season. "Our guys have worked extremely hard in the weight room and conditioning," Malzahn said. "The way we practice I think has a lot to do with that. It is a tribute to our guys making adjustments as the game goes on."
FULLBACK FANCY: Miles is finding ways turn fullbacks J.C. Copeland and Connor Neighbors into not just blockers, but playmakers. Last week, Neighbors turned a short pass into a 52-yard gain. "When that full back cannot only block but receive it out of the back field or hit a seam very quickly from a closer alignment to the line of scrimmage, the pressure is significant on defenses," Miles said.
ROAD TEST: Malzahn figures the noise in Death Valley, where Auburn hasn't won since 1999, will make for as tough a first road test as an offense with a new quarterback can have. "We have a big challenge this week," Malzahn said. "This is the best defense that we have played against, on the road in a hostile environment. We have to deal with the elements and the noise."
FRONT RUNNERS: LSU has started fast in victories over TCU, UAB and Kent State, scoring first and never trailing. LSU has outscored opponents 48-3 in the first quarter.