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Auburn Looking For Life in Death Valley

By Matt Smith
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Eight straight times that Auburn has ventured down to the bayou, it has left with a loss.

A lot has changed since 1999.

We’ve elected three presidents. Fifteen Power Five teams have changed conferences. The SEC has won nine national championships. One thing, however, hasn’t changed.

At the turn of century, Auburn had won five times in Baton Rouge. As the Tigers prepare for Saturday’s trip to LSU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS), they still have just five all-time wins in Death Valley. Eight straight times that Auburn has ventured down to the bayou, it has left with a loss.

Of the four football programs in the state of Alabama that have been playing FBS football since 2000, only Auburn hasn’t won at Tiger Stadium. Alabama has done it five times. UAB did it in 2000. Troy did it two weeks ago. Auburn remains winless.

“We do need to understand that it has been a long time since we have beaten them there,” head coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. “I think we all need to know that, but this is a new year and that is the way we are looking at it. It is a big challenge to go there and win.”

Why has Auburn struggled so much in Baton Rouge? At Jordan-Hare Stadium this century, Auburn has been highly successful against LSU, winning seven of nine games. Like any long-standing issue, it’s not a simple answer.

If there’s a common trend in the eight defeats, it’s slow starts. Auburn hasn’t scored a touchdown in the first half of a game in Tiger Stadium since 2007. In its four games there from 2009-2015, they have scored just three first-half points. Malzahn was on the sideline for all four as either offensive coordinator or head coach.

“We've gotten behind early, consistently,” Malzahn said. “We've got to overcome that, and that'll definitely be part of the message.”

LSU has won four SEC titles this century – 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2011. What do those years have in common? They’re all odd years, meaning Auburn had to face all of LSU’s conference championship teams on the road, including the 2003 and 2007 national champions.

Conversely, Auburn has often been in transition seasons in odd years. The 2009 team was the first of the Gene Chizik-Malzahn era. The 2011 team was struggling to replace Cam Newton. 2013 was the first with Malzahn as head coach, and Auburn had to go to Baton Rouge in mid-September. The Tigers didn’t have a serviceable quarterback in 2015 after Nick Marshall exhausted his eligibility.

The majority of the eight games haven’t been competitive. The 2007 loss might be the most memorable, as Les Miles and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton eschewed settling for a game-winning field attempt in the final seconds and called a deep pass. Matt Flynn hit Demetrius Byrd for a 22-yard touchdown with one second to go, and LSU won, 30-24.

The 2005 game remains what keeps former Auburn kicker John Vaughn up at night. Kenny Irons was a manchild on the ground that night for the visitors, running for 218 yards, but Vaughn missed (switch to LeBron James’ voice) not one, not two, not three, not four, but five field goal attempts, including a 39-yard kick in overtime that ended the game and sent Tiger Stadium into its traditional frenzy.

The other six games were dominant wins by LSU with margins of victory of 12, 24, 21, 35, 14 and 24.

Auburn was the underdog in all eight of those previous contests. It won’t be on Saturday, with the line hovering around a touchdown. Auburn’s defense is fantastic despite a relative lack of star power. LSU’s offense has not shown any ability to sustain drive against functional defenses this season.

As Malzahn said, if Auburn finds itself swimming upstream along the banks of the Mississippi River early in the game against this offense, past history is going to be front and center in the minds of the orange and blue Tigers.

This century, Auburn has won three SEC titles, had two undefeated seasons, won a national title, and had a Heisman Trophy winner. It has won games in 13 of 14 SEC stadiums. But it hasn’t won in Baton Rouge.

Everything is set up for the streak to end on Saturday afternoon, but until it’s actually over, Auburn will have to fight through the mental hurdles that come up with repeated failures.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.