Tommy Hicks: These are the games that try fans’ souls

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Saturday is going to be fun. It really is.

These are the kind of college football Saturdays that hold one’s interest during the season, the kind that aren’t just filling space until the run the final couple of weeks of the season when the pressure and the competition often gets stronger.

To those who truly appreciate good, conference divisional matchups early in the season, this is your week, especially if you are a fan of SEC football.

Exhibit A: No. 12-ranked LSU at No. 7-ranked Auburn.

Exhibit B: No. 1-ranked Alabama at (also receiving votes) Ole Miss.

Bring it on, and let the fun begin.

To be honest, while these games are always popular with the fans of each of the schools, these particular matchups didn’t project as the kind of games they are now expected to be. LSU was a team most (yes, I’m raising my hand) figured might be a 6-6 team this season, maybe a 7-5 team. That could still be the case, but the Bengal Tigers have far more believers right now than they did a couple of weeks ago.

It started with LSU’s win over Miami, which it seems obviously was overrated coming into the season. Or maybe it’s a case that LSU was way underrated. A hint as to which is more accurate — and certainly both assessments could be true — will be provided Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium when LSU takes on Auburn.

It will be a game that offers a better glimpse at both teams.

Auburn knocked off Washington, which carried a higher preseason ranking than the Tigers when they met in Atlanta. Auburn followed with a dismantling of Alabama State, as expected, and sits at 2-0 as LSU prepares to visit. Jarrett Stidham has looked solid at quarterback and the while there have been some moments of uncertainty with the offense, for the most part it has performed when needed. The Auburn defense has looked strong in tough situations too.

LSU’s defense has been outstanding and it will provide a true test for Gus Malzahn’s offense on Saturday. The Bengal Tigers are an aggressive bunch on that side of the ball and they often come up with big stops and turnovers. The group shut out Southeastern Louisiana last week.

Offensively, Ohio State quarterback transfer Joe Burrow has provided leadership and an accurate downfield passing attack to the LSU attack. The running attack has proved more than adequate and there are good, big-play receivers on the roster.

The greater pressure in this one will be felt by Auburn, which has the higher ranking and had all the preseason hype, not to mention the Tigers are playing at home, where they are strong. LSU undoubtedly is viewing this game as an opportunity to jump into the College Football Playoff picture with a victory. A win over Auburn moves it up the ladder a bit and it will have the opportunity to play at home against No. 3-ranked Georgia four games later, followed by home games against No. 16-ranked Mississippi State and top-ranked Alabama in a gauntlet that could raise LSU’s national contender stock or snuff it out.

In Oxford, Miss., the Rebels or Landsharks or whatever await Alabama with an offense that is on fire. The loss of quarterback Shea Patterson to Michigan hasn’t slowed down Ole Miss’ offensive abilities one bit. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu passed for 448 yards and five touchdowns in the Rebels’ wild 76-41 win over Southern Illinois. Scoring 47 points in beating Texas Tech proves Ole Miss has plenty of punch on offense. But it hasn’t faced a defense anywhere close to the talent that Alabama possesses and that sets up quite a story within the story of Saturday’s game.

Of course, Alabama has plenty of offensive punch of its own with Tua Tagovailoa taking over the starting job as expected and demonstrating he is more than capable of handling the role, especially in the vertical passing game and also running with the ball when called upon to do so. And then there’s the stellar offensive line and receivers and running backs, so no shortage of anything in Alabama’s offensive huddle.

And defensively, well, teams don’t want to try to run or pass against the Crimson Tide, but have to pick their poison. The aggressiveness and speed of the Alabama defense, not to mention the future NFL talent in the lineup, makes it a strong force. Three-and-out series are the norm and that puts the ball back in the hands of Tua and the offense.

Ole Miss will be tested as it hasn’t been tested this season, but it does so with the knowledge it has been the team (along with Auburn) that has given Alabama the most trouble in recent seasons. Can the Rebels draw on that success and the home field crowd to push it to victory against the nation’s top-ranked team? Can the Ole Miss offense continue to put up a bevy of points? We’ll find out Saturday, but the matchup is too good not to grab one’s attention.

For those who are interested, and not for wagering purposes, Las Vegas doesn’t share the excitement building around these matchups. Auburn enters the game as a 9.5-point favorite over LSU, while Alabama is a 20-point favorite against the Rebels. Hmmm.

With Ole Miss’ troubles on defense thus far — the Rebels have given up 68 points in two games; Alabama has surrendered just 21 — it’s easy to see the reason Alabama is such a heavy favorite. That and the fact and Tide scored more than 50 points in both outings thus far.

The Auburn point spread may seem a bit high to some based on the play of LSU’s defense in its previous games and the fact Auburn’s offense, while productive, has not played with the consistency, especially against Washington, that some would have liked to have seen from the Tigers.

And therein lies the fun of Saturday’s games.

Tommy Hicks, a Phenix City native, has covered sports in Alabama for more than 40 years. Contact him at