- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
The LSU-Auburn game that kicks off on Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS) will not be the most consequential in the history of the series. The teams are a combined 5-4 this season, and after beginning the season ranked sixth and 11th, respectively, in the AP poll, they are both currently unranked.
There are certainly storylines to follow — Will Auburn keep its winning-via-controversy streak alive after two straight oddities? Will LSU freshman QB TJ Finley keep playing the Tigers into a quarterback controversy? — but instead of looking forward, let’s use this occasion to look back.
Let’s talk about Cam Newton and Joe Burrow.
The one(ish)-hit wonders
College football has been blessed by an increasing number of thrilling quarterback breakout seasons. The 2010s were dotted with them, from blue-chip youngsters exceeding expectations immediately (Florida State’s Jameis Winston in 2013), to former blue-chippers finding their groove after transferring (Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray in 2018), to relative out-of-nowhere successes (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in 2016).
No two captured the imagination, however, like the duo that bookended the decade. In 2010, with Auburn having won only a combined 13 games in the previous two seasons, Blinn CC-by-way-of-Florida transfer Cam Newton posted run-pass stats we’d never seen and led the Tigers to a dramatic 14-0 campaign and national title. In 2019, with a key new offensive assistant and a killer receiving corps, Joe Burrow led LSU’s offense out of the stone age, throwing for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns in driving a 15-0 championship run.
Both had loads of personality and gave us something we’d never seen. And the fact that they are remembered more for one magical run than an entire career only enhances their legend.
When did you know you were watching something special?
“And now the moment that all Tiger fans have been waiting for, and that is the arrival of Cam Newton.”
That’s how Fox Sports Net announcer Bob Rathbun announced Newton’s entrance onto the Jordan-Hare Stadium field for Auburn’s first possession of 2010. Newton was a 6-foot-6, 250-pound, five-star recruit who was once regarded as Tim Tebow’s successor. His Florida departure had a backstory, and his recruitment would soon become the subject of NCAA investigation. But after the program’s recent offensive struggles, his signing was regarded as a very big deal. And somehow, we still had no idea what was to come.
In his burnt orange and navy debut against Arkansas State, Newton rushed for 171 yards and two touchdowns, and three of his nine pass completions went for scores as well. In his fourth game, against South Carolina, he combined 210 passing yards with 198 rushing yards. In his eighth game, against LSU, he rushed for 217; in his 13th game, a rematch with South Carolina for the SEC title, he threw for 335.
Though it would become more common as the decade unfolded, Newton became the first player to combine 2,800 passing yards with 1,400 rushing yards in a single season, a 200-100 average. And he did it in an SEC that was reaching its modern defensive peak: Alabama ranked first in defensive SP+ in both 2009 and 2011, and both LSU and Florida were in the top 10 four times between 2008 and 2012.
Burrow’s 2019 run began with far less fanfare. He had been decent in 2018, his first season since transferring from Ohio State, but he finished with half the passing yards and less than one-third of the TDs he would generate in ’19. The main offseason storyline was that the Tigers were moving to a more modern, spread-like offensive system. That was hard for many to believe — LSU was primarily known as one of the last purveyors of Big, Burly Manball and had scored only 10 points in its previous three games against Bama.
The Tigers scored 46 in Tuscaloosa in 2019.
After lighting up Texas for 471 yards and four touchdowns in a stirring nonconference win, Burrow posted 293 yards in a 42-28 victory over Florida (seventh in defensive SP+), then 321 in a tight win over Auburn (ninth). If you were a late holdout, you were swayed by what he did in Tuscaloosa: In a 46-41 victory over Alabama (third), Burrow went 31-for-39 with 393 yards and three scores, adding 64 rushing yards as well. A month later against Georgia (first), he threw for 349 and four TDs. How do you top that? By going 60-for-88 for 956 yards, 12 TDs and no interceptions in two College Football Playoff games.
With LSU up a touchdown late at Texas and facing a third-and-17, Burrow hit Justin Jefferson in stride for a 61-yard catch-and-run to ice the game. With the Tigers nursing a seven-point lead against Florida, he again delivered, hitting Ja’Marr Chase for a 54-yard score. Up only three on Auburn, with the offense sputtering for the first time all season, he converted a third-and-8 with his legs, then iced the game with a 7-yard run. And with Alabama charging back from a big deficit in Tuscaloosa, he marched the Tigers downfield for two fourth-quarter touchdowns.
Burrow was clutch when he needed to be. Newton had to be clutch nearly the entire damn season.
After two first-half touchdown passes at Mississippi State, Auburn nursed a 17-14 lead for most of the second half and played keepaway for most of the fourth quarter to hold on.
Auburn trailed Dabo Swinney’s Clemson 17-3 in the second half, then charged back to win in overtime.
The Tigers trailed South Carolina 27-21 in the fourth quarter, then scored two late TDs to win.
They blew a 17-point lead against Kentucky but killed the game’s final seven minutes, then kicked a winning field goal.
They trailed Bobby Petrino’s Arkansas 43-37 and then scored the game’s last 28 points.
Tied at 17-17 with LSU in the fourth quarter, they scored with five minutes left, forced a turnover on downs, and ate up the last 3:20 of the clock.
They turned a 21-7 deficit into a 35-31 fourth-quarter lead against Georgia, then iced the game with a seven-minute touchdown drive.
They famously spotted Alabama a 24-0 Iron Bowl lead, then scored four touchdowns in six drives to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
After Oregon charged back to tie the BCS Championship, they drove 73 yards in 2:27 (with help from Michael Dyer’s wrist to set up the title-winning field goal as time expired.
Title teams usually dominate; Auburn was uncomfortable in the fourth quarter for nearly two-thirds of its games and won them all anyway.
The supporting casts
Though not Alabama or USC, Auburn is one of the nation’s most reliable recruiting powers. It’s rather jarring, then, to realize just how little pro-worthy talent the Tigers had on their only national title team of the past 60 years. Among Auburn’s starters in the national title game, only Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker Josh Bynes would see any sort of extended starting time in the NFL, and only Newton, Fairley, offensive tackle Brandon Mosley and defensive tackle Zach Clayton would be drafted at all.
Even though some of LSU’s 2019 starters returned (initially, at least) to Baton Rouge for 2020, their title-game starting lineup has already produced 12 draftees and five first-rounders. Even their long-snapper, Blake Ferguson, was selected in the sixth round. Burrow has topped 2,000 passing yards in his first seven pro games, Clyde Edwards-Helaire is on pace for 1,100 rookie rushing yards for the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, Jefferson has 467 receiving yards in his past four games for the Vikings, linebacker Patrick Queen is on pace for 10 tackles for loss with the Ravens and six others have started at least one game.
And that’s before players like cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. or wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase or Terrace Marshall Jr. have even entered the draft. Auburn still had plenty of talent in 2010, but LSU was on a completely different level.
The offense of the day
Coach Ed Orgeron hired Joe Brady as passing game coordinator before LSU’s 2019 season, and his tweaks basically closed every remaining gap in the college football run-pass option (RPO) game. The RPO thrived initially by exploiting zone defenders who had both run and pass duties — however they reacted to the run threat, they reacted incorrectly.
Brady’s influences included both the Joe Moorhead RPO at Penn State and the Sean Payton-Drew Brees West Coast attack of the New Orleans Saints. He combined man-beating routes with an RPO structure, and LSU erupted. In a way, it helped to close the last remaining loophole in the spread offense revolution.
Gus Malzahn was doing similarly unique and exciting things with Auburn’s offense at the turn of the last decade.
By the time Malzahn came to the Plains as Gene Chizik’s offensive coordinator, he had already lived quite the football life. After 15 years as a high school coach, he had jumped from Springdale (Arkansas) High to Arkansas offensive coordinator in 2006 and had improved the Hogs’ attack from 46th to 16th in offensive SP+. He bailed out of a tense relationship with head coach Houston Nutt and guided Tulsa’s offense to No. 19 and No. 12 rankings, respectively, in 2007-08. Chizik brought him to Auburn in 2009, and even without Newton the Tigers improved from 94th to 16th in offensive SP+ in a single year.
In 2010, they were a distant first.
Auburn presented an infinite number of looks and motions to defenses, just as it would when Malzahn led the Tigers to the BCS Championship game as head coach in 2013. Thanks to the glory of YouTube, I went back and charted out just their first snap of every game. Every single first play featured a unique formation and playcall.
After motion, their first snap featured one back in the backfield eight times, two backs three times and three backs three times. They offered a pistol look five times (three times with only one back but twice with multiple backs also in the backfield), and their receivers lined up bunched close to the line on five occasions and spread out wide nine times. They offered plenty of four-receiver looks with two WRs to each side, and they went 3×1 (or 1×3) four times. Once, they lined up a tight end with his hand on the ground. Everything was different, and you had no idea if they were going to attack you with their horizontal passing game, a shot downfield or, more likely, by pounding the ball between the tackles against a spread-out defense.
While the run-pass ratio and fourth-down decision-making were a little different than they might be today — Auburn attempted only eight fourth-down conversions all season and punted six times on fourth-and-1 or -2 … with CAM NEWTON! — this was Malzahn’s distilled offensive vision translated through one of the best college QBs of all time. It was unique and exciting in so many of the same ways LSU’s was last season, maybe even more so.
The playoff era
A lot more than offense has changed in the past decade. Beginning in 2014, of course, we finally got ourselves a College Football Playoff after approximately four decades of pining for it. It’s interesting to think about what the CFP did for Burrow’s legacy and what it might have done for, or against, Newton’s.
A 2010 College Football Playoff
We would have had ourselves a fierce argument about the playoff in 2010. Unbeaten Auburn and Oregon would have gotten in easily, of course, but the primary options for the other two spots probably would have been 12-0 Mountain West champion TCU, 11-1 Big Ten co-champion Wisconsin, 11-1 Pac-10 runner-up Stanford and an 11-1 Ohio State team that had lost to Wisconsin.
TCU ended up third in the BCS rankings, but since the CFP committee hasn’t even thought about seriously considering a mid-major team in the top-four discussion so far, and since the Horned Frogs’ best nonconference win was over 7-5 Baylor, I bet they end up fourth at best. We’ll say that Wisconsin ends up third and TCU fourth, in part because Oregon had already pulled away from Stanford 52-31 in the regular season.
That means that before Auburn could have gotten a shot at Wisconsin or (probably) Oregon in the final, it would have had to solve TCU’s tricky 4-2-5 defense. That could have been yet another feather in the cap … or an opportunity for a tight loss. That TCU team was an awfully tough out, and seven of the scariest words in football are “Gary Patterson with a month to prepare.”
A 2019 BCS
As the story goes, we finally got our playoff because the 2011 BCS process produced an LSU-Bama rematch that nobody really wanted to watch. Safe to say, if we were still cranking along with the BCS in 2019, we probably wouldn’t have been after 2019. Either unbeaten LSU, unbeaten Clemson or unbeaten Ohio State would have been left out of the national title game, and judging by where polls and primary computers stood after Championship Week, I’m pretty sure that Clemson, an unbeaten defending national champion, would have ended up No. 3.
Even if Clemson got ahead of the Buckeyes, LSU almost certainly would’ve been in regardless. Among other things, that would have deprived us of Burrow’s utterly historic semifinal performance against Oklahoma. That blowout win ended up becoming his signature performance. The Tigers probably would have won the national title regardless, but Burrow’s numbers would have ended up slightly less gaudy.
Who ya got?
The great thing about a Cam versus Burreaux debate is that there’s no way to prove you wrong no matter who you say had the better season or which one you might prefer. They were playing in different offenses, in reasonably different offensive eras, with different levels of talent around them. Choose whomever you like, but I’m really, really glad we got to watch both.
I’ll take Cam, though, and for one simple reason: What would have happened if they were on the opposite teams? (Not literally, as Newton was hurt for most of last season and Burrow was 13 years old in 2010.)
A Newton-led LSU team still plows through the 2019 season unbeaten and posts numbers we’ve never seen before. But does Auburn do the same with Burrow? Does the fact that he was a better passer — now throwing to Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery, Emory Blake and, in the red zone, Philip Lutzenkirchen, instead of Chase, Jefferson & Co. — counter the fact that Newton was as much of a threat to rush for 200 yards as he was to throw for 300? Burrow could scramble for a first down when he needed to, but he wasn’t a 250-pound bulldozer and an automatic third-and-3 conversion.
You know what, actually? I hate that answer. Don’t make me choose. Let me hedge instead: If I need to win one game, give me Joe. If I need to score on one drive, give me Cam.
Week 9 playlist
Here are 10 Week 9 games — at least one from each time slot — you should pay attention to if you want to get the absolute most out of the weekend, from both information and entertainment perspectives.
All times Eastern.
East Carolina at Tulsa (9 p.m., ESPN2). Neither oddsmakers nor SP+ have caught up to how good Tulsa has been so far in 2020. Can the Golden Hurricane blow out ECU and maintain dark horse AAC title credentials?
Memphis at No. 7 Cincinnati (noon, ESPN). Cincinnati has looked really damn good so far, but Memphis’ offense gives the Tigers a chance in any game.
Michigan State at No. 13 Michigan (noon, Fox). Can Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines follow up on last week’s exciting performance against Minnesota? Does Sparty have anything to offer after last week’s dud against Rutgers?
No. 16 Kansas State at West Virginia (noon, ESPN2). K-State doesn’t score style points, but the Wildcats could take another step toward the Big 12 title game by pulling a slight upset in Morgantown.
No. 17 Indiana at Rutgers (3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network). Few teams had waited longer for a true breakthrough win than Indiana; now that the Hoosiers have it (over Penn State last week), do they build off of it or play hung over?
Texas at No. 6 Oklahoma State (4 p.m., Fox). Texas’ offense will present by far the biggest test to date for OSU’s surprising defense.
No. 3 Ohio State at No. 18 Penn State (7:30 p.m., ABC). The magnitude of this one was dampened by PSU’s loss, but the Nittany Lions still have better odds than anyone else of handing the Buckeyes a conference loss in 2020.
Arkansas at No. 8 Texas A&M (7:30 p.m., SEC Network). A&M has improved in recent weeks, but Arkansas is a proven pain in the butt.
Missouri at No. 10 Florida (7:30 p.m., SEC Network alternate). Kyle Trask and the explosive Gators offense should keep rolling, but if the Florida defense keeps struggling, Mizzou might have a shot at a third straight upset.
Western Kentucky at No. 11 BYU (10:15 p.m., ESPN). WKU has been quite disappointing compared to preseason expectations, but the Hilltoppers’ defense could still frustrate Zach Wilson and the Cougars for a bit (the offense, not so much).
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