BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Les Miles already has shepherded No. 1 LSU through several distractions that threatened to undermine the Tigers’ bid for a national championship.
The charismatic, grass-eating coach known as the "Mad Hatter" is going to have to do it at least once more when No. 19 Auburn (5-2, 3-1 SEC) visits LSU (7-0, 4-0) on Saturday.
LSU will take the field without three key players who were suspended this week for violating the team’s drug policy. Star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is among LSU’s best players, Spencer Ware is their leading rusher and Tharold Simon plays in the five-defensive back formation that LSU uses most of the game.
Miles has declined to discuss the suspensions, saying only that he is dealing with an internal matter. However, people familiar with the suspensions confirmed them to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Miles said his team has already proved that it can handle distractions, such as the early season suspensions of quarterback Jordan Jefferson and starting receiver Russell Shepard. Mile said he liked the way the Tigers looked at practice this week.
"I like the position that we’re in," Miles said. "We have a very capable football team."
This LSU squad is the first in school history to win its first seven games by double digits.
And the timing could have been worse. LSU doesn’t play at No. 2 Alabama, which could be the biggest game of the season, until Nov. 5. The week before that, LSU has a bye.
Without Cam Newton, Auburn no longer resembles the team that went undefeated en route to last season’s national title — and handed LSU its first of only two losses last season.
"I guess you could say there’s going to be a little revenge coming at them," LSU running back Michael Ford said.
Auburn also will be fielding a first-time starting quarterback in sophomore Clint Moseley.
Yet Auburn is no pushover and appears to be getting stronger as the season wears on.
Its running game has been strong behind Michael Dyer’s 752 yards rushing and eight TDs. Its defensive line has begun to recapture some of the swagger it lost with Nick Fairley’s departure to the NFL. In recent weeks, Auburn contained South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore in a 16-13 win over the Gamecocks and held Florida to 66 yards on the ground in a 17-6 victory.
The 6-foot-3, 223-pound Moseley completed several key passes and managed the offense well enough in the second half of the Florida game to give coach Gene Chizik the confidence to start him this week.
"Clint came in and gave us somewhat of a spark when we needed it," Chizik said. "I think he’s earned the right for the opportunity to start."
Moseley has no illusions about how difficult it can be for a quarterback to make his first start against a top-ranked LSU squad in famously loud Death Valley.
Yet the competitor in him loves that.
"I kind of almost wouldn’t want it any other way," Moseley said. "It’s going to be huge for us this week, preparing for them, especially me having hardly any experience and zero starts. When we get in there, I’ve heard stories about just how loud it is."
Although he won’t have to deal with Mathieu or Simon, LSU’s defense as a whole remains strong and deep, with experienced senior defensive backs Ron Brooks and Derrick Bryant able to step in.
Meanwhile, LSU’s running game has been effective even when Ware is not on the field. Michael Ford’s six TDs rushing are tied with Ware for the team high. Ford has averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and LSU has another strong running back in Alfred Blue, who has averaged 4.5 yards per carry and has four TDs.
LSU also has gone with a two quarterback system lately in which Lee, the team’s leading passer, comes out to make way for Jefferson, who runs the option and has averaged 5 yards per rush to go with two touchdowns on the ground and one TD passing.
Lee, who still starts but has seen his snaps diminish since Jefferson returned from his four-game suspension stemming from a bar fight, said he cannot argue with the results.
"We’re moving the ball, we’re putting points on the board and we’re winning games, so whatever we’ve got to do to keep doing that, that’s what we’re going to do," Lee said. "We each bring something a little different to the table."