BATON ROUGE, La. -- It was Oct. 22 of last season, the last time LSU and Auburn met, that we found out just how deep LSU really was.
The Bayou Bengals were without three key players that day in running back Spencer Ware and defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon, all suspended for one game for violation of the school's drug policy.
Instead of it being a devastating blow, LSU simply shrugged it off. Ron Brooks, starting for Mathieu, had an interception he returned for a touchdown. Derrick Bryant, a rarely-used senior, took the fifth defensive back role and had a sack. Little-used true freshman running back Kenny Hilliard took Ware's role as LSU's physical runner and rambled for 65 yards on 10 carries.
LSU easily beat Auburn, then the defending national champion, 45-10 in Baton Rouge, a result that illustrated the difference in the programs. Auburn, in the first year after Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and Nick Fairley led a national title march, then departed to the NFL, was struggling to play anywhere near the same level. LSU sat its eventual Heisman finalist, Mathieu, and replaced him with a player who eventually became a fourth-round NFL draft pick in Brooks and never missed a beat.
Eventually, LSU went on to win the SEC then play for the national championship, losing to the one team that could exceed its across-the-board talent, Alabama.
Fast forward a year and No. 2 LSU's quality depth has continued to take center stage as the SEC West's two Tigers prepare to meet again Saturday night at Auburn.
Mathieu, now suspended from LSU's team for an entire season, possibly for good, has been replaced by true freshman Jalen Mills, who already has as many interceptions in three games (two) as Mathieu had all of last season. Despite losing three starters from last year's secondary, this year's defense already has six interceptions, five by defensive backs, and the defense has looked as dominant as ever in a 3-0 start.
As for Hilliard, he has never looked back since the Auburn game. He comes into this year's AU game as LSU's leading rusher, with two 100-yard outings in three games while Ware, the unquestioned starter when he was suspended in last year's AU game, has struggled to regain a role in the offense.
And Auburn? Those Tigers barely escaped an 0-3 start by beating Louisiana-Monroe in overtime last week. The Tigers have endured the growing pains of sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier while a defense, which once dominated opponents with the physicality of Fairley, now gets gashed for 442 yards a game on defense and an SEC-worst 217 rushing yards a game.
Indeed, after Stanford's upset of USC last week, the focus of the national conversation has shifted to how LSU and top-ranked Alabama have perhaps separated themselves from the rest of college football and the SEC in terms of accumulated talent.
Two years ago on The Plains, Newton's heroics (remember Newton carrying Patrick Peterson into the end zone at the end of a dazzling 49-yard, Heisman moment touchdown?) lifted Auburn to a 24-17 win over the Bayou Bengals, a game that announced Auburn as a serious national title contender.
Auburn would love to recall that moment. It will have its chance Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.