In The Tigers' Lair

It wasn’t Saturday Night in Death Valley, which was probably a good thing for Auburn, considering that tigers hunt nocturnally and how blood-thirsty things became in the Baton Rouge afternoon.

As LSU fans have lamented the lack of a 2011 SEC night game in their storied lair, it may have amplified their purple and gold snarl — even though their Tigers donned mostly white stripes on Saturday afternoon.

Following the customary pregame tour of Mike VI, LSU’s 450-pound Bengali-Siberian mascot, in his caged circus cart around the perimeter of Les Miles’s favorite patch of grass, it was the Tiger Bowl.

No. 1 LSU, sans suspended top running back Spencer Ware, executed a well-scripted opening drive, capped by one of his replacements, freshman Kenny Hilliard, scoring on a nine-yard run. After Rob Brooks, making like Tyrann Mathieu who was also banned from the battle, forced Auburn to settle for three by batting away a seeming TD pass late in the first quarter, the contest bogged down amid a slew of three-and-outs and CBS commercial pods (proving again that the official with the red hat is the most important man on the field.)

Then, LSU pounced with ferocity. During the last five minutes of the half, reinstated QB Jordan Jefferson, moved on up in the pocket, to hit a streaking Rueben Randle in full stride past three Auburn DBs. Jarrett Lee, then emulated the man he succeeded, hitting Randle on a similar go route along the right sideline, albeit beating just two defenders in the process, to make it 21-3 with 40 seconds left in the half. Randle’s grabs came right at us — my son Alex is a sophomore at LSU — in the corner of the end zone! Thanks Amy.

But Auburn’s role as Tiger bait had just begun. After the visitors punted to start the third quarter, Russell Shephard dove inside the pylon off a Lee swing pass. A fumble recovery, following a massive hit on the ensuing kickoff by safety Eric Reid, set up a Hilliard ground-and-pound score. Then, Brooks delivered another Honey Badger impersonation, stepping in front of a short pass and taking it to the house. Five TDs in a 12.5-minute span on the clock! Revenge for LSU’s 24-17 loss to Auburn last season was best served quickly by this ambush of Fighting Tigers.

It was then the old building really got loud, as the 93,098 patrons, the second-largest crowd in the history of Tiger Stadium, pulsated like a scene from Gladiator or Starz’s Spartacus franchise, reveling in the on-field brutality. Sensing the kill, the roar went up for a vicious clothesline on a kickoff that would have made Vince McMahon proud. Several lifts and drops of Auburn RBs Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb, who had to leave the game momentarily, and six QB sacks, also stirred the bloodlust.

Finally sated with the carnage, the crowd and LSU let up late, conceding a TD to the Lee County breed of Tigers, which endured the worst clawing –45-10 — for a defending NCAA champ since Miami’s 38-3 defeat at the hands of Florida State in 1984, back in Jimmy Johnson’s first year replacing Howard Schnellenberger. Auburn’s defeat — its most lopsided loss in the 46-game series with LSU — was tied for the fourth-worst by a defending champ in 75 years.

With No. 2 Alabama throttling Tennessee after a sluggish start that saw the Tide tied at 6 at the half, Nick Saban and Miles will square off the 8-0 SEC West rivals in this year’s college football game of the century at Bryant-Denney Stadium on Nov. 5. Nothing more than the inside track to the conference crown and the BCS national title tilt is at stake.

Indeed, ESPN’s on-air crew of Rece Davis, Lou Holtz and Mark May introduced the countdown clock to the tussle in Tuscaloosa on Saturday evening.

The contest, originally scheduled for CBS’s late afternoon window slot — Black Rock’s contract calls for one primetime SEC Saturday affair, as this year’s selection featured Bama-Florida on Oct. 8 — has been shifted to an 8 p.m. kickoff , via a little rights trading with ESPN, Versus and the CBS Sports Network.

Army-Air Force, which had been scheduled to appear on Versus, is now CBS’s 3:30 game on Nov. 5, with the NBCU service picking up TCU-Colorado State on Nov. 19 from CBS Sports Network. More importantly, in exchange for scheduling considerations next season, ESPN opened up its primetime window, so CBS can show Bama-LSU under the lights. (On Oct. 24, LSU vice chancellor and director of athletics Joe Alleva, in an email note to ticket buyers, indicated that during the discussions pertaining to the move of the LSU-Alabama game to a night-time kickoff on Nov. 5, CBS committed its 2012 SEC primetime telecast to the Tide and Fighting Tigers at Tiger Stadium.)

Now, the question is whether the Tigers, presumably with an especially angry Honey Badger in tow, can — last season in the din of the Death Valley night, the home team won 24-21 — topple an elephant in Tuscaloosa, or whether the pachyderm will prevail over the Bayou Bengals in front of more than 101,000.