Aug 31, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. – When we last saw the Auburn football team playing a game that counted, it was trudging off the field after a 49-0 beatdown at Alabama. It was the end of an Auburn season the likes of which had not been seen in 60 years.
And now it’s time to play again.
Auburn, with a new head coach in Gus Malzahn, a new staff and a new attitude, takes on Washington State tonight at Jordan-Hare Stadium. And we will get our first look at just how different things are.
Washington State is no world-beater, of course. Like Auburn, the Cougars were 3-9 last season. But they at least finished on a high note with a big upset of in-state rival Washington in their last game.
Breaking it down:
Is QB Nick Marshall ready to make enough plays to win?
Marshall, a junior college transfer with elite athleticism, won the job in preseason practice. Is he ready to make the reads, the decisions and the throws he needs to make? Will he protect the football? No one can say for sure until he gets on the field.
Can Auburn get enough pass rush?
Washington State will likely throw on almost every down. That’s what Mike Leach, the second-year head coach, likes to do. With senior defensive end Dee Ford sidelined with an injury, can the Tigers get the kind of pressure they need to disrupt Leach’s offense? First-time defensive end starters Craig Sanders and LaDarius Owens will need to help lead the effort.
Auburn’s running game vs. Washington State’s passing game
Just as it’s a safe to say that Washington State will throw far more than it will run, it’s just as safe to say that Malzahn would like to run the ball more than throw it. Tailbacks Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne and H-back Jay Prosch will be prominent in the plans to do just that. They’ll run behind a big and athletic offensive line that is potentially a major strength. Washington State has nine of 11 defensive starters back, but they’ll have their hands full with Auburn’s running game.
It’s going to be hot and it’s going to be humid
Washington State players have seen good backs, good quarterbacks, uptempo offenses and even a good defense or two in the Pac-12. But they haven’t experienced heat and humidity like they will experience tonight. With that mind, look for Auburn’s offense to turn up the tempo early and often.
Who will emerge at wide receiver for Auburn?
It could be be tight end/wide receiver C.J. Uzomah. It could be almost any of those in the wide receiver rotation. It could be sophomore Ricardo Louis, junior Jaylon Denson, junior Quan Bray, junior Trovon Reed, sophomore Sammie Coates or even true freshman Marcus Davis.
Can Auburn catch its share of Washington State passes?
Last season, the Tigers intercepted just two passes – one by linebacker Daren Bates in the season-opener against Clemson and one by safety Trent Fisher in the 11th game against FCS foe Alabama A&M. The cornerbacks were 0-for-the-season.
Starting corners Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy have been among the defensive standouts since spring. They vow it’s going to be different.
DC Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense
We’ll get our first look at Johnson’s defensive scheme, Auburn style. Justin Garrett, who emerged as a defensive leader in the spring, will carry a big load at the hybrid star position. His backup, Robenson Therezie, will likely play a significant role, too.
Does Auburn have enough depth on defense?
That’s another question that can only be answered on the field. Kiehl Frazier, who was a quarterback three weeks ago, could get playing time at safety. Owens, a junior, and Sanders, a senior, will get their first career starts at end. Only three cornerbacks and three linebackers have played a down of college football.
The bottom line
It’s always hard to know what to expect in the first game of a new head coach, but Auburn’s circumstances are a little different. Malzahn was the offensive coordinator for three years and returned after one year at Arkansas State. Neither he nor his offense was foreign to most Auburn players.
The Tigers have more talent than Washington State, which is why they’re favored by two touchdowns. But how deep were the scars of last season and have they really mentally moved on? They insist they have, and this team is clearly more together and more accountable to each other than was the case a year ago.
Tonight’s game is the beginning of the Malzahn era. A win won’t mean this team is going to be a contender and a loss won’t mean all is lost. It’ll be the first step.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: