Week One: Auburn vs. Washington State Preview and Prediction

Who: Washington State Cougars vs. Auburn Tigers

When: 6:00 p.m. CT (ESPNU)

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama

All-Time Series Record: Auburn leads 1-0-0

Most Recent Meeting: Auburn 40, Washington State 14 (2006)

2013: No Chizik., No Loeffer, No Huddle.

Auburn cleaned house after an embarrassing 3-9 season in 2012 and brought in the greatest offensive coordinator in Auburn history, Gus Malzahn, to run the show as the head coach just two years after he left Auburn for the head coaching job at Arkansas State.

Some disapproved of the hire. Some were disappointed. Auburn was in need of a culture change. It needed a new direction. What would bringing back a coach from the Chizik era change?

Everything.

Gus Malzahn fired all remaining coaches and brought in a new staff that can already rival some of the nations’ best. From defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to defensive line coach Rodney Garner to co-offensive coordinator in Dameyune Craig (who is already one of Auburn’s favorite sons), Malzahn absolutely nailed his coaching selections.

There were some mental repairs to be given by the coaches in the spring to players whose will had broken halfway through the previous season, but once past that roadblock, the process for Gus became clear: Take the current talent in place, and it IS there, and develop that talent into winning talent. With all the familiarity between Malzahn and his players, this transition will be basically seamless. There’s offensive weapons. There’s potential on defense. What happens in 2013 is anyone’s guess.

Saturday night, against a Mike Leach-led Wazzou, Auburn and Malzahn’s road to redemption will begin.

Key for Auburn: The freshmen on defense must hold their own. Ellis Johnson has already stated that a number of freshmen will see the field against the Cougars on defense. This wasn’t originally the plan, but numerous issues have caused a thin Auburn secondary to become even thinner, so much so that Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Ford made the switch to defense. Wazzou’s offense is 99.9% passing, so there’s a chance that no matter who all plays Saturday night, the Tigers will leave week one with a top 5 rush defense. That’s not the problem. WSU is content to throw the ball 50-60 times against a thin and, in some areas, inexperienced secondary. WSU will get their passing yards, no doubt, but how well some of the true freshmen perform will be a strong factor in how many points the Cougars can muster.

Key for Washington State: Control the tempo of the game. Leach likes to throw the ball. Obviously. But he must consider that he’ll be going up against an Auburn offense that will be the polar opposite of what the 2012 Auburn offense was. It’ll be fast-paced. Wazzou isn’t particularly fierce defensively, so Auburn will get their yards and points. If Washington State has numerous drives where the offense goes out on the field, Connor Halliday throws three incomplete passes and they punt, that gives WSU’s defense no breaks at all. WSU must have the tempo on their side to pull the upset. If they let Gus get into a rhythm (at Jordan-Hare at night) and the offense stalls in quick fashion, this game will be over, at latest, midway through the third quarter.  WSU’s offense, no matter what their regular tempo expectations are, must be the one that controls T.O.P.

Auburn player to watch: Nick Marshall. Of course the first game for the new, highly-praised JUCO transfer would be highly anticipated. He has all kinds of talent. There’s footage of him throwing a football over 80 yards… in a game… while on the run from defenders… and completing it. Some think he could be the next coming of Johnny Manziel (without the partying) or Cam Newton (without the SIX-SIX-TWO-FIFTY BRO). He has proved nothing yet except he’s the most capable QB to lead Auburn right now. He has to earn a name for himself before people anoint him as the next great mobile QB, but if he owns his first start against Washington State and puts up big stats, it’ll be hard to bring AU fans down from cloud nine.

Washington State player to watch: Deone Bucannon. Yes, I could go with an offensive player like QB Connor Halliday or some WRs like Isiah Myers and Brett Bartolone, but we all know the basics of what Wazzou’s offense will try to do. WSU’s defense, however, will have to have a big night to spoil the season for Tiger fans. WSU can turn to its defensive leader in Bucannon who, as a safety, led the team in tackles last year (106) while picking off 4 passes (2 more than Auburn’s whole defense had in the entire 2012 season). With a fast-paced Malzahn offense looking to go as fast as legally possible in creative ways, Bucannon will be a guy to watch on the Cougars’ defense. If he has a poor game, there’s a very good chance the rest of the defense will too. If he plays well early and builds his confidence, this WSU defense could surprise.

Auburn vs. Washington State edges:

Quarterback: Auburn

Running back: Auburn

Wide receiver: Auburn

Tight End/H-Back: Auburn

Offensive Line: Auburn

Defensive Line: Auburn

Linebackers: Auburn

Cornerbacks: Auburn

Safeties: Washington State

Kicker: Auburn

Punter: Auburn

Coaching: Even (Gus Malzahn is an offensive genius, but this is technically his second year as a head coach. Mike Leach has an established career filled with wins, so for right now, I’d call this even.)

Interesting facts: This is the second-ever meeting between Auburn and Washington State. They met at Jordan-Hare to open the season in 2006, when the #4 Tigers outgained the Cougars 484-274 and won 40-14…. Auburn is 7-3 against Pac-12 teams, 6-1 against Pac-12 teams not named Southern Cal…. Washington State is 1-5 against the SEC (1-4 against Tennessee and 0-1 against Auburn)…. Auburn will be starting a new quarterback for the 6th straight season (K. Burns in ’08, C. Todd in ’09, C. Newton in ’10, B. Trotter in ’11, K. Frazier in ’12, N. Marshall in ’13.) This will be Gus Malzahn’s 8th different starting quarterback in 8 years…. Washington State ran for just 29 yards per GAME last season, including being held to negative rushing yards on four different occasions. However, the Cougars threw for 330 yards per game, 9th in the country, with four games over 400 yards passing…. Since 2006, Washington State has opened the season against major opponents (Auburn, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Stanford and BYU) six times. The Cougars are 0-6 in those games, being outscored by a total of 255-84 (average score of 43-14).

Prediction: This game doesn’t have the feel of a game between two teams comin off 3-9 seasons. Many Auburn fans expect Malzahn to turn the program around quickly and at least get to a bowl, while Mike Leach teams always seem dangerous. The Cougars will make plays on offense, especially in the first half, but their inability to be two-dimensional will cost them when Auburn’s secondary settles in in the second half and comes up with more stops. Nick Marshall is the star of the game, Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne help Auburn rack up plenty of rushing yards and the Tigers’ scoring blitz becomes too much for Washington State. The Gus Malzahn era starts off with a very satisfying win.

 Auburn Tigers 48, Washington State Cougars 24

Other SEC predictions:

#6 South Carolina 31, North Carolina 20 (UNC puts up a fight… which won’t make Mr. Clowney too happy.)

Ole Miss 33, Vanderbilt 30 (OT) (Rebs get a nice road win to start a brutal early stretch.)

#1 Alabama 38, Virginia Tech 6 (Virginia Tech hired Scot Loeffler as OC. Maybe they’ll find the end zone in week two.)

#5 Georgia 32, #8 Clemson 26 (Week one’s biggest games goes in favor of the Dawgs, who score the game’s final 11 points.)

#12 LSU 27, #20 TCU 21 (LSU’s young defense steps up to make key stops and preserve a hard-fought win.)

 #10 Florida 31, Toledo 23 (Toledo hangs around the whole game but don’t have enough to topple the Gators.)

#7 Texas A&M 59, Rice 17 (Johnny Manziel WILL play… and make this Rice defense look silly.)

#13 Oklahoma State 34, Mississippi State 24 (The Pokes have too much offense for Dan Mullen in Houston.)

Arkansas 34, UL-Lafeyette 32 (3OT) (ULL is a very dangerous team. Arkansas is very vulnerable. Hogs win in extras.)

Tennessee 52, Austin Peay 7 (This doesn’t need much explaining, does it?)

Missouri 63, Murray State 17 (Mizzou comes out firing on offense against an obviously inferior program.)

Kentucky 27, Western Kentucky 24 (UK beats Bobby Petrino’s WKU. Not a bad start to the Stoops era at all, I’d say.)

Predictions for other notable games:

#22 Northwestern 45, California 35 (NW quietly has one of the best offenses in the Big Ten and should win in Berkley.)

#9 Louisville 38, Ohio 24 (The Bobcats might be one of Louisville’s trickiest opponents. Not tricky enough, though.)

#19 Boise State 38, Washington 28 (Broncos will spoil the grand opening of the new Husky Stadium by bringing their own fireworks.)

#11 Florida State 31, Pittsburgh 10 (Some say this game is an upset alert. Yeah, I doubt it. FSU doesn’t screw up until later.)

Syracuse 31, Penn State 30 (Orange score a long touchdown with a minute left to shock the Nittany Lions.)

UPSET ALERT!  North Dakota State 27, Kansas State 20 (The FCS champs knock off the reigning Big 12 champs in the Little Apple. Biggest upset of week one!)

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