SEC and Big 12 contenders clash on Thursday Night!
(Watch out for #16! Tyler Lockett is very dangerous!)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. The Tigers take week 3 off in 2014, then travel to Manhattan, Kansas, to take on the Kansas State Wildcats on Thursday night, September 18th. This one is a prime time ESPN biggie, kicking off at 6:30 PM Central Time. Both teams are considered title contenders in their respective conferences, and the loser will likely drop out of the top ten.
The Wildcats are coached by the legendary Bill Snyder, who’s won 178 games at Kansas State, since he took over in 1989. By comparison, Auburn’s Shug Jordan finished with 176 wins. What Snyder has done with that program has been incredible, considering that Kansas State was known as “Futility U,” prior to his arrival. Auburn last played in Manhattan back in 1978, defeating the Wildcats 45-32 behind a healthy dose of electric running backs Joe Cribbs and William Andrews.
This season, Kansas State opens with Stephen F. Austin, then travels to Ames, to take on Paul Rhodes and the Iowa State Cyclones. Like Auburn, the Wildcats have the week off before the Thursday night headliner. Auburn will have played at home against Arkansas and San Jose State. Last season, the Wildcats were stung in the first game by FCS opponent North Dakota State, losing 24-21. It was a tumultuous first half of the season, before Snyder righted the ship and the Wildcats won 6 of their last 7 games. Lest one think an 8-5 season is poor, consider that none of the Kansas State losses were by more than 10 points. This was a better team than its record indicated, especially down the stretch.
What should be worrisome to the Auburn faithful in this game is that the Tigers have endured five seasons of shaky defenses, all of which have given up 24 or more points per game on the average. Even with green quarterbacks and a bit of a controversy, Kansas State racked up 33.2 points per game last season, and they return a lot of veterans on offense. Junior quarterback Jake Waters is now an experienced quarterback, and he’s one of those Aaron Murray-types that just keeps slinging accurate balls, and he scrambled for 312 yards and 6 touchdowns on the ground as well, last season.
Where Kansas State is vulnerable is on defense, where 6 starters depart, including several to the NFL. The Wildcats lost both starting corners, a top safety and an All-Big 12 linebacker to graduation. Last season, when Kansas State could disrupt the opposing offensive line, they created chaos. Against contenders like Baylor and Oklahoma, they did not, and tended to get ripped apart on defense. There are some definite holes to fill on defense, but the good news for Wildcat fans is that the rebuilt squad did a pretty good job in the K-State spring game.
The Wildcats had a pretty solid kicking game last season, and return accurate sophomore place-kicker Jack Cantele. A new punter must be found, and punt coverage must be shored up. The Wildcats had a pretty electric return group on both units, and Tyler Lockett is a guy Auburn must avoid kicking the ball to with any room to run.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Kansas State offensive line: Auburn’s final starting lineup on Labor Day weekend is a bit up in the air, at this point. I’d expect senior Gabe Wright to start somewhere, either at tackle or end. Expect tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffery Whitaker, Montravius Adams, and Ben Bradley to all play prominent roles. LaDarius Owens will likely anchor the run-stopping end spot, with Carl Lawson taking on the rush-end spot. Expect a heavy dose of Elijah Daniel off the bench, as well as any other young linemen from a deep unit that are healthy and have proved themselves in fall camp. Kansas State will be doing some juggling this fall, as they must replace three starters. The two returners are talented, as junior center B. J. Finney will be competing with Auburn’s Reese Dismukes for the Remmington award at center. Sophomore Cody Whitehair was an All Big-12 selection as a freshman last season at guard. He’ll likely move out to a tackle spot this fall. The likely guard starters are redshirt freshman Will Ash and sophomore Boston Stiverson. On the opposite tackle spot from Whitehair will be junior Aaron Bennett. Coach Bill Snyder has made a living at K-State by putting together line after line, and playing solid ball up front. I’m wary, here. Still, with Auburn’s depth and talent, early in the season, I’ll go with Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Kansas State backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Both are veteran, athletic SEC players, looking to make the next move up. The Wildcats lose prolific runner John Hubert, and the next running back on the depth chart last season only picked up 113 yards all season. Junior DeMarcus Robinson is the presumed replacement, a fireplug 5′ 7” 207-pounder reminiscent of Wildcat great Darren Sproles. However, Robinson must stay healthy. Last season, he only had 5 carries. Sentiment from Wildcat fan blogs is that it will be hard to keep incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack out of the starting job. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Kansas State receivers: Auburn is again fairly deep at corner, with veteran Jonathan Mincy locking down one spot, and either junior Joshua Holsey or junior Jonathan Jones at the other spot. Senior converted wide receiver Trovon Reed also looked pretty good in spring drills here. Auburn should be able to run with any receiving corps, and play physical run defense on the edges. They’ll get a chance to prove it, against K-State. The speedy Tyler Lockett is trouble for any corner to handle, sort of like West Virginia great Jock Sanders was 5 years ago. Lockett missed two games last season, and still had 81 catches and 11 scores. Junior Curry Sexton is also fast and dangerous. Look for JUCO Transfer Andre Davis to make an impact, as he was a guy just a bit behind Auburn’s D’haquille Williams in this past year’s signing class. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Kansas State secondary receivers and quarterback: Senior Jermaine Whitehead anchors one spot here, and Auburn will feature either junior Joshua Holsey, or JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief at the other position. Moncrief was a beast in spring drills, this year, and Holsey is a veteran. Kansas State only threw to starting tight end Zach Trujillo 5 times last season, they tend to keep guys in to block for a strong run game. Auburn safeties must be able to quickly recognize run, and especially quarterback scrambles in this game. Still, K-State tends to go 3 wide most of the time, and a safety will likely end up matched up with guys like Lockett and Sexton if the Wildcats can manage it. It’s going to be a balancing act. Still, I like Auburn’s experience and talent, here. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn must start a new punter, here, going with redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchenson, who had a really solid A-Day game. Likewise, Kansas State lists redshirt freshman Mitch Lochbihler as the starting punter. On coverage, Auburn was stifling last season, allowing only 5 returns all season, for 35 yards. Kansas State had some problems, giving up 12.8 yards per return. Auburn searches for a new return man this season, while Tyler Lockett gives K-State a real threat as their new punt returner. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Sophomores Ian Patterson and Jack Cantele kicked off for K-State last season, and managed 26 touchbacks on 83 attempts, far less than Auburn’s 70 percent conversion rate. However, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson will take over for Cody Parkey, for Auburn. He showed a massive leg this past April, in spring drills. K-State was average covering kicks, giving up 20.5 yards per return. Auburn was downright suspect when it wasn’t a touchback, giving up 25.8. Tyler Lockett averaged 26.5 yards per kick return for the Wildcats last season, while Auburn senior Corey Grant ripped off 5 returns for a 32.0 yard average for Auburn as the top guy coming back. Advantage: Kansas State.
Place kicking: Auburn redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. He hit a monster 51 yard field goal this year in the Auburn A-Day game, but also missed an extra point. Kansas State’s Jack Cantele is a machine for the Wildcats. Last season, he hit 11 of 13, with his only misses coming outside of 40 yards. Advantage: Kansas State.
Auburn offensive line vs. Kansas State defensive line: Auburn returns 4 starters on a road-grading, violent offensive line. Greg Robinson moves on to the NFL, but Auburn has talent to replace him. From left to right, it’s sophomore Shon Coleman, sophomore Alex Kozan, senior all-SEC Reese Dismukes, senior Chad Slade, and sophomore Avery Young, with junior Patrick Miller still in the hunt to perhaps unseat one of the tackles for a starting job. Kansas State was solid on the defensive line last season against most opponents, and Nick Marshall had better be aware of where junior defensive end Ryan Mueller is at all times. Mueller had an astounding 18 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks last season. Sophomore Travis Britz is probably the best of the interior linemen for Kansas State. The other tackle will be junior Valentino Coleman, and the strong side end will likely be sophomore Marquel Bryant. As long as Auburn can contain Mueller, they’ll be superior up front in this matchup. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Kansas State linebackers: Although Auburn lost Heisman finalist Tre Mason early to the NFL draft, Auburn should be fine here with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Grant was this year’s A-Day star, looking even more explosive and unstoppable. Add in a corps of talented newcomers, and it’s no secret Auburn will be able to tote the rock again this season. H-back is a bit thinner. Senior blocking specialist Brandon Fulse moves from end/receiver to take over the starting nod, but depth behind him is questionable. Kansas State lost their leading tackling linebacker Blake Slaughter to the NFL draft. Junior Jonathan Truman will be asked to carry the load this season, as he had 89 tackles a year ago. He’ll be joined by sophomores Mike Moore and Morgan Burns, who combined for exactly 9 tackles a year ago. If these guys can’t read their keys against Auburn’s rushing attack, it will be a long day for the Wildcat defense. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Kansas State corners: Auburn juniors Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis developed into one of the more dangerous receiving duos in the SEC, last season. Add in monster transfer D’haquille Williams, and this unit became downright scary this spring, with lots of depth behind the big three. The Wildcats may be in a bit of trouble, here, as both corners from a year ago are gone. Pencilled in are juniors Nate Jackson and Randall Evans. Evans did well last season off the bench, with 12 pass breakups and 2 interceptions. Jackson is a JUCO transfer who redshirted last season. Frankly, I’d want more experience against Auburn’s loaded outside receiving corps. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Kansas State safeties: Auburn senior tight end C. J. Uzomah is a nightmare for safeties to cover. When Auburn needed to go to him late in games last season, C. J. was there every time to haul in the score. Auburn also has senior Quan Bray in the equation, who’s been the career quick screen guy. When guys start to clamp down on him, he can get open down the field. Sophomore Dante Barnett played safety last season for the Wildcats, snagged 4 interceptions, and racked up 75 tackles, along with 3 pass breakups. He’ll be joined by senior Dylan Schellenberg, who had just 19 tackles a year ago. Auburn returns senior quarterback Nick Marshall, and he’s easily the most dangerous guy returning at the position in the SEC this fall. With a spring spent working on a shaky passing game, the sky’s the limit this fall. Marshall was devastating running the zone-read option last fall. Advantage: Auburn.
The first road game of the season is always a cause for concern, especially when it’s halfway across the country with a primetime spotlight. I think if Auburn plays their game with minimal mistakes on offense in this one, the game shouldn’t be a problem. If the offense sputters, this could get out of hand the other way. Kansas State moves the ball on everyone. What has been their bugaboo the past 4 years since Snyder returned is turnovers. When the Wildcats are close to even in the turnover stat, they are hard to beat. In years where they’ve finished with a mediocre record, they’ve lost the ball more than their opponents have.
This game is a suitable challenge for a title contender, and Auburn will have to play well to win. For those who’d like to see Auburn play less FCS schools out of conference, and more BCS schools, this is your game. Frankly, I’m looking forward to it. We’ll get to see two driven head coaches, one a veteran who spun gold out of nothing, and one who’s an up and comer from the high school ranks. It’s really a great story, on both sides of this game.
Prediction: This is a game loaded with pyrotechnics. There will be those fans who shake their heads at the lack of defense, but this will go down as an early season classic, nationally. I’m betting on a veteran Auburn offense to pull this one out, 48-44.
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