A Challenge in Columbia (previewing Auburn vs. Missouri football)
Quarterback Drew Lock leads an offense that returns 10 starters
(AP Photo/L.G Patterson)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn road game preview! On September 23rd Auburn travels to Columbia, Missouri to take on the Tigers on their home field at Memorial Stadium. It’s an important game for both teams as both hope to progress through September with winning records. A loss in this game could spell disaster for either team.
The Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will then enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer before traveling to Missouri. The homestanding Missouri Tigers have an opener with Missouri State, then they host South Carolina in a prime time SEC East matchup. The next week, Missouri hosts Purdue, an important nonconference game. Mizzou doesn’t have an early game with the clout of Clemson, but back-to-back games against a Will Muschamp-led USC defense and a Big Ten team hoping to improve will test Missouri’s team early.
When Missouri’s offense was on last season, the Tigers could move it on anybody, and this team returns 10 starters on offense. Junior quarterback Drew Lock was thrown into the fire a couple of seasons ago and has had his struggles. Lost in last season’s 4–8 dumpster fire is the fact that Lock threw 23 touchdown passes vs. just 10 interceptions. This season, with an intact offensive line and most of his targets back, hopes are high in Columbia. Offensive coordinator Josh Heuple’s spread attack will be tough to defend for the visiting Auburn Tigers.
While Missouri’s offense was decent last season, the defense had serious struggles. Missouri gave up almost 479 yards per game and 31.5 points per game. With 3 potential starters on the defensive line missing this year’s spring game rehabbing injuries, it’s a worrisome situation heading into the 2017 season. That said, the starting bunch in this year’s spring game played pretty well after allowing a slash-and-burn early touchdown drive in the game. The offense did not score on them again after a pretty awful first series.
Missouri had some good special teams moments last season, particularly with the punting unit. Kickoffs usually resulted in touchbacks, but when the team allowed a return, it was usually for a chunk of yardage. Placekicking was not as good as Missouri missed half of its field goal attempts and 4 extra point tries.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Missouri offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters as well. The black-and-gold Tigers did some shuffling on the offensive line this spring, but the starting bunch seems pretty set. From left to right, this unit will probably feature senior Tyler Howell, junior Kevin Pendleton, senior Alec Abelin, senior Adam Ploudre, and junior Paul Adams. This bunch will be formidable. The Mizzou offense last season averaged right at 500 yards per game and allowed just 14 sacks. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Missouri backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tré Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players on the field at a given time. Missouri is known as a spread-passing team, but don’t pass on sophomore running back Damarea Crockett. Last season, Crockett piled up 1,062 yards while averaging 6.9 yards per carry. Senior Ish Witter proved to be capable relief as well with 750 rushing yards. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Missouri receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickel back, if needed. For Missouri, senior J’Mon Moore is the SEC’s only returning 1,000-yard receiver, and he’ll be joined by sophomore Dimetrios Mason, who caught 47 balls last season. Junior Emanuel Hall provides quality depth. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Missouri secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here as long as no one gets hurt. Auburn had trouble defending secondary receivers at times last season, and Missouri likes to throw to them. Sophomore slot receivers Jonathan Johnson and Richaud Floyd were popular targets in this year’s Missouri spring game. If there is a knock on Missouri starting quarterback Drew Lock, it might be his 54.6 percent completion percentage from last season. Lock is probably the most experienced signal-caller returning in the SEC East this year, and he’ll likely be much improved. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon looked good on A-Day a year ago in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season on 6 punts for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. Missouri punted well last season with returning junior Corey Fatony averaging 43.8 yards per punt. Missouri gave up only 5.5 yards per return. Sophomore return man Jonathan Johnson averaged 14 yards per return for Missouri. Advantage: Missouri.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Sophomore kickoff man Tucker McCann booted 42 touchbacks on 64 kickoffs last season for Missouri. Unfortunately, the team gave up 25.7 yards per return on the few kicks that were returned. Missouri does not have a return specialist that averaged over 18 yards per return coming back. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals, and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt. Missouri’s Tucker McCann struggled last season, hitting only 5 of 11 field goal attempts and had 4 extra-point misses. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Missouri defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. It seems the tackle spots are set with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center, although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard, Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat out Golson, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. Missouri took a beating here last season, and they were still banged up for the spring game. All injured players should be well by fall camp. Missouri also has recruited well on the line the past couple of seasons and should have some depth to play with. My guess as to starters would be juniors Rashad Brandon and Terry Beckner at tackles and senior Marcell Frazier and junior Nate Howard on the ends. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Missouri linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway and the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson in reserve. Missouri has veterans returning in the linebacking corps, but it has to be concerning that the defense gave up over 5.2 yards per rush last season. Penciled in as starters are juniors Terez Hall and Kaleb Prewitt on the outside and senior Eric Beisal in the middle. Prewitt is a transfer from Kansas State and is quite versatile, able to run with speedy slot receivers. This allows Missouri to play basically nickel defense without substituting. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Missouri corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Cornerback was an issue for Missouri, last season. Sophomore DeMarkus Acy showed flashes last season and is a good-sized specimen who should have a break-out year this season. On the other side, it was still a battle this spring between senior Logan Cheadle and sophomore Christian Holmes. Talk is that incoming freshmen will have a chance to contribute. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Missouri safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring as Stidham was deadly accurate and showed great mobility. Missouri has both speed and tackling ability at safety, although situational substitution will be likely and will depend on which asset is needed on any given down. Starters this spring were senior Anthony Sherrils and junior Cam Hilton. Hilton had to have shoulder surgery late this spring. Look for sophomore Ronnell Perkins to earn playing time this fall. Advantage: Auburn.
The pressure is on Auburn in this game. Drop this one, and the Auburn Tigers will face both Mississippi teams with the season on the line in subsequent weeks. A loss to Missouri and either Mississippi team would be fatal to Auburn’s SEC West title aspirations.
Missouri will move the ball, and they’ll do it at a rapid pace. Whether the defense can stop anyone is still an open question. Last season, this defense gave up 42 to LSU, 40 to Florida, 51 to Middle Tennessee, 35 to Kentucky, 31 to South Carolina and 63 to Tennessee. Ouch.
Prediction: It’s a scoring match in Columbia, and Auburn gets a few stops. Auburn escapes with a win, 45-34.