Auburn Faces More Dogs in Atlanta (Previewing Auburn’s Season Opening Matchup Against the Washington Huskies)
Veteran quarterback Jake Browning takes one in for a score
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the first Auburn game preview of the year! On September 1st, Auburn returns to Atlanta to take on Washington in the season opener. These are a pair of dangerous teams that were close last year, but did not win their respective leagues. Both teams had disappointing bowl games. Both teams lose some important players but have reloaded for the future for the most part.
Washington head coach Chris Peterson took over a moribund Huskies program in 2013 and has built magnificently. Washington recruits as well as any team in the PAC-12 and now has a roster that sends players to the NFL each year. The Huskies are fundamentally sound on both sides of the ball and are good citizens both on and off the field. The Huskies return 16 starters as well as some depth. Their strength of schedule was a bit of a question last season, but they have improved that aspect of their program significantly this year.
Washington lost some defensive beef in the front seven, but the defense is still expected to be a strength. It was a blow losing mammoth tackle Vita Vea as well as inside linebacker Keishawn Bierria to the NFL. Washington does return all of a very talented and deep secondary and still has plenty of good players on the defensive side of the ball. Auburn has serious offensive questions to be answered against this defense, starting with replacing 3 starters on the offensive line, the top 2 running backs, and having a couple of devastating spring practice injuries in the receiving corps.
On the offensive side, Washington replaces 2 offensive line starters and will have to find a new go-to threat in the passing game after leading receiver Dante Pettis departed for the NFL. On the plus side, Washington has had a solid, balanced attack the past couple of seasons, and returns veteran quarterback Jake Browning and star runner Myles Gaskin. Much like Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson was last season, Gaskin gets a lot of yards after contact and is tough to bring down. Another interesting wrinkle on the Washington offensive situation is that the Huskies have former Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason on the roster, and Eason likely will have some insights, having played against Auburn.
On special teams, both teams will likely go with young kickers and punters. Both teams will likely have punters imported from Australia. Auburn appears to be set with the younger brother of departed kicker Daniel Carlson. Anders Carlson was near perfect on a bad weather day at the Auburn A-Day spring game and appears to have a really powerful leg.
Both teams are regrouping a bit in the return games. Auburn is trying to shore up both some serious coverage issues from last season and also lack of production on punt returns. Fortunately for Auburn, Washington loses ever-dangerous punt returner Dante Pettis, who took FOUR returns back for touchdowns last season! Washington was much more solid than Auburn was in coverage.
One of the more interesting pieces I came across when researching this team from the opposite end of the USA was a debate about whether spring games are practical. Evidently, attendance at those affairs out west is sparse. Auburn had bad, cold, wet weather this year and drew 28,000 fans. I remarked that the crowd was very thin. Auburn’s crowd was bigger than any PAC-12 crowd. That’s a bit stunning to me, but I do have one thing to say in defense of the fans out west. My wife and I took a late May trip out to California’s central coast last year. It was COLD! And Seattle is several hundred miles to the north of that and is noted for spring rains. I can understand folks not wanting to sit in the stands in that weather for a glorified practice.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Washington offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are senior Dontavius Russell and junior Derrick Brown. Junior strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side is a rotation between sophomores TD Moultry and Big Kat Bryant. Auburn can play monster sophomore Nick Coe at any position on the line with great results. Auburn has serious depth all across the line as well. The biggest question on the Washington line is the health of Tray Adams at left tackle. Adams was lost to injury last season and missed spring drills. If he’s healthy, he is a likely NFL-level tackle. If not, redshirt freshman Luke Wattenberg will likely fill in on the left. That’s a potential mismatch. On the right, junior Kaleb McGary will have a good battle with Auburn’s strong side. Junior Jesse Sosobee and sophomore Nick Harris hold down the guard spots. Junior Matt James takes over at center. One paper, Auburn wins this matchup easily. However, over the years we’ve seen coach Chris Peterson able to take overmatched offensive lines and generate good offensive numbers anyway. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Washington backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Senior Deshaun Davis leads the bunch, seniors Darrell Williams and Montravious Atkinson are able to play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Auburn has lots of depth behind the starters as well. Auburn’s linebackers play with leverage and are sure tacklers. Washington counters with veteran junior Myles Gaskin and will look for depth from a variety of sources. Gaskin is elusive and powerful. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Washington receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in juniors Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean. Junior Jeremiah Dinson could move over from safety, if needed. Sophomore converted wide receiver Noah Igbinoghene turned heads this spring and could be a co-starter on either side. John Broussard Jr. provides quality depth. Washington has talent in the receiving corps, but it is young. We look for sophomores Andre Baccellia and Aaron Fuller to start. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Washington secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features Juniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Thomas was an experienced backup last season, and Dinson played nickel back. Dinson can play every position in the secondary well but has missed considerable time with injuries over the past 3 seasons. Sophomore Jordyn Peters is listed as Auburn’s top nickel back as of now. Auburn is very young behind the starters. Junior Husky quarterback Jake Browning is as solid as they come and takes care of the football. Browning is a high-percentage passer who only threw 5 interceptions in 336 attempts last season. Ty Jones is expected to be the starting slot receiver, and junior Drew Sample should start at tight end. The Chris Peterson offense is a tough one to figure out for any secondary. Auburn has the speed to match up but getting the right coverages dialed in may be an issue for new starters at all 3 defensive back positions. If there is a weakness in the Auburn secondary, rest assured that Washington will find and exploit it. Advantage: Washington.
Punting: For now, sophomore Aiden Marshall is the starter, backed up by Ian Shannon. Both were inconsistent last year and didn’t do much to impress in Auburn’s A-Day game in bad weather. Australian import Aaron Siposs is expected to come in and win the starting punting job this fall. Likewise, Washington appears to be ready to go with an Australian of its own, Joel Whitford. Whitford averaged 42.3 yards per punt last season. Auburn was poor on coverage (11.4 yards per return), and Washington was good, allowing just 5.3. Advantage: Washington.
Kickoffs: Auburn redshirt freshman Anders Carlson has no experience, but given his displayed leg strength on A-Day, I think kicking a lot of touchbacks should be a given next season. Also, there is a new fair catch rule in effect this season, that puts the ball at the 20. I think we will see a lot of fair catches on anything fielded inside the 5 this season. I’m not sure who will kick off for the Huskies next fall. Van Soderberg kicked off 12 times last season with 1 touchback and none kicked out of bounds. Auburn will return kickoffs with sophomore Noah Igbinoghene, who averaged 23.8 yards per return last season despite only fair-to-poor blocking. Salvon Ahmed is the top Huskies kick return man coming back, and he averaged 25.2 yards per return. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: It’s a battle of no college game time experience vs. limited college experience in this matchup. Anders Carlson of Auburn has no experience, but he did hit 4 of 4 in bad weather in Auburn’s spring game. I watched him in warmups, too. His only miss in practice was from 53 yards, hitting the upright. For Washington, Van Soderberg was 1 of 3 last season, all from short range. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Washington defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked decent on A-Day. Auburn is set at the guard spots with veteran juniors Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell. Left tackle seems solid with junior Prince Tega Wanagho, who has reputedly taken the next step forward this spring after struggling last season in limited starts. Right tackle was a battle this spring between freshmen Austin Troxell and Calvin Ashley. Both had good moments, but Auburn has turned around and signed graduate transfer Jack Driscoll from UMass. Driscoll played last season against SEC foes Tennessee and Mississippi State and allowed just 1 quarterback pressure. Center is another big question mark for Auburn. Junior Kaleb Kim and redshirt freshman NickBrahms were battling for the starting job, but both went out with injuries and may or may not be back for the season opener. Converted H-back/tight end/walk-on Tucker Brown started on A-Day and actually did a good job. This line has a long way to go before September rolls around. Washington runs a stingy 3–4 defense, and the three big posts across the front project to be sophomore Jared Pulu, junior Greg Gaines, and junior Jaylen Johnson. Gaines is a prototypical huge, immovable nose tackle, and the other two have SEC size. If there is a downside, none of these guys were considered great pass-rushers last season. If Auburn can post these guys up, pull guards and get to the edge, good things can happen in the running game. However, Auburn has yet to put it all together. Advantage: Washington.
Auburn backs vs. Washington linebackers: Auburn features senior H-back Chandler Cox, a 4-year starter, blowing open holes. The real question is who will carry the ball. Junior Kam Martin is blazing fast, but has had durability issues in the past. Junior Malik Miller has size, power, and a few carries here and there but hasn’t been used much. Sophomore Devan Barrett has been moved to receiver. Auburn played freshmen JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin a lot on A-Day. Both were suspect in pass blocking, and running sideways or backward. Whitlow dropped several passes. The best A-Day runner for the second year in a row was junior walk-on C. J. Tolbert, who had 137 yards. Tolbert is on the small side and didn’t have an actual carry in 2017. Whoever gets the carries will face a good, well-coached linebacking corps. Projected to start are sophomore Benning Potoa’e, junior Ben Burr-Kirven, sophomore Brandon Wellington, and junior Trevis Bartlett. Again on paper, this looks like a mismatch against Auburn. However, last season, Washington gave up 247 rushing yards to Oregon, 197 to Stanford, and 203 against Penn State. Capable lead blocking and speed carrying the ball can give the Huskies problems. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Washington corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were juniors Nate Craig-Myers and Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had the catch of the day on A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Washington threw very young corners out there last season and is now rewarded with talented and experienced guys at those spots. Sophomores Austin Joyner and Bryant Myles should be a good matchup with Auburn’s dangerous corps. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Washington safeties: This is a strength-against-strength matchup with lots of experience on both sides. Auburn senior Ryan Davis shattered the team single-season receptions mark last year with 84 catches. Teams that gave Davis a cushion last season got eaten up 5 to 10 yards per quick pass. Teams that tried to press were often burned for touchdowns. Auburn depth at the slot took blows with both Will Hastings and Eli Stove having knee injuries and surgeries this spring. Both did a ton of damage last year. Auburn has moved running back Devan Barrett to the slot for depth. Barrett has good hands and is a good runner, but he’s not the breakaway threat the guys above him are. Auburn’s tight end is senior Jalen Harris. Teams can key on him as a blocker only. I think Auburn has targeted Harris maybe 3 times in his 3 years as a starter. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham had a slow start and a propensity to take hits last season but heated up by about game 4 and lit up some SEC secondaries. He’s mobile in the pocket, and can make every throw. It will be incumbent for Stidham to get off to a quick start, this year. Washington will start junior JoJo McIntosh at strong safety and sophomore Taylor Rapp at free safety. Both guys are veterans, good at run support, and don’t get the top blown off the defense. Advantage: Even.
Ordinarily, I’d expect a low-scoring defensive scrum in this game, but being indoors on an artificial surface gives an advantage to the offenses, I think. Auburn has so many questions in game one on offense. Auburn has a good defense, but I remember those Boise offenses dicing up even the good ones in the past decade or two. If Washington gets anything resembling a balanced attack going, I think it will be a long day for Auburn. Auburn’s key to this one is to disrupt at the point of attack. If Auburn’s line slips and slides on the artificial surface as it did the last 2 games, Auburn has no chance.
Offensively, Auburn has so many questions at this point. There is talent across the board, but will it be a polished product on September 1st? History says “no.” Only once in 5 years has the Gus Malzahn offense come out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and that was in 2014 with a 45–21 pasting of Arkansas. In 2013, Auburn struggled to move on a bad Wazzu defense. In 2015 against Louisville, Jeremy Johnson led the nation in interceptions. In 2016, Auburn tried to run the single wing against against Clemson’s 8-man fronts. In 2017, Auburn struggled with sacks and hamstrings against Georgia Southern, which turned out to be a really bad team that year. There’s not enough sunshine for me to pump on this subject. I’d love to be proven wrong by the Auburn players and coaches!
Prediction: There are too many offensive questions, going into this one against a solid defense. Auburn falls, 27–13.