Nine Days Away
Tigers are preparing for Washington
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! A long, hot summer is nearly over, and college football is on the way. Auburn this week officially ended fall camp and has gone on to work on a difficult opening game against the Washington Huskies. It may surprise some folks to hear that Auburn is actively preparing for an opponent more than a week in advance, but the Huskies are clearly the sort of team for which extra preparation is needed.
On offense, Washington will run a LOT of power plays right at the Auburn defense. Auburn’s depth and determination in the front seven on the defense will be tested early and often. The Huskies like to load up extra linemen and tight ends, and they’ll use some unbalanced lines. Auburn will have to play assignment football and avoid getting blown off the ball. It is also critical for the Tigers to tackle well. Washington runner Myles Gaskin is an elusive, fast runner that tends to break a lot of tackles. Auburn loses 4 of its top ten tacklers from last season, including Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts, Tré Williams and Jeff Holland.
Auburn cannot afford to launch the 2018 season with a clueless offensive performance and stay in the national title hunt. I’ve heard it opined that Auburn has little to lose in a nonconference opener, but I think that notion is bunk. Auburn has an opportunity to open the season with a bang, and a win over the PAC-12 title favorite is needed if Auburn is to remain seriously in early playoff discussions. In the past 5 seasons, the only fast start for the Tigers was in 2014 with a 45-21 pasting of Arkansas. In other action, Auburn struggled in beating Mike Leach’s first Washington State team then had to hold off Louisville in Atlanta in 2015. The Tigers looked pretty lost early against Clemson the past 2 seasons, and even a terrible Georgia Southern team had its moments last season in the opener.
I look for Washington to open with a mix of cover-two and quarters coverage and to commit seven guys in the box to challenge Auburn’s running game. The Tigers will not be able to stubbornly give it up the gut on first and second down then drop back on third and long. I would also look for the Washington cornerbacks to press and not allow Auburn the easy quick-flip screens to the outside. Auburn will have to run some medium-range slants, square ins and button hooks early to loosen up the pressure.
I’ve heard a lot of talk about a stellar group of freshman receivers and runners this fall, but I worry that those guys will be marginalized in the opener. Typically with young players, the Malzahn offense develops a small package of plays for such guys. Last season, we knew that if freshman Devan Barrett came into the game, he was going to get a pitch sweep to the outside. Every time. I expect someone on the Washington staff to be watching for this sort of thing, and Auburn will have to be less predictable or risk getting stuffed.
Auburn had a big offensive year last season, but it was an up-and-down narrative. When the Tigers were balanced between the run and the pass, the points piled up. Auburn managed 40 or more points against Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia. When teams were able to force Auburn to be one dimensional, ugly losses like the one at LSU or against Georgia in the SEC Title Game happened.
Defensively from this fall camp, I’m surprised as to the lack of a decision at buck end. Auburn still appears to be rotating Nick Coe, T. D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant at the position. I’m hoping that this situation is a result of an abundance of ability and is not a sign that Auburn will have trouble getting to the quarterback this season. I had questions about the secondary going into spring drills, but it appears that Auburn will be better than expected there with the rapid development of young talent. Auburn’s biggest defensive question going into the opener is the pass rush.
I am relieved on the offensive side of the ball that Auburn locked into a starting offensive line group quickly and has worked that group extensively. Various approaches to mixing and matching on the line the past couple of seasons has proved to be disastrous early in the past couple of seasons. Here’s hoping Auburn will be a lot more consistent out of the gate in 2018.
Special teams are another big question heading into the 2018 season. Auburn will break in new kicker Anders Carlson and likely a new punter in Arryn Siposs. Ryan Davis seems the most likely guy to replace departed punt returner Stephen Roberts, and he does have a few returns under his belt. Where Auburn hopes to dramatically improve is on both coverage units. Auburn gave up a disastrous punt return for a score that basically cost the game at LSU last season. Auburn also gave up kick returns of 100 yards and a score against Arkansas and returns of 72 yards against Texas A&M and 61 yards against Alabama. That has to change this season.