Tuesday’s Game-Week Thoughts
Jarrett Stidham will lead No. 9 Auburn against No. 6 Washington in the College Football Kickoff Classic
It is finally game week, and in just a few days, half the teams in America will have a loss. For some teams, that loss won’t torpedo their chances to be in contention for a national championship run. In just a few days, all the superlatives, all the hyperbole, all of the preseason talk simply will not matter. Perhaps the best part of all of this is how the off-field issues will take a back seat, if not disappear altogether, when play on the field begins.
For the most part, there isn’t a team in America to which this applies more than the Auburn Tigers. Of course Auburn hasn’t had any legitimate off-field concerns, a refreshing experience compared to the much of the nation and a true testament to what having a good Christian man will do for a program. Between the lines, Auburn will set the tone for the year in the biggest game of week one as it takes on No. 6 Washington in the Kickoff Classic.
All of the questions about the Tigers that have filled the summer discussions will likely be answered this Saturday in Atlanta when Chris Peterson’s Huskies meet the Tigers. None of those questions are new to you readers, but my thoughts on them may be.
Regardless of his desire to stay on the west coast, it’s only a matter of time before Chris Petersen is lured away to the SEC. His family has kept him localized to that area where he has become one of the top three X’s and O’s coaches in the country. He’s done more with less than anyone else, first at Boise State and now at Washington. Petersen has the most experienced quarterback in the nation with Jake Browning, one of the very best backs in Myles Gaskin, and one of the top defenses in college football.
That, folks, is a recipe for a national championship run, if there ever was one. Despite having to replace some key defenders as well as NFL receiver Dante Pettis, Washington is still loaded. And nobody coaches players up and has them prepared for game day like Petersen.
On the other side of the field will be Auburn coach, Gus Malzahn. Recruiting top-tier talent has never been an issue for Malzahn. Getting that talent to perform up to its billing has been. With the addition of Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator, the defense is finally becoming an elite unit that performs to expectations. However, while Malzahn’s offense has shown flashes of dominance since his arrival in 2013, there have also been issues with offensive game preparation as well as player development. While I know this may be an unpopular opinion, nontheless it has been, at times, an issue.
The woes in development have come at two specific spots: quarterback and receiver. Malzahn has yet to take a kid out of high school and turn him into a legit playmaker. Sean White could have been that player, but he left the team after at least showing signs of life when he wasn’t a busted-up player.
Still, Gus has proven with Jarrett Stidham that he can make a quarterback better. The Baylor transfer didn’t look the part of an elite QB at the start of 2017, yet he looked like a first rounder by season’s end. Hopefully we’ll see even more improvement after a full year under Chip Lindsey and coach Malzahn.
In terms of receivers, Auburn has recruited the position better than anyone in the country but has yet to take those recruits and make them anything other than a deep-ball catching group of players. So far, Malzahn has put this group in the hands of two former Auburn players, neither of whom truly played the position. Kodi Burns is now listed as a co-coordinator for the Tigers, a meteoric rise for any young coach much less one who hasn’t proven that he has the chops to elevate his position group’s play. With a new O-line and the lack of a proven running back, the short and intermediate passing game will be the lifeblood of this offense early in the year, and Burns’ group is the linchpin for success in that scenario.
Traditionally, Malzhan’s preparation for the season’s first game has left much to be desired. While Auburn has won most of those contests, they’ve never been pretty. Case in point was last season’s opener with Georgia Southern. The 41–7 score didn’t truly reflect that Stidham was sacked three times and had less than 200 yards passing and an interception. Auburn ran the ball effectively behind one of the best offensive lines in the country. Yet, the next week, the line surrendered 11 sacks to Clemson. That line was eventually reshuffled and became dominant down the stretch. In the 2016 loss to Clemson, Auburn looked like it hadn’t game-planned at all as six players took snaps from center.
The 2013 Washington State, 2014 Arkansas, and 2015 Louisville wins were great for the win-loss column, but in retrospect, each showed a flaw which would become an alarming trend: Malzahn has not shown an ability to use extended time to prepare for opponents. This has shown up, time and again in bowl games, the most recent being the head-scratching loss to UCF. Derrick and I have discussed this in depth multiple times in our podcast (which you can listen to on Soundcloud by clicking this link).
This year offers some new preparation challenges for Malzahn because, for the first time in his tenure, there is a serious question at running back. Kam Martin has been tabbed as the starter by virtually everyone, but these people are just looking at the “next man up” based on last year’s stats. Martin will not be the feature back by the LSU game. JaTarvious Whitlow will.
The bigger question is be the offensive line. Even with a deep group of upperclassmen, Malzahn exited fall camp with Prince Tega Wanogho as a starter. Despite Wanogho being obviously over his head against Georgia Southern in 2017, Malzahn and position coach Herb Hand doggedly stuck with him until after the Clemson loss. Eventually, transfer Casey Dunn came to center, moving Austin Golson out to his natural position at guard and things clicked. But, once again, it made fans wonder what Malzahn and Hand had been seeing all summer and fall.
This season will feature essentially a new and relatively inexperienced line, a bad thing for a team that relies on running the ball in the SEC. It’s possible they will over achieve and come out of the gate ready to compete, but most likely Stidham and the short to intermediate passing game are going to have to carry the load, a liability as mentioned above.
The game in Atlanta will set the tone for the season, and while Auburn can easily lose this game and still make the playoff, Washington cannot. This is the chink in Auburn’s armor that should have fans on edge about the opener. Auburn has little motivation to win this game other than pride. Malzahn has proven thus far that his preparation relies on evolving his team over the season. And, this year he won’t have a veteran offensive line to road grade for whomever might be toting the rock. These are not problems for the team on the other sideline.
The saving grace is that Auburn’s defense will be ready, and it has more depth and talent than Washington can deal with for an entire game. Auburn is favored in this game, as they should be, but Malzahn has to have this team ready to play to come out with the victory.