As Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs made the rounds in the press box before his team played at Kansas State two weeks ago, I asked him what he did to tick off the SEC office. Jacobs just laughed that deep good ol’ boy laugh that comes from spending decades living near the Alabama-Georgia border.
Jacobs has gotten that question a lot this year from just about everyone who has taken a close look at Auburn’s schedule. There wasn’t anything nefarious afoot. This is just how everything worked out when the SEC had to make sure Auburn-Georgia and the Iron Bowl stayed in their proper spaces on the calendar. When the 2014 schedule was released in August ‘13, no one knew Mississippi State and Ole Miss would have their best teams in years this fall. Heck, no one knew Auburn would be in contention for anything meaningful. The Tigers were fresh off a 0-for-the-SEC season. Still, the slate left Auburn with a horrid month-and-a-half stretch it must endure if it hopes to repeat as the SEC champ. The slog begins on Saturday.
Obviously, every SEC West team has a tough schedule, because every SEC West team is some degree of good. Even Arkansas, which hasn’t won a league game since Oct. 13, 2012, looks capable of beating anyone after thumping Texas Tech 49-28 in Lubbock on Sept. 13, pounding mid-major darling Northern Illinois 52-14 in Fayetteville on Sept. 20 and scaring Texas A&M into overtime before falling 35-28 at JerryWorld last week. Auburn already beat the Razorbacks. The Tigers topped them 45-21 on opening day. However, their return to SEC play gets more difficult when LSU visits Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday. Next week, Auburn plays at Mississippi State, which was last seen whipping LSU in Baton Rouge for three and a half quarters. After a bye, it plays the following games in consecutive weeks: South Carolina, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, at Georgia.
That’s six games in seven weeks against teams that could all finish the season in the Top 25. Even for one of the nation’s best squads, there is not a single easy win in that group. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn, who peppers every press conference with clichés, can go crazy with the one-game-at-a-times during this stretch, because he’ll mean it every time. If the Tigers look past anyone, they’ll lose. “That’s how good all these teams are,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “The minutest of details separate each team. There’s not a lot of difference.”
|Aug. 30||Arkansas||W, 45-21|
|Sept. 6||San Jose State||W, 59-13|
|Sept. 18||at Kansas State||W, 20-14|
|Sept. 27||Louisiana Tech||W, 45-17|
|Oct. 11||at Mississippi State||?|
|Oct. 25||South Carolina||?|
|Nov. 1||at Ole Miss||?|
|Nov. 8||Texas A&M||?|
|Nov. 15||at Georgia||?|
|Nov. 29||at Alabama||?|
That the stretch starts with LSU should give Auburn a unique measuring stick for its offense. It was the second half of the LSU game last year -- Auburn’s only loss until the national title game -- that revealed to coaches exactly what the attack needed to be. After Auburn dug itself a 21-0 first-half hole, coaches opted to feed tailback Tre Mason. The zone-read combination of Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall helped Auburn roll up 333 second-half yards. It wasn’t enough to rally all the way back in an eventual 35-21 loss, but Malzahn and Lashlee were inspired. During the bye week following the defeat, they decided to stop worrying about run-pass balance and force teams to stop Mason and Marshall on the ground. When defenses failed, they would bring more defenders into the box, allowing Marshall to throw over the top to receivers matched up one-on-one or one-on-zero.
This year’s offense is admittedly different. Mason is gone. Left tackle Greg Robinson is gone, too, taken second overall in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. Perhaps most importantly, fullback Jay Prosch has moved on to the pros. “He made a lot of things right and made a lot of things go,” Lashlee said. “We miss Greg and Tre because they were really good, but Jay was the glue that people really didn’t notice as much until now that he’s gone.”
Malzahn and Lashlee know they don’t have the luxury of Robinson, Prosch and guard Alex Kozan -- who is out for 2014 with a back injury suffered this summer -- blowing up nine-man boxes to open holes for Mason. They’ll have to be craftier, and they’ll occasionally need to use the pass to set up the run. “We’re going to be a good running team, and we should get better,” Lashlee said. “Last year, a lot of times it didn’t matter if they knew we were going to do it. We were able to be successful. We’ll have to be a little more balanced this year and more predictable.”
An advantage over last season is that Auburn coaches already understand what they have and what works best. They had a head start because Malzahn, for the first time since he became a college coach, returned his starting quarterback for a second season. Malzahn and Lashlee know exactly what to expect from Marshall at this point. That’s why they had little trepidation calling a slant-and-go on third-and-nine from their own 37-yard line with 2:06 remaining in that Kansas State game. They could have handed off, punted and forced the defense to protect the lead. But they had faith in Marshall to deliver the ball to junior college transfer Duke Williams. Marshall did, and it clinched the 20-14 victory. This time last year, they probably wouldn’t have done the same thing.
“His confidence level is much higher just because he knows the system well,” Lashlee said. “He knows where all his options are. He knows his reads. So, he plays with a different comfort and confidence. He’s able to give us feedback on what he likes and what he sees. He’s just a different all-around leader.”
Marshall and Auburn’s other veterans will have to help their less experienced teammates get through this stretch, because so many tough games in rapid succession can have a cumulative effect. If the Tigers survive unscathed, they will likely go into the Iron Bowl with a College Football Playoff berth on the line. But the players can’t think about that now. If they look past the next Saturday at any point between now and late November, the teeth of their schedule will chew them up.
• Arizona at Oregon: The Wildcats crushed the Ducks and a hobbled Marcus Mariota last year in Tucson. A better Arizona team will head to Eugene this fall, but Mariota is healthy. Unfortunately, his offensive tackles are not. Preseason starters Tyler Johnstone and Jake Fisher are out with knee injuries. Johnstone is done for the year, while Fisher is trying to come back. Andre Yruretagoyena, Elijah George and Haniteli Lousi have also missed time with injuries. The magnitude of the situation became apparent when Mariota was sacked seven times in a 38-31 win at Washington State on Sept. 20. Even with the most dynamic player in college football, the Ducks will have a tough time negotiating a Pac-12 schedule with so many injuries on the offensive line. These next three games -- vs. Arizona, at UCLA, vs. Washington -- will test Oregon.
• Louisville at Syracuse: The Orange will open ACC play, while the Cardinals will hit the halfway point of their conference schedule. So far, Louisville defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has earned his hefty salary. The Cardinals rank No. 1 in the ACC and No. 3 nationally in yards per play allowed (3.68). If this keeps up, they should handle Syracuse and hit the toughest stretch of their schedule (at Clemson, vs. NC State and vs. Florida State in a 19-day span) with a 5-1 record.
• Utah State at BYU: If quarterback Chuckie Keeton were playing for Utah State, this might be another potential hurdle between BYU and an undefeated season. With Keeton out, the Cougars should continue their march.
• Texas A&M at Mississippi State: To understand why the Bulldogs are so tough to defend with quarterback Dak Prescott pulling the trigger, check out Ian Boyd’s detailed breakdown of their offense at SBNation.com. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s defense appeared to grow up significantly in the final quarter and overtime of the Arkansas game. The Aggies allowed 3.76 yards a play during that stretch, and their run fits on the final play of the game were simply beautiful.
• Ohio State at Maryland: The Buckeyes reeled off 17 unanswered points after Cincinnati cut their lead to five in the third quarter of last week’s game, so the 50-28 final score obscured the troubling fact that Ohio State allowed Bearcats quarterback Gunner Kiel to average 11 yards a pass attempt and throw for four touchdowns. Kiel doesn’t have Stefon Diggs and Deon Long as targets. Maryland’s quarterbacks do. The question is who will play for the Terrapins. Starter C.J. Brown is questionable with a wrist injury, but backup Caleb Rowe went 12-of-18 for 198 yards with two scores in Maryland’s 37-15 win at Indiana.
• SMU at East Carolina: NSFW. That is all.
• Florida at Tennessee: This game could be huge for Tennessee coach Butch Jones. The Volunteers hung tough last week in Athens, and if quarterback Justin Worley wouldn’t have banged his elbow on a Georgia helmet, they might have won the game. But the time Nathan Peterman spent running the offense shows how thin the Vols’ depth is this year. Given the state of the SEC East, they can be competitive now, but only if they stay healthy at key positions. Meanwhile, this game is monumental for Florida coach Will Muschamp. If the Gators can’t beat Tennessee, it stands to reason they’ll also have trouble with LSU, Missouri and Georgia -- which just so happen to be their next three opponents. Muschamp likely wouldn’t be fired immediately if Florida lost this game, but it would take a mighty comeback to alter that eventual outcome. Almost every coaching regime reaches a game upon which judgment is handed down. This is that game for Muschamp.
• Alabama at Ole Miss: After the Rebels beat Memphis 24-3 last Saturday, safety Cody Prewitt said this to FoxSports.com: “We understand that we haven't played a team that’s going to be as good as Bama. But we don't really think Bama is as good as they have been. And we’re better than we have been. We’re looking forward to getting to the game plan and really nailing down all the tweaks and stuff that we're going to have to put into Bama.” As trash talk goes, this is pretty tame. But has Prewitt watched Alabama’s offense? It’s as good as it was during all those BCS title runs. Also, don’t discount the Crimson Tide’s ability to turn a minor slight into a major motivator. Last year quarterback Bo Wallace theorized Ole Miss could “put points on” Bama. Tide defenders took that as a challenge. Ole Miss lost 25-0.
• Oklahoma at TCU: Sooners coach Bob Stoops explained why his team should be concerned about this trip to Fort Worth. “They always have played great defense,” he said. “Gary Patterson’s defenses still lead the league or are at the top of the league in every category, playing well, sound fundamentally, really disciplined. They know what they’re doing. The biggest difference is offensively you see them spreading the ball out now. [Trevone] Boykin, their quarterback, is really doing a great job, and now the system they’re in which resembles [Texas] Tech, Oklahoma State, a little bit of teams we see often in this league.” In other words, the Horned Frogs look a lot like Oklahoma. They play an up-tempo offense, but unlike other Big 12 teams, not at the expense of their defense. TCU has played Oklahoma tough in both meetings as Big 12 foes, but both of those seasons began with Casey Pachall at quarterback and finished with Boykin trying to run an offense designed for Pachall. This offense is designed for Boykin.
• Baylor at Texas: Texas players have taken some shots at Baylor these past few months, but Bears coach Art Briles isn’t saying any retribution publicly. “We don’t look at things that way. In our profession, it’s a week-to-week business,” Briles said. “We look to every week as a new season. We’re not trying to make a long-term statement, we’re trying to go out and play well for 60 minutes. All that other stuff has no bearing on anything else.” Having spent some time around Briles, this is probably only what he’s saying when a camera is on. The Bears will attempt to humiliate the Longhorns, and if Texas doesn’t play better defensively than it has, that’s exactly what will happen. With wide receiver Levi Norwood (wrist) back on Saturday and Antwan Goodley (quadriceps) in his second game returning to the lineup, Baylor has even more weapons at its disposal.
• Stanford at Notre Dame: The Cardinal offense has been awful in the red zone this fall. Stanford ranks No. 121 nationally in red zone scoring percentage after scoring eight touchdowns and kicking four field goals in 19 trips inside the opposing 20-yard line. I fully understand this can be a misleading stat. Michigan is tied for No. 1 because it has scored on all 12 of its red zone trips. It just so happens that two of those came in last week’s loss to Minnesota and the rest came against Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). But Stanford has spread its red zone misery relatively evenly. The Cardinal went 3-for-6 against UC-Davis, for goodness sakes. That lack of success has put a very good defense in a bad spot. Stanford only allows 3.34 yards a play, and if the offense can punch the ball in more frequently, it can beat anyone. If not, the Cardinal defense can only hold a quarterback as talented as Notre Dame’s Everett Golson at bay for so long.
• NC State at Clemson: Can the Wolfpack build on a competitive game against Florida State that seemed unthinkable a year ago? Or will Clemson keep the ACC Atlantic pecking order intact? After true freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for six touchdowns in a 50-35 win over North Carolina in his first career start, Tigers coaches talked about him the same way they talked about Sammy Watkins during Watkins’ freshman year. That’s high praise, and so far it seems deserved.
• Michigan at Rutgers: What more could possibly go wrong for the Wolverines? Well, the Scarlet Knights could get their first-ever Big Ten win against them. With Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin up next, this is Rutgers’ best shot at that milestone for a while. Michigan coach Brady Hoke said Devin Gardner will start at quarterback, and Gardner helped the offense moved the ball well briefly against Minnesota. But it’s tough to tell how this team will respond to all the external strife. It needs something to light a fire, though, or it won’t win another game.
• Arizona State at USC: Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly is doubtful against the Trojans, so it will be up to Arizona State’s defense to play a much better game than it did against UCLA. Otherwise, coach Todd Graham’s team will find itself in a two-game hole in the Pac-12 South.
• Miami at Georgia Tech: The Hurricanes answered the bell against Duke last Saturday, which is a positive sign. Had they lost that game, this season could have taken an ugly turn. Now, they have a chance to assert themselves in the ACC Coastal race against an unbeaten team currently sitting at 1-0 in the division. The Yellow Jackets have won two consecutive squeakers (Georgia Southern and Virginia Tech), and quarterback Justin Thomas has to be confident after making huge throws at critical late junctures in both contests.
• Nebraska at Michigan State: The Cornhuskers were the only team that made the Spartans’ defense appear anything close to mortal during the 2013 regular season. Tailback Ameer Abdullah rushed for 123 yards, but fortunately for Michigan State, the Cornhuskers gifted the Spartans several of their five turnovers. It also helped that Michigan State’s offense was finally rounding into form with Connor Cook solidified at quarterback. This time, the Spartans’ defense is good but relatively untested. Still, Michigan State is at home, and that offense is much more polished. A win for Nebraska probably means the Huskers get off the four-loss train for the first time in coach Bo Pelini’s tenure, but they might be able to break that streak without beating Michigan State. If Nebraska can win in East Lansing, the Cornhuskers should feel confident they can win anywhere.
• Utah at UCLA: Did we finally see the real Bruins against Arizona State? Or will they struggle against a lesser foe as they did against Virginia and Memphis?
Vintage video of the week
When LSU visited Auburn in 1996, the old basketball gym adjacent to Jordan-Hare Stadium caught fire. Did fans evacuate as the flames leapt higher into the night? Hell no. This was a division game.
LSU led 17-9 before Rusty Williams scored for Auburn with 38 seconds remaining. Terry Bowden’s Tigers went for two to tie the score, but Raion Hill, who had already returned an interception for a touchdown earlier, intercepted Jon Cooley’s pass and returned it for two points to give LSU a 19-15 win.
This footage actually came from the short-lived ESPNU show UNITE. It was a Mystery Science Theater 3000-style segment in which the hosts watch old games and crack wise. Had this been the entire show, UNITE might not have been canceled so quickly.
On the menu
I’m headed to Oxford for Alabama-Ole Miss, and I’ve got high expectations for the cuisine. I’m flying into Memphis, so I’m hoping time will permit me to visit Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. I know there is one in Oxford now -- along with locations in Austin, Little Rock and suburban Nashville -- but I’m hoping to hit the original in Mason, Tenn. Once I get to Oxford, I’m hoping to spend part of one morning at Big Bad Breakfast, the earliest rising division of chef John Currence’s culinary empire. I didn’t get a usable picture of the house-cured bacon (coated with brown sugar and Tabasco pepper mash) the last time I ate there, and I hope to rectify that even if doing so requires me to eat 100 pieces.