Auburn-Kansas St. Preview
Auburn had little trouble with its first two opponents, rolling to easy victories. Still, last week's bye may have come at the perfect time for the Tigers, who are now heading into the teeth of a brutal schedule.
Fifth-ranked Auburn brings its pounding ground attack into Manhattan to face No. 20 Kansas State on Thursday night in one of the marquee matchups of the early season.
The Tigers rolled past San Jose State 59-13 on Sept. 6, a week after routing Arkansas 45-21. Despite the loss of 1,800-yard rusher Tre Mason from the nation's top rushing offense to the NFL after last season, Auburn is again powered by its ground game, which had 358 yards against the Spartans and 302 in the opener, scored nine touchdowns and averaged 6.7 yards per carry.
Cameron Artis-Payne (293 yards), Corey Grant (176) and quarterback Nick Marshall (142) have keyed the early success.
Auburn's week off provided extra time to fine-tune and prepare for a schedule that also features matchups with No. 8 LSU, No. 14 South Carolina, No. 10 Mississippi, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 13 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama.
First up are the Wildcats (2-0), whom Auburn has beaten in three all-time meetings.
''We are going to work on improving ourselves and try to get a head start,'' coach Gus Malzahn said of readying for this game after the victory over San Jose State. ''We are playing a very good team on the road with one of the better coaches that has ever walked the planet. We will have to have a good plan and have to be prepared.''
Malzahn would like to see improved passing from Marshall, who went 10 of 19 for 101 yards and a touchdown Sept. 6, and admitted afterward he needed to be better. Improved offensive balance was an offseason priority for Auburn, though Kansas State coach Bill Snyder doesn't exactly see any weak spots in the upcoming opponent.
"Take your pick," Snyder told the school's official website when asked about the biggest obstacle the Tigers' offense poses. "They're a physical offensive line, they have speed in the backfield at the running back position and the quarterback position. They run the ball well, and they're deceptive in the way they run the ball. The wide receivers are big, fast, physical; I don't think I left out a position. In other words, they're very, very talented."
One of those wideouts is Sammie Coates, who's expected to return after missing the last game with a knee injury. Having benefited from the bye, last year's leading receiver with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns should give Auburn's passing game a big boost if he's fully healthy and at his explosive best.
He had one catch for 13 yards in the opener.
"We had a few people banged up, but I'd say the biggest advantage (of the bye) is we were able to give some young guys a little more attention," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told Auburn's official website. "That was probably the best improvement, and obviously a little more time on Kansas State."
Also coming off a bye, the Wildcats will face a tall order against Auburn after a less-then-impressive 32-28 victory over Iowa State on Sept. 6. Kansas State allowed 28 straight points to an offense that scored half that many against an FCS team a week earlier. But it also held the Cyclones scoreless in the second half, and star quarterback Jake Waters led an 80-yard, winning drive in just 91 seconds.
Waters will present Auburn with the same challenge Kansas State faces in Marshall, as the dual-threat Wildcats senior passed for 239 yards and rushed for 138 with two touchdowns against Iowa State.
"It's rare, but Jake's a rare quarterback," running back Charles Jones said. "He's excellent in running and passing, and I saw that when he first came here. I saw how well he runs and just how good of a passer he is. To a lot of people it might be a surprise, but to us, we expect him to do stuff like that."
Waters and the Wildcats won't find Auburn's Jermaine Whitehead in the secondary. The third-year starting safety, who leads the team with two interceptions, was suspended for violating team rules and didn't make the trip to Manhattan.
Kansas State has lost six straight matchups with nonconference Top 25 opponents - four of them in bowls. One of the regular-season defeats in that stretch was the Wildcats' most recent matchup with Auburn, a 23-13 Tigers season-opening home victory Sept. 1, 2007.