Auburn University’s men’s basketball team continued its remarkable season on Wednesday night with a 76-66 victory over the visiting Kentucky Wildcats in Auburn Arena.
Even though the #10 Tigers entered the game as a substantial favorite, Kentucky’s historic dominance of Auburn and the Wildcats size advantage suggested that the game should be close throughout, and it was. Even when Kentucky is having a disappointing season, they’re still Kentucky, a team with four projected 2018 NBA Draft first-round picks in their starting lineup.
Auburn started the game cold from the three-point line; to overcome, the Tigers had to rely on transition defense, spectacular free-throw shooting, and sheer will until shots started to fall. Bryce Brown, playing his first game since injuring his shoulder against Texas A&M,
Throughout the final ten minutes of the game, Kentucky’s players seemed to lack energy. Auburn’s pressing style and desire to play at a fast tempo has left opposing teams gasping for air in the closing minutes; despite Kentucky’s vast athleticism and experience playing up-tempo basketball, they were no different. Auburn exhausted Kentucky on both ends of the floor, leaving Kentucky with nothing left in the gas tank when the game was in its most crucial moments.
Tigers point guard Jared Harper, who now leads the conference in assists per game, made all 9 of his free throw attempts and showcased his fearless, willing-to-shoot-from-anywhere attitude. At 5’10” and 170 pounds, it’s understandable for the uninitiated to wonder if Harper is strong enough to withstand the pounding that he takes because of the physical style he plays, but Harper is representative of the team for which he plays: he’s tough, he’s fast, he’ll bother you with his defense, and people who overlook him are making a big mistake.
With Brown back in the fold and seemingly showing no ill-effects from his injured shoulder, head coach Bruce Pearl will try to keep his foot on the gas and ensure that Auburn finishes this special season with a bang. With five regular-season games left before the SEC tournament, Pearl could rack up 27 or 28 wins and keep Auburn in excellent position for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Basketball can break your heart, though: Auburn could go cold again, or stumble against a team equipped to exploit its lack of size inside (or a team that won’t waver if forced to play 40 up-tempo minutes). The unknowability of the NCAA Tournament is one of the things that makes it a preferred sporting event.
Until Selection Sunday gets here and shows us Auburn’s exact path to college basketball’s national championship, all the Tigers can do is continue to win.
– Even before A&M’s victory in Auburn Arena, I was struck by how many good teams are in the SEC this year. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes lobbied for nine SEC teams to make the tournament after his team beat Kentucky, and the idea doesn’t seem too farfetched as the middle of the conference continues to get bigger and bigger. Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and LSU appear to be the only teams in the league with no real shot of qualifying for the tournament as an at-large. The other eleven almost assuredly won’t all make it, but they’re all firmly in the hunt – including Auburn’s opponent on the road Saturday, South Carolina.
– I’m not sure what made Josh McDaniels decide to bail on the Colts in the hours before his introductory press conference, but I understand why he wouldn’t want to coach that franchise. Even though there are an extremely limited number of NFL head coaching positions, the Colts are simply in too much turmoil. Questions linger about the owner’s fitness for office, but more pressing questions remain about the health and long-term prognosis of quarterback Andrew Luck. When Luck was at Stanford, he was pegged as a surefire NFL great, and he displayed immense promise in his initial seasons with the Colts. Unfortunately, his shoulder injury has been mishandled and years have been shaved off his prime, and now it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever become the player everyone was certain he could be. It echoes the story of Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, who also showed all-time-great promise but ultimately had his career derailed by injuries that kept him from living up to his potential on the field. Hopefully I’m wrong and Luck can reestablish himself as one of the league’s best players, but the decision by McDaniels leads me to believe it won’t happen anytime soon.
– With pitchers and catchers on the verge of reporting, here are some things I’m looking forward to about this year’s Major League Baseball season: the addition of Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees, the continued brilliance of Mike Trout, the Astros infield, the race for the NL Central, the Giants attempt to bounce back after last year’s disastrous season, the glut of power-hitting first basemen in the National League (Goldschmidt, Votto, Freeman, Bellinger, Rizzo, and possibly Eric Hosmer if somebody signs him), and the big-name hitters that could find themselves traded during the year (like Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, or even Bryce Harper).
Until next week, enjoy the games!
– By Dan Peck, Contributing Writer to ESPNAU.com –
Auburn University’s men’s basketball team is having a historic season. After winning 91-73 at Missouri on Wednesday night, the #19 Tigers have improved their conference record to 6-1. It’s the fifth time this season Auburn won a conference game by double digits. It was Auburn’s third SEC road win, something other Auburn teams in recent memory couldn’t accomplish in an entire season.
In short order, the Auburn Tigers have become a must-watch basketball team. The arena is packed, the games are exciting, and the coach is beloved. Barring off-the-court calamity, this season seems as though it could be the mere foundation of something much more substantial: a consistent winner.
Even though they haven’t been winning for very long and the absence of suspended center Austin Wiley would lead one to think the team is shorthanded, it would be a mistake to look at head coach Bruce Pearl’s roster and see a group of plucky underachievers. Pearl’s team is unafraid, emotional, and able to score points in a vast variety of ways. When Bryce Brown and/or Jared Harper make threes, Auburn looks like a team that can beat anyone in the country.
Making Auburn’s season even more remarkable is the fact that they’re accomplishing this in a season in which the conference is deeper than usual. Virtually every home arena in the SEC is a difficult place to get a victory, and some of the teams in the middle of the pack are streaky enough to beat anyone else in the conference on a good night. Amid that crowded field, Auburn has emerged as one of the major stories of the 2017-2018 college basketball season, and Bruce Pearl is making a very convincing case for various coaching awards.
How far can Auburn go? The team isn’t without flaws. The team’s lack of interior size can be exploited, the team can go ice cold from three, and the guards can make crucial mistakes when trying to carry the team. However, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and the team could be a popular dark horse pick to succeed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
– Saturday afternoon’s Oklahoma @ Alabama basketball matchup features a meeting between two of the best guards in college basketball: Oklahoma’s high-scoring Trae Young and Alabama’s do-it-all Collin Sexton. Oklahoma needs Young to be great, while Alabama hopes they can contain him and get sufficient production from its own backcourt.
– I never thought I’d ever see a gap between the respective Super Bowl quarterbacks as wide as Rex Grossman vs. Peyton Manning, but Nick Foles vs. Tom Brady might do it. It will be an amazing story if Nick Foles can pull off the victory; he stepped in for the leading MVP candidate and led a team to its first championship in an eternity. Unfortunately, Tom Brady is the villain in a monster movie. The Patriots were on the ropes against the Jags, needing to be something close to perfect in the final minutes in order to rally from behind. They did it. Of course they did it. There’s a way for the Eagles to win, but picking against Tom Brady? Couldn’t be me.
– I still haven’t fully caught up on my Oscar viewing, but I like seeing all of the acclaim for LADY BIRD, a truly fantastic movie. I loved GET OUT, and seeing it in a crowded theater was one of the most fun moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had. I was frequently awed by the scale and ambition of DUNKIRK. I’m dying to see THE SHAPE OF WATER and PHANTOM THREAD. Also, I really liked THE BIG SICK and THE DISASTER ARTIST; it’s nice that both of the writing teams who composed those screenplays were recognized.
– Saturday, Auburn beats LSU behind strong games from Brown and Harper and yet another 50-point second half.
Enjoy the games!
Bowl season is in full swing. The football has been good(?), the stadiums have been practically empty, and the games have been meaningless.
If you’d rather watch college football than do literally anything else, these games are for you.
Let’s dive back in!
Florida State (-15) vs Southern Miss in the Independence Bowl: Florida State’s season officially comes to an end, months after it unofficially came to an end in the season opener against Alabama. Southern Miss gets to play David against FSU’s Goliath, except Goliath in this case has already lost six mostly one-sided fights. Speaking of which, did Goliath know that weapons were allowed? PECK’S PICK: FSU -15
Iowa (-3) vs Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College won five of its last six, including a throttling of the aforementioned Seminoles, while Iowa blew out Ohio State and very nearly beat both Penn State and Michigan State. This game seems like a toss-up and that’s reflected in the line, but I like the way the Eagles run the ball. PECK’S PICK: BOSTON COLLEGE +3
Arizona (-3) vs Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl: When Rich Rodriguez has a quarterback who can run his offense effectively, he can make beautiful music. Khalil Tate’s numbers were unreal this season, and he’s reason enough to watch a game. PECK’S PICK: ARIZONA -3
Missouri (-1.5) vs Texas in the Texas Bowl: Missouri looked lifeless after the first month of the season, but pulled itself off the canvas and found a way to rack up eye-popping statistics as it tore through most of the SEC East down the stretch. Both teams will struggle on defense, and it should come down to whoever has the ball last. PECK’S PICK: MISSOURI -1.5
Navy (-1) vs Virginia in the Military Bowl: Navy is playing on its home field and Virginia isn’t too far away, so this game might actually have people in attendance. Navy’s tricky offense should be able to outscore Virginia, although UVA’s quarterback (the ridiculously named Kurt Benkert) could get hot and lead the Cavaliers to victory. PECK’S PICK: NAVY -1
Oklahoma State (-5) vs Virginia Tech in the Camping World Bowl: OSU features one of the best offenses in college football, but Virginia Tech’s defense is as salty as ever and the Hokies can score plenty of points, too. I’m picking VT, because I can’t stand Mike Gundy, a coach who routinely gets killed by his archrival every year and draws attention to himself by scolding reporters and sporting a silly haircut. PECK’S PICK: VT -5
TCU (-3) vs Stanford in the Alamo Bowl: Two perennially tough teams led by exemplary coaches will collide in San Antonio. TCU is very talented, but I don’t trust quarterback Kenny Hill against a disciplined defense (too many of his passes miss their mark by a wide margin) and it will be very difficult for TCU to stop hard-charging Stanford running back Bryce Love. PECK’S PICK STANFORD +3
Michigan State (-1.5) vs Washington State in the Holiday Bowl: When I’m torn, I tend to pick the team with the superior quarterback, and Luke Falk has been phenomenal throughout his career for the Huskies. PECK’S PICK: WASHINGTON STATE +1.5
Wake Forest (-3) vs Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl: A&M will be coached by substitute teacher Jeff Banks, and it’s understandable that its players will lack motivation before Jimbo Fisher’s regime officially begins. Wake Forest has been one of the surprises of the ACC, and could contend for the conference before Dave Clawson’s work is finished. PECK’S PICK: WAKE FOREST -3
NC State (-6.5) vs Arizona State in the Sun Bowl: Fired ASU coach Todd Graham will coach his team one final time in bowl season’s most awkward situation. NC State appears to be better, but maybe Graham’s presence will provide ample motivation for his team. PECK’S PICK: ARIZONA STATE +6.5
Northwestern (-7.5) vs Kentucky in the Music City Bowl: Northwestern won nine games??? PECK’S PICK: NORTHWESTERN -7.5
Utah State (-4) vs New Mexico State in the Arizona Bowl: Next! PECK’S PICK: UTAH STATE -4
Ohio State (-6) vs USC in the Cotton Bowl: Now THIS is a bowl game. A pair of talented teams who very narrowly missed out on the College Football Playoff collide. USC quarterback Sam Darnold has the ability to take a game over, but Ohio State’s superior ability on both sides of the ball should be enough to give them a victory in a close, high-scoring game. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -6
Louisville (-6) vs Mississippi State in the TaxSlayer Bowl: If State had injured quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, this game would feature the best quarterback duel of any game on the board. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald injured his leg in the Ole Miss game (and then watched his coach head off to Gainesville). Lamar Jackson remains a sensation, so MSU will have to play its best game of the season to win without Fitzgerald. PECK’S PICK: LOUISVILLE -6
Memphis (-3.5) vs Iowa State in the Liberty Bowl: Iowa State stunned the Big 12 with victories over Oklahoma and TCU, but lost three of its last four and now faces an explosive Memphis offense playing on its home field. PECK’S PICK: MEMPHIS -3.5
Penn State (-4) vs Washington in the Fiesta Bowl: One of the best matchups on the board, these will be two trendy preseason picks for next season’s College Football Playoff. Washington features a balanced offensive attack and an experienced quarterback in Jake Browning, but Penn State’s Saquon Barkley was one of the nation’s best running backs and should be able to shoulder the load and carry his team to victory. PECK’S PICK: PENN STATE -4
Wisconsin (-6) vs Miami in the Orange Bowl: This is another fantastic matchup, as two more teams that narrowly missed the College Football Playoff will square off. If Miami’s opportunistic defense can force Wisconsin into uncharacteristic mistakes, the Hurricanes could find a way to give its hometown fans a victory, but I’ve got too many questions about their offense to pick them. PECK’S PICK: WISCONSIN -6
Michigan (-8) vs South Carolina in the Outback Bowl: These are two more teams who will be trendy picks in 2018, as Jake Bentley looks to take the next step and become the SEC’s top quarterback while Michigan’s roster looks loaded. I still don’t trust Michigan’s offense, so look for South Carolina to pull off the upset in a low-scoring affair. PECK’S PICK: S. CAROLINA +8
LSU (-3) vs Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl: The wheels came off Notre Dame’s offense in the final month of the season, and an aggressive LSU defense is a bad matchup for them. There are reasons to believe LSU will be better next year than they were this year, and a solid performance against the Irish will continue their positive momentum. PECK’S PICK: LSU -3
Georgia (-2) vs Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl: If Georgia’s defense keeps Oklahoma bottled up, the Bulldogs could find themselves playing for the national championship in front of a partisan crowd in Atlanta. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done because the Sooners can score points in bunches. The game will fall on the shoulders of OU quarterback Baker Mayfield, and I think he’ll make too many mistakes. PECK’S PICK: GEORGIA -2
Alabama (-3) vs Clemson in the Sugar Bowl: I swore off picking against Clemson earlier this season, but Nick Saban’s teams are lethal when he’s allowed extra time to prepare for an opponent. Alabama’s offensive line struggled in November and faces its toughest test of the season against a Clemson front seven loaded with future NFL players looking to chase down Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts. PECK’S PICK: CLEMSON +3
Auburn (-9.5) vs UCF in the Peach Bowl: This game features two wildly entertaining offenses. UCF has more to gain, as they look to finish an undefeated season; Auburn wants to build momentum for next year and gain a rare eleventh victory in a single season. AU has a big edge on defense, so they should be able to handle UCF if they play as well as they did throughout most of the season. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -9.5
Come back next week for a recap of the Auburn/UCF game and a National Championship prediction! Enjoy the games!
Bowl season is here, and all 288 games will be broadcast right here on ESPN 106.7.
Unless you’re a total degenerate, you probably don’t know very much about most of the teams that will be in action.
Fear not. Partially because I love bowl season, and mostly because I have no desire to do a postmortem of the 2017 SEC Championship (in fact, let’s never speak of that game ever again), this week’s edition of BTG is going to be all about the bowls.
Let’s dive right in.
Troy (-7) vs. North Texas in the NEW ORLEANS BOWL: Troy brought back every single player who recorded a yard of offense from last season and the team thrived, finishing 10-2 and winning the Sun Belt. North Texas struggled to slow down FAU last week and they’ll struggle to slow down Troy. PECK’S PICK: TROY -7
Western Kentucky (-6) vs. Georgia State in the CURE BOWL: The Hilltoppers stumbled down the stretch, losing three of their last five games of the season by double-digits, but they’ve got a good quarterback and a ridiculous-looking mascot. PECK’S PICK: WKU -6
Oregon (-7.5) vs Boise State in the LAS VEGAS BOWL: This is one of the most compelling matchups on the slate. Boise won eight of its last nine games, but Oregon’s gigantic quarterback Justin Herbert is hard to stop. Boise’s defense should keep the game close. PECK’S PICK: BOISE +7.5
Colorado State (-5.5) vs Marshall in the NEW MEXICO BOWL: Nothing rewards kids after a grueling season like a mid-December trip to tropical Albuquerque. State’s got a pretty good offense, I know nothing about Marshall, let’s move on. PECK’S PICK: CSU -5.5
Arkansas State (-3.5) vs MTSU in the CAMELIA BOWL: MTSU’s offense heated up towards the end of the season, but Arkansas State has a better situation at quarterback and should find a way to win. PECK’S PICK: ARKANSAS STATE -3.5
Florida Atlantic (-22) vs Akron in the BOCA RATON BOWL: Look for Lane Kiffin to cap off a spectacular first season as the head coach of the Owls with a resounding victory in the team’s hometown. PECK’S PICK: FAU -22
SMU (-5) vs Louisiana Tech in the FRISCO BOWL: Chad Morris just took the Arkansas job, but the components of his high-powered offense will be in place. Louisiana Tech, led by Skip Holtz, should be up to the challenge. PECK’S PICK: LT +5
Temple (-7) vs FIU in the GASPARILLA BOWL: I’m not sure about either school, so I’m taking the team from Florida. PECK’S PICK: FIU +7
Ohio (-7.5) vs UAB in the BAHAMAS BOWL: Not a bad deal for UAB, right? They went from not playing any football to playing football in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, they’re playing a team that didn’t take two years off. PECK’S PICK: OHIO -7.5
Wyoming (-7.5) vs Central Michigan in the POTATO BOWL: Wyoming QB Josh Allen is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, so go with him I guess? PECK’S PICK: WYOMING -7.5
USF (-2.5) vs Texas Tech in the BIRMINGHAM BOWL: I like USF, even though I’m certain that the Tampa kids don’t appreciate a December trip to Birmingham. I’ve been to Lubbock, so I’m sure Texas Tech gets to appreciate taking a trip anywhere. PECK’S PICK: USF -2.5
San Diego State (-6.5) vs Army in the ARMED FORCES BOWL: Rashad Penny, San Diego State’s star running back, is the player to watch in this game. Army just notched a huge win against Navy, so a letdown against SDSU is understandable. PECK’S PICK: SDSU -6.5
Toledo (-8) vs Appalachian State in the DOLLAR GENERAL BOWL: They should play this game inside an actual Dollar General. PECK’S PICK: TOLEDO -8
Houston (-2) vs Fresno State in the HAWAII BOWL: Fresno State got things rolling once they entered conference play. Seriously, there are so many of these games. PECK’S PICK: FRESNO STATE +2
Utah (-7) vs West Virginia in the HEART OF DALLAS BOWL: Finally, some teams I’ve definitely seen this year. Utah lost a lot of close games this year, while WVU will be without quarterback Will Grier, so I like the Utes in a fun one. PECK’S PICK: UTAH -7
Duke (-5) vs NIU in the QUICK LANE BOWL: As a kid, I remember getting so excited for the Quick Lane Bowl. Truly a tradition unlike any other. Wikipedia tells me it’s played in Detroit. PECK’S PICK: NIU +5
Kansas State (-2.5) vs UCLA in the CACTUS BOWL: This is the one they play on the baseball field in Phoenix. Unfortunately, they no longer cover the field with actual cacti to add a challenge for both teams. PECK’S PICK: UCLA +2.5
Come back next week for PART TWO!
November was quite a month for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, and he capped it off by knocking out the reigning, defending, heavyweight champion of the SEC.
I watched Saturday’s Iron Bowl with Auburn fans, hanging on every play. Watching your team play against Alabama is like driving in a car that you’re certain is about to break down; it’s difficult to get comfortable, let alone confident, because every snap of the ball could bring the disastrous play that changes the game.
As Auburn built its lead, though, people slowly realized what they were seeing. Auburn wasn’t just winning on the scoreboard; it was outplaying Alabama at its own game. Alabama couldn’t run the ball, Alabama couldn’t get stops on third down that would allow its defense to leave the field, and Alabama couldn’t convert when it faced third down on offense. Once Auburn had regained the ball with a twelve-point lead in the fourth quarter, Alabama’s goose was cooked. There would be no miraculous rally, there would be no historic collapse. 26-14.
Now, as Malzahn and the #2 Tigers head to Atlanta, the stakes only get bigger. A win over the Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Championship Game will send them to the College Football Playoff for the first time in team history. A team that seemed dead and buried after a loss to LSU on October 14 is now just as alive as anyone else, and a coach who had seen his tenure become unsustainably turbulent weathered the storm with expert precision.
When Alabama had the ball, Auburn’s defensive line was consistently disruptive. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts is deadly when he’s able to utilize his legs to buy himself additional time to find receivers, but Auburn’s ferocious pass rush was able to pressure him throughout the game. When Hurts was able to get rid of the ball, he rarely found open receivers. Alabama is typically able to impose its will to the degree that third downs are manageable, but it simply couldn’t keep drives alive.
When Auburn had the ball, it did an excellent job of keeping the Alabama defense off-balance by mixing up its passes and runs. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham ran the ball, running back Kerryon Johnson threw the ball, receiver Ryan Davis caught everything thrown his way, and the Auburn offensive line provided enough push to allow plays to develop to their fullest potential. Stidham’s passes gave his receivers an opportunity to gain yardage after the catch. After a fumble ended a red-zone possession in the first quarter, the Auburn offense made practically no mistakes.
It completes a remarkable turnaround; Malzahn teams were so prone to surrendering big leads and so frequently beaten by highly ranked opponents that Auburn fans were despondent after the team blew a 20-0 lead in Baton Rouge. Sure, Malzahn could recapture the confidence of his fanbase by rallying the team and defeating Georgia and Alabama for the first time since 2013, but how likely did that seem.
Seven weeks later, here they are. In Atlanta. One win away from a spot in the playoff.
WHAT TO WATCH:
– Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson injured his ribs in the second half against Alabama, and his availability for Saturday is in question. How ready will he be? If not, will Kam Martin or Devan Barrett receive additional playing time?
– Georgia’s offensive line was beaten soundly in the first meeting between these two teams, and quarterback Jake Fromm took a pounding. Have they been able to figure out a better way to attack Auburn’s defense in the last few weeks? Is there a better way?
– Auburn has leaned on kicker Daniel Carlson all season, and his ability to help convert drives into points has proven invaluable. If Saturday’s game is closer than the first, and it all boils down to a Carlson attempt, Auburn should feel good about its chances.
PECK’S PICKS (LAST WEEK 1-4, YTD 40-33)
– STANFORD +3.5 VS USC: The USC defense is still suspicious against the run, and Stanford’s offense has come around in the last few weeks. PECK’S PICK: STANFORD +3.5
– OHIO STATE -6 VS WISCONSIN: The Buckeyes have pulled themselves off the mat after getting blown out by Iowa and look to clinch a playoff spot by overwhelming the Badgers. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -6
– TCU +7 VS OKLAHOMA: The Sooners look to take the nation’s best offense into the playoff and burst Alabama’s bubble in the process. PECK’S PICK: OKLAHOMA -7
– NORTH TEXAS +11 VS FLORIDA ATLANTIC: Lane Kiffin took a moribund program and turned them into a force to be reckoned with. PECK’S PICK: FAU -11
– GEORGIA +2 VS AUBURN: Georgia will be ready to compete, but Auburn is just too good for them at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -2
Enjoy the games!
Co-Host, THE DRIVE (4-6PM, ESPN 106.7 FM, ESPNAU.com)
Host, AFTER THE GAME (Immediately following Auburn University football games, Wings 94.3 FM, WingsFM.com)
Calling it “the biggest game of the season” still feels like an understatement.
For only the second time in modern SEC history, the SEC West comes down to Saturday’s battle between #1 Alabama and #6 Auburn. The winner will play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, and the winner of that game is assured a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Undefeated Alabama will face its toughest challenge of the year: a surging, battle-tested Auburn team playing at home. Alabama is favored (they’re always favored), but this isn’t a run-of-the-mill conference game where the Crimson Tide should be expected to lay waste to their opposition and showcase reserves throughout the second half.
Auburn features an offense that makes as many big plays as anyone in college football and a defense without any glaring weaknesses. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham spent the year eliminating any doubt in his ability to get the ball to his receivers. Stidham’s numbers are stellar; he’s completed nearly 70% of his passes and is averaging more than 9 yards per attempt. Running back Kerryon Johnson has 1172 rushing yards on the season; it’s the ninth consecutive season that an Auburn player gained more than 1000 yards on the ground. Auburn’s offensive line, the subject of a great deal of scrutiny following Auburn’s two losses on the season, has evolved into one of the team’s greatest strengths.
Even though spirits are high in Auburn and excitement is at a fever pitch, fans understand the height of the task at hand. Auburn will have to play its best game of the season on both sides of the ball if it hopes to knock off the nation’s top team. Auburn’s offense will need to stay balanced and keep Alabama’s defense guessing, while its defense will need to keep dangerous Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts from creating big plays with his feet and finding star receiver Calvin Ridley.
Auburn has the ability to put pressure on its opponent by turning a close game into a game on the verge of getting out of hand (just like it did against Georgia), and Alabama doesn’t have a lot of experience playing from behind this season – or even playing against a team capable of keeping pace. Alabama hasn’t had to play very many close games on the road this season, either; the team was clearly out of its element in Starkville before it steadied itself and rallied in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State.
When Alabama has the ball, the pressure will be on Auburn’s defensive line to rattle Jalen Hurts and force him to take his eyes away from his wideouts. Defensive end Jeff Holland – who merits serious consideration for SEC Defensive Player of the Year – will lead the charge for Auburn, but Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe, and Derrick Brown will all have to contribute if Auburn wants to win third down.
With so much more on the line than bragging rights this year and both teams playing at such an exceptionally high level, the 2017 Iron Bowl feels like a classic in the making.
WHAT TO WATCH
– Auburn’s secondary will have its hands full with Ridley; can it hold up if the game stays close late? Auburn has turned most of its SEC games into blowouts by the fourth quarter, so its defense will be in largely unfamiliar territory if the game comes down to one final drive.
– Alabama has a talented group of running backs, including Damien Harris and Bo Scarborough. Auburn’s defense did an excellent job stifling Georgia’s impressive pair of running backs. If Auburn gets similar results against Alabama’s running game, the pressure on Jalen Hurts to perform will only increase.
– Auburn features the nation’s best kicker, Daniel Carlson, and the last time Auburn won this rivalry game, it came down to a field goal that simply didn’t have enough leg. Will the game come down to a Carlson field goal? How should I know?
PECK’S PICKS (last week: 4-4, YTD 39-29)
– MISSOURI -8 @ ARKANSAS – Missouri has been on an absolute tear for the last few weeks, slicing through Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt with little difficulty. Arkansas will be hard-pressed to slow down their offense. PECK’S PICK: MISSOURI -8
– OHIO STATE -13 @ MICHIGAN – Ohio State still has a real shot at the Playoff, but they can’t afford to slip up and lose to a Michigan team desperate for a win against a rival. Michigan is beaten up and tired after battling Wisconsin last week, and they simply don’t have the talent to stay competitive with the Buckeyes. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -13
– LOUISVILLE -10 @ KENTUCKY – Bobby Petrino’s offense has been great this year, but disappointing losses to Boston College and Wake Forest can be blamed on a defense that still hasn’t come around. Kentucky can score points and should be able to keep things close. PECK’S PICK: KENTUCKY +10
– ARIZONA -2 @ ARIZONA STATE – Khalil Tate is still on a very short list of the best players in college football, and the Sun Devils will not be able to keep him from another impressive performance. PECK’S PICK: ARIZONA -2
– ALABAMA -4.5 @ AUBURN – This is the main event of the evening, and the biggest college football game of the season so far. Alabama has done everything they need to do this year, but Auburn is scrappy and playing at home. Auburn wins. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN +4.5
Enjoy the games!
Co-Host, THE DRIVE (4-6PM, ESPN 106.7 FM, ESPNAU.com)
Host, AFTER THE GAME (Immediately following Auburn University football games, Wings 94.3 FM, WingsFM.com)
Brilliance. Sheer brilliance.
I’m not talking about the fact that Peck’s Picks went 5-0 against the spread last week (more on that later). It’s been a long time since Auburn dominated a great team the way they pushed around the previously undefeated Georgia Bulldogs in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
It’s difficult to overstate how desperately Auburn fans wanted to see what they saw on Saturday. Georgia had won 9 of the previous 11 meetings between the two teams, many in blowout fashion. A loss to LSU earlier in the season was placed squarely at head coach Gus Malzahn’s feet after Auburn’s offense inexplicably became staunchly conservative in a failed attempt to protect a 20-0 first-half lead.
Watching Auburn stay aggressive and turn a 16-7 halftime lead into a full-blown rout was cathartic for a community that was ready to help Malzahn pack his bags a month earlier – and based on Malzahn’s enthusiastic response to the victory on the sidelines and the spontaneous dance party that erupted on Auburn’s sideline in the fourth quarter (complete with Soulja Boy), fans weren’t the only ones who wanted it.
Auburn’s offense was fueled by Kerryon Johnson, who finished the game with 233 yards from scrimmage, including a 55-yard touchdown reception on a screen pass that effectively ended things. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was stellar again, making virtually no mistakes and throwing a gorgeous touchdown to Darius Slayton. Auburn’s offensive line, inconsistent throughout the first half of the season, paved the way for an offense that finished the game with 476 yards of total offense while only allowing two sacks.
Defensively, Auburn kept Georgia from ever getting into gear after the Bulldogs took a 7-0 lead by converting on their opening drive. Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm had to worry about defensive linemen swarming him throughout the game and celebrated running back tandem Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for only 48 rushing yards.
It was an immense, narrative-changing victory for Malzahn. Not only had his aggressiveness come into question after the loss to LSU, but it had been too long since Auburn defeated a really good team. Mississippi State is certainly above-average, but Auburn hadn’t beaten a top-tier team since the game against Ole Miss in 2014. The loss to Clemson earlier this year was Auburn’s fifth consecutive loss when playing against a team ranked in the top 5; that streak is over. People wondered if Malzahn’s offense, playing without a quarterback who is a threat to run all over the field, could generate enough firepower to overwhelm a high-quality opponent; those questions have been answered.
By defeating Georgia, Auburn kept its hopes of postseason glory alive. A win against #1 Alabama on November 25 will send Auburn to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2013, where a rematch with Georgia will decide what team will represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff. Auburn is still firmly in the hunt and the Tigers are surging as the season’s conclusion approaches.
Before that fateful game with the Crimson Tide, however, the #6 Tigers host the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks in a game that could ruin everything. Malzahn and his coaching staff will have their hands full keeping the team focused on the task at hand after such a monumental, emotional, and pivotal victory on Saturday. Thankfully, even a sloppy and imperfect Auburn team should be able to dispatch ULM with very little difficulty. Here’s hoping the team avoids any significant injuries and continues to build momentum as one of the biggest Iron Bowls of all time looms on the horizon.
WHAT TO WATCH:
– How much will Kerryon Johnson play? Auburn will be looking to get its starters out of the game as quickly as possible and provide them some extra rest before the matchup against Alabama. However, Johnson is increasingly mentioned as a potential candidate for the Heisman Trophy, and there could be some desire from Auburn to improve his statistics against an inferior opponent.
– If Johnson isn’t used as frequently as they’ve used him in other games this year, who will be the next back off the bench for the Tigers? Reserve running backs Kam Martin and Devan Barrett both saw time against Georgia and, if Kerryon were to declare for the 2018 NFL Draft after the season, figure to be key pieces of next year’s team. Will Auburn use this week as an opportunity to feature them more?
– Will the fans show up? Auburn students have next week off, and many will skip town as soon as class is over on Friday (or sooner). The stadium won’t be rocking like it was last week. Hopefully Auburn won’t need to utilize its home-field advantage late in the game.
PECK’S PICKS (Last Week: 5-0[!!!!!], YTD 35-25)
– UAB +10.5 @ FLORIDA – Florida is in a freefall, and there is far more interest around who the Gators will hire as their new head coach than anything that could happen on the field this Saturday. UAB is playing tough; head coach Bill Clark deserves credit for the tremendous job he’s done with a program that was left for dead by its school’s administration. Florida has more talent, but UAB will have more effort and might even pull off the upset. PECK’S PICK: UAB +10.5
– MISSOURI -8.5 @ VANDERBILT – Speaking of left for dead, Missouri looked to be in tatters after three consecutive blowout losses at home early in the season, but the Tigers have rallied. Drew Lock is putting up the best numbers of any quarterback in the conference and Missouri has thumped Florida and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks. Look for Mizzou to keep things going. PECK’S PICK: MISSOURI -8.5
– LSU -15.5 @ TENNESSEE: And speaking of that team Missouri just demolished, there’s just no fight left in the Volunteers. In a desolate stadium, against a relentless LSU offense that will run the ball behind Darius Guice, I don’t expect things to stay competitive for long. PECK’S PICK: LSU -15.5
– MICHIGAN +7.5 @ WISCONSIN – Wisconsin faces its toughest opponent thus far: a Michigan team that has been on a tear since the October debacle in Happy Valley. Wisconsin should win close, but I expect Michigan to keep things far too close for comfort. PECK’S PICK: MICHIGAN +7.5
– OKLAHOMA -37 @ KANSAS – This is just unfair. If this horrendous Kansas team even stays within four touchdowns of the best offense in college football, they should name the stadium after head coach David Beaty. PECK’S PICK: OKLAHOMA -37
– MISSISSIPPI STATE -12 @ ARKANSAS – A great time to bet against a team is right after its AD gets fired for being too loyal to the embattled head coach. The Bulldogs look like the fourth best team in the conference (even as they collapsed in the fourth quarter against Alabama). The Razorbacks seem years away from competing in the West. PECK’S PICK: MSU -12
– UCLA +16 @ USC – As a UCLA alum, it pains me to say that the Bruins won’t be able to get enough stops to keep the game close against a high-powered USC offense that has diced up the other teams in its division. PECK’S PICK: USC -16
– LOUISIANA MONROE +37 @ AUBURN – Will Auburn be focused on burying their guests from the Sun Belt? ULM can score points, Auburn played an emotional game last week, and nobody can blame Auburn for letting thoughts about next week’s opponent creep into its collective mind. Auburn wins, but ULM covers late. PECK’S PICK: ULM +37
Enjoy the games!
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On Saturday, #10 Auburn plays its biggest home game in years against #1 Georgia, and it’s impossible to overemphasize the stakes: a win would provide head coach Gus Malzahn with much-desired job security and keep alive Auburn’s chances of winning the SEC and advancing to the College Football Playoff for the first time in team history, while a loss would advance the narrative that Malzahn’s teams have lost the ability to defeat elite opposition.
It’s ridiculous to suggest that losing to the #1 team in the nation is ever “unacceptable,” but there are those in Auburn still angry about losses to Georgia in 2015 and 2016 (when Auburn seemingly had a better team going into the game) ready to wash their hands of Malzahn if he loses to Georgia for a fourth consecutive time. This moment has been building since before the 2017 season began. It’s all or nothing.
Auburn is coming off an inspired performance at Texas A&M. For the first time in conference play all season, Auburn’s offense didn’t begin the game by scoring a lot of points and immediately putting pressure on the opposition; A&M’s defense held its own for most of the first two quarters and nearly held a 13-7 lead going into halftime before Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham (who, as it was mentioned a ridiculous number of times going into the first half, grew up in Texas) fired a gorgeous pass to receiver Darius Slayton to spark an onslaught that led to Auburn taking a 35-13 lead in the third quarter – and eventually winning 42-27.
The Tigers have shown real versatility against SEC competition: they’ve moved the ball on the ground and through the air, they’ve stopped the run, they’ve featured a tenacious pass rush, and they’ve played well in the secondary. People are tired of Malzahn talking almost exclusively about “execution” after losses, but when Auburn’s offense is executing, it’s difficult to explain how a defense can stop it.
Georgia boasts similar strengths: a rushing attack that features a pair of running backs who currently rank third and eighth in the conference in yards, a passing offense that does enough to back defenders up, and a defense that has held its own, week after week. The Bulldogs will look to do to Auburn what they’ve been able to do in every other game they’ve played this season: establish the run, build a lead, and take advantage of mistakes after forcing the opponent into becoming one-dimensional. However, Auburn represents a considerable step up in competition for Georgia, as the Bulldogs haven’t really been challenged since a mid-September victory at Notre Dame. Georgia has laid waste to the downtrodden SEC East and, like Auburn, steamrolled a Mississippi State team that could finish the season 9-3. If the game stays competitive into the final minutes, perhaps Auburn will be able to draw on its experience in close games this season, as the Tigers appear to be the more battle-tested team.
Georgia has won 9 of the 11 in its rivalry against Auburn; a silver lining for Auburn fans is the knowledge that the last two times the Tigers beat Georgia, they went on to win the Iron Bowl and the SEC Championship (and, in 2010, the BCS National Championship). Those lofty goals are still realistic possibilities for the 2017 Auburn Tigers, but they’ll need to beat Georgia in to keep them alive.
WHAT TO WATCH:
– Expect Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson to receive the bulk of the carries (Malzahn tends to lean heavily on his star players, especially in big games), but backup Kam Martin has established himself as the first guy off the bench and possesses a second gear that could provide big plays for the Tigers if they turn to him when Johnson needs a break.
– Auburn has given up 14 sacks in its two losses, so pass protection will be crucial – particularly on third down. Mistakes from the offensive line, Stidham, or even offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey (who found himself being criticized for play-calling decisions he made in Auburn’s losses to Clemson and LSU) could have huge ramifications if the game is as close as it looks like it could be.
– Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has enjoyed the luxury of a successful ground game throughout his freshman season; a competitive game on the road in a raucous SEC stadium will be a new experience for him. His response to the pressure he’ll face on Saturday will play an outsized role in deciding the victor.
PECK’S PICKS (last week 3-2, YTD 30-25)
TCU +6.5 @ OKLAHOMA: One of several games this weekend that will eliminate a team from playoff contention, I like the white-hot Oklahoma offense to distance itself from TCU in the second half. PECK’S PICK: OKLAHOMA -6.5
WEST VIRGINIA +2.5 @ KANSAS STATE: The Mountaineers can score with the best teams in the Big 12; Kansas State should slow them down initially, but won’t be able to keep up all game. PECK’S PICK: WEST VIRGINIA +2.5
FLORIDA +6 @ SOUTH CAROLINA: South Carolina could have a letdown just a week after a hard-fought loss to Georgia, but Florida just looks abysmal and effort should be a question after the way they played against Missouri. PECK’S PICK: SOUTH CAROLINA -6
MICHIGAN STATE +17 @ OHIO STATE: Last week’s shocking blowout loss to Iowa all but ends Ohio State’s chances of making the College Football Playoff, but they remain in contention for the conference championship and Urban Meyer practically never loses conference home games. Look for an inspired effort from the Buckeyes. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -17
GEORGIA -2.5 @ AUBURN: Recent history favors Georgia, but I like the home team to draw on lessons it learned in its two defeats. Auburn wins a close game. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN +2.5
Enjoy the games!