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Dan Peck

Before The Game

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 12

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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!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

Before the Game Cover

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 11

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

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!

 

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

Before The Game

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 10

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

 

Down the stretch they come.

#14 Auburn, fresh off a desperately needed bye week, returns to action this week as it takes the long trip to Texas A&M. The Tigers can still win the SEC West – and more – but a misstep in College Station will end those dreams (and, potentially, Gus Malzahn’s tenure as head coach).

The Tigers received unwelcome news earlier this week when it was announced that Kamryn Pettway, who was finally starting to regain the form that made him one of the best running backs in the SEC in 2016, would miss significant time with a broken shoulder blade. It’s a disappointing development: the possibility of teaming Pettway with a healthy Kerryon Johnson is tantalizing, but Pettway’s shoulder injury ends the possibility of seeing the tandem in action together anytime soon.

With Pettway sidelined, Auburn’s offense will have to depend on Johnson to continue to receive an outsized number of carries; reserve running backs like sophomore Kam Martin, freshman Malik Miller, and freshman Devan Barrett should contribute when Johnson needs a break. The undersized Martin might be Auburn’s fastest offensive player, and his absence from the offense in recent weeks has been puzzling. Miller, a powerful runner listed at 235 pounds, seems to be an obvious choice to fill Pettway’s shoes as a bruiser. Barrett is like a cross between the other two (bigger and slower than Martin, smaller and faster than Miller), but he features a forceful burst and smoothness that indicates he’ll be a major factor in the offense down the line. Earlier this week, Malzahn suggested that all three will play a role in the game at Texas A&M.

The Aggies were flattened by Mississippi State last week, falling into a 21-0 hole early in the third quarter before eventually losing 35-14. MSU rushed for 228 yards and stifled A&M’s offense; A&M rushed for just 96 yards and only completed 16 of its 41 pass attempts. Auburn appears to be better than Mississippi State on both sides of the ball (just disregard that whole LSU thing), so it will take an inspired effort from Texas A&M to avoid another lopsided defeat. A&M’s struggles throwing the ball are particularly puzzling because a strong passing game is usually a trademark of a team led by A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. The return of quarterback Nick Starkel, who was injured in Texas A&M’s opener against UCLA, could provide a spark for an offense that trended downwards throughout October. If Sumlin find a way to cure A&M’s offensive woes during the season’s final act, there will almost assuredly be a new coach in College Station next year.

When Auburn has the ball, it should have the advantage against an A&M defense that surrenders 27 points a game on average. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is having an impressive season, Johnson leads the nation in touchdowns, and Auburn has found a way to build a large early lead in every single conference game it has played so far and held that lead in almost every game (again, I implore you, ignore what happened in Baton Rouge).

With the Georgia and Alabama games on the horizon, it’s crucial for the Tigers to flex their muscles against an overmatched opponent. A lopsided victory for Auburn will give the Tigers more reason for confidence as they face off against the class of the SEC in their final two conference games; a close victory will give Auburn valuable experience in tight, late-game situations (Georgia and Alabama haven’t played many close games in 2017). A loss would be catastrophic.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– A&M’s defense will attempt to stifle Auburn’s ability to create big plays; this is easier said than done. A defense that tries to prevent Stidham from going deep will open itself up to short passes that can turn into large gains (and prevent its secondary from being able to provide sufficient help against the run), while a defense focused on stopping Auburn’s potent rushing attack could give Stidham an opportunity for a career night. It could be a pick your poison scenario, particularly if Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey finds a way to exploit weaknesses in an overly aggressive opponent.

– Auburn’s offensive line should welcome back center Casey Dunn after he sat out against Arkansas. Many factors contributed to Auburn’s collapse against LSU (I promise I’ll stop bringing it up eventually), but Auburn’s offense seemingly never recovered from losing Dunn to a knee injury in the second quarter. With Dunn at center and Austin Golson shifted to tackle, Auburn will have its best offensive linemen available at their best positions, making the task even more daunting for Texas A&M.

– What kind of crowd will be in attendance? Last Saturday, A&M was throttled at home, at night, coming off a bye week. Now, a seemingly superior opponent comes to town and the game kicks off at 11 AM. Will A&M fans be their traditional rowdy selves? If Auburn takes an early lead on Saturday, expect the negativity and frustration that has simmered throughout that fanbase during Sumlin’s tenure to boil over in a very public way.

PECK’S PICKS (last week: 3-2, YTD 27-23)

SOUTH CAROLINA +24 @ GEORGIA: The Bulldogs have a chance to all but lock up the SEC East, but the visiting Gamecocks will put up a fight and the chance is there for Georgia to underachieve in the week between its games against Florida and Auburn. I’m not sure if Carolina can score the upset but I don’t expect them to get destroyed. PECK’S PICK: SOUTH CAROLINA +24

OKLAHOMA +2 @ OKLAHOMA STATE: Essentially an elimination game for two teams still very alive in the College Football Playoff, this is a game that figures to be extremely high-scoring. Baker Mayfield wins a quarterback duel with Mason Rudolph and the Sooners make just enough plays on defense to win. PECK’S PICK: OKLAHOMA +2

ARIZONA +7 @ USC: Khalil Tate, the hottest player in college football, is running Rich Rodriguez’s system as well as anyone ever has (yes, including Pat White and Denard Robinson). USC’s run defense looked so porous against Notre Dame; it’s difficult to imagine that they’ve made substantial improvements just two weeks later. PECK’S PICK: ARIZONA +7

UCF -14.5 @ SMU: We were telling you about Scott Frost before it was cool. PECK’S PICK: UCF -14.5

VIRGINIA TECH -1 @ MIAMI: Miami just seems so fraudulent. They’re winning games, but it seems like they’re due. Virginia Tech is an explosive offense with a great coach. PECK’S PICK: MIAMI +1

AUBURN -15 @ TEXAS A&M: Auburn’s offense put it together against Arkansas last week, and now faces an A&M team with wobbly legs, primed to be knocked out. Look for Auburn to take a big lead early and distance itself from an A&M team that will not be able to mount a rally behind an anemic passing attack. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -15

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

 

Before The Game

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 9

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

Auburn is on its bye week, but we here at BTG believe in no weeks off.

The Tigers went up to Arkansas and did what they’ve done in every SEC game this season: they built a comfortable lead in the first half. However, in following a satisfactory half with a spectacular third quarter that put the game out of reach, Auburn was able to do against Arkansas what fans desperately wanted to see against LSU a week earlier. Instead of attempting to protect a lead and relying on the defense to be flawless, Auburn hungered for more points and continued to attack, turning a 17-6 lead into 38-6 before the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Arkansas is a team in the midst of a bad season, and a win over Auburn would have generated some much-needed positivity around the program. Auburn came to Arkansas vulnerable, having just lost a very disappointing game to LSU. What could have been a catastrophic loss for Auburn and a signature victory for Bret Bielema became a rout, reminding Auburn fans of its team’s impressive firepower.

The reemergence of running back and 2016 sensation Kamryn Pettway as an impact player on the Auburn offense was a welcome sight after seeing him struggle earlier in the season. Pettway’s rare combination of size, speed, shiftiness and brute strength – the talents that he used to rush for over 1200 yards last season – were on full display when Auburn turned to him in the third quarter against Arkansas. If Auburn can continue leaning on Pettway, particularly after giving defenses a steady diet of running back Kerryon Johnson, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Auburn’s chances down the stretch.

Auburn will enjoy the week off and allow its banged-up roster to heal. Its next opponent, Texas A&M, must first overcome a physical Mississippi State team. I’m interested to see if the A&M defense holds its own against the MSU running game; the Bulldogs struggle to get anything going if they’re forced to become one-dimensional. If Texas A&M is still showing the flaws on defense that were evident in its collapse against UCLA and high-scoring overtime win against Arkansas, Mississippi State could score a lot of points.

We’ll have more on Auburn @ Texas A&M next week.

PECK’S PICKS: (last week: 2-4, YTD: 24-21)

TCU -6.5 @ Iowa State: The Cyclones have become one of the best stories in college football, but they simply won’t be able to keep up with TCU’s offense.  PECK’S PICK: TCU -6.5

Duke +15.5 @ Virginia Tech: Justin Fuente, Virginia Tech’s head coach, will be one of the most sought-after coaches in the nation after the season; he’s played a key role in turning VT into one of the best offenses in the conference. PECK’S PICK: VT -15.5

Washington State -2.5 @ Arizona: Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez are a pair of mad scientists with quarterbacks who run their respective offenses to absolute perfection. Khalil Tate has had college football buzzing, and I expect the Wildcats to ride him to another improbable victory. PECK’S PICK: ARIZONA +2.5

Georgia -13.5 @ Florida (in Jacksonville): The Bulldogs have proven unstoppable in SEC play thus far; Florida had extremely close wins against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, three teams Georgia smashed. Florida has done very well in this rivalry before, but they are simply outmanned this year. PECK’S PICK: GEORGIA -13.5

Penn State +6.5 @ Ohio State: Penn State has looked great, but betting against an Urban Meyer team playing at home, particularly in a conference game, is almost always unwise. PECK’S PICK: OHIO STATE -6.5

 

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

Before The Game

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 8

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

As you’re no doubt aware, Auburn took a 20-0 lead in the second quarter against the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge (where they haven’t won since 1999) before LSU rallied to win the game 27-23. Auburn’s fast start was as remarkable as its collapse was astonishing; its offense was a machine operating at full power until the plug was suddenly pulled.

The Tigers gained 290 yards of offense in the first half and 64 in the second. Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson-powered run game, seemingly unstoppable in the first quarter, stalled out after LSU adjusted – leaving the Auburn offense flustered and unable to gain any ground. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham, after three conference games in which his accuracy was pinpoint, only completed 3 of his final 18 pass attempts in Tiger Stadium after completing 6 of his first 8. Auburn’s play calling on offense succeeded at keeping LSU off-balance at the beginning of the game, but when Auburn had to gain yardage and keep its defense off the field to protect its lead, it couldn’t.

The loss is devastating for Auburn. The Tigers entered their road trip optimistic that they could go into their November 11 meeting with Georgia 6-0 in conference play and still firmly in the thick of the hunt for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Instead, they have to dust themselves off, beat a pair of conference foes on the road, and hope that they’re provided enough help to remain in contention for the SEC West as games against its most hated rivals approach.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn came to college football as a visionary. At its full potential, his hurry-up, run-heavy spread offense was a thing of beauty. If he isn’t retained by Auburn after the season is over, it won’t surprise me at all if he is able to find another job as a head coach (or perhaps even as offensive coordinator at a powerhouse); Saturday just appeared to be the breaking point for many fans willing to give him the benefit of the doubt after disappointing losses in recent years. This season seems critical for Malzahn if he is to continue as Auburn’s coach, and a loss like the one Saturday, in which Auburn’s offense became overly conservative and ineffective at the worst possible time, did considerable damage to his case.

Smarter people than I have wondered if a quarterback who represents a genuine threat as a runner is required for Gus Malzahn to operate his offense at its true potential. Nick Marshall and Cam Newton were particularly special talents who excelled in Malzahn’s offense, efforts to replace them have led to crucial games in which Auburn’s passing game falls apart and plays a role in a narrow loss. Against LSU, attempts to run the ball in the second half were stymied (perhaps because the quarterback himself is no threat to run), and attempts to throw the ball were frequently at a difficult down and distance – leading Stidham to throw several passes that were very nearly intercepted. Stidham had thrown sensational passes in previous weeks, but LSU’s inspired and aggressive defensive effort in the second half prevented him from ever getting comfortable.

Fans who have questioned play calling choices, and specifically the choice to run exclusively on first down and throw several deep passes on third down, were reminded of Auburn’s game against Clemson, in which the team started out moving the ball effectively only to stall out on drive after drive after the opponent changed its approach. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who called some ingenious plays to spark Auburn’s 20-0 lead, couldn’t figure out how to successfully attack LSU once it started to bottle up Johnson on first down.

Malzahn, who suddenly needs a win as desperately as any coach in the conference, heads to his home state of Arkansas on Saturday night with the #21 Tigers to take on Bret Bielema’s Arkansas Razorbacks, who are somehow playing their first conference home game of the season. If Auburn jumps out to the same fast start that it has for four consecutive SEC games, the frustration and disappointment of the Arkansas faithful will be loud and clear. If Arkansas’s offense can sustain drives and attack Auburn’s banged-up defense, and the game remains competitive for much longer than Auburn would like, there’s potential for an upset that would simply be catastrophic to Auburn’s season.

 

WHAT TO WATCH:

– With rain forecasted for Fayetteville on Saturday night, Auburn will likely play its first game of the season in inclement weather. Deep passing attempts have become a hallmark of Auburn’s offense over the last few weeks, but the elements could detract from those efforts. Will stormy, windy conditions play into the hands of the Razorbacks, who will start a backup quarterback and would assuredly prefer a low-scoring game with few pass attempts from either side?

– Auburn’s defense had its worst game of the season on Saturday against LSU, surrendering more big plays than it had all season. The Tigers have played every week since the season started without a bye, so it’s fair to wonder if fatigue is a factor. Auburn will be off the week after the Arkansas game, so Auburn fans must hope that the team isn’t already thinking about what they’ll be doing with their free time over Halloween weekend.

– The aforementioned backup quarterback for Arkansas is the gargantuan Cole Kelley, who appears to be in the neighborhood of eight feet tall and 450 pounds. Kelley is responsible for much of the excitement about Arkansas’s future, and the buzz around the freshman will only increase if he’s able to secure a home win against a heavily favored opponent on Saturday night.

 

PECK’S PICKS: Last week: 3-2, YTD: 22-17

– SMU -7.5 @ Cincinnati – SMU head coach Chad Morris is increasingly mentioned as a candidate for a job in the Power Five, and the Mustangs will have plenty of opportunities to raise his profile even further as they square off against UCF, Navy, and Memphis in November. I expect them to throw the ball up and down the field against a struggling Cincinnati team on Saturday. PECK’S PICK: SMU -7.5

– USC +3.5 @ Notre Dame –  The Irish are running the ball extremely well and face off against a USC team that has played quite a few close games and surrendered more points than head coach Clay Helton would like. This is a de facto elimination game in the College Football Playoff race, and I expect the Trojans to get a big game out of quarterback Sam Darnold to stay alive in the hunt. PECK’S PICK: USC +3.5

– Boston College +6.5 @ Virginia: Virginia is getting better every week and will be a team to watch in the ACC next season, particularly if a program is able to lure away Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente. Boston College pulled off a remarkable upset at Louisville but Virginia’s passing game will present a different set of problems for the Eagles. PECK’S PICK: VIRGINIA -6.5

– Maryland +24 @ Wisconsin: Wisconsin is powering towards an undefeated season and a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, while Maryland looks deflated and will have little interest in continuously tackling Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. PECK’S PICK: WISCONSIN -24

– Syracuse +17 @ Miami – Syracuse qualifies as another team playing better football every week, while Miami has been good and lucky. PECK’S PICK: SYRACUSE +17

– Auburn -15.5 @ Arkansas – BYU, Mississippi State, Syracuse, Troy, and Florida all lost the game after the LSU game. It might be a strange coincidence, but perhaps there’s something to the idea that LSU plays an extremely physical game that drains opponents and prevents them from having their best stuff a week later. Auburn certainly qualifies as beaten-up and drained, and Arkansas could be there to take advantage. PECK’S PICK: ARKANSAS +15.5

 

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

Before The Game

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 7

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

The last time Auburn won in Baton Rouge, it was 1999. Eighteen years is an eternity in the SEC West. College football dynasties have risen and fallen since Auburn’s last victory in Tiger Stadium.

Auburn and LSU have played eight times in Baton Rouge since 1999. Some of the games were close (2005, 2007) and some of them weren’t (virtually all the others), but LSU won every single time.

This year, #10 Auburn heads to LSU on a hot streak after three consecutive one-sided conference victories, including a blowout win against a Mississippi State team that beat LSU by thirty. The evidence we’ve been given this season suggests that Auburn should beat LSU comfortably, but my brain keeps reminding me that this is Baton Rouge and Auburn simply doesn’t win comfortably in Baton Rouge. I’m like an old farmer that refuses to believe the radar-assisted weather forecast because it doesn’t feel like it’s going to rain. I refuse to believe Auburn can go into Baton Rouge, play like the vastly superior team, and push LSU around until I see it happen with my own two eyes.

Auburn’s 44-23 victory against Ole Miss on Saturday was a lot like its previous two conference victories: the offense, spurred by quarterback Jarrett Stidham and running back Kerryon Johnson, quickly put Auburn’s opponent in a big hole, while the defense played very well and prevented the opposition from keeping up with the barrage of points. Auburn took a double-digit lead with four minutes to go in the first quarter and never relinquished it. Ole Miss scored 20 of its 23 points in the second half, as Auburn gave playing time to its reserves. Putting aside some offensive sluggishness from Auburn once the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt, the Tigers played nearly flawless football.

If LSU’s early-season struggles can’t merely be blamed on underachieving, the Auburn Tigers should have enough talent to beat them the way they’ve beaten the first three conference teams they were matched up against. Auburn’s balanced offense continues to protect Jarrett Stidham, generate big plays, and keep defenses guessing.

If LSU can generate a consistent pass rush, Auburn should have more difficulty moving the ball than in recent weeks. Auburn’s offensive line has been one of its strengths in the weeks since it allowed 11 sacks against Clemson, opening up space for the running backs and consistently giving Stidham enough time. Defense has been a tentpole for LSU throughout its home winning streak against Auburn, but this year’s group doesn’t play like an LSU defense all the time.

It boils down to this: if Auburn shows up and plays to its full potential, LSU will have a very difficult time keeping its home win streak in this series alive. There are too many weapons on the Auburn offense and LSU isn’t equipped to play from behind or trade scores against a team with a more proficient quarterback. If Auburn sputters offensively and allows LSU to keep the game competitive and gain confidence, this could become yet another disappointing trip to Baton Rouge.

 

WHAT TO WATCH:

– LSU linebacker Arden Key entered the season with a lot of hype, but his on-field production thus far hasn’t justified the buzz. However, he played his best game of the season against Florida, and he’ll be a crucial part of LSU’s efforts to disrupt Stidham and keep Auburn’s passing offense from having the kind of success it has enjoyed in its previous three games.

– In true Gus Malzahn fashion, Auburn has utilized receiver Eli Stove in the running game recently, and he’s provided big plays in return. With Kerryon Johnson enjoying a great deal of success between the tackles, Auburn should continue to slow defenses down by forcing them to worry about sweeps and toss plays that can use a defense’s aggressiveness against them.

– Auburn’s defensive line will need to continually pressure LSU quarterback Danny Etling. Opposing quarterbacks have had very little time against Auburn’s defense and Auburn has taken advantage of subsequent mistakes. LSU won’t be able to pull off the upset if Etling makes similar errors.

 

PECK’S PICKS (Last week 2-3, YTD: 19-15)

– MICHIGAN -7.5 @ INDIANA: The Wolverines fizzled in a downpour against Michigan State last week; their national championship hopes hinge on their ability to run the table. Indiana won’t be able to keep pace. PECK’S PICK: MICHIGAN -7.5

– TEXAS A&M +3 @ FLORIDA: A&M held its own against Alabama. Florida rarely loses back-to-back home games, but the Gators have serious problems on offense and its defense will be on the field a lot against the Aggies. PECK’S PICK: TEXAS A&M +3

– VIRGINIA -4 @ UNC: UNC is bad, while Bronco Mendenhall has UVA improving game-to-game. Look for UVA to avenge last year’s blowout loss in the South’s Oldest Rivalry and cause headaches for ACC opposition moving forward. PECK’S PICK: VIRGINIA -4

– VANDERBILT +3.5 @ OLE MISS: A pair of struggling SEC teams meet up, but Ole Miss has offensive weapons that Vanderbilt will struggle to bottle up. Ole Miss’s defense will welcome an opportunity to face Vanderbilt after back-to-back games against Alabama and Auburn. PECK’S PICK: OLE MISS -3.5

– AUBURN -7 @ LSU: This would be an easy pick if I weren’t so traumatized by prior trips to Baton Rouge. LSU’s defense will be stretched thin trying to stop Auburn’s multipronged attack, while the Auburn defense should do a capable job keeping LSU in check. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -7

 

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 6

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Before The Game

The bilious anger that gushed from fans after Auburn’s 14-6 loss to Clemson has subsided… for now. Back-to-back sterling performances from quarterback Jarrett Stidham in blowout victories over conference opponents can do wonders for a nauseated fanbase. Can #12 Auburn keep things rolling?

Led by Stidham and running back Kerryon Johnson, the Tigers pummeled Mississippi State 49-10 in a game that felt reminiscent of Auburn’s road victory against Missouri a week earlier. Sparked by big plays, Auburn’s offense kept Mississippi State on its heels while Auburn’s defense consistently hounded Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, keeping him from ever becoming comfortable.

A third consecutive convincing victory against an SEC opponent seems likely. Perhaps too likely. Is this a trap game?

Auburn’s opponent will be desperate. Ole Miss, fresh off a lifeless 66-3 loss to Alabama, might be thinking about the offseason already. This isn’t what 2017 was supposed to look like. Expectations were upended after a tumultuous summer that led to the “resignation” of head coach Hugh Freeze. Despite talented quarterback Shea Patterson and a promising group of receivers, the team suffered a disappointing loss at Cal before Alabama took a sledgehammer to them. If the team can’t stay competitive against a surging Auburn team that looks sensational on both sides of the ball, it’ll find itself 0-2 in the conference and desperate to stop a downward spiral with no end in sight.

Kickoff will be early. There is no shortage of disastrous “Jordan Hare Stadium at 11 AM” stories. There were those games in 2006: Arkansas bulldozed an Auburn team ranked in the top five, then Georgia (led by true freshman Matthew Stafford) ruined Auburn’s chances of playing in a BCS bowl. There was the game in 2007 when Brandon Cox melted down and had to be benched during the third game of his senior year. There were overtimes win against Louisiana-Monroe in 2012 and Jacksonville State in 2015, both of which we all agreed to never speak of again.

Auburn could be thinking ahead. A road game at LSU looms on the horizon, and the team in Baton Rouge looks to be taking on water after a loss to Troy last week. Auburn appears primed to score its first road victory against LSU since 1999, a victory so alluring that you can’t blame anyone, not even the players and coaches, for letting it creep into their minds. If Auburn’s mind is already in Baton Rouge, can Ole Miss take advantage?

We’ll know early. Ole Miss’s defense seems overmatched against Auburn, as the Tigers have started to run the ball effectively and complete passes that result in big gains. Missouri and Mississippi State were both faced with an impossible choice: key in on Stidham and expose your defense to a rushing attack that can still generate a lot of yardage, or focus energy on stopping the run and give Stidham a chance to find open receivers down the field. If Ole Miss can’t figure out a solution to the problem that stumped Auburn’s last two SEC opponents, similar results should be expected.

When Ole Miss has the ball, it can’t make mistakes. Patterson throws the ball as well as any quarterback in the league, but he seemingly trusts his arm too much and makes ill-advised throws. Auburn is an opportunistic and aggressive defense that will punish a team for insouciance with the ball, and Ole Miss will find itself on the wrong end of a blowout if it gives Auburn additional chances to put points on the scoreboard.

 

 

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway, the SEC’s leading rusher in 2016, has been a non-factor in Auburn’s last two victories. He sat out the Missouri game after warming up with a noticeable limp, and only carried the ball five times against Mississippi State. There’s no easy answer here. It certainly appears that the new offense isn’t conducive to a player with Pettway’s bruising skillset and smaller, more elusive backs are a better fit. However, Pettway is playing through injuries; maybe he’ll be more explosive when he’s fully healed? Unfortunately, it’s undeniable: a special player from 2016 has looked downright ordinary just one season later.

– Auburn defensive end Jeff “Sensei Mud” Holland, a question mark coming into the season, has played sensational football this season and leads the SEC in quarterback hurries.  He’s helped Auburn keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, standing out amid one of the more gifted groups of defensive linemen in school history. With Holland playing at such a high level alongside Derrick Brown, Nick Coe, and the ever-devastating Marlon Davidson, Auburn should continue to confound teams desperate to slow down its ferocious pass rush.

– Auburn’s secondary, led by the resurgent Carlton Davis, has smothered SEC opposition thus far. Mississippi State only completed 13 of 37 pass attempts for 157 yards, a week after Missouri’s Drew Lock went 23 of 39 for 216 yards. Auburn took the lead early in both of those matchups, allowing its defense to take the advantage by focusing on the pass. If Auburn is able to jump on Ole Miss, Patterson will have his work cut out for him if he wants to spark a rally.

 

PECK’S PICKS (Last week: 3-3, YTD: 17-12)

OREGON STATE +34 @ USC: The Trojans will be happy to be at home after their treacherous trip to Pullman last week, where they suffered their first loss of the season against Captain Mike Leach and his rag-tag group of pirates. Making things even better for USC: they face the Pac-12’s worst team, Oregon State. The Beavers have given up at least 42 in all four of their games against FBS opposition this year, and they’ve lost those games by 31 ,34, 29, and 35. PECK’S PICK: USC -34

WAKE FOREST +21.5 @ CLEMSON: The Tigers showed again why they might be the best team in college football last week, going up to Virginia Tech at night and taking it to the Hokies. Clemson looks as though it might not be challenged again until the ACC Championship Game; Wake Forest will not be an exception. PECK’S PICK: CLEMSON -21.5

UCF -17 @ CINCINNATI: Scott Frost, who is already rehearsing the speech he’ll give at the press conference when he’s introduced at Nebraska’s new coach after the season is over, might have the best Group of Five team in college football. The lessons he learned at Oregon are serving him well; the Knights are an aggressive, unpredictable offense that will continue to confound its opposition. PECK’S PICK: UCF -17

MIAMI -3 @ FLORIDA STATE: For the first time since 1983, an unranked Florida State team squares off against a ranked Miami team. Mark Richt has Miami surging, while Florida State still hasn’t recovered from losing quarterback Deondre Francois against Alabama in its season opener. PECK’S PICK: MIAMI -3

OLE MISS +22 @ AUBURN: We’re chock-full of chalk this week. Ole Miss’s offense is talented enough that giving them twenty-two points is very tempting, but ultimately Auburn’s superior talent on both sides of the ball should produce a one-sided result for the third week in a row. Too many things would have to go right for Ole Miss in order to keep this game close; I don’t think it happens. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -22

 

Enjoy the games!

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 5

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Before The Game

 

The final score was 51-14, and it wasn’t even that close. #13 Auburn, playing its first ever game in the state of Missouri, crushed the reeling Missouri Tigers. Auburn took advantage of early mistakes by Missouri and big plays from its own offense to race out to a 28-0 lead in the second quarter. The game was never in doubt.

It’s tempting to dismiss Auburn’s performances against Missouri (and, for that matter, Mercer), but the Tigers have put together two very effective performances in a row. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham looks like one of the best players in college football, sparking Auburn’s passing attack with his remarkable accuracy and elite arm strength. The way he makes it look effortless belies the difficulty of the throws he’s attempting. Quarterbacks like this are rare.

Despite Stidham’s improvements, questions remain as Auburn enters a perilous stretch of conference play. Will Auburn’s offensive line give him enough time against good defenses to attack downfield, or will Stidham find himself on the run again? Will offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey call plays that punish overly eager and aggressive defenses? Most importantly, will Auburn get better at running the ball?

Though running back Kamryn Pettway sat out against Missouri after a pair of bruising performances in the previous two weeks, the Tigers were still able to gain considerable yardage on the ground with a combination of Kerryon Johnson, Eli Stove, and Kam Martin. Johnson has a smoothness to the way he runs and displays exemplary vision and decision-making, while Martin possesses elite speed. Saturday’s game against the visiting Mississippi State Bulldogs represents Auburn’s first opportunity of the season to utilize Pettway, Johnson, and Martin in the same game; it remains to be seen if they will be rotated situationally or if one or two will enjoy the lion’s share of the work. Pettway’s skills are unquestioned but Johnson and Martin have looked far too impressive to bench.

It remains true after four games: if Auburn can find a way to merge its rushing attack from last season with Stidham’s talents in the passing game, it will be able to move the football against virtually any defense in college football. Missouri was overmatched against Auburn, but Auburn deserves credit for avoiding careless mistakes that would have allowed the game to stay competitive and make fans anxious.

#24 Mississippi State, darlings of the SEC after a convincing victory over LSU, crashed to earth against #7 Georgia, 31-3. Head coach Dan Mullen deserves credit for 64 wins in nine seasons, but his teams tend to look overwhelmed when matched up with a high-quality opponent. The Bulldogs will have their paws full on Saturday: the offense must find a way to move the football against a front seven that will work to contain quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, and the defense must find a way to avoid giving up yardage on the ground while trying to pressure and confuse Stidham.

Last season, the Bulldogs – playing at home – found themselves down 35-0 to Auburn at halftime. If Auburn can get out to a hot start and its defensive line can effectively bottle up Fitzgerald, it could be another one-sided affair, particularly because of Auburn’s improvements in the passing game since the last time these two teams squared off.

WHAT TO WATCH:

– Mississippi State must find a way to limit Auburn’s ability to run outside, with Johnson, Martin, and even wide receivers. Auburn generated big gains by taking advantage of a Missouri defense clearing expecting more passes and interior runs. Mississippi State’s defense should be more apt than the one Auburn just played, but it’s still a matter of picking your poison: focusing on stopping outside runs could leave Pettway and Johnson with room between the tackles.

– Auburn’s secondary was up to the challenge last week, holding Missouri quarterback Drew Lock to 216 yards on 39 attempts. Mississippi State is much different, preferring to keep the defense off-balance by setting up the pass with quarterback runs. If Auburn’s defensive front struggles to slow Fitzgerald down, it will put pressure on the secondary to keep Mississippi State’s receivers covered up.   

– The calls for the job of Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn have quieted after back-to-back impressive performances (the fumbles against Mercer notwithstanding), but the barbarians at the gate will resume their siege if the team falters. If Auburn falters on Saturday at home when nearly favored by ten points, the disappointment and anger from the fanbase will be palpable. Auburn can’t afford to stumble right now.

PECK’S PICKS (Last week: 4-4; Year to date 14-9)

GEORGIA -8 @ TENNESSEE: Georgia played a near-perfect game against Mississippi State, cementing their case as a legitimate College Football Playoff contender, while Tennessee struggled to put away UMass. The pressure on Tennessee head coach Butch Jones has never been greater than it is right now: a poor showing in Knoxville could result in him losing his job before the end of the weekend. The fact that this line isn’t bigger is a warning flag to me; Las Vegas seems fine with letting folks load up on Georgia, expecting a rout. I say you hold your nose and believe in Butch. PECK’S PICK: TENNESSEE +8

VANDERBILT +9.5 @ FLORIDA: Florida has won two exciting football games in a row, improving head coach Jim McElwain’s conference record to an impressive 15-3 since his arrival in Gainesville before the 2015 season. Vanderbilt, beaten into paste by Alabama last week, has only defeated Florida one time since 1989. Vanderbilt seems primed for a bounce-back performance, while Florida’s luck will assuredly run out one of these days. PECK’S PICK: VANDERBILT +9.5

SOUTH CAROLINA +8.5 @ TEXAS A&M: Texas A&M features one of the most explosive offenses in the SEC, and I’m just not sure South Carolina will be able to score enough points to stay within striking distance. A&M’s defense is bad-but-opportunistic; they gave up 40 to Arkansas last week but secured a game-winning interception in overtime. PECK’S PICK: TEXAS A&M -8.5  

MEMPHIS +4 @ UCF:  UCF is quickly becoming a Peck’s Pick Preferred Play. I expected them to move the football against Maryland last week, but going on the road and holding the Terrapins to only 179 total yards was spectacular work by the defense. Memphis features one of the best offenses in the Group of Five, and this game could come down to whoever has the ball last, but the Knights will continue to win as the running game picks up speed. PECK’S PICK: UCF -4

CLEMSON -7 @ VIRGINIA TECH: I learned my lesson after the Louisville game. I won’t pick against Clemson anymore. I like Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente and the job he’s doing establishing an offense, but Clemson is simply too good. PECK’S PICK: CLEMSON -7

MISSISSIPPI STATE + 8.5 @ AUBURN: The Tigers, playing their first home conference game of the season, catch a Mississippi State team that has played a grueling pair of games back-to-back. As good as Auburn’s offense looked last week, my main reason for picking Auburn is the success I expect Auburn’s defensive line to have corralling Fitzgerald and keeping Mississippi State’s offense from ever getting into gear. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -8.5  

 

Enjoy the games!!!

 

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 4

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Before The Game

People are abandoning the Gus Bus like it’s the Titanic, but I’m staying in my seat for now.

 

#15 Auburn struggled to put away a plucky Mercer squad before finally emerging victorious, 24-10. The Tigers turned it over five times and couldn’t generate a consistent running game, allowing Mercer’s chances at victory to linger like a bad smell. The Bears even had an opportunity, however slim, to mount a game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. It was much more competitive than expected.

 

Sure, Auburn didn’t necessarily take a sledgehammer to its opponent from the FCS last week (a caller to AFTER THE GAME contemptuously referred to the Bears as “Mercer High School”). I’m not concerned. I saw enough positives from AU quarterback Jarrett Stidham to calm any worries about whether Auburn will be able to effectively pass the ball once SEC play begins.

 

Stidham’s arm is sensational; he fits the ball into tight spaces and some of his pass attempts against Mercer traveled thirty (or more) yards in a real hurry before arriving at their destination. He won’t have the time afforded him against Mercer when Auburn plays against better defenses, but his ability to effortlessly complete challenging passes reassures me. If Stidham’s protection allows him to get comfortable, Auburn’s offense will be difficult to stop.

 

Auburn’s sluggish running game, again reliant entirely on bruising tailback Kamryn Pettway, was effectively bottled up by Mercer, and the Bears deserve credit for keeping Pettway from breaking away on any of his thirty-four (34!) carries. Pettway’s health was a question entering the Mercer game, especially after it was revealed that he played against Clemson despite plankton facetiousness (I think that’s what it’s called?). Auburn’s decision to rely solely upon Pettway when running the ball deserves scrutiny for a variety of reasons: he doesn’t appear to have the same explosion that made him so devastating last season, there are talented running backs on Auburn’s bench who weren’t utilized, and such heavy usage early in the season (Pettway had 22 carries against Clemson) could wear Pettway down and leave him more susceptible to injury, rendering him unavailable as Auburn goes deeper into conference play.

 

The expected return of Kerryon Johnson, who ran effectively against Georgia Southern, should give Auburn a reason to stop relying so heavily on Pettway when attempting to run the ball against Missouri. If Johnson plays, it will be the first time all season that Johnson and Pettway appear in the same game – potentially giving Auburn a potent one-two punch in its backfield. If Auburn continues to use Pettway exclusively and things don’t get better, the second-guessing of Malzahn and his coaches will only intensify.

 

The final score of the Mercer game doesn’t reflect how well Auburn played on offense. Flukish mistakes (specifically fumbles) kept Auburn from beating Mercer by much more. As the passing game gains momentum, it will be crucial for Auburn to correct those errors and fix its once-overpowering rushing attack. If it can, it has a chance to embark on an impressive winning streak against SEC teams. If it can’t, the results could be disastrous.

 

Personally, I’m optimistic that Auburn’s offense will be able to keep defenses off-balance. The big-play potential is there: Stidham can back defenses up and keep them from focusing on the run, the receivers can get open and move well after the catch, and a combination of Pettway and Johnson could remedy the ailing run game; combine that with a defense that has excelled on nearly every series of the season and Auburn looks to be on the verge of breaking through and emerging as a very tough draw for any opponent in the conference.

 

WHAT TO WATCH

 

F FOR EFFORT: Missouri is spiraling downward, having lost two consecutive home games by a combined 50 points. Head coach Barry Odom played linebacker at Missouri in the ’90s, and the decision to promote him from defensive coordinator to head coach after the 2015 season was incredibly popular at the time. Fifteen games later, he’s answering questions about his team’s apparent lack of effort. A win at home against a ranked opponent would drastically improve the apparent trajectory of Missouri’s season. He doesn’t have to win this game – Auburn is seen as the more talented team – but a particularly one-sided loss would continue to fuel speculation that his team has quit on him and increase the chances that he will be replaced at the end of the season, if not sooner.

 

NEXT MAN UP: After Sean White, last season’s starting quarterback, was dismissed from the team on Monday, it left Auburn with two scholarship quarterbacks: Stidham and true freshman Malik Willis. Auburn’s coaches initially planned to redshirt Willis this season, but he could be forced into action if Stidham becomes unavailable. This leaves Auburn with a difficult decision: should they prepare for a bad situation by keeping Willis off the field until absolutely necessary (and potentially preserve his extra year of eligibility), or find ways to give him playing time so that he’s not completely caught off guard if they need to call on him later in the season?   

 

NOT-SO-SPECIAL: Auburn’s disappointing special teams play was a sore spot for Gus Malzahn after the Mercer game. Heralded kicker Daniel Carlson has already missed three field goals, Ian Shannon has had two punts travel fewer than thirty yards, and Auburn fumbled during a punt return against Mercer. Shannon appears to be in the most jeopardy to lose playing time; Malzahn demands consistency and a punter who can’t be relied upon will suffer the consequences.

 

PECK’S PICKS (Last week: 2-3 against the spread; Year to date: 10-5 against the spread)

 

Colorado @ Washington: Both teams are 3-0, but Washington’s slow start against Rutgers in the season opener makes me wonder if they’re a much better team at home. If Washington can start out of the gate quickly, they could pound Colorado into mush, but Colorado didn’t lose a conference game at home last season and it would be surprising to see them roll over against a team that is still trying to replace crucial parts of last year’s defense. Washington should win, but the potential for an upset is real and I expect the Buffaloes to keep the game close. PECK’S PICK: COLORADO +11.5

 

USC @ California: The Trojans survived a big scare against Texas, while the surprisingly stout Bears put away Ole Miss with a late interception. Like Colorado/Washington, this is another game where the highly rated visiting team could find themselves in a closer battle than the rankings would have you believe. USC is better than Cal, but they make too many mistakes. PECK’S PICK: CALIFORNIA +17.5

 

UCF @ Maryland: Maryland surprised everyone by winning at Texas on opening day, and now they welcome a UCF team that hasn’t played a game since August 31. UCF coach Scott Frost has implemented the system he learned as a position coach under Chip Kelly at Oregon; Frost is a good coach and will be on a lot of wish-lists after the season if he wins most of his games this year. Maryland doesn’t have Tyrrell Pigrome, the quarterback who led their charge against Texas, and UCF’s talented offense will present a unique and dangerous challenge before they head into conference play. PECK’S PICK: UCF +4

 

Michigan @ Purdue: Michigan looks to be among the best teams in the Big Ten, but they remain largely untested and face off against a Purdue team that is playing good football under newly hired head coach Jeff Brohm (who, like Frost, is a former quarterback who will get himself a great job at a big-time program if his team continues to impress). Purdue’s offense is hard to stop; Michigan could squeak out a victory, but the Boilermakers will keep it too close for comfort. PECK’S PICK: PURDUE +10

 

Florida @ Kentucky: Kentucky’s impressive win at South Carolina last week was just the third time Mark Stoops has won a conference road game since he took the job before the 2013 season. The Wildcats are battle-tested and confident, having already played two road games; now they welcome a Florida team that has beaten them thirty straight times. If it doesn’t happen Saturday, it’ll never happen. I think it happens. PECK’S PICK: KENTUCKY +2.5

 

BONUS PICK: Alabama @ Vanderbilt: Vanderbilt’s defense is a huge reason they’re 3-0; teams have only scored 13 points against Vandy all season. Alabama represents a massive step up in competition, but the Crimson Tide haven’t played a true road game all season and the Commodores will play too much defense to let the game get out of hand. I’m not sure Vanderbilt has the horses to win, but they’ll put in a good showing against an Alabama offense that is still establishing an identity early in the season. PECK’S PICK: VANDERBILT +19.5

 

DOUBLE BONUS PICK: Oregon @ Arizona State: I’ve picked a lot of home underdogs this week, but this is a game where I expect the road team’s superior talent on both sides of the ball to simply overwhelm the opposition and disappoint the home crowd. Oregon might be the best team in the Pac-12; Arizona State can’t hold anyone under 30 and its athletic department is telling fans to stop sending harassing messages to players on social media. The last thing Arizona State head coach Todd Graham needs is a blowout loss at home, but I think that’s exactly what he’s going to get. PECK’S PICK: OREGON -14

 

UNPRECEDENTED TRIPLE BONUS PICK: Auburn @ Missouri: Auburn has a terrific opportunity to get itself on the right track. Missouri appears to be the worst team in the conference, and its potential home field advantage will be somewhat negated if the fans leave early (or don’t show up at all). Look for Auburn to fix the run game, throw the ball effectively, and come away with a convincing win in its first conference game of the season. PECK’S PICK: AUBURN -18

 

Enjoy the games!!!

 

Dan Peck
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)
http://www.twitter.com/DanielAllenPeck
DPeck@aunetwork.com

 

BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 3

By | Talent Columns | No Comments

Before The Game

 

Unfortunately, questions were answered.

 

#15 Auburn suffered its first loss of season, falling to #3 Clemson 14-6 after the worst offensive performance of the Gus Malzahn era. Clemson’s lauded defensive line chased Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham virtually every time he attempted to pass; Auburn was held to just 79 yards through the air and Stidham was sacked 11 times. It was the first time since 2008 that a team from a Power Five conference gave up 11 sacks without scoring a touchdown. Auburn had 59 total yards on its first drive and 58 throughout the rest of the game. If you subtract Auburn’s yards lost from sacks from Auburn’s yards gained passing the ball, you’re left with 7 yards. It was bad. You get it.

 

The optimist in me remembers that Clemson isn’t a team full of bums and Auburn might not face another defense that good all season, but doubt still lingers. The developing offensive line appears to be behind schedule. Auburn is too dependent on running back Kamryn Pettway, even when he isn’t healthy. Auburn’s receivers are full of potential that hasn’t shown itself on the field. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey might not be ready to call plays against defenses as good as the ones Auburn will face once conference play begins. It’s elitist, but success in Conference USA isn’t success in the SEC, and quarterbacks won’t regularly have a lot of time before they must get rid of the ball or suffer the consequences.

 

And, of course, there are the problems at quarterback. Jarrett Stidham is unquestionably gifted, but it’s fair to wonder if he’s not enough of a threat with his legs to succeed in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Gus Malzahn’s best offensive seasons at Auburn (2010, 2013, 2014) have utilized a quarterback who ran the ball. Stidham’s ability to throw the ball quickly and accurately (and his willingness to throw the ball deep) could be better utilized by a coach who runs an offense that relies on those skills, instead of a coach who expects the quarterback to take off and gain positive yardage with his feet if his first and second choices are covered. When Rich Rodriguez arrived at Michigan, he encouraged Ryan Mallett to transfer because Mallett wasn’t a good fit for the offense Rodriguez chooses to run. Mallett’s in his eighth season as an NFL quarterback; the thought of a coach encouraging a quarterback who will go on to enjoy a lengthy NFL career to transfer from his program seems unthinkable, but Rodriguez knows what he needs his quarterback to do. Stidham could thrive in an offense built around getting the ball out of his hands and allowing him to spread the field, but that’s not how Auburn used him in Clemson. After watching Stidham run for his life as Clemson continuously hunted him down on Saturday night, one can’t help but wonder what he thought he was getting himself into when he agreed to play at Auburn.

 

Much like Stidham in Death Valley, Auburn doesn’t have the luxury of time. After its game against the visiting Mercer Bears on Saturday, conference play begins with a trip to Missouri and a pair of home games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss (three teams that would love to surprise the rest of the league by beating an Auburn team with more preseason hype) before its trip to LSU. If Auburn’s offense insists on overpowering teams with its rushing attack and using Stidham in a way that doesn’t put him in position to do what he does best, the heat on Gus Malzahn will increase after every sub-par performance by his offense. Everyone is out of patience. He’s never been under more pressure to win.

 

WHAT TO WATCH

– Will Auburn quarterback Sean White make his first appearance of the season? After a suspension rendered him unavailable for the first two games of the season, last season’s best quarterback could be called upon in mop-up duty if the Tigers have a large lead. Nobody should think that Sean White would have been the difference in Auburn’s game against Clemson; there were too many breakdowns in too many aspects of the game. That said, Malzahn has shown a willingness to give the backup quarterback a shot if the starter isn’t giving him his desired results, so White could find himself back in action with the starters if the team can’t figure out a way to maximize Stidham’s talents and score points.

– Will Auburn make changes along its offensive line? Senior transfers Wilson Bell and Casey Dunn stayed on the bench despite struggles from underclassmen at Clemson, but it stands to reason that they’ll be called upon to contribute if Auburn can’t shore up its blocking as the season moves forward. I’m of the opinion that the play-calling asked Stidham to wait too long for receivers to become open, but fingers will be pointed at offensive linemen anytime a quarterback is sacked eleven times in a single game.

– Will Auburn’s reserve tailbacks make a push for more playing time? Aside from a carry by Chandler Cox on the goal line, Auburn exclusively relied on Kamryn Pettway on the ground against Clemson. In post-game remarks to the media, Malzahn cited concerns about Kam Martin’s size. With Pettway banged up and Kerryon Johnson still recovering from an injured hamstring, Auburn will most likely utilize the other backs on the roster against Mercer. Will Kam Martin pick up where he left off against Georgia Southern? Can Devan Barrett, a true freshman who generated a great deal of buzz as a recruit, earn himself more playing time?

 

PECK’S PICKS (Last week: 4-1 overall, 4-1 against the spread; Year to date: 9-1 overall, 8-2 against the spread)

– South Carolina 28, Kentucky 10. Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks are rolling after a pair of victories away from home, and the Cock Pit should be rocking as they host a Kentucky team that looked shaky in back-to-back wins against less-than-stellar opponents.  PECK’S PICK: SOUTH CAROLINA -6.5
– Tennessee 21, Florida 7: The Gators will continue to struggle on offense, dropping their second straight in a rivalry that they dominated until very recently and putting head coach Jim McElwain directly on the hot-seat. Tennessee wins in Gainesville for the first time since 2003. PECK’S PICK: TENNESSEE +5
– Memphis 35, UCLA 28: Mike Norvell was Chip Lindsey’s predecessor at Arizona State; now he’s the head coach at Memphis. The Tigers have a golden opportunity to score a major upset against UCLA. The Bruins completed a remarkable comeback against A&M after finding themselves down 44-10 at home, but you don’t find yourself down 44-10 against A&M without some underlying problems existing. Now the Bruins travel across the country and play a game that kicks off when it’s still 9 AM in Los Angeles. Memphis wins a wild one.
 PECK’S PICK: MEMPHIS +3
– Mississippi State 23, LSU 20: The upsets continue. Mississippi State puts the SEC on notice, beating LSU in Starkville for the first time since 1999 (and the second time since 1984). Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is dangerous; he showed last season that he’s a perfect fit for Dan Mullen’s offense as he rushed for a Tebowian 1375 yards and 16 touchdowns. Mississippi State’s defense needs to bottle up Derrius Guice (a tall order for any team) but they’ll be able to force LSU into mistakes and do enough to score a huge win.
 PECK’S PICK: MISSISSIPPI STATE +7.5
– Louisville 34, Clemson 28: The Tigers are confident after flexing their muscles on defense and shutting Auburn down, but 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson presents an entirely different threat than the one they faced at home on Saturday night. Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant played well, but there are still big questions about how Clemson will keep up in a game that becomes a shootout; look for Jackson to outrun Clemson’s defenders and showcase his improved passing skills, leading to a huge win for the Cardinals and head coach Bobby Petrino. PECK’S PICK: LOUISVILLE +3

– Bonus: Auburn 49, Mercer 7. Mercer is a 1-1 team from the FCS coming off a heartbreaking loss to the Wofford Terriers. Auburn should steamroll them. If not, problems are far worse than we could have imagined.

 

Enjoy the games!

 

Dan Peck
Co-Host, THE DRIVE (4-6PM Mon-Fri, ESPN 106.7 FM, ESPNAU.com)
Host, AFTER THE GAME (Immediately following Auburn University football games, Wings 94.3 FM, WingsFM.com)
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DPeck@aunetwork.com