BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 5

By September 29, 2017Talent Columns

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