BEFORE THE GAME: WEEK 6

By October 6, 2017Talent Columns

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