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 an unwanted party guest. 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 Tigers quarterback Jarrett Stidham to soothe 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 difficult passes reassures me. If Stidham’s protection allows him to get comfortable, Auburn’s offense will be difficult to stop.
The sluggish running game, again reliant entirely on bruising tailback Kamryn Pettway, was effectively bottled up by Mercer. The Bears deserve credit for keeping Pettway from powering through for a long gain 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 was scrutinized 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 mistakes 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 becoming 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 improve the apparent trajectory of Missouri’s season. He doesn’t necessarily 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 before the season is over.
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!!!
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!
The first week of the season provided more questions than answers for the 2017 Auburn Tigers, victorious against Georgia Southern 41-7.
Jarrett Stidham showed everyone what all the fuss was about in an impressive first career start as Auburn’s quarterback, accurately completing short passes and showcasing his vaunted arm strength on a few difficult throws. Can his few mistakes be attributed to some combination of opening night jitters and rust after almost 650 days between football games, or should fans be concerned about his consistency and what could happen when he faces a tougher opponent? Will Stidham’s protection improve as the offensive line gains experience and coheres, or will the Tigers wilt under pressure against better teams?
Auburn ran for 351 yards against Georgia Southern despite star running back Kamryn Pettway missing the game for disciplinary reasons and capable replacement Kerryon Johnson injuring his hamstring during the second quarter (jeopardizing his availability for the game on Saturday); Kam Martin provided a spark off the bench and showed that he will have a role in this offense going forward even if Pettway and Johnson are both available. Did Auburn deliberately keep its offense simplistic in offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s debut to keep its cards close to the vest (preventing Clemson from having ample material with which to prepare), or does Auburn rely too heavily on a rushing attack that can overwhelm defenses to do the heavy lifting? If faced with a team that can bottle up Pettway, will Auburn be able to rely on Stidham to keep the team afloat?
Defensive end Marlon Davidson showcased his rare combination of power, speed, and technique against Georgia Southern, playing his best game since arriving at Auburn; teammates Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, and virtually every other starter on Auburn’s front seven smothered the Eagles until the game was over. Could Auburn’s defense truly be better than it was last season, or did Auburn’s seemingly dominant defensive front appear better than it really is because the Tigers faced an overmatched opponent with a nonexistent passing game? Will the secondary, untested in Auburn’s opener, able to rise to the occasion against a team like Clemson, determined to throw the ball to a talented bunch of receivers?
Clemson lost several key players from last year’s roster to the NFL Draft, but they still sport one of college football’s most talented rosters; those Tigers dismantled Kent State 56-3 in their season opener. Just like Auburn, Clemson will know much more about its future after the competition gets tougher in Week 2. A win on Saturday would keep Clemson in an excellent position to defend their ACC Championship and return to the College Football Playoff.
At his Tuesday press conference, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said that the Clemson game would give Auburn’s coaches a clear picture of where the team stands. He’s right. Let’s just hope they like the answers, otherwise the questions will get a lot harder.
WHAT TO WATCH:
Auburn’s receivers, who struggled at times to get open and consistently catch the ball against Georgia Southern, will face even more scrutiny if the passing game struggles against Clemson’s secondary. Auburn won’t be able to run the ball if Clemson doesn’t see the passing game as a threat; the reigning champions are too good on the defensive line and boast too many talented defensive backs. Whether one Auburn receiver has a career game or the entire unit steps up isn’t as important as the fact that Auburn will need to be able to move the ball through the air to remain competitive in Death Valley.
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant was very good in his first career start against Kent State (16/22 for 236 yards passing with 77 yards rushing), but he was well-protected by Clemson’s offensive line and had open receivers almost every time he threw a pass. If Auburn’s defense can find ways to harass him, things won’t seem nearly as easy in his second start and his lack of experience could show itself.
Auburn’s celebrated kicker Daniel Carlson uncharacteristically missed two field goals in the first game of the season. Nobody’s perfect. Carlson, now the leading scorer in Auburn history, will have many more opportunities to add to his total as the season progresses, but Auburn will need every point it can get against Clemson; a crucial miss in this game won’t be as easily forgotten.
PECK’S PICKS (5-0 last week, 4-1 against the spread; 5-0 this season, 4-1 against the spread)
– TCU 34, Arkansas 28. The Razorbacks rushing attack keeps them in the game as it becomes a shootout, but ultimately TCU QB Kenny Hill is simply too much to handle.
– USC 28, Stanford 17. Trojans QB Sam Darnold continues his quest for the Heisman Trophy, scoring a big conference victory against the always-challenging Cardinal.
– South Carolina 45, Missouri 31. In a battle of perhaps the two most exciting offenses in the SEC East, the Gamecock defense does just enough to allow the team to remain undefeated.
– UGA 27, Notre Dame 21. Bulldogs RB Nick Chubb needs 1601 yards from scrimmage to pass Herschel Walker and finish his career #1 all time in SEC history in that category, and he’ll be several steps closer to breaking that record after he goes up and down the field against a Notre Dame defense that gave up 30+ points in five different games last season.
– Auburn 24, Clemson 23. The 51st meeting between these two programs (and 6th meeting since 2007) goes back-and-forth, with both defenses able to harass and overpower the other team’s offense. Auburn wins it with a late field goal.
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)
As Tom Hardy said in his weird Bane voice, “Let the games begin.”
The 2017 Auburn Tigers open a highly anticipated season Saturday night with a visit from the Georgia Southern Eagles. Experts seem optimistic about the team entering this season, but memories of the 2015 season continue to haunt the memories of fans who don’t want to let themselves get too enthusiastic about the team until they see them perform on the field.
Those 2015 Tigers, as you may recall, were expected to be one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Led by dynamic new quarterback/trendy preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremy Johnson and a cluster of impressive returning starters all over the field, Auburn fans spent the summer wondering who their team would face in the College Football Playoff; that’s not how things played out. Auburn narrowly defeated Jacksonville State, Leonard Fournette steamrolled the Auburn defense in Baton Rouge, Johnson was benched before September was over, and the Tigers finished the season with a 7-6 record (including four very close losses) that would have been respectable considering the circumstances if preseason expectations had not been so high.
Cut to 2017: led by dynamic new quarterback/trendy preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Jarrett Stidham and a cluster of impressive returning starters all over the field… you see what I mean. The 2017 Auburn Tigers could be one of the best teams in the country, but much of that potential falls on the powerful shoulder of Stidham, the Baylor transfer who threw 109 passes as a freshman before ejecting himself from the program after a scandal that claimed the jobs of the university’s president/chancellor and head football coach.
The reasons for excitement on The Plains are clear: Auburn led the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2016 and returns most of its key components. It stands to reason that Stidham, who was a very big deal as a recruit, should add explosiveness to a passing game that finished last in the conference in yards per game last season, making the Tigers considerably more difficult to stop on offense. Coupled with a defense loaded with depth, experience, and potential Stidham could prove to be the missing ingredient needed to lead Gus Malzahn’s offense back to the upper echelon of the SEC in most statistical categories – and more importantly, lead the Tigers back to the SEC Championship Game (and beyond).
If you won’t believe it until you see it, I can’t say I blame you.
WHAT TO WATCH:
1) Though Stidham’s debut attracts the most attention, he won’t be the only consequential figure making his debut for Auburn this Saturday. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who previously held the same role at Arizona State, finds himself tasked with calling the plays for a unit that returns Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who combined for more than 2100 rushing yards last season (and adds Stidham at quarterback). Lindsey, who was coaching high school football less than a decade ago, hopes to continue his swift rise through the ranks of college football; a good season with Auburn could place him on wish lists all over the country as schools begin to hunt for new head coaches.
2) Even if Stidham is as good as many people believe he can be, he won’t throw the ball to himself. Tony Stevens was Auburn’s leading receiver last season with 487 yards, and he graduated. Darius Slayton led all returning receivers with 292 yards last season, but his output will need to increase if Auburn expects to effectively move the ball through the air. Receivers Nate Craig-Meyers, Will Hastings, Eli Stove (from Niceville High School, just like me), and running back Kerryon Johnson all figure to play a significant role in Auburn’s offense this season.
3) Most of Auburn’s key figures return from a defense that played outstanding football in 2016, but a major question lingers: who will replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams (now playing in the NFL) along the defensive line? Hopes are high that Marlon Davidson will continue to develop after his notable freshman campaign. Jeff Holland, Nick Coe (a high school wrestling champion who generated a great deal of buzz during this offseason), and Byron Cowart (who was ranked as the #1 player in the nation coming out of high school in 2015) are among the players expected to emerge as key components for an Auburn defense that will face an early test when the Tigers travel to Clemson and face the defending national champions on September 9.
South Carolina 28, NC State 27: a fashionable preseason ACC Champion pick loses a heartbreaker to South Carolina, led by boy wonder quarterback Jake Bentley
Georgia 34, Appalachian State 24: the Bulldogs survive a scare from a scrappy Mountaineers team known for pulling off opening-day upsets
Michigan 17, Florida 7: the shorthanded Gators struggle to move the football against a Michigan team led by renowned lunatic Jim Harbaugh
Alabama 30, Florida State 14: a high-profile matchup of championship contenders becomes uncompetitive once FSU starts making mistakes
Auburn 48, Georgia Southern 20: The Tigers handle their overmatched opposition from the Sun Belt, only letting up after the result is well in hand
Enjoy the games!
Co-host, THE DRIVE
Host, AFTER THE GAME (every Saturday, immediately following the conclusion of the Auburn game on Wings 94.3 and wingsfm.com)