Auburn vs. Washington State: Q-and-A preview with CougCenter

James Snook-US PRESSWIRE

It's the first game of the year. What do folks on the other side think?

Auburn hosts Washington State Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and both sides will be trying to get off to a good start after sad, sad 3-9 campaigns in 2012. What's going on with the Cougars? We asked the writers at CougCenter, SB Nation's Washington State blog, to fill us in and tell us what they expect from the game.

First of all, how was Washington State's fall camp? What's the attitude in Pullman going into the season?

Fall camp actually has been almost unrelentingly positive, which is sort of scary. Practice participation has been good from the guys who are expected to play -- that's really the only way we can measure health since Mike Leach doesn't ever comment on injuries -- and things have seemed more crisp. Starting QB Connor Halliday did an interview on Pac-12 Networks last week and talked about how they've been running "6," Leach's four verticals, and the completion percentages have been in the 60s each day, versus in the 30s and 40s a year ago. That's a timing and familiarity thing -- four verts is devilishly simple and difficult at the same time -- and it's a great example of the strides the team has made.

That said, people are trying to balance their excitement for a new season with a sense that this team is probably a year away. There was so much anticipation before last year, this thought that Leach's presence alone would elevate a team that had won four games to the magical six for our first bowl game since 2003. In that context, 2012 was a disaster, and people are keeping that in the back of their minds. We're ready for football, but given the schedule and the relative strength of the Pac-12 North, we're also prepared for four wins.

Mike Leach hasn't officially named his starting quarterback yet, but all signs appear to be pointing toward Halliday making the start Saturday night? What does he bring to the table in Leach's offense? What kind of performance do you expect from him?

Halliday's No. 1 trait is a very strong arm. There aren't many throws he can't make on a field and he knows it. His arm-strength hubris cost him at times when he's tried to fit balls into tight windows. He's had two years in the system and got some starting experience last year. From all accounts, he's doing a better job of playing within the offense during fall camp. If he's able to go through his reads and execute the Air Raid like it's designed, he should put up some good numbers this season, including against the Tigers.

What does defensive coordinator Mike Breske like to do in his gameplan? How will Washington State try to stop Auburn's offense?

Breske likes to be multiple. Be able to do a lot of different things and give opposing offenses a variety of looks. They will bring pressure from different areas and attempt to use a multiple sub packages. WSU will run some 3-4, some 4-3, a cheetah package and more. Variety is the spice to the Cougar defense.

Which players will make the biggest impact against Auburn?

On offense, Halliday and wide receiver Gabe Marks are the two main guys to look out for. The Cougars have a deep receiver corps, but Marks stands out. He's quick, fast and can hurt teams deep. There haven't been many practices, dating back to spring football, where Marks hasn't stood out.

Defensively, middle linebacker Darryl Monroe and safety Deone Bucannon are the playmakers. Monroe runs the defense and is a physical presence while Bucannon is all over the field. Nose tackle Ioane Gauta will be a key on the defensive line if WSU is going to slow Auburn's rushing attack.

What are the Cougars' relative strengths, and what matchups should work in their favor against the Tigers?

Putting the ball in the air. Over and over and over. The Cougars will throw the ball at least 40 times, testing Auburn's young and inexperienced secondary. WSU is nine-deep at receiver so players will rotate frequently to stay fresh in the humidity. It will be interesting to see how the Auburn secondary holds up with WSU receivers frequently running four verticals. If WSU is able to run the ball at all, it's a positive, but they live and die by the passing game.

What are Wazzu's weaknesses, and what matchups have you worried?

The offensive line and the secondary are the two biggest question marks. WSU's offensive line was atrocious last year. Halliday will throw a lot, but he'll need more than two seconds of protection if he is going to have any kind of success. WSU quarterbacks didn't always get that last year. The offensive line is supposedly improved, but we'll see how they hold up when the bullets start flying for real, even against a Tigers team missing its top pass rusher.

The secondary has had issues in recent seasons. The Cougars are healthy heading into this game, which is a good sign. Still, Bucannon is really the only proven playmaker who gets it done on a consistent basis. We'll see how they hold up in coverage.

How do you think this game will play out? What's your final score prediction?

I would expect a back-and-forth contest with a much closer game than the last time the two teams played. It's going to come down to the trenches, as so many football games do. If the WSU offensive line holds up and Halliday has time to throw along with some semblance of a running game, I like WSU's chances. The Cougars' defensive line is solid, especially the starters. They are going to need to play well to limit Auburn's rushing attack.

If the Tigers are able to run the ball with success -- visions of Kenny Irons pop into my head -- and pressure the quarterback, Auburn likely comes away with a victory.

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