The 2014 Auburn Tigers have successfully navigated their first two opponents, mostly in workmanlike fashion. Outside of a surprising tie at halftime against Arkansas, Auburn has shown improvement on each side of the ball and earned a 2-0 start.
The team's first "measuring stick" (to use Gus Malzahn's words) occurs Thursday night against the Kansas State Wildcats. It's the first of many road games and it's Auburn's first opportunity to make a statement to the nation.
This game also begins the 10 game gauntlet that is Auburn's 2014 schedule. Seven games against ranked teams and a visit to Starkville will make for one of the most difficult stretches of football in recent memory.
When looking at Kansas State, it's pretty clear that Auburn has a speed and athleticism edge on both sides of the ball. But as college football so often reminds us, it's not always about the talent level or amount of five star recruits.
Despite Auburn's clear advantages, Kansas State is expecting a record crowd in one of the biggest non-conference games of Bill Snyder's tenure. They're playing on a Thursday night, where they have a strong track record. They also will approach this game as a Super Bowl of sorts, playing the defending champion of the big bad SEC and the national runner up from a year ago. I fully expect we will get Kansas State's best shot.
The Wildcats are coming off a surprisingly difficult trip to Iowa State, where quarterback Jake Waters engineered a game-winning drive late to steal a 32-28 victory. Both Auburn and Kansas State had a bye last Saturday and are equally rested for this Top 25 matchup.
Waters poses a run-heavy dual threat on offense, as he's already run for four touchdowns while passing for two. Tyler Lockett will be one of the best wide receivers Auburn faces this season. They typically control time of possession and have only committed one total turnover in their first two games.
On defense, the Wildcats pride themselves on being a fundamentally sound, disciplined defense. They have a play maker at defensive end named Ryan Mueller. However, Coach Bill Snyder even said that they cannot fully simulate the pace and speed of Auburn's offense in practice.
I think Kansas State can do many of the things that an underdog needs to do to upset this Auburn team simply by playing "Kansas State football." They can shorten the game by controlling the ball and moving the chains on offense. They typically don't hurt themselves with turnovers. Add to that a wild home field advantage and you have the makings of a game that could remain close even if Auburn plays well.
If Kansas State can do all those things and limit Auburn's explosive plays by tackling well and not falling for Auburn's "eye candy" of formations and motions, this can definitely be a fourth quarter football game.
However, Auburn's experience from last year is being underrated. At most positions, Auburn has veterans who have been on the road in hostile environments. Having twelve days for Gus and the entire staff to prepare and adjust based on the first two games is very valuable. I think the players are itching to prove themselves against their first real quality opponent.
Here are some things to watch for:
- Positive Second Half Trends: The Auburn defense hasn't given up a touchdown in the second half through two games. Auburn's running game wears down a defense as the game goes on. Even if Kansas State has success early, Auburn's pace and strength up front will be a factor down the stretch.
- Special Teams: In a game like this, the last thing you want to do is lose the special teams battle. Daniel Carlson has proven himself in both kicking and punting, but will have to do it on the road for the first time. An Auburn touchdown in the kick return or punt return game could be a back breaker for Kansas State's upset chances.
- Can Auburn's defensive front limit Jake Waters? To me, this is what determines whether this is a close game or not. Auburn's front four has been inconsistent, but seemed to find some success with Montravius Adams back at defensive tackle against San Jose State. The linebacker play has been improved, but will be tested by Waters ability to run between the tackles and pass. A big game from Waters most likely means Kansas State has a shot at the upset.