It's finally here - game week! The anticipation, the excitement, and the nerves all just keep building. Recruiting, spring practice, summer workouts, and fall camp have all built up to this weekend when questions will finally be answered on the field.
It's time to start seeing how the 2015 Auburn Tigers will look on the field rather than in the eyes of all the prognosticators.
The questions are endless. Who will emerge from the running back competition? Can Jeremy Johnson translate his immense potential into on-field success? Can Auburn find an effective, consistent pass rush? Will there be enough depth in the secondary to last an entire season? We get our first look at answers to those questions on Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome.
Louisville is a quality opponent from the ACC to open the season against. Bobby Petrino and Todd Grantham, two men familiar with the SEC, have proven their coaching abilities. They also have an interesting mix of transfers and original talent on the roster.
Former Georgia defenders Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins will start in the secondary. Former Big 12 player of the year Devonte Fields (TCU) will lead the pass rush. Ja'Quay Savage (formerly Ja'Quay Williams) actually signed with Auburn in 2012 before going to JUCO and then heading to Texas A&M. He then transferred to Louisville.
All of those players are big time talents. Reggie Bonnafon, though Petrino hasn't announced him as the starting quarterback, is a dual threat guy that started down the stretch last season. As always, Petrino has weapons at the skill positions ready to make big plays in the passing game.
But for this Auburn fan, this game is more about sorting out the Tigers of 2015 than anything else. Yes, Louisville presents an immense challenge to start the year, but in a year where expectations are uncomfortably high, I'm fascinated to see Auburn's first 60 minutes of football. What will the playing rotations be at each position? Which newcomers will prove themselves ready to make big plays? What antics will Coach Muschamp display? Will Auburn play loose, hungry, fast, and/or physical?
I'm extremely excited to see a healthy Carl Lawson and Alex Kozan on the field. I'm eager to watch transfers Austin Golson, Tray Matthews, and Blake Countess in their debuts as starters. I'm curious to see the quantity and type of carries that each running back gets. I'm anticipating the moment when Jeremy Johnson rips off an impressive scramble and run.
But I am also nervous. Auburn's track record in week one against power conference teams (at least in my lifetime) isn't great. Louisville is the kind of team that views a chance to beat the predicted SEC champion as a major opportunity. Petrino will call an aggressive game and has by his own admission been preparing for this game throughout the offseason.
However, Auburn seems to have the more talented roster top to bottom. The thing I really like about this team is the quality leadership of upperclassmen present on both sides of the ball. I think everyone is hungry to have a very successful season after the disappointing finish in 2014. It seems like a team with a ton of potential.
A few keys to an Auburn victory in my opinion:
1) Establish the running game - I don't care what the quality of the quarterback is or the depth at receiver, Gus Malzahn will always want/need to establish his base running game. I still expect Auburn to run the ball more frequently than they pass. Can the offensive line start fast and keep the offense on schedule during early downs?
2) Inexperienced players with key roles - Lots of newcomers will get their first taste of meaningful college football on Saturday. Jalen Harris, Chandler Cox, Kamryn Pettway, and Jason Smith on offense - Byron Cowart, Jeff Holland, Maurice Swain, Carlton Davis, Tim Irvin, and a few others on defense - Kevin Phillips at punter. Will they be a liability or an asset?
3) Productivity of defensive linemen not named Carl Lawson - Everyone including me can't wait to see Carl Lawson. But for this defense to succeed, others will have to emerge. Will there be a noticeable difference in Montravius Adams' play? Is Dontavius Russell the real deal? Can Davonte Lambert pick up where he left off after surgery? It's going to take more than the return of Carl Lawson to make an immediate difference on defense.
I think Auburn pulls out a win in a game that is more uncomfortable than we would all like. Auburn 38, Louisville 27. War Eagle, everybody!