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GAME PREVIEW: Auburn @ South Carolina

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Game 11: Well, here we are, back in Columbia again.

Syndication: The Montgomery Advertiser Jake Crandall via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Do you remember about 13 months ago? When Auburn had started the season with a 1-1 record, and then escaped Arkansas after the Bo Spike to head into Columbia at 2-1? It should’ve been easy, right?? Will Muschamp coaching on the other sideline and you’d just started to figure things out with Tank Bigsby leading the running game?

Auburn got up 16-7, led 19-14 early in the second half, and then couldn’t get out of its own way. Bo Nix and Seth Williams were arguing on the sideline after the latter got frustrated by Jaycee Horn. Bo threw a trio of interceptions and tossed the ball 47 times. It wasn’t exactly Chad Morris’ greatest moment calling plays, and there’s a definite correlation between Gus Malzahn losing in Columbia and getting fired.

Not to say that Bryan Harsin is in danger of getting fired, or anything like that, but after the last two weeks where Auburn lost to Texas A&M and Mississippi State in equally embarrassing ways, this is a game that the Tigers can’t afford to lose. Two weeks ago, Auburn scored just 3 points in the lowest-scoring game since Scott Loeffler led the offense against future national champ Alabama in the 2012 Iron Bowl.

Last week, Auburn gave up a 28-3 lead and allowed 40 straight points to MSU, losing in horrific fashion. It was a total slow-motion car wreck, and after the second halves over the last three weeks (we’re including Ole Miss now), you had a total intuition of what was about to transpire. Now, Auburn goes into Williams-Brice as a beat-up team without their starting quarterback, who nobody really blamed for the last couple of losses, and without their starting kicker, who definitely didn’t help with his misses over the last couple of weeks.

If you tell me you know what to make of Shane Beamer’s team this season (also, South Carolina settled for Shane Beamer in last year’s giant coaching carousel), then you’re crazy. The Gamecocks escaped ECU early on this year, then lost to Kentucky, got hammered by Georgia and Tennessee and A&M, barely beat Vandy and Troy... and then DESTROYED FLORIDA.

Maybe that’s because Dan Mullen is a dead man walking and the Gators were essentially a whole horde of dried cicada skins that day, but the Gamecocks had no trouble rolling right through Florida. So what can we expect today?

WHEN SOUTH CAROLINA HAS THE BALL

Auburn shouldn’t have any trouble stuffing the run and putting the game in the hands of Jason Brown or Zeb Noland and the Gamecock passing game. There’s been only one SEC game where South Carolina has averaged more than 3.8 yards per carry, and that was the evisceration of the Gators. In their other SEC contests, they ran for 2.8, 2.2, 3.7, 3.7, 2.3, and 1.6 yards per carry. Kevin Harris is the volume rusher with 100 carries this season, but he only average 4.0 yards per attempt. Zaquandre White averages better than 7.0 yards per carry, but he hasn’t had the opportunities, and the Gamecocks just haven’t been able to consistently move the ball on the ground at all.

Jason Brown has been the guy under center over the last few weeks, and he’s been serviceable, but nothing special. He’s not going to win the game for South Carolina, and unless Josh Vann and Jaheim Bell can make some great individual plays against Auburn’s defensive backs (provided that Derek Mason doesn’t try the same defense we played last week), then it should be tough sledding for the Carolina offense tonight.

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL

This is where it gets interesting, though. Auburn is missing Bo Nix and will get T.J. Finley starting for the first time in his Tiger career. He’ll get a bit of a warmup when you consider the Iron Bowl next weekend, but this is going to be the first time he gets full control of everything in Mike Bobo’s arsenal.

You would hope that Auburn doesn’t need to rely on Finley to win this game, though, with the way that the South Carolina defense has been against the run from opponents with a pulse in 2021. Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, A&M, and Missouri all averaged better than 5.0 yards per carry, and even Troy hit 4.8 yards per attempt in a close loss. Auburn should be able to lean on Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter in this game to roll up the yardage and maybe the second half will be better if they can wear down the Gamecocks in the first half (run the dang ball, Bobo).

As far as the passing game goes, Finley played South Carolina when he was the starting QB at LSU last season. He went 17-21 for 265 yards with 2 touchdowns and an interception in that game, so we’ll see if he’s as effective this season. At the very least he won’t be like Buckner walking back into Shea like Bo might have been if he was healthy.

SERIES HISTORY

Auburn leads the all-time series 10-2-1, but lost last year’s meeting after winning eight consecutive games. It was the first time that Auburn had lost to South Carolina since the Gamecocks had joined the SEC.

LAST MEETING

Like we mentioned above, South Carolina beat Auburn in last year’s meeting 30-22. The Gamecocks came back from a 16-7 deficit to overtake the Tigers in the second half and win.

LAST WEEK

Auburn fell to Mississippi State 43-34 after leading 28-3 and giving up 40 unanswered points (let’s not talk about that anymore), while South Carolina lost to Missouri 31-28.

KEYS FOR AUBURN

  1. Take the pressure off of T.J. Finley. It’s got to be the run game in this one. We illustrated the stats above, where South Carolina is horrible at defending the run game and not very good at controlling the clock with their own rushing attack on offense. Auburn needs to get 100 yards from Tank Bigsby, and they can very likely get another 100 from Jarquez Hunter if they try. I think that Finley can have a solid game with everything in front of him and total control of the offense, and it’s clear that the team responds well to when he plays, but this is a great situation for Auburn to score a sleepy win, get your new starter some confidence, and get ready for Alabama.
  2. Get in and get out. Just like the convenience store of the same name in King of the Hill, Auburn just has to head into Williams-Brice, get the win, and head home. You work in Finley, you work in a new kicker, and you see what you can accomplish in the run game and working in Finley to the passing concepts before the game against the Tide.
  3. Forget last year and the last couple of weeks. There have been frustrations galore for the Tigers since that first half against Ole Miss, and the stretch has likely spawned more questions than answers. How do we stop a short passing game? Why can’t the Tigers have two good halves? Where’s the run game just disappear to? What are these coaching strategies and why aren’t there any adjustments? As Bryan Harsin likes to say, it’s time for a 1-0 attitude, or a fourth down attitude, or whatever it is. Auburn needs to put that into action tonight to get a much-needed win and go into the Iron Bowl feeling good.