Oh, hi there! Football has returned.
Truth be told, we’ve got a great slate of football scheduled for the opening weekend, which isn’t always the case. Oregon and Bo Nix (ugh) visit Georgia, and Notre Dame heads to Ohio State before LSU and FSU tangle on Sunday night. If you watched into the wee hours last night, you got to see some great games with the revival of the Backyard Brawl and the Penn State/Purdue idiot-fest.
While our game absolutely won’t give too much insight into the quality of the 2022 Auburn Tigers, it certainly will provide some sort of concrete evidence into the decisions made from spring all the way up until the current time.
With T.J. Finley set at starting quarterback, we want to see how he handles having the job after rebuffing all contenders for his spot. We want to see the experienced offensive line come together. We want to see a real number one receiver step up. We need this defense to be what we believe it will be. And we absolutely must see this coaching staff grow up just as much as we expect the players to do.
There won’t be any drama with the final score (there better not be), but whenever Auburn takes the football field, we can’t help but create things to make ourselves a little stressed, whether that’s in the present moment or down the road. I personally declared that we would roll Penn State last year in the midst of our beatdown over Akron. We saw how that turned out. We’re on a 5-game losing streak, which usually ends up with Auburn coaches getting fired, so the leash on Bryan Harsin is understandably short.
General wisdom is that we don’t have a real athletic director at the moment because it’ll be the job of the interim to fire Harsin should things go south, then you bring in a new AD to make the next hire. Auburn can avoid having to actually do that now if the decisions made by Harsin over the last year take shape in a positive way tomorrow night.
We need to see that the development of the quarterbacks has paid off. Can Jeff Schmedding coordinate a defense that won’t let Mississippi State come back from 28 points down? Derek Mason’s unit gave up 44 points to CMU last night, and Oklahoma State fans are unhappy. Can Eric Kiesau run the ball when we need, and throw it when we need, not mixing up the two like his predecessor?
Either way, football has returned, and despite the still-sizzling temperatures, in my heart it’s 15 degrees cooler and the leaves are a dappled panorama of orange and gold. If last night portends anything true, we’re in for a wild ride of a season. Let’s start it off on the right foot in Jordan-Hare Stadium at 6 pm CST tomorrow.
WHEN MERCER HAS THE BALL:
Hey, this team scored 63 points last week on mighty Morehead State. 63 points is triple the total amount of points they’ve ever scored in 12 combined games against Auburn. I don’t expect that they’ll have the same sort of explosion they did in Week 0, but there are a couple of guys that could provide some heartburn.
Mercer’s quarterback Fred Payton connected with Ty James 5 times for 192 yards and 3 touchdowns in their opening victory, and the big play capability could end up giving the Tigers some fits if they’re not ready. You never know what facing a team that’s already gotten a few licks in can do if you’re a little sluggish for whatever reason. Austin Douglas at tailback is another big play guy at tailback, averaging 28 yards per carry on his 5 touches last week.
Fortunately for Auburn, the Bears’ offensive line is undersized, like you find at most FCS schools. Derick Hall, Colby Wooden, Marcus Harris, and Jayson Jones shouldn’t have any trouble getting through, around, and over the line to get to Payton and Douglas in the backfield. Owen Pappoe will likely be faster than any linebacker they’ll face this season, and he’ll end up with plenty of tackles for little to no gain. In the instance that they can provide Payton some time to throw, Auburn’s defensive backs will get a bit of a workout, but we’ll see Jaylin Simpson as a true number one corner after a good first two seasons. He and Nehemiah Pritchett should turn into an upper level cornerback duo in the conference.
Long story short, we’re expecting the defense to be the strength of this team, and Auburn shouldn’t have any trouble keeping Mercer to only a few points. Based on what we saw last year, we know that Bryan Harsin doesn’t have any qualms with pumping up the score in an early season game like this, and it should end up an easy win. While that’s almost a certainty, the real reason that most people are coming to see the team is on the other side of the ball, and we have plenty of questions to be answered there...
WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL:
The Tigers are going to have a ton of eyes on most areas of the offense, starting with quarterback, but then continuing on to the offensive line and finally on to the receiver group.
We shouldn’t have to worry about how the running backs and tight ends are going to perform. Tank Bigsby, Jarquez Hunter, John Samuel Shenker, and company are essentially the most proven producers on the offense, and against a team like Mercer they’ll probably end up with solid stats, and nothing out of the ordinary to write home about. The only thing that I could see happening is Tank busting out to become an all-conference contender with a September Heisman-like stat line like 12 carries, 180 yards, 2 TDs. Otherwise, we don’t want to have to see him much tomorrow.
With T.J. Finley, the named starter, and Robby Ashford, the backup, there are still questions. What we were able to glean through fall camp is that Finley was the most consistent, but maybe that Ashford had higher highs to go along with lower lows. Does Finley come out and show off a little of the mobility that we craved once Bo Nix went out with injury last year? Does he have a little more accuracy, a stronger head on his shoulders, and the second sight showing the game slowing down for him? It’s almost impossible that he won’t improve. He went through his first ever spring practice at his current school a few months ago, and has had time to build the rapport with the rest of the team. I believe we’ll see him looking more authoritative, lead the offense better, and play well. The time for him will come when Penn State comes to town and all eyes are really on him.
Ashford will play, and I would imagine he gets into the game by the time the first quarter ends. We want to see how he performs with live ammo and full contact. In the spring game he was fairly slippery even with a non-contact jersey, and stoked the conversation heading into the true offseason. This game may not give us much definition at all in how the quarterbacks perform, but I’m sure Harsin and Kiesau will give them opportunities to show off.
The only other question on offense is with the offensive line. I would bet that we get them into rhythm early, running Tank and Jarquez fairly extensively over the first couple of drives, and allowing a group with a ton of experience (albeit not really as one complete line) to come together as one unit.
Look for this team to have a good mix of establishing a bread and butter attack and opening things up to test out the quarterbacks. We’re going to get to see the Kiesau offense instead of the Bobo offense, and my big hope is that the Boise Bros connection yields some smoother results in game management.
SERIES HISTORY: Auburn is 12-0 all-time against Mercer, with this being their first meeting in five seasons. Before 2017, however, the previous meeting was all the way back in 1922, and then the Baptists (as they were called back then) got to see the business end of some Mike Donahue teams in the 1910s quite frequently. These two teams first met back in 1896, and Mercer has only ever scored 21 total points against Auburn.
LAST MEETING: 24-10 W for Auburn in 2017. This game was stressful, with the Tigers turning the ball over 5 times and having to score late to put it away. It came one week after the sack-fest at Clemson, and Auburn was definitely shorthanded offensively, but they took care of business and got the victory.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO SURPRISE: I think Jayson Jones will have a huge game. He’s got massive size compared to the Mercer offensive line, of which the average weight is somewhere in the 280-pound realm. Third year guy, came in and snagged a starting spot, and with the focus on Derick Hall, Colby Wooden, and Eku Leota, I think he’s got a chance to find himself in some favorable situations and have a sack with a couple TFLS.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO GET CUSSED OUT: We’re dubbing this the 2008 Ziemba Award for the number of times I personally heard “ON TWO, ZIEMBA” while in the stands during his time on the Plains. He did become an All-American, but there were a few rocky patches early on. It doesn’t have to be an offensive lineman or the line as a whole, but that’s the group that I think we’ll be hearing from a good bit, especially if Tank gets stuffed on a 3rd and 2 at some point in the first half. If T.J. gets sacked, if he’s flushed out on multiple plays, the offensive line is going to hear about it.
PLAYER MOST LIKELY TO SEND YOU FOR THE BOURBON (Tucker Gregg Award): This can be either an Auburn player or an opposing player, and I’m leaning toward opposing player. Call it the Tucker Gregg Award for the guy who we seemingly can’t stop and who will cause future cirrhosis cases to rise in the state. It’ll be Ty James this weekend. I think he’ll probably have a couple of big catches, but you can’t ignore the 5 grab, 192 yard, 3 touchdown performance from last week. Even if it is Morehead State, that’s a nice line.
PLAYER WHOSE HYPE WILL GET WAY OUT OF HAND FROM THIS GAME: It’s already on the way, but we’ll see a Camden Brown touchdown where he clowns a Mercer defensive back. He’s not starting, but he’s going to see playing time and I think he makes the most of it on a couple of very visible plays. See Jarquez Hunter in the first couple of games last season.
RANDOM PREDICTION WITH NO BASIS IN REALITY: Keionte Scott returns a punt for a touchdown late in the game with the subs in and the announcers confuse him for Ja’Varrius Johnson since they both wear number 6.
VARIOUS STAT LINE PREDICTIONS:
- T.J. Finley: 12-19, 213 yards, 2 TDs; 5 carries, 27 yards
- Robby Ashford: 7-11, 99 yards, 1 TD: 7 carries, 67 yards
- Tank Bigsby: 13 carries, 101 yards, 1 TD
- Jarquez Hunter: 12 carries, 126 yards, 1 TD
- Damari Alston: 15 carries, 87 yards, 1 TD
- Shedrick Jackson: 7 catches, 102 yards
- John Samuel Shenker: 6 catches, 61 yards, 1 TD
- Camden Brown: 2 catches, 51 yards, 1 TD
- Malcolm Johnson Jr.: 5 catches, 71 yards, 1 TD
- Owen Pappoe: 9 tackles
- Derick Hall: 4 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Get comfortable quickly. We want to see how this team will end up getting settled after the Tigers had an offseason where the coach nearly got let go, and for most of the team I don’t think getting settled will be an issue. We do want to know how T.J. Finley is going to play with the way that last season finished. Bryan Harsin is supposed to be an actual QB coach, a guy that can develop the signal callers. This is going to be a huge test of his abilities turning Finley from what we saw over the past two years into a solid SEC starter. To be fair, Finley had never gone through a spring practice at his current school (COVID in 2020, and he transferred post-spring in 2021) before this year. He beat out everyone that was brought in to win the starting job, and so maybe it’s time for him to actually become what we need. The push for this game is to let everyone hit someone, use Tank and Jarquez to get in rhythm, mix in a couple passes, and then let Finley go on a drive called for him and let him show how he’s grown over the offseason. If he’s able to do it, then I’ll feel pretty confident in two weeks with Penn State. If there are the murmurs, then we may end up having that old-fashioned QB controversy on our hands.
- Absolutely no injuries. It’s always a key when you play a paycheck game, but Auburn has some fairly thin areas on the squad where we can’t afford to lose a single guy. Center needs to be healthy all year. Owen Pappoe needs to be healthy all year. Pad the lead, get the starters a drive for a score to start the second half, and then flood the lineup with backups.
- Need to see growth from the entire organization after the end of 2021. We had a coaching staff and a squad that had some tough things occur at the end of last year, with Bo Nix’s injury hamstringing the offense over the last month, where more solid QB play likely gives Auburn wins against MSU, USC, Alabama, and Houston. Can T.J. Finley improve enough to cover that gap in a way that would’ve led to victories? Can the coaching staff make the right decisions in-game... you know, not throwing the ball with a lead over Alabama, and not running ridiculous fourth downs in Columbia, or not changing anything when Mississippi State can’t miss. Coaching was just as responsible as anything else for those late season losses, and with the Boise Boys in total control now, we need to see their synergy work.