It's time for SEC football.
Auburn opens conference play Saturday against LSU in the renewal of a bizarre rivalry. Whether its on-the-field comebacks or off-the-field burnings of buildings or trees, the clash of the Tigers rarely bores its observers.
With a 2:30 p.m. CT kick set for inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, LSU will feel right at home in terms of brutal heat and sunshine. However, the Bayou Bengals won't feel at home when the orange and blue faithful are losing their minds.
Will Auburn win its 14th straight conference game, a streak that started with an 18-13 win over LSU in 2016? Can Joe Burrow produce enough to pull of the upset? I've got your answers here.
Thanks to those who submitted questions for this week's Plainsman Mailbag. Submissions for next week's will open up Sunday.
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Do you think Auburn will utilize more of the Wildcat for the SEC opener?
Against LSU’s defense, my instincts tell me no.
The players and coaches have been echoing it all week: Say what will you will about the decline of LSU, but its program remains a powerhouse that can’t be taken lightly, and that comes in large part from the defense.
Dave Aranda’s unit boasts one of college football’s best linebackers in Devin White, as well as a stable of talented defensive backs. All those guys will be looking to fly toward the line of scrimmage and smack the likes of Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow in the mouth.
If Kerryon Johnson had returned for his senior season and was out there getting the start Saturday, I think Malzahn would trust his natural instincts and proven running ability to rack up a few Wildcat plays. But with a pair as inexperienced as Whitlow and Martin, I believe Malzahn will lean on the run packages and blocking formations that are the most basic for them.
Keep an eye on that running game regardless. Now that Boobee and Kam have established their run styles, this should be a litmus test for their identities moving forward.
How much of Hastings and Stove will we see, considering the freshman receivers stepping up?
Auburn’s receivers versus LSU’s ridiculous secondary is an underrated matchup for this game.
Sophomore Andraez “Greedy” Williams leads the pack as a preseason All-American capable of locking down an entire side of the field. The question for LSU will be which Auburn receiver he lines up against.
Do you try to contain Nate Craig-Myers over the middle? Not likely. The choice likely boils down to Darius Slayton or Ryan Davis. If you choose Slayton, you’re allowing Auburn to put the ball in the hands of Davis, who picked up a first down nearly every time a screen was thrown his way against Washington, and you’re telling Jarrett Stidham to beat you down the field at home. He crushed SEC defenses in that regard in Jordan-Hare a season ago.
Moving on from that tangent, I don’t believe we’ll get much of the injured receiver duo this game. Malzahn has reiterated that they’re available, yes, but Auburn’s freshmen are playing at such a high level. I don’t see Auburn throwing Stove, who still isn’t 100 percent, out on a jet sweep in favor of Anthony Schwartz after what the freshman did against Alabama State. Similarly, I don’t see a slower Hastings being sent over the middle in favor of the big-bodied Seth Williams.
This will be a fascinating narrative to monitor into the heart of Auburn’s SEC schedule. If the freshmen continue to excel, do you risk altering that success by adding two more bodies to the rotation?
What is the probability of Auburn laying another goose-egg on the board for an entire half?
Extremely close to zero.
After the 20-point blown lead at LSU last year (you know, the one where Kerryon Johnson ran the ball up the middle a million times in a row), Auburn turned a corner and won the SEC West. Malzahn began play-calling more aggressively, and the entire team’s attitude changed for the better. Stidham said this week if Auburn had won that game in Baton Rouge, he doesn’t see the same success playing out.
"I just think that when you're up 20 on the road and you end up losing, it puts different things into perspective,” Stidham said. “You learn more about your team from a maturity standpoint."
The same changed for the maturity of Malzahn’s offensive scheming. After LSU, you could see the effort to be more aggressive. That mentality bled all the way into this season, evident in the team’s 2-point conversion try of their opening touchdown of the season.
Malzahn wants to change the mindset surrounding the Auburn offense from complacent to bloodthirsty. He’s made that very clear. He said fans are just going to have to live with hiccups, like the failed 2-point try, because those are necessary for Auburn’s new mentality.
If all else fails, Stidham has newfound autonomy with the offense this season, and he’s sure to check out of complacent play calls if they begin plaguing the offense. I don’t see Auburn blanking in either half Saturday. Stidham was too frustrated with last year’s loss for that to happen.
"We kept calling one play," Stidham said at SEC Media Days of a loss where he believes Auburn could have improved if he could call audibles. "And we kept looking for a specific coverage. Every single time they were not in that coverage. I knew exactly what we were going to check to and everything like that."
From @ColeMcCauley8 on Twitter:
How big of a role do you see secondary backs Boobee Whitlow and Shaun Shivers carving themselves for the remainder of the season?
For Whitlow, secondary may be a label he sheds very soon.
The redshirt freshman is technically Auburn’s backup running back right now, but Malzahn has been sure to run he and Kam Martin mostly by committee through two games (Martin has just seven more carries than Whitlow).
As it stands right now, Auburn appears to be just fine working the two in tandem. But the hype for Whitlow has many fans lobbying for him to be the starter going forward. We might learn about the legitimacy of those pleas after this weekend.
For Shivers, his case has officially been made for that No. 3 back slot. Freshman Asa Martin has a lot of talent and we’ll get to see that later in his career, but Shivers’ sheer speed and power for his size is too deadly a combination. I think Auburn’s coaches have likely tossed his redshirt in the hamper for good
Who’s your biggest breakout candidate on each side of the ball for the rest of the season?
It’s tempting to go the wide receiver route (ha) on offense. After what we saw from Schwartz against Alabama State and Williams against Washington, it’s probably not crazy to assume their redshirts are out the door as well.
And with Hastings and Stove still not fully healthy, I can see Stidham developing a better relationship with the freshmen as the year goes on.
On defense, I’ve got to go with Smoke Monday. The freshman safety had a huge first college football game two weeks ago, sacking Jake Browning on 4th and 17 against Washington to ice the victory for Auburn.
Kevin Steele’s defense is littered with talent that clogs up the depth chart, but Steele said this week that the coaches are working in rotations for Monday and fellow freshman safety Jamien Sherwood to see time alongside starters Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas. We heard all offseason long about how Monday was talented enough to start in the backend, and while he may not technically hear his named called with the first 11, I believe his abilities will show up in a big way for Auburn through SEC play.
What are the chances we see a Gatewood redshirt this season?
Joey Gatewood will be out a few more weeks with his injured thumb, which may have sealed the deal on a redshirt for the former four-star quarterback.
Auburn should handle both Arkansas and Southern Miss in the next two weeks. Those would be games Gatewood would likely get playing time if he was healthy. After Week 5, it will be difficult to find time to pull Stidham from a game.
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