FACTS & STATS: Site: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) -- Auburn, Alabama. Television: ESPNU. Home Record: WSU 0-0, Auburn 0-0. Away Record: WSU 0-0, Auburn 0-0. Neutral Record: WSU 0-0, Auburn 0-0. Conference Record: WSU 0-0, Auburn 0-0. Series Record: Auburn leads 1-0.
GAME NOTES: The second year of the Mike Leach era at Washington State and the first of the Gus Malzahn era at Auburn get underway when the Cougars and Tigers clash at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
To say that Leach's first season at the helm for the Cougars was a disaster would not be stretching the truth that much. The Cougars went just 3-9 and 1-8 in Pac-12 play and had to deal with star receiver Marquess Wilson accusing Leach and the staff of abuse, resulting in Wilson's departure from the team. An investigation cleared Leach's name but didn't help the team in the win column.
In just two years since Cam Newton led the Tigers to the BCS National Championship, Auburn endured its worst season in 60 years in 2012. The Tigers finished a dismal 3-9, while losing all eight of their contests against fellow SEC members. It was the first time in program history the Tigers failed to win a league contest. Such a disastrous campaign can't be tolerated in the brutal SEC and it sent Gene Chizik packing. Returning to Auburn, this time as the head coach, is Gus Malzahn.
It was in the 2006 campaign that these two teams met for the first and only time. In the first week of the season the No. 4 Tigers routed the unranked Cougars, 40-14, led by 183 rushing yards from Kenny Irons.
It was no mystery that Leach would transform the Cougars into a pass-first and often offense. In the first season utilizing the Air Raid attack he made famous at Texas Tech, Leach did push the Cougars to the ninth best passing offense (330.4 ypg) in the country.
However, the total numbers masked an inconsistency at quarterback that kept the team from really excelling. Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday battled for most of the season to be the starter. Halliday was more willing to take chances which led him to complete just 52.2 percent of his pass attempts and be intercepted 13 times. although he also threw for 15 touchdowns. He has the job this season as Tuel has moved on.
The Cougars have plenty of options after being thrown into the fire of the Air Raid in 2012. Brett Bartolone is reliable as he led the team with 53 receptions. Isiah Myers (42 rec, 438 yards, 4 TDs), Gabe Marks (49 rec, 560 yards, 2 TDs), Dominique Williams (34 rec, 546 yards, 3 TDs) and Bobby Ratliff (30 rec, 399 yards) will all be in the mix as well.
There wasn't any balance for the Cougar offense. Washington State largely ignored the run and finished with just 349 total yards on the ground. That total was the worst in the country and made the Cougars one of just two teams not to have at least 1,000 yards rushing. The probably won't change much this season.
Despite the strong passing numbers the Cougars still struggled to score, ranking 11th in the league (20.4 ppg). Compounding the issue was the fact that the defense didn't do much to stop foes. Washington State ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense (33.7 ppg) and ninth in total yards allowed (429 ypg).
With eight returning starters to the unit, the thought is that another year should turn experience into production.
The leader of the defense is safety Deone Bucannon. The senior led the team with 106 tackles, while also collecting four interceptions and eight passes defended. Along with Bucannon, linebackers Darryl Monroe (80 tackles) and Cyrus Coen (60 tackles, 3 INTs) will be looked upon to improve their production and crack down on opposing offenses.
On the defensive line Xavier Cooper (three sacks) and Ioane Gauta (three) will need to replace top pass rusher Travis Long, who had 9.5 sacks a year ago.
The Cougars won't be facing a huge test on the defensive side of the ball if Auburn's offensive performance a year ago is any indication of what is to come this season. Auburn was last in the SEC in total yards per game (305), while also ranking near the bottom in scoring (18.7 ppg).
Perhaps the only bright spot of the unit was running back Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. His 5.9 yards-per-carry average showed his ability to find holes and pick up extra yards. He will be expected to take another step forward in his junior season as he takes on the full-time starting role.
However, Malzahn prefers an up-tempo style on the offensive side and that will require more steady play at quarterback. Kiehl Frazier (62-of-116, 753 yards, 2 TDs, 8 INTs) was one of three signal callers to make at least 50 pass attempts last season. Though Frazier and Jonathan Wallace are both back it will be juco transfer Nick Marshall who will be the starter.
Marshall is a dual-threat quarterback that threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,095 yards and 19 scores for Garden City Community College last season.
The fleet of receivers that Marshall will be throwing to is largely unproven. The most experienced receiver is Quan Bray, who caught only 14 balls last year for 94 yards.
Malzahn also has quite a bit of work to do on defense. The Tigers were gashed for 420.5 yards per game last season, letting up 28.3 points per game. Each of those marks was among the bottom four teams in the SEC, where defense rules the day.
Despite the poor play for the most part, the Tigers will take comfort in the fact that nine starters return. Dee Ford (6.5 TFL, six sacks) is a solid pass rusher at defensive end but it remains to be seen how he'll hold up with the added attention the loss of Corey Lemonier (5.5 sacks) will create.
Jermaine Whitehead had 86 tackles last season at safety but wasn't particularly effective in coverage. Jake Holland had 73 tackles at linebacker where the Tigers are weakest, as no other player at the position has much in terms of starting experience.
Both of these teams are trying to rebound and do so quickly as they are both in danger of having another year at the bottom of arguably the two best conferences in college football. Being the worst team in the vaunted SEC is certainly a step up from being the worst in the Pac-12 though. Add in that Auburn has the homefield edge and the Tigers should start the season with a win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Auburn 28, Washington State 13
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