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Michael Niziolek: Gamble against Vanderbilt last week could prove costly

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn calls to his players during game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn calls to his players during game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn kicked off against Vanderbilt last week as a 26.5-point favorite.

The Commodores’ pesky reputation — the program’s three losses in the SEC before Saturday were by a combined 17 points — wasn’t enough to sway oddsmakers given Auburn’s recent track record.

Auburn had the No. 2 offense in the country for the month of October with its most recent win at Jordan-Hare Stadium still fresh on everyone’s mind. The Tigers dismantled No. 17 ranked Arkansas with a SEC regular season record 543 yards.

What the betting line didn’t take into account was Auburn rolling the dice with John Franklin III under center.

The backup who coaches were convinced was “going to be ready” if needed was called into action thanks to a previously undisclosed shoulder injury Sean White suffered against Ole Miss.

Franklin’s performance drew mixed reviews from the opposing sidelines, but the results were the ultimate tiebreaker.

Auburn’s offense managed a pedestrian 10 points and 124 yards of total offense. The Tigers surpassed the meager production (in terms of yardage) in each of their previous eight quarters.

Coach Gus Malzahn made the right move at halftime turning to his injured starter for a spark, but it was also two quarters too late.

In the process of trying to sneak past Vanderbilt with bigger matchups versus Georgia and Alabama on the horizon — a strategy at odds with what coaches preached all week about the Commodores being a dangerous opponent — Malzahn risked Auburn’s other offensive MVP Kamryn Pettway.

If Auburn had come out with White and run over Vanderbilt as it had in recent weeks against Mississippi State and Arkansas, Pettway might not have needed to exert himself quite so much in the 23-16 win.

The SEC’s leading rusher “pulled something” on his final carry, a 60-yard run that would have been a touchdown if not for the non-contact injury. It was the fourth straight game the 6-foot-0, 240-pounder carried the ball 25 times or more.

Pettway is now questionable for the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.

Malzahn thought “about everything” in making the decision with White, but if Auburn’s schedule was flipped would White have started against Georgia last week? White still isn’t 100 percent, but Malzahn named him the starter for Auburn’s trip to Athens without reservation Tuesday.

The mistake to sit the sophomore against Vanderbilt could be on Malzahn’s mind when he decides what to do about Pettway if trainers give the running back a green light. .

Malzahn could err on the side of caution hoping to get the SEC’s leading rusher back to 100 percent for Alabama, but the Iron Bowl won’t have any championship implications if Auburn suffers a third loss.

Coaches have credited Auburn’s offensive success to a “team approach,” but that seems to be selling the contributions from White and Pettway short, something the Tigers don’t want to do on the road against one of its two big rivals.

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