Leading up to Week 1 season openers, SDS’ Brad Crawford breaks down the opponents battling SEC squads and what makes them click in marquee out-of-conference matchups.
Aug. 20: TCU (vs. LSU, Aug. 31, 9 p.m., ESPN)
TODAY: Washington State (at Auburn, Aug. 31, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
THURSDAY: North Carolina (at South Carolina, Aug. 29, 6 p.m., ESPN)
FRIDAY: Clemson (vs. Georgia, Aug. 31, 8 p.m., ABC)
SATURDAY: Virginia Tech (vs. Alabama, Aug. 31, 5:30 p.m., ESPN)
SUNDAY: Oklahoma State (vs. Mississippi St., Aug. 31, 3:30 p.m., ABC)
WASHINGTON STATE COUGARS
Opens Aug. 31 at Auburn
THE SKINNY: Year 1 didn’t go as planned for Mike Leach and his Air Raid offense at Washington State. The Cougars lost eight consecutive games beginning in Week 4 before ending the season with an overtime victory over rival Washington. So what was the problem in a top-heavy PAC 12? A little bit of everything from the offense struggling to score points to Wazzu’s defense finishing near the bottom of the league in yards and points allowed. Never fond of a running game, Leach completely abandoned moving the football on the ground in 2012 with an NCAA-worst 349 yards rushing. Improving along the offensive line was a major point of emphasis this offseason, refacing a unit that gave up a nation-leading 57 sacks last year.
KEY PLAYER: Athletic, speedy wide receivers are vital to the success of an every-down passing attack, but the Air Raid won’t function without a solid quarterback. Connor Halliday steps in as the No. 1 this season, replacing Jeff Tuel. Both quarterbacks rotated in and out last season and produced similar, less-than-inspiring numbers: Tuel had eight touchdowns and eight interceptions to Halliday’s 15:13. Halliday takes command of the huddle and makes players around him better according to Leach.
Related: Auburn has a revival on the brain
WHAT TO WATCH: Usually, defensive coordinators would like to see one of their linebackers as the team’s top tackler. When a safety piles up the statistics, it’s not always a good sign. Wazzu’s Deone Bucannon hit triple digits in stops last season, leading the way on the Cougars’ defense with 106 tackles. Will Wazzu’s 3-4 base be able to handle Malzahn’s expert play-calling ability and Auburn’s speed on offense? The good news is the Cougars return eight starters on defense. The bad? Travis Long, one of those players who is gone, led his team in sacks with 9.5 last season. It doesn’t appear Wazzu’s defense will have too many answers for they’ll see on the Plains.
FINAL SAY: The most intriguing aspect of Auburn’s opener against the Cougars is the play of JUCO transfer Nick Marshall who recently won the starting job at quarterback over Jeremy Johnson. His highlight film rivals that of a former Auburn signal caller, a pretty good one by the name of Cam Newton that then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn directed to a Heisman. Marshall’s a true dual-threat and is the state of Georgia’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (103) at the prep level. He’s not as physically imposing as Newton at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, but should be able to manage Malzahn’s uptempo attack at an elite level. On the other sideline, the Cougars haven’t appeared in a bowl game nor had a winning season in 10 years. While it’s an intriguing out-of-conference matchup for Auburn, the Tigers should have enough athletes on both sides of the ball to take care of business in their opener and Malzahn’s debut as — head — coach.
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