Auburn has little choice but to stick with its regulars against Idaho
Auburn is in a tricky spot.
Usually, when you enter a game as a five-touchdown favorite — which the Tigers are for Saturday’s home matchup against Idaho — you might be able to rest some starters or give your reserves some valuable snaps.
But Auburn is in no position to mess around. It has to beat the Vandals to become bowl-eligible in a game it desperately needs because its regular-season finale is a home contest against Alabama in the Iron Bowl next week.
So expect to see much of the same old same old in Auburn’s lineup this week.
Under less desperate circumstances, Gus Malzahn might have had the luxury of giving some of his younger players some reps this weekend. However, on the offensive line, playing reserves could be a necessity.
Starting center Austin Golson, who suffered a knee injury against Georgia last week, might miss Saturday’s game and would be replaced by senior Devonte Danzey if he can’t go. On top of that, left tackle Shon Coleman also hurt his knee against the Bulldogs and is questionable for Saturday. If Coleman sits out, junior Robert Leff would step in.
But even with a potentially makeshift offensive line, count on Auburn to stick with its ground game. The Vandals (3-7, 2-5 Sun Belt) are 127th — out of 128 FBS teams — against the run, allowing a whopping 279 yards per contest, so the players you should be excited to see more of are Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson.
Barber, who had 72 yards on 13 carries last week, needs 100 yards to reach 1,000 on the season and would become the third straight Tigers back to reach that plateau following Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne.
It’s hard to believe that Barber — who scored 11 of his 12 TDs over a three-game stretch last month — hasn’t hit pay dirt since Oct. 24th, but that is bound to change on Saturday. Not only are the Vandals yielding an FBS-worst 6.6 yards per carry, they have also surrendered 32 rushing TDs. Only four teams have allowed more.
It’s a good thing Auburn has a good running game that has been bolstered by Robinson — who had 93 yards on 12 carries last week and is averaging 6.0 per attempt — because the Tigers’ passing game is still as shaky as it has been all season.
With Sean White still nursing a left knee injury and receiver Jonathan Wallace being Auburn’s only other potential option at QB, Malzahn will probably start Jeremy Johnson. Returning to Johnson, who completed 14 of 22 passes for only 61 yards and an INT last week, is a scary proposition, but like it or not, it appears to be the best — and only — way to go.
Auburn has no margin for error if it wants to go to a bowl game. The Tigers are 0-3 in SEC games at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015, and the two victories they earned at home this season didn’t come easily. They struggled with FCS member Jacksonville State before eventually winning 27-20 in overtime. Then on Oct. 3, they allowed San Jose State to get within a touchdown before finally beating the Spartans 35-21. So they can take nothing for granted, not even the Vandals.
It has come down to this. Auburn’s biggest game of the season is against a team it is facing for only the second time, an Idaho squad that hasn’t been to The Plains since 1999. The Vandals are definitely not a familiar foe, but they are one the Tigers should beat.
With next week’s showdown with the Crimson Tide looming, there’s no better time for War Eagle to start soaring again.