It feels like we’ve been talking about this matchup for the past 5 years, and it’s finally here.

That’s because, well, we have been talking about this for the past 5 years. Penn State and Auburn agreed to a home-and-home back before the start of the 2016 season. That was before Saquon Barkley’s sophomore season. It was prior to Jarrett Stidham even agreeing to come to Auburn.

A pair of Top 25 teams that are sick of being second fiddle in their own division have a prime opportunity for a statement win with College GameDay in the house. It’ll be the first White Out with a full crowd in almost 2 years. A top-10 spot could be on the line for both teams.

It appears that Penn State will be close to a touchdown favorite against an Auburn team that essentially had 2 scrimmages to kick off the Bryan Harsin era.

Now is when we find out just how ready Harsin’s squad is:

1. Let’s talk Bo Nix’s road splits

In case you haven’t heard, yeah, Nix ain’t exactly Peyton Manning on the road. He’s more Cooper than Peyton.

Too harsh? Look at Nix’s career road numbers and you’ll see what I mean:

  • 54.5% passing
  • 9-10 TD-INT ratio
  • 105.4 passer rating
  • 5.7 yards per attempt
  • 23 rushing yards/game
  • 4-5 record

Only twice in those 9 true road games with Nix did the Tigers hit 30 points, and they were against defenses who ranked No. 118 (2020 Ole Miss) and No. 124 (2019 Arkansas).

In case you also haven’t heard, Penn State’s defense ranks No. 16 in the country. Given Nix’s track record, one can see why the Lions are favored and why there’s an over/under of 52.5 (I’d still take the under).

Obviously, that was all with a different coaching staff. Perhaps running Mike Bobo’s offense will put Nix in some better spots when he faces a pass rush. If Auburn is going to have a chance in this game, Nix can’t be in 3rd-and-longs. Against those dominant Penn State linebackers, that would turn this into a road game like 2019 Florida or 2020 Georgia.

I’d doubt we see a lot of deep drops with slow developing plays. The goal will be for Nix to get the ball out of his hands quickly and put pressure on Penn State not to over-pursue.

Nix is facing a fork-in-the-road moment in his career. Another road dud would add some more fuel to the “move on from Nix” fire.

2. Is this Demetris Robertson thing for real? We’re gonna find out

We’ve been waiting on Robertson to break out since George W. Bush was in office. At least it feels like it. Now at his third Power 5 program, the early returns of the Georgia transfer have been promising. After arriving late to camp, Robertson didn’t waste any time getting on the same page as Nix. He leads Auburn with 2 receiving touchdowns, and he’s second in catches (6) and receiving yards (89).

Take that for what it is. Robertson’s potential was never going to be determined by how he matched up against Alabama State defensive backs. For one reason or another, the speedy former 5-star wideout has always disappeared in games like this. At least since he transferred from Cal his freshman year. In matchups against Top 25 opponents post-Cal, Robertson averaged 2 catches for 20 yards.

He has never been in a role like this. In this offense, Robertson should see such a large percentage of the target share surrounded by underclassmen, so the question is if he can do anything with it. Getting separation against Penn State is a different beast, and if Nix is going to have limited time to throw, that rapport will be tested.

Now would be a nice time for Robertson to have his best game since his freshman year.

3. Jarquez Hunter can do something incredibly important for Auburn

I undersold that. Hunter can do 2 things that are incredibly important for Auburn. He can give Tank Bigsby a breather, which he’ll likely need if and when he’s swarmed by that Penn State defense. If Shaun Shivers is unavailable again, Hunter will get even more meaningful reps. That we know. The true freshman has looked the part in these first 2 scrimmages. Er, games.

What Hunter can also do is hit that home run play and completely suck the life out of Happy Valley. We’ve seen the speed from the former track star. This is the guy who broke the Mississippi state record for career touchdowns, which was set by the legend Marcus Dupree. Yeah, that Marcus Dupree. Even though Hunter’s emergence was against 2 vastly inferior opponents, it’s hard not to be encouraged by his big-play ability.

That’s what Auburn needs against Penn State. Don’t put it on the offense to have these 13-play drives. That doesn’t work against the Lions, who showed against Wisconsin that even getting into the red zone doesn’t always lead to points. Wisconsin only scored once in 4 red zone trips, and that game was in Madison.

Speaking of that game and how it relates to Hunter, Penn State has yet to surrender a 20-yard run this season. Ellis Brooks, Brandon Smith and Jesse Luketa have been lights out. Hunter already has 4 runs of 20 yards, including the longest touchdown run in Auburn history (94 yards).

If he continues that against a disciplined Penn State defense, there will be a whole lot of buzz about the potential of Auburn’s dynamic backfield.

4. The Auburn secondary is going to get a chance or two against Sean Clifford

Heads up to Smoke Monday, Roger McCreary, Nehemiah Pritchett and anyone else who lines up in Auburn’s defensive backfield on Saturday. We’ve seen Clifford make some baffling decisions during his 3 seasons as Penn State’s starter. Like, the types of decisions you wouldn’t expect from someone with so much experience.

Auburn cannot afford to let one of those opportunities slip away. You need takeaways there. You need to give your new offense a short field. You need to quiet that crowd instead of giving Penn State more chances.

Don’t let the top-10 ranking fool you. If Penn State has a weakness, it’s Clifford. It’s hard to tell if he reverted to his 2019 form so far because against Wisconsin, he was barely on the field — the Lions only possessed the ball for just over 17 minutes — and in Week 2, he faced an inferior (but tricky) Ball State team at home.

Like Nix, Clifford regressed in Year 2 as a starter in 2020. This game will go a long way in determining how realistic the “bounce-back” talk is.

5. Beware of Mike Yurcich’s use of screens

One of the things new offensive coordinator Yurcich likes to do is put one of his receivers out wide to either dial up a screen, or fake a screen and then attack deep. Against Wisconsin, we saw him swing Parker Washington into the flat, only to fake the screen and go over the top to the dangerous Jahan Dotson:

(If Clifford hits Dotson in stride, that’s 6. But enough with the Clifford slander. At least he didn’t Joe Milton that throw and send it out of the stadium.)

Against Ball State last week, Yurcich dialed up a screen look to Dotson, who then took it 25 yards to the house:

It’s tough because you have to respect the breakaway speed of Dotson, so playing him with a cushion makes sense. But then you see how quickly those Penn State offensive linemen can get up field and it makes it seem like the Lions can run that play at will even they want to.

Yurcich is going to force Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain to get out in space and make those plays. If Monday were to blow up one of those looks coming downhill, that would certainly make Yurcich think twice about dialing that up.

This might seem like a small thing, but for the Auburn defense playing in its first true road atmosphere, this is about discipline. Having their eyes in the wrong place could be the difference in surrendering that back-breaking big play.

6. This would be quite the (rare) feather in the SEC’s nonconference cap

If this matchup feels rare, it’s because it is, and not just because this is only the schools’ third meeting and first in the regular season.

This is quite the stat:

It has shades of LSU-Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in 2016, though that was technically a neutral-site game. It’s not like Auburn is being asked to play in sub-freezing temps or anything. It’ll be in the 70s on Saturday night.

But is it possible that there’s a little bit of extra juice for a respected SEC foe? Absolutely. Happy Valley, when it’s rolling, is second to none. If Noah Cain kicks off the game like Saquon Barkley did when GameDay was in the house for that 2017 showdown against Michigan, look out:

OK, just for the sake of argument, let’s say those plays don’t happen. Auburn pulls off the upset and beats a top-10 Penn State team on the road. That would improve the SEC to 7-2 vs. Power 5 competition in nonconference play — pending the result of Stanford-Vanderbilt on Saturday — with 4 wins against top-15 teams.

The anti-SEC crowd had better hope that Auburn doesn’t spoil Penn State’s White Out.

7. A prediction: Penn State 28, Auburn 14

When I close my eyes and think about how Saturday night could play out, I picture Nix running for his life and Penn State celebrating defensive stop after defensive stop. That’s what I can’t get around.

It’s not that the Lions are going to light up an Auburn defense that really hasn’t been tested. I think Penn State benefits from some short fields and Auburn is playing from a deficit in a brutal atmosphere. Instead of Bigsby taking over, it’s Cain who shines on that stage.

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What would a loss do for Harsin? It would confirm what many — myself included — thought in the preseason. He has a daunting Year 1 schedule, and few things are more daunting than playing from a deficit against this Penn State team in Happy Valley.

Auburn’s fast start to 2021 comes to a screeching halt Saturday night.