StatTiger's Breakdown: Washington State at AU

Stuart Carter analyzes Auburn's football opener and selects a winner in his season-opening predictions column as the Tigers begin the Gus Malzahn Era with a home game vs. Washington State.

Auburn 0-0 (0-0) vs. Washington State 0-0 (0-0)

Series Record: 1-0 (Auburn)

Last Meeting: (2006) Auburn won, 40-14

About each team...

Both are coming off 3-9 seasons from 2012 with high hopes to rebound in 2013. Coach Mike Leach enters his second season at Washington State and has an all-time coaching record of 87-52. Gus Malzahn enters his first season as Auburn's head coach with a career coaching record of 9-3.

The Cougars return nine starters each on both offense and defense. Auburn returns six starters on offense and eight on defense.

The Tigers currently have 40 players rated as 4-stars or better by Scout and Washington State has four.

Auburn has 31 players with at least 20 games of experience and Washington State has 21.

During the past five seasons,Auburn has compiled a 17-0 record at home against non-conference opponents while Washington State is 1-5 on the road out of conference during the same time period.

Despite Auburn's issues on offense during 2012, the Tigers finished the season ranked No. 16 nationally in "explosive" play ratio. Washington State was No. 113 and Arkansas State under Malzahn was No. 27. Auburn's higher ranking could be a strong indicator of quality personnel on offense.

Inside the Numbers:

During his previous four seasons in the Southeastern Conference, Malzahn's offense has averaged 466 yards and 39 points per game out of conference. This included 241 yards rushing and 10 explosive plays per game.

Since 1920 Washington State is 1-7 against Southeastern Conference teams with their lone victory against Tennessee in 1988. During the past five seasons the Cougars are 2-31 against FBS programs with a winning record. Since 1990 Auburn is 14-5 during season openers against non-conference opponents.

The Cougars are 3-26 on the road over the past five seasons with an average score of 14 to 38. Of their 26 road losses, 22 have been by 14 or more points.

Leach holds a record of 28-42 against FBS teams with a winning record and a 5-25 record against FBS teams with a win percentage of at least .750.

The Cougar defense finished the 2012 season as the No. 83 ranked unit in the country. Malzahn's offense has averaged 526 yards and 43 points per game against opposing defenses ranked No. 50 or worse in the country.

What to watch for…

During the 138 games of Leach's head coaching career his pass offense has averaged 53 attempts per game for 388 yards. Last season the Cougars averaged 52 pass attempts per game.

During Malzahn's collegiate coaching career (94 games) his run offense has averaged 224.4 yards per contest. When his run offense reaches at least 40 carries (52 times) it has averaged 272.5 yards per game while compiling a record of 45-7.

Can new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson improve Auburn's run defense in 2013? During the last 25 games Auburn has allowed an average of 193.7 yards rushing per game. Though the Cougars will be a "pass first" opponent if they can establish the run it will make for a long night for the Auburn defense.

First-year Auburn coach Ellis Johnson will call the shots on defense.

Though the Cougars probably won't run the football very much in their pass-heavy offense look for their running backs to be heavily involved in the passing game. During the past four seasons as a group Leach's running backs accounted for an average of 84 receptions per season.

Last season the Cougar pass offense was No. 98 nationally in yards per attempt and No. 101 in yards per completion. Because their offense is so reliant upon their short passing game, it will be essential tha Auburn tackles well to limit yards after catch.

Washington State has prepared for the tempo of Auburn's offense just as the Tigers did for the Oregon Ducks prior to the BCS National Championship game.

How effectively Auburn utilizes its current crop of skill players, which has loads of potential, will be something to watch on Saturday night. With so much focus placed on Nick Marshall, Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne in the backfield, don't be surprised if Jay Prosch is left wide-open, slipping out of the backfield.

Keys to victory…

Washington State threw the football 71 percent of the time last season. Because the Cougars will be pass-heavy again in 2013 Auburn must limit WSU's explosive plays. The Cougars generated 38 plays of 25 yards or longer in their passing game last season.

Washington State coach Mike Leach is known for producing prolific passing offenses.

The Cougars gave up 200-plus rushing yards four times last season, losing all four and doing it by an average score of 44-14. Look for the Auburn offense to be run-heavy as the Tigers lean on their strength of personnel.

When Malzahn's offense scores at least 10 points during the first quarter, his teams are 36-5. Getting off to a quick start against the Cougars will be important to set the tone for the game as well as the season.

Breaking in a new quarterback (Marshall) it will be vital that Auburn establishes its running game against the Cougars. Malzahn is 58-12 when his offense generates at least 150 yards on the ground. The more Nick Marshall is allowed to operate within the confines of the offense the better for Auburn. If he is forced to make plays often and early it could be detrimental to his growth as a quarterback.

Final Word...

The Gus Malzahn Era officially begins this Saturday night. The Tigers hope to erase the bad memories of a 3-9 season from by playing a more physical brand of football. The focus during spring and fall camps was on fundamentals and improving the team physically as well as mentally.

Auburn fans should expect to see the unedited version of the Malzahn offense, but likely in its base form. Though newcomer Marshall was able to establish himself as the starting quarterback, Malzahn emphasized there was plenty of room for him to grow into the position. The offense appears to have the highest upside in terms of potential, which means the defense is still working on establishing a foundation to improve from.

Washington State is the perfect opponent to begin the season with for the Tigers as this game should allow Auburn to work through a few existing wrinkles, but will require a solid effort to secure a victory. If Auburn can establish the run and tackle well the Tigers should be able to start off the season 1-0. They must avoid the internal miscues such as penalties and turnovers to prevent this game from being closer than it should be.

Though the Cougars should not be as challenging as opening the season with Clemson was in 2012, they are certainly not a team Auburn can afford to overlook. Leach will likely be aggressive on both sides of the football knowing this is a game in which his team is a two-touchdown underdog.

It should be an exciting night for the team, coaches and Auburn fan base with so much focus on improving from 2012. This alone should prevent the Tigers from mentally overlooking their opponent. The 2013 Auburn Tigers appear to have good chemistry and are hungry to prove their worth on the field. Because there are no preseason games in college football season openers can often be sloppy when it comes to execution.

Once the nerves are calmed I expect the edge Auburn should have in talent and depth to factor into the game. I have no doubt there is "fight" in this team, but the key to long term success will be how Auburn responds to the first sign of adversity Auburn 38, Washington State 20.

South Carolina over North Carolina (Thursday)
Ole Miss over Vanderbilt (Thursday)
Florida over Toledo
Texas A&M over Rice
Oklahoma State over Mississippi State
Arkansas over Louisiana-Lafayette
Alabama over Virginia Tech
Tennessee over Austin Peay
Kentucky over Western Kentucky
Missouri over Murray State
Georgia over Clemson
LSU over TCU

(91-20 record during 2012 season)


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