StatTiger: Breaking Down Auburn vs. WSU

StatTiger crunches the numbers as he analyzes the season-opener as Auburn of the SEC takes on Washington State from the Pac-10.

With the build up of anticipation for the 2006 season, it's hard to believe Auburn is just days away from the season opener. The 2006 Auburn Tigers make their debut this Saturday as the No. 4 rated team, according to the Associated Press pol,l and it's time to take the cover off the car and take it for a spin.

We all have heard all the preseason talk as Auburn has received plenty of love from the majority of the college football publications. Of course, there remains the ghosts from the past, which have led people to believe that Auburn rarely lives up to high preseason expectations.

The Washington State Cougars will enter Jordan-Hare stadium with "upset" on their mind, supported by last year's No. 8 ranked offense in the country. There are a few new faces on offense, but the Cougars say they believe they can compete with the Tigers and their opportunity is just a few short days away.

On the other hand, Auburn is considered as one of the top if not the best team in the Southeastern Conference and the Tigers should come out focused and primed to prove their preseason ranking is deserved. Except for the loss of three receivers, Auburn is loaded on offense at the skill positions and newly acquired defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp is prepared to release is "attack" styled defense on the Cougars.

Ghosts From the Past

Since 1951, there have been five occasions when Auburn began the season ranked in the top five of the Associated Press Poll only to suffer a loss or tie by week No. 3.

1959: (No. 3) Lost to Tennessee in the season opener.

1984: (No. 1) Lost to Miami in the season opener.

1985: (No. 2) Lost to Tennessee during week No. 3.

1987: (No. 5) Tied Tennessee during week No. 3.

1990: (No. 3) Tied Tennessee during week No. 3.

It hasn't been all doom and gloom though for the Tigers in terms of living up to a top five preseason ranking. The 1958 team started the season at No. 2 and finished with a No. 4 final ranking. The 1983 team began the season at No. 4 and finished at No. 3, but should have been voted No. 1.

Obviously two out of seven isn't a high success rate, but when any team is ranked that high the odds of failing are higher than being successful. The 2006 Tigers hope to beat the odds this season and the Washington State Cougars are the first in line.

The Cougars

It's been well documented that Washington State finished the season with a dismal 4-7 record last year, but a closer look at their schedule reveals five defeats by four points or less. The Cougars lacked quality depth and when several key defensive starters went down with injuries the Wazzou offense was forced to carry the team.

Last season, the Cougars were very balanced on offense and like the Tigers they believe in setting up the pass with a strong running game.

2005 Washington State Stats National Rankings:

Run Offense--5th (212.0 ypg)

Pass Offense--20th (277.3 ypg)

Total Offense--8th (489.3 ypg)

Scoring Offense --21st (33.4 ppg)

Run Defense--65th (153.5 ypg)

Pass Defense--113th (289.1 ypg)

Total Defense--106th (442.6 ypg)

Scoring Defense--97th (31.5 ppg)

Washington State clearly was one of the better offensive teams in the country, but its defense was one of the worst. Odds are, the defense should improve in 2006, but can the WSU offense maintain the same level of production from 2005?

Keys to the game for Auburn include:

*Establish the running game.

*Utilize the running backs in the passing game.

*Force turnovers. With so many new faces on a new defense, odds are Auburn will give up a few big plays during the game. This can be balanced out with a few forced turnovers.

*Should Auburn build an early two to three score lead, do not go into cruise control. Because the Cougars' strength is in their passing game, they are never out of their element, even when trailing on the scoreboard. This is also a "statement" game for Coach Tommy Tuberville and the Tigers. The message should be, "We are that good, see for yourself."

*Even if the game is close, stick with the running game. It remains Auburn's strength on offense and even if the Cougars are improved on defense, they still have major depth issues.

Keys for Washington State include:

*Three-step drops in the passing game to frustrate the Auburn defensive line and move the quarterback out of the pocket

Utilize the tight ends and running backs in the passing game to create mismatches with Auburn's inexperienced and undersized linebackers.

*Sell out to stop the run. Eight man fronts, including stunts and slants to confuse the Auburn offensive line. Make Brandon Cox carry the Auburn offense.

*Establish the running game. The Cougars should have success passing the ball, but if they become balanced on offense they will be very dangerous.

*No huddle offense will slow down Auburn's ability to substitute personnel and might force Auburn into "nickel" coverage, opening up the Cougar running game.

Scoring Margins and a Prediction

Games are settled on how each team performs that particular day and not on the previous outcome of other contests. For this reason, predicting the outcome and scoring margin of any football game is almost impossible. However, one can surmise, within reason, the probable outcome of a football game based on scoring margins. Researching each team's scoring margins against their opponents can establish a reasonable probability of an outcome, but the key word is "probability."

Based on scoring margins from last season, here are some of my picks from Auburn's 2005 season and the final results:

LSU …………….. 24-21 (+3) ……….. 17-20 (-3)

Ole Miss ………… 24-3 (+21) ………. 27-3 (+24)

Arkansas ………… 29-16 (+13) …….. 34-17 (+17)

Kentucky ………… 38-6 (+32) ……… 49-27 (+22)

Georgia ………….. 24-18 (+6) ………. 31-30 (+1)

Alabama …………. 20-16 (+4) ………. 28-18 (+10)

Wisconsin ………… 34-25 (+9) ……… 10-24 (-14)

Because this is the first game of the season, there are no current scoring margins to compare Washington State and Auburn so I will rely on last year's numbers.

Last season, the Cougars scored 2.6 points more than what their opponent normally allowed and the Wazzou defense held their opponent to 1.4 points less than what they normally averaged. Against Division I opponents, the Cougars averaged 32 points on offense while allowing 34 points per game.

Last season, the Tigers scored 9.1 points more than what their opponent normally allowed and the Auburn defense held opponents to 7.0 points less than what they normally averaged. Against Division I opponents, the Auburn Tigers averaged 32 points on offense while allowing 16 points per game.

Based on the scoring margins from last season, there are two probable outcomes with Auburn winning 30-19 or 43 to 25. Taking the average of both scores, Auburn wins 36-22. Odds are Auburn's offense will at least be as productive as 2005 and the Tiger defense should improve from last year. Washington State's defense will probably improve and its offense should be no better than last year. With this in mind, both teams should improve in terms of scoring margins so the results in 2006 should be similar or close to 2005.

Despite the fact the Pac-10 is known for wide-open offensive play, the running game will more than likely determine the outcome of this game. The philosophy of both offensive coordinators is to establish the run to set up the passing game. Both passing games are centered around the play-action pass and if the running game is taken away, become far less productive.

Over the past seven years, Auburn is 35-4, when holding its opponent to under 100 yards rushing and 7-2 even if the opponent passes for over 300 yards. Since 1999, Auburn's QB rating is 149.8 when the Tigers rush for at least 170 yards and 123.7 when held to under 100-yards rushing.

If both defenses are able to take away the running game it would give the Cougars the edge on offense based on the experience advantage at quarterback and wide receiver. Alex Brink (Washington State quarterback) has been forced to play in a come from behind role more often than Auburn QB Brandon Cox, which gives him the edge if the game comes down to a "pitchers" duel. Cox struggled last year when Auburn's running game was taken away and must improve in this area if Auburn is to make a championship run.

On paper, Auburn should be favored by 14-17 points. but this is a season opener for both teams, which increases the possibility of mistakes. Auburn has the edge in talent, depth and coaching, but this meant nothing against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl. Once again, it will come down to how both teams execute on September 2nd and not what either team has accomplished in the past.

Any thoughts that Washington State cannot pull the upset are foolish. Over the last five seasons, the Cougars have faced Top 10 opponents and have competed very well.

A fast start for either team could dictate the outcome of the game so it's important the Tigers come out firing early and often as they did during the 2004 campaign. The longer the Cougars stay in the game, the more they will believe they can win.

Tuberville has coached in many big games while at Auburn and this season opener should make the list. Not in the sense the Cougars are a perennial power, but because of Auburn's recent track record against BCS non-conference opponents. The 2006 Tigers will win their season opener not on talent and depth alone, but because they have worked for it this time around. Auburn 35, Washington State 21 (+14)

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