Never too early to size up: WSU vs. Auburn

THINK THE COUGS have a hot quarterback battle on their hands? Take a look at Wazzu's season-opening opponent. Auburn has as many as five QBs who will duel it out for the starting gig.

Auburn is a big name coming off a hugely disappointing 3-9 season. A win for the Cougs on the road in SEC country on Aug. 31 would be a monster way to start their 2013 campaign. And other than going on the road, there's a lot to like in the matchup if you're a Coug fan. Indeed, the 2013 version of the Tigers doesn't remotely compare to the 2010 squad that won the national title.

Expected to battle it out for the starting QB job are Kiehl Frazier, Jeremy Johnson, Nick Marshall, Jason Smith and Jonathan Wallace. Frazier was 1-4 last year and was then benched. Smith is similar to the Cougs' Isaac Dotson in that he "will get a shot" at the position but may line up elsewhere. Wallace started the last four games for Auburn. Johnson and Marshall arrive in the fall.

Frazier is the odds-on pick. New coach Gus Malzahn is bringing with him his spread-oriented, hurry-up, no-huddle O. And Frazier was originally recruited to play this style of offense.

Whatever the personnel, whatever the style, Auburn will have some major retooling to do. They went 3-9 this past season and were ranked No. 115 in total offense. On defense, they were ranked No. 79.

THE FRONT SEVEN on defense was the biggest weakness for the Auburn stop corps last year, and the secondary is expected to be the best unit in 2013. Auburn signed some junior college linebackers and defensive linemen which should help but no one other than the truest believers is expecting Auburn to be unusually stout on defense or offense this season.


The 2013 Cougars, who open at Auburn and then head to USC, aren't the first WSU team to start the season with daunting back-to-back road trips. Here are four others that opened with an especially formidable double-whammy. Interestingly, two of the four – the 1965 and 1977 clubs – came through the gauntlet undefeated.
Of note on the 1967 team is that after going to USC (which won the national title that year) and Oklahoma, the Cougs returned to Pullman for the home opener against fourth-ranked UCLA and eventual Heisman winner Gary Beban.

  • 1963:
    Texas Tech 16, WSU 7
    WSU 14, Iowa 14

  • 1965:
    WSU 7, Iowa 0
    WSU 14, Minnesota 13

  • 1967:
    USC 49, WSU 0
    Oklahoma 21, WSU 0

  • 1977:
    WSU 19, Nebraska 10
    WSU 23, Michigan State 21

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  • They will be operating under their third defensive coordinator in three years. And the offense will be completely different. It's likely that it will take some time, some growing pains, before Auburn hits their stride. Asking them to assimilate it all and operate at a high clip in the first season is asking a lot, let alone the first game of the first season.

    The Auburn D had their moments here and there in 2012, but the bottom line is that it was a mediocre unit that had trouble against the spread teams they faced. The culprits were a lack of size, strength and power that led to poor tackling.

    New DC Ellis Johnson's base defense is a 4-2-5. It features a rover safety/linebacker and is contingent on having enough speed to contain the edges. It's goal is to slow down a spread offense without having to substitute much.

    There are multiple ways to beat any defense out there. One of the ways to crack the 4-2-5 is to run effectively, not exactly Wazzu's forte last season. But if the Cougs can offer a credible running threat in the '13 season opener, it could be a long day for the Auburn D. When Auburn floods the box and brings their safeties up, and they will, then the possibility of open Cougar receivers with room to run increases exponentially.

    The No. 1 task Auburn will be looking to instill in its defensive players this spring and on into fall camp -- is a return to the fundamentals and tackling.

    WHAT THE COUGS will see from Auburn on offense is a team that wants to employ a lot of run-pass options. There will be a lot of motion. They will run a good amount of time and try to use that to set up play-action passes.

    The biggest thing, though, is speed, speed, speed - they want to run as many plays as they can. But again, they're going to be teaching the offense this year -- they're not expected to run it as fast as they will next year or the year after that. It's not a "simple" offense, with lots of repetition and running of plays necessary in order to learn the nuances. In other words, it's not like the Air Raid, which Mike Leach installed in about three days.

    All offenses are about execution, though, and if the Cougs stay home and wrap up, they can take care of business here. If not, Auburn will make things difficult. A defense can go 10 plays and look rock solid, but it only takes one play with a missed assignment or two for a quick, hurry-up offense to take off and find pay dirt.

    As for the Auburn D, the Cougars can certainly move the ball against them if they execute up front. The question, just as it was last year, is if those yards can be cashed in for points.

  • Malzahn wants to speed up and lengthen the game when Auburn is on offense. They want the defense to be gassed in the fourth quarter, not unlike what the Air Raid wants to accomplish, although the Air Raid does that in part by featuring wide splits and forcing defenders to cover more ground. They also want to control tempo, just like WSU wants to do with their offense. Who best imposes their style may well win the game.

  • Auburn has at least one national writer on their side. ESPN's Mark Schlabach says Auburn will be most improved team in country in 2013.

  • In 2005, Malzahn was an Arkansas high school coach with five big-time recruits on his team, (Mitch Mustain, Ben Cleveland, Andrew Norman, Damian Williams and Bartley Webb.) Arkansas hired him and four of the recruits, all but Webb, subsequently signed with Arkansas.

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