The Early Glimpse: Cougs vs. Tigers

THE HONEYMOON IS over. It's time to see if the Mike Leach way works in Pullman, beginning this Saturday with the 2013 season opener at Auburn. As season openers go, this is a fairly salty opportunity. Winning at Auburn would mean something, even if the Tigers are coming off 3-9 season and have a new coaching staff, led by former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.

Auburn isn't as bad as 3-9; if you look inside the numbers, the Tigers had several strong performances against top-flight SEC teams before completely unraveling down the stretch.

The Tigers have plenty of SEC-level talent; surely the program reaped some recruiting benefits from its 2010 national title, (No. 2 nationally in '11; No. 8 in '12; No. 14 in ‘13.) Saturday's atmosphere will be as unnerving as any Washington State faces all season.

As road games go, it's the perfect sort of season opener for Washington State. Not as difficult as some in recent years, such as Auburn (2006), Wisconsin (2007) or Oklahoma State (2010) but far from what amounts to a paid scrimmage such as Idaho (2005) or Idaho State (2011).

Whether the Cougars can win, shoot, even Leach on truth serum couldn't tell you for sure. There are way too many variables at play in this opener. Washington State should be improved, but many Cougars are still young and still trying to figure out Pac-12 level football. Auburn has many new faces playing in a new system for Malzahn.

It's should be an entertaining crapshoot worth watching.

The kickoff: Washington State at Auburn, 4 p.m. Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium. ESPNU will televise.

The Line: Auburn is a 14 1/2-point favorite over the Cougars.

The rankings: Neither school is anywhere near a top 25 preseason poll. For what it's worth, in USA Today's rating of the 125 FBS schools, Auburn is No. 56, and WSU is No. 93.

About Auburn: Malzahn, who replaces Gene Chizik, is a known quantity at Auburn, as he spent three years as the team's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Malzahn's Auburn highlight was mentoring Cam Newton to a Heisman Trophy during the 2010 season, as well as helping the Tigers win the national title that season.

Malzahn is light on head coaching experience, but successful. He left Auburn following the 2011 season to become head coach at Arkansas State. In one year at ASU, the Red Wolves won a bowl game and went 10-3. Malzahn really is a college football newbie, as just seven years ago he was coaching high school football. But Malzahn has ascended to a prominent position in college football because he's that good. Chip Kelly Lite? We'll see.

Malzahn hired what on paper looks to be an excellent coaching staff, headed by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who had successful stints coaching defense at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

Because Malzahn is only a year removed from Auburn, most of the players figure to remember his ways and terminology. Apparently the lack of Malzahn familiarity didn't impact starting quarterback Nick Marshall, a junior college transfer who spent one season at Georgia before he was dismissed from the program. If that sounds familiar, see Newton's resume.

At 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, Marshall isn't quite the physical specimen as Newton, but he's a run and pass threat. Last year at Garden City CC, he combined for more than 4,200 running and passing yards and 37 touchdowns. But there's opportunity for the Cougars, because Marshall also threw 20 interceptions.

Marshall has offensive support in running back Tre Mason, who ran for 1,002 yards last season. The Tigers are said to have good depth at running back, and Malzahn will use them in his passing system. Four of Auburn's five starting offensive linemen return for 2013.

Johnson runs a 4-2-5 defensive scheme. There's been a lot of movement of personnel on defense since last season, including that of safety Demetruce McNeal, the team's leading tackler in 2012 who was recently booted from the squad. Among the top talents on AU's defense are defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Justin Garrett and safety Jermaine Whitehead. Ford is expected to miss the opener with a knee injury.

The series: The schools have played just once. In the 2006 season opener, Kenny Irons ran for 183 yards to lead the No. 4 Tigers to a 40-14 win at Auburn. Washington State pulled to within 26-14 late in the third quarter on Cody Boyd's 50-yard touchdown catch, but Auburn put the game away with a pair of fourth-quarter scores. The Cougars went on to a 6-6 season in 2006.

WSU in openers: The Cougars success in recent years has depended upon the class of opponent. The last time the Cougars beat a BCS school in a season opener was 1998, when they defeated Illinois 20-13 in Pullman. Since then, WSU is 0-7 in openers against BCS opponents (counting Utah, which at the time was a Mountain West school). Since 1998, the Cougars are 5-1 against non-BCS schools. The one loss came last year, when WSU opened the Mike Leach era with a 30-6 loss at Brigham Young.

Leach was 9-1 in season openers during his 10-year tenure at Texas Tech.

There are no direct in-state or Washington State ties to Auburn's football program.

Read Nick Daschel's occasional Pac-12 ramblings at twitter.com/nickdaschel

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