Auburn 101: Mistakes not an option for Cougs

WASHINGTON STATE'S OFFENSE will need to be perfect, or close to it, and the secondary will need to be light years better than in 2005. The Cougars open the season Saturday at No. 4-ranked Auburn and the margin for error will be razor thin. A punishing, but balanced and high-scoring, Tiger offense awaits, along with a vocal crowd and a revamped, disguising defense.

THE TIGERS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Brandon Cox, QB (Jr): He took over as starter last year and led the Tigers to nine wins in what should have been a rebuilding year. He is a smart and efficient passer who likes to throw out of play action. His stats will not blow you away, but if the Cougar secondary has flaws he can pick them apart.

Kenny Irons, RB (Sr): Auburn's best offensive weapon. The former South Carolina Gamecock He did not get enough touches early last year, but the team leaned on him more as the year progressed and he blossomed. He finished 2005 as the SEC's leading rusher with 1,293 hashes. Irons, touted as a Heisman contender, is a speedy workhorse back in the mold of predecessor Cadillac Williams.

Courtney Taylor, WR (Sr): A very physical receiver who was hobbled with a high ankle sprain last season. He returns to headline an otherwise green receiver corps. Taylor has blazing speed and should provide the third dimension of Auburn's offensive trifecta.

Cougars vs. Auburn
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
4:45 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Jordan-Hare Stadium (85,471)

TELEVISION:
Live on ESPN2

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Auburn by 15 1/2

THE SERIES:
This is the first meeting between the two Land Grant schools.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougars 24, Tigers 21


Overview
The Tigers' offense is deliberate and punishing. They beat you up with their running game while the defense suffocates you. The pass attack focuses on efficiency, but is aggressive enough to keep defenses honest. Coordinator Al Borges runs what he refers to as the "Gulf Coast" offense -- a modified, run-focused version of the West Coast offense. He has some experience with Bill Doba's defense -- he was coordinator at Oregon in 1995, UCLA from 1996-2000 and Cal in 2001. Auburn has led the SEC in scoring in both of his seasons there.

Strategy for the Cougs
Having lost four of its top five receivers, it is unclear what the WSU secondary should expect, but the Cougs don't have the depth to over-commit to stopping Auburn's running attack. The front seven has to prove they can hang with Auburn's dominating run blockers on their own and give the WSU offense reasonable field position throughout the game. It will be a tall task. Though Auburn has to replace both starting tackles, the core of the line returns in tact and should remain one of the best in the business. The Tigers' offense isn't known for big plays and they are unlikely to gamble if WSU doesn't force the issue. The Cougars plan to rotate players often to keep them fresh in the humidity, so look for two big hitters off the bench, sophomore linebacker Cory Evans and sophomore safety Michael Willis, to figure in prominently.

THE TIGERS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Will Herring, LB: Herring was a stud at safety last season but the Tigers were concerned enough about their depth at linebacker to change his position to strongside linebacker. Herring has bulked up to fit the billing, but as a whole, he and the other linebackers appear to be undersized and heavily reliant on their speed.

Davis Irons, CB: Kenny's brother might be the top corner in the SEC this season. He leads a group known for physical play and will focus on disrupting Jason Hill's routes at the point of origin.

Marquies Gunn, LE (Sr): 250 pounds of nasty. Has too much speed for most offensive linemen but plays with a surprising amount of power too. His right-side counterpart Quentin Groves is a virtual clone of him.

Overview
Auburn is breaking in a new defensive coordinator in former LSU and Miami Dolphins assistant Will Muschamp. He has a reputation for disguising defenses, especially with the linebackers and safeties. The Tigers are unlikely to change the 4-3 system they ran last year, though Muschamp could bring a more aggressive flavor to it with his historic penchant for mixing in three- and five-man fronts. The Tigers feature a pair of fantastic corners and defensive ends, but most of the other starters are being replaced. The linebacker position was a concern this spring and was worsened by the suspension of two potential starters Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon. Like the offense, the D isn't known for generating big plays (just 15 turnovers last year) but they rarely make mistakes.

Strategy for the Cougs
The Tigers have an outstanding record against spread offenses, but on paper, it should work against them. The corners and defensive ends are very strong, but the weak point in the defense appears to be the center. If the Cougs stretch the field and pass the ball effectively, it could expose the Tigers' underbelly to the running game. The move of Herring from safety to outside linebacker makes sense, but the Cougars have seen how seemingly simple position changes can fail to pan out. If the linebackers are a weakness, the Cougars' talented group of receivers could get them off balance.

THE TIGERS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker John Vaughn was disastrous in Auburn's overtime loss to LSU last year, where he missed five of six attempts, but he only missed two other kicks the rest of the season so he appears dependable. Punter Cody Bliss is a returning All-SEC selection.


MATT MULLENNIX
INJURY REPORT: The Cougars will be without two starters on the defensive line: tackle Fevaea'i Ahmu, who reinjured a foot on Wednesday, and end Matt Mullennix, who blew a knee last week and is out for the season. Backup offensive lineman Scott Friberg (hip/knee strain) is out, as is offensive tackle Andy Roof (thumb) and linebacker Jason Stripling (shoulder). Auburn also is quite healthy. Fullback Mike McLaughlin (knee surgery last spring), linebacker Steve Gandy and offensive tackle Oscar Gonzalez are out.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
The Tigers have developed a reputation for laying eggs in opening games. In 2005, the opening loss to Georgia Tech disrupted what turned out to be an overtime loss away from a perfect regular season. The Tigers are well aware of this and are paying more attention to detail in training camp this year. If the Cougs expect to pull off the upset in Auburn, they shouldn't expect any help from the Tigers.

Alex Brink and the Cougar offense will have to play mistake-free football for 60 minutes in one of the most hostile environments in college football. Defensively, Coach Doba needs to develop a strong game plan and hope his secondary has improved significantly over the off-season if he wants to clamp down on the SEC's reigning scoring leaders.

Auburn's punishing style will wear the Cougs down over the course of the game, so WSU has to jump out to an early lead to have a chance. The goofy loss to Georgia Tech is Auburn's only home loss in the last two years, and their margin of victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium has been more than 30 points per game since 2002. They tend to steamroll all but the toughest who enter Jordan-Hare.

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