AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn should be eyeing a relatively easy win Saturday night (6:30 p.m. CT on the SEC Network) against Sun Belt opponent Arkansas State, which is coming off an ugly 31-10 home loss to Toledo.
But this Auburn program should be well aware that a lack of execution could turn into late-game panic in this type of nonconference matchup.
Auburn’s 2016 roster is built on a streak of top-15 recruiting classes. Arkansas State’s roster relies on lower-rated talent and several notable transfers who found themselves lower on the depth charts at bigger schools. The Red Wolves have their strengths — especially on the offensive and defensive lines — but none that should give the Tigers too much trouble.
That last phrase comes with a disclaimer, though. The Auburn offense has to execute better on Saturday than it did in Week 1 or a highly motivated Arkansas State team could leave Jordan-Hare Stadium with the mother of all rebound wins. Stranger things have happened in college football, and a good number of them have happened on the Plains.
Here’s a position-by-position look at this matchup between Auburn and Arkansas State.
Auburn: The three-quarterback rotation Gus Malzahn employed for the Clemson game apparently is dead, as Sean White will start with John Franklin III serving as his backup. Auburn moved the ball better with White against Clemson, and Franklin opened things up for the running game just by being on the field. The Tigers haven’t seen a fully healthy White get a complete game since the four-OT loss to Arkansas last year, when he threw for 254 yards on 19-for-32 passing. This is the perfect matchup to reestablish that rhythm.
Arkansas State: Replacing the dual-threat Fredi Knighten is a tall task for Arkansas State, and it’s one the Red Wolves are trying to do with a transfer quarterback. Pitt transfer Chad Voytik started 15 games with the Panthers and got the start against Toledo, but went 11 for 24 through the air for just 124 yards. Former Oklahoma quarterback Justice Hansen didn’t get much of a shot against the Rockets. If Voytik struggles, Hansen could get more playing time against Auburn.
Auburn: Kerryon Johnson proved last week he could take the punishment of 20-plus carries and still produce. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee both said this week that bruising backup Kamryn Pettway will play a bigger role after getting zero touches against Clemson. Chandler Cox, Kam Martin and Malik Miller fill out a talented yet inexperienced rushing attack that needs a lot more help from its offensive line than it got last weekend.
Arkansas State: Arkansas State has a three-headed monster in the backfield — Warren Wand, Johnston White and Armond Weh-Weh. Wand led the team with 77 yards on just 12 carries against Toledo, while Weh-Weh scored Arkansas State’s only touchdown. They each bring their own skill set to a spread attack that prides itself on gashing teams on the ground. Last week, that attack only averaged 3.7 yards per touch. Like Auburn, Arkansas State is looking for more from its ground game in Week 2.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Auburn: The Tigers’ inexperienced group of wideouts performed well last Saturday given the offense’s overall struggles. Auburn only had one clear-cut drop, and it was able to plug in newcomers including Kyle Davis and walk-on Will Hastings without a hitch. Senior Marcus Davis will lead the way for a receiving corps that looks to get highly touted underclassmen such as Nate Craig-Myers, Eli Stove and Darius Slayton more opportunities.
Arkansas State: The departures of lead targets Tres Houston and J.D. McKissic were obvious in Week 1 as Arkansas State couldn’t get much going to its wide receivers. The multi-talented Cameron Echols-Luper, son of former Auburn assistant Curtis Luper, is a speed demon who will get opportunities through the air and on the ground at wide receiver. Tight end Blake Mack had an 83-yard reception last week against Toledo and is a threat in the passing game.
Auburn: This unit was supposed to be the strength of Auburn’s offense in 2016, but it didn’t play like it against Clemson. New starting tackles Austin Golson and Robert Leff struggled in pass protection, and the entire unit had trouble getting anything going for the ground game. Center Xavier Dampeer had a decent debut, but experienced guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith had some rare miscues on the interior. The talent is there, but the execution was not. That needs to change this weekend as Auburn gets ready for its SEC opener against Texas A&M.
Arkansas State: The Red Wolves return all five starters on its offensive line this season, and several of these seniors have All-Sun Belt potential. Against Toledo, though, the Arkansas State front five allowed 4 sacks and 9 tackles for loss and had several major snapping errors to its new quarterbacks. This unit won’t be completely rattled in the tough environment at Jordan-Hare Stadium. But it needs to find its edge again if the Red Wolves hope to hang with the Tigers on Saturday night.
Auburn: Although it didn’t record a sack against Clemson, Auburn’s defensive line showed why so many had high hopes for it heading into the 2016 season. The rotation behind Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams is deep, and true-freshman defensive end Marlon Davidson fit right in with the starting lineup. Auburn can stay fresh up front, put plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and corral rushing attacks.
Arkansas State: Defensive line is also a strength for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves returned a pair of starters in nose guard Waylon Roberson and defensive end Ja’von Rolland-Jones. They also added former 4-star prospect and Alabama transfer Dee Liner into the mix. Arkansas State will rotate a lot of bodies up front in hopes of energizing an attack-minded defense that loves to create turnovers.
Auburn: The Tigers got a fantastic game against Clemson from their linebacker rotation of Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Tre’ Williams. The first two were first-time starters, but they didn’t look like it as they made impact play after impact play against one of the nation’s premier offenses. It was one of Auburn’s best linebacker performances of the past decade, and the Tigers will want to keep that going while adding some more rotation ahead of important SEC matchups.
Arkansas State: Arkansas State’s linebackers were all over the field against Toledo last week, as seniors Xavier Woodson-Luster and Quanterio Heath each racked up double-digit tackles and a couple of plays in the opposition’s backfield. Khari Lain was a third-team All-Sun Belt selection last season despite the fact he wasn’t a regular starter. This is a solid linebacker unit by Group of 5 standards.
Auburn: The Auburn secondary had its struggles against Clemson, but it didn’t let Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson have the monster day that some expected. Josh Holsey was a blast from the past at cornerback as Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis had their fair share of good plays. Safeties Tray Matthews and Nick Ruffin patrolled the center well and didn’t allow any huge busts. Auburn gets Stephen Roberts back from suspension Saturday, giving this improving unit another boost.
Arkansas State: Former Auburn assistant Trooper Taylor’s unit got torched last week against Toledo quarterback Logan Woodside, who completed 23 of his 31 passes for 371 yards and 3 touchdowns. Though the Red Wolves return several starters — including Taylor’s son Blaise at cornerback — Toledo did pretty much whatever it wanted through the air. Arkansas State was feast (26 interceptions) or famine (119th in passes allowed of 20-plus yards) in the secondary last season, and that doesn’t seem to have changed in 2016.
Auburn: Kicker Daniel Carlson started his 2016 season with a bang as he drilled a 53-yard field goal against Clemson. He’ll make sure Auburn is basically in scoring range whenever it crosses midfield Saturday. Punter Kevin Phillips had a decent day boosted by a ridiculous bounce on a 68-yard boot. Rudy Ford, Kerryon Johnson and Marcus Davis are reliable return men who always are threats to make big plays.
Arkansas State: Senior kicker J.D. Houston is reliable from 40 yards and in for the Red Wolves. Damon Foncham and Echols-Luper, surprisingly enough, are looking to replace the big leg of Luke Ferguson this year. Echols-Luper had the bizarre stat line of a 68-yard punt and an 8-yard punt against Toledo. Echols-Luper is a former All-American candidate at punt returner, and fellow Auburn native Taylor is a threat on kicks. Arkansas State would love to get impact plays from this unit Saturday.
The Bottom Line
Auburn clearly has a talent advantage over Arkansas State, but execution matters just as much in these “paycheck games.” Last year at this time, Auburn almost lost to FCS school Jacksonville State, and the Sun Belt is coming off a good week of action against big-name opponents.
Arkansas State won’t be a pushover in the trenches, and it has some potentially game-changing talents in the skill positions. But just like Auburn’s offense, it’s looking for a big bounce-back game following a flat effort in Week 1.
If the Tigers get things figured out on offense and play to their talent level, this should be a multi-touchdown victory that’ll give them momentum ahead of the Texas A&M and LSU games. They have a clear edge at virtually every position on the field as an SEC program.