Week 4: Auburn at Kansas State

Auburn (2-0) at Kansas State (2-0) Sept. 18, 7:30, ESPN 

Here’s The Deal: Call this one of the most interesting test cases possible to see if the Gus Malzahn Auburn offense can be stopped, or at least slowed down. 

It’s a Thursday night game, which always seems to bring an inherent quirkiness to any big college football showdown, and it’s an SEC team going way out of its comfort zone in the northern-most game the Tigers have played since going to Syracuse in 2001 – a 31-14 loss. In fact, they’ve lost their last five non-conference road games – Clemson in 2011, West Virginia 2008, Georgia Tech 2003, USC 2002, Syracuse 2001. 

Of course, no fun-stat from the past really matters since it’s obviously a new team with new players and a new coaching staff, but it all gets brought in to the uniqueness of this game and how big it is on a national scale. 

More importantly, this game is about style. If any team outside of the ones with elite athleticism and talent can possibly make this happen, it’s Kansas State with its deliberate style of play, its fundamentally sound/well-coached defense, and its ability to keep the mistakes to a bare minimum. That didn’t matter much when a loaded Wildcat team got run over by Oregon in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, and North Dakota State was certainly able to move the ball in a huge win to start out last season, but this team might have the right mix of factors to derail the seemingly unstoppable train. 

Or this just might be a brilliant and jaw-dropping display of Auburn offensive might and power. 

Either way, it’s a really, really fun showcase matchup for two Power 5 conferences in the fourth meeting between the two. This isn’t the first time Auburn made the trip to Manhattan, winning 45-32 in 1978. Kansas State lost at Auburn to start the 2007 and 1979 seasons. 

Why Auburn Might Win: Kansas State hasn’t played like Kansas State quite yet with ten penalties against Iowa State and too many miscues in the first two games. The Cyclones weren’t able to run the ball a lick against the Wildcat defensive front, but QB Sam Richardson was able to throw way too easily completing 21-of-30 passes for 185 yards. There weren’t any big plays, but there were several medium-range ones against an okay K-State secondary. It’s not going to be the running game that gets the Wildcats – although that’s going to be an issue – it’ll be the deep ball from an Auburn passing attack that’s throwing darts with Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall combining to averaged 9.5 yards per attempt and hit 65% of their passes. No, Marshall won’t hover around the 70% mark, but he won’t have to. All it will take is one or two big plays down the field, and the Auburn offense will blow wide open – Marshall can certainly do that unless … 

Why Kansas State Might Win: The Wildcat defensive front has to make a living in the Auburn backfield. The 13 tackles for loss on the year are nice, but Kansas State has to get pressure with Ryan Mueller and the ends keeping Marshall from dancing around and making plays outside of the hashmarks. Contain, contain, contain, and hope the linebackers are able to sit and accept a five-yard gain here and there and not try to make the big play that an Auburn running back can turn into a 30-yard dash with one cut. More than anything else, Kansas State has to be Kansas State. It has to hang on to the ball for well over 35 minutes, it has to win the turnover battle, and it has to get the running game moving against an aggressive and athletic Tiger defensive front. Auburn won’t beat itself, so Kansas State can’t make any mistakes. 

Who To Watch Out For: The two teams might live on their respective running games, but they also showcase two of the nation’s best wide receivers. For Kansas State to win, Tyler Lockett has to be unstoppable. Averaging 20.7 yards per catch, he only has seven grabs in his first two games, but he exploded against Iowa State. The Tiger secondary could be the weak link, and if Lockett and Deante Burton aren’t taking advantage, it could be a long night. On the other side, JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams has been everything Auburn could’ve asked for in his first two games, catching 13 passes for 214 yards and a score with nine grabs for 154 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas to kick things off. The Auburn running game will take center stage, but there’s a chance Williams puts the game away. 

What’s Going To Happen: Auburn is far, far better with an unstoppable offense that’s good enough to roll through the SEC and on to the College Football Playoff. Under normal circumstances, this would be an easy Auburn blowout, and it could be, if the Wildcats don’t play far, far better and sharper than they did over the first two games. Kansas State doesn’t have the firepower to keep up, and it doesn’t have the raw speed to handle the brilliance of the Auburn offense that had two weeks to prepare. But sometimes you just have to throw out all reason and logic when it comes to Thursday night games and … 

Prediction: Kansas State 38 … Auburn 34 
Line: Auburn -8.5 o/u: 65 
Must Watch Factor: (5: The Guest – 1: Extreme Guide To Parenting) … 4