Matchup: Washington State at Auburn Venue: Jordan-Hare Stadium (Auburn, AL) Game Time, TV: 4:00 PM (PDT), ESPNU Line: Auburn -14.5
Auburn is hoping the return of former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as head coach will turn around a program that has seen a fall from grace after their 2010 national championship season. The Tigers finished 3-9 last season and went winless in SEC play.
Malzahn brings his up-tempo offense back to the Plains and hopes to reinvigorate some life into an offense that ranked 115th in the country in total yards per game (305) and 112th in scoring offense (18.67).
The Tigers aren't without talent on offense, however, as they return 1,000 yard rusher Tre Mason to team with four-star junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, who rushed for over 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns at Santa Maria (Calif.) Allan Hancock C.C. last season.
Despite Mason's billing as the top running back on the depth chart, Artis-Payne (5-11, 210) should see a healthy amount of carries and could be expected to be the workhorse in Malzahn's run first offense. Mason (5-10, 205) will likely provide a change-of-pace and be utilized on the edges on speed sweeps, similar to the role Onterrio McCalebb served for the Tigers last season.
"We feel really good about Tre and Cam," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, while also eluding to the possibility of a committee operation in the Tigers' backfield. "At this point, it wouldn't matter to me who is out there."
Another key player expected to have an impact in the running game is H-back Jay Prosch who tilts the scale at 260-pounds and will be expected to serve as the Tigers' blocking back.
Further complicating the Cougars' ability to shut down the Tigers' run heavy attack is quarterback Nick Marshall, a junior college transfer labeled by some Auburn coaches and players as "the best athlete I have ever seen."
The former Georgia defensive back transferred to Garden City (Kan.) C.C. prior to last season and recorded 3,142 yards passing and 18 touchdowns to go along with 1,095 rushing and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
Saturday will be the first D-1 start for Marshall and although he struggled to take care of the football in junior college - he threw 20 interceptions and lost five fumbles last year - he's reportedly taken a leadership role and been impressive within the offense despite not taking part in spring practices.
Malzahn is expected to be patient with Marshall and slowly easing him into the playbook.
"This'll really be the first quarterback we've had that didn't have a chance to go through spring and get familiar here," Malzahn said of Marshall. "I think the biggest thing is, I keep saying this, but he didn't get to go through spring, so we're going to make sure as coaches we try to put him in a position to be successful."
That may be to focus more on the running game, and with his wheels, coupled with a solid stable of running backs, they may run the ball even more than they typically would.
As your prototypical dual threat quarterback, Marshall will likely resemble a little bit of former Tigers star quarterback Cam Newton, although he's not built like Newton. Marshall is listed at 6-foot-1, 210-pounds but looks a little below that number. Regardless, he has a tendency to scramble and prides himself on his escapability.
There will be a lot of zone reads that will keep the Cougars' defense on their toes. It's expected the Marshall will be keeping the ball on a large amount of those reads, though he's more likely to head towards the sidelines rather than run up the middle based on his tendencies on film.
Marshall is going to scramble and leave the pocket several times on Saturday - that much is true. One of the things he's been praised on is keeping his eyes down the field when he does leave the pocket, keeping his receivers in the play before resorting to running the ball.
Somewhat of an unknown is the Tigers' receiving core that has a number of heralded recruits but very little experience to date. Lashlee hopes that there are multiple guys that can step up in 2013 and noted that he's never typically had a real 'go-to guy'.
"We've never really tried to make a guy be that guy. We try to play to our guys' strengths and it usually works itself out," Lashlee said of his receiving core that really lacks that one big-time playmaker. "I'd say there are three or four guys right now that I would have expectations and hope they have a big year."
Three of those guys could be Trovon Reed (6-0, 190), Quan Bray (5-10, 186) and Jaylon Denson (6-3, 219), who will likely be the starters at the receiver spots. Bray is the Tigers' leading returning receiver in terms of receptions, catching 14 passes for 94 yards.
Denson is your typical blocking receiver and will be counted on to seal the edge on the Tigers' "buck sweep." Reed and Bray are capable of making plays in space and will likely see a handful of screens and underneath routes hoping to get them the ball early so they can make plays with their legs.
Others to keep an eye on are Sammie Coates (6-2, 201) and Ricardo Louis (6-2, 215), two receivers that could be a handful in coverage with their size but also possess speed to go over the top. Coates, however, has been known to drop an easy pass, including what would have been the game-winner against LSU last season.
What's really going to make this offense run effectively is the big boys up front and the Auburn offensive line, which wasn't exactly stellar last season, figures to be a team strength in 2013.
There is a ton of potential within the group centering around center Reese Dismukes (6-3, 297) and left tackle Greg Robinson (6-5, 320). Redshirt freshman Alex Kozan won the job at left guard and looks like he'll be a rock on the left side.
The biggest question marks will be on the right side of the line where right guard Chad Slade is expected to start next to right tackle Avery Young, though Young has yet to be named the starter. Slade had trouble pulling around on sweep plays last season due to a evident lack of quickness around the corner, spelling trouble on speed sweeps, and it's unknown whether that will be a problem in 2013.
Edit: Sophomore Patrick Miller will be starting at right tackle, not Young, as reflected in Auburn's newly released depth chart.
"There's some talent there and there's good people there," offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said of his offensive line. "With a combination of talent and character, I believe we have a chance to put together a pretty good unit."
There's no reason why the Tigers offense can't take significant strides in 2013. They're going to put up quite a few points and run all over the place out of the various formations that Malzahn will employ.
It's assumed that Auburn will be one of the fastest teams in the country in terms of pace-of-play and it presents and intriguing matchup come Saturday as Leach brings his fast-paced offense into Jordan-Hare for, what could be, a shoot-out of polar opposites.
A big thanks goes out to John Ray, a contributor at AuburnSports.com, who provided WazzuWatch.com excellent insight on the Tigers ahead of the season opener on Saturday.