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Nathan Deen is a sports writer for Savannah Morning News covering Georgia Southern athletics. His blog, Eagle Extra, will include news and analysis on Georgia Southern athletics.

 
Posted September 1, 2017 08:30 pm

Auburn beat writers weigh on showdown with Georgia Southern

It's the eve of Georgia Southern's 2017 season opener, and the Savannah Morning News reached out to two Auburn beat writers to provide their perspectives on the Eagles' showdown with No. 12 Auburn. We paneled Tom Green from AL.com and Josh Vitale from the Opelika-Auburn News. Here's what you need to know about the Tigers.

1. With Jarrett Stidham at quarterback and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey coming over from Arizona State, what do you expect Auburn's identity on offense to be?

Tom Green: With Lindsey and Stidham, Auburn’s passing game is going to open up substantially this season, but don’t get it twisted: Auburn is going to maintain its identity as a run-first team. That has been the Tigers’ bread and butter under Gus Malzahn, and the results have been obvious (leading the nation in rushing in 2013, finishing sixth last year, etc.). Expect another strong rushing attack, but I imagine the run-pass split will be closer to 50/50 this year after Auburn ran the ball 69 percent of the time last season.

Josh Vitale: The buzzword around the Auburn football complex ever since Lindsey arrived has been "balance," which is something the Tigers have not been on offense in years past. Last season, they ran on 67 percent of their plays and passed on just 33. The expectation this season is they will get closer to that 50/50 mark. You should still expect to see a heavy dose of running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson on the ground, but look for Auburn to mix in more of the downfield passing game with Stidham now running the offense. It should be interesting to see how it all comes together given that this is the first time we've seen the Lindsey offense in action at Auburn in a regular-season game.

2. Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has had some experience defending the option, and it seems like Auburn believes that's a big advantage for them against Georgia Southern. Has Steele (or Gus Malzahn) said anything about what he expects to see from Georgia Southern?

TG: Gus Malzahn has shown nothing but respect for Georgia Southern’s triple-option attack; it’s an unusual offense that most teams don’t get to go up against, so it definitely presents a unique challenge for Auburn. While Steele and Malzahn have preached eye discipline the last couple of weeks in being key to stopping the Eagles, Steele said the most difficult thing to prepare for will be the speed with which Georgia Southern runs the triple-option., which is something he said Auburn just can’t simulate in practice.

JV: Both are expecting to see a lot of that triple-option, which has their attention. Malzahn said he hasn't coached against it since his high school days back in Arkansas, and none of Auburn's players have played against it since joining the Tigers. Steele's experience in the ACC is something the Tigers have leaned on, as their defensive coordinator has seen it and coached against it before. But Malzahn said recently that Georgia Southern's offense will "present challenges" and will not be easy to stop. Especially considering there's no college film to watch on quarterback Shai Werts.

3. What does the depth chart look like for Auburn at running back this season?

TG: Running back is probably Auburn’s deepest position on the depth chart, which shouldn’t be surprising considering how consistently strong the Tigers’ rushing attack has been under Gus Malzahn. Auburn returns Kamryn Pettway, who led the SEC in average yards per game last season, and Kerryon Johnson as a one-two punch that will be more of a 1A-1B punch. Behind them, the Tigers have three running backs they really like, with each bringing something different to the table. Sophomore Kam Martin will likely get the first opportunity as the No. 3 back, and his ability in the passing game will help. There’s also redshirt freshman Malik Miller, who is similar in build to Pettway but is coming off a knee injury, and freshman Devan Barrett, who has a “different gear” than everyone else, according to Malzahn. The third running back will likely be handled situationally.

JV: The top of the depth chart at running back is as clear as it is at any position on Auburn's roster. Pettway, the 6-foot, 235-pound bruiser is Option 1a after rushing for 1,224 yards last season. Johnson, the speed back at 6 feet and 212 pounds, is 1b after a season during which he rushed for 895 yards. They'll be the focal points early, with Malik Miller, Kam Martin and true freshman Devan Barrett mixing in behind them.

4. What seems to be the expectations for Auburn among the fan base this season?

TG: Fans seem optimistic about this team this season. After the defense had a tremendous turnaround last year, they’ve bought into what Steele brings to the table. They know what they’ve got with the running backs and offensive line, and they’re all high on Stidham at quarterback – which has been an obvious weak link for Auburn since Nick Marshall graduated. A lot of fans seem to believe Auburn can challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy this season, and in turn make a run at the College Football Playoff.

JV: Expectations are high. At the very least, Auburn fans expect the Tigers to top the eight-win mark, which they haven't done since their run to the BCS National Championship game in 2013. Quarterback depth was arguably the biggest reason Auburn failed to top that plateau last season, and it seems like that issue has been solved with the addition of Stidham. The season likely won't be considered a success among fans unless Auburn can beat at least one of Georgia or Alabama, which the team hasn't done since 2013.

5. Final score prediction and why?

TG: I’ve got Auburn winning it, 45-13. I think Auburn will have a hard time covering that giant spread, especially because that triple-option offense can cause some troubles early and will likely allow Georgia Southern to sustain some drives, even if the Eagles don’t come away with points. I don’t think Auburn is going to take Georgia Southern lightly, but the Tigers will pull away with a relatively easy win as they look ahead to next week’s showdown with Clemson.

JV: Auburn 48, Georgia Southern 14. The Eagles will score with that triple option, but not enough to threaten the Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn's new-look offense gets rolling early and coasts to a season-opening victory.