Fans have been looking forward to this weekend's matchup between Auburn and Arkansas State for quite some time—albeit for different reasons.
When the game was first scheduled, it looked for the world as if it would mark the first opportunity for Gus Malzahn, an upstart head coach with the Red Wolves, to prove himself against his old mentor, Gene Chizik, the national-championship winning head coach for the Tigers.
It was also supposed to be Mike Dyer's big return to Jordan-Hare Stadium, as the former Tigers running back landed at Arkansas State with Malzahn after leaving Auburn in January 2012.
That was the narrative, just 15 months or so ago.
My, how the times have changed.
Now, Chizik is gone after a lackluster 3-9 campaign in 2012. Malzahn has switched sides, taking the helm at Auburn after just one year with the Red Wolves. Dyer is out of the picture, now sharing a backfield with Teddy Bridgewater at Louisville.
That's not to say that there won't be a story to be told on Saturday night.
Win or lose, another chapter will be written in Malzahn's long history with his home state of Arkansas. For Malzahn—in a season of improving, rebuilding and moving forward—Saturday will be one last look back to the ghosts of a season past.
Meanwhile, the Red Wolves will have plenty to prove to Malzahn, who became the second consecutive head coach, after Hugh Freeze, to use Arkansas State as a one-year stepping-stone to reach the supposed greener pastures of the SEC.
Both teams will be playing to win Saturday night. Here's what you need to know before it all goes down.
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Place: Jordan-Hare Stadium
Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network, EAB Sports Radio Network
Spread: Auburn -13, via VegasInsider.com consensus.
The Malzahn offense is known for its big plays. Malzahn uses his downhill rushing schemes to pound away at defenses, then utilizes his spread formations to get the ball to playmakers in space. The offense makes opponents keep mental tabs on many different moving pieces, opening up a crease on an end-around or gadget play just when the defense isn't looking.
Last week, Corey Grant had a big 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter when the Tigers were trailing, and Auburn never looked back. Who will step up and make a big play for the Tigers this week?
Keep the defense rested
The second quarter against Washington State put the greatest weakness of Malzahn's philosophy on blast. The Tigers' defense was gashed while trying to catch its breath playing opposite Auburn's quick offense.
This week, while Auburn needs to use the hurry-up, no-huddle to its advantage, the Tigers also need to keep their defense as rested as possible. Malzahn would never trade in a short drive if it resulted in a touchdown, but the Tigers do need to keep turnovers and three-and-outs to a minimum to keep their defense on the sidelines as long as possible.
Hold on to the football
Keeping a good hold of the football has been a major emphasis for Malzahn early in his tenure as the Tigers' head coach, and with good reason. Auburn's winning the turnover battle against Washington State turned out to be a big reason that the Tigers eventually beat the Cougars.
The best way to beat a Gus Malzahn team is to knock his offense out of rhythm. Arkansas State may want to use pace to keep the Auburn defense on its heels or slow things down to keep the ball away from the Tigers' offense. But if the Red Wolves can dictate the tempo of the game, they'll have a much better shot at coming away with the upset.
The fastest way to get the ball away from the Auburn offense is to force turnovers. The Red Wolves will want the ball in their hands as often as possible Saturday night. When Arkansas State has possession, the Auburn defense is tiring on the field while their explosive offense is watching helplessly from the sideline.
Show new wrinkles
The Red Wolves can't be the same team Saturday that they were last year—because Malzahn knows that team like the back of his hand. New head coach Bryan Harsin has run a similar offense to the one he inherited from Malzahn, for the sake of consistency. But he will have to throw in some new elements to keep the Auburn coaching staff guessing.
If Harsin's time as offensive coordinator at Boise State (2006 to 2010) and Texas (2011 to 2012) are any indication, the Red Wolves will have plenty of new tricks up their sleeve Saturday.
One of the biggest questions going into Saturday's game lies with new Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, who made a lackluster debut last week against Washington State. Marshall finished 10-of-19 for 99 yards through the air, and added another 31 yards rushing against the Cougars' defense, leaving many Auburn fans to wonder about the Tigers' future with the highly touted junior college transfer at the helm.
Marshall's first chance to redeem himself is Saturday and he should respond well. Marshall's struggles last week—overthrown balls and not enough touch on short passes—were classic symptoms of first-game jitters. How he responds this week, and whether he will finally settle down within the offense, will go a long way in determining which team will walk out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a victory.
The running backs
Auburn has a solid stable of three running backs who could each vie for starting jobs at almost every SEC school. It starts with Tre Mason, a 1,000-yard rusher from a season ago, who showcased his explosiveness last week with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Washington State.
Corey Grant had a breakout performance last week, rushing for 149 yards on nine carries, including a 75-yard touchdown run on a sweep that showed everyone in Jordan-Hare the speed that broke high school track records in the state of Alabama during his time at Opelika High.
Finally, the bigger Cameron Artis-Payne had a solid debut last week, average 5.3 yards per carry on 10 carries. Artis-Payne, the bruiser of the bunch, is ready and available when the Tigers need a stronger runner inside.
Each could start and play for the Tigers. Each could lead the team in carries on a given night. Who will have the hot hand on Saturday?
Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie
The focal point of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defense lies with the 'Star' position—a linebacker/safety hybrid that represents the Tigers' fifth defensive back.
This week, junior Justin Garrett, the starter at 'Star' going into the season, has his eyes on making his return to the field after missing the season opener with a left foot sprain.
His return is great news for the Auburn defense—except now Johnson and the Tigers have to figure out what to do with Robenson Therezie, who played so well as Garrett's replacement last week.
Therezie picked off two passes and recorded seven tackles against Washington State. He was named not only SEC Defensive Player of the week, but also the Jim Thorpe Defensive Back of the Week.
Expect both to be rotated in and out during Saturday's game. Johnson said Monday that Therezie is the better player in pass coverage of the two, while Garrett excels in blitz situations and in run support.
Arkansas State has a monster of a running back in senior David Oku, and Gus Malzahn certainly knows it.
Oku is an SEC-caliber talent, who originally signed with Tennessee after being recruited by Lane Kiffin out of high school back in 2009. After Kiffin left, Oku gave Tennessee another year before leaving after the 2010 season and eventually landing at Arkansas State.
Last season, Oku rushed for 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns in Malzahn's offense, averaging 4.4 yards per carry, and was named a First-Team All-Sun Belt Conference selection.
Now, Oku is another year faster and another year stronger, and he'll be the Tiger defense's main focus on Saturday.
Oku played in Tennessee's 2009 game against Auburn and returned three kickoffs for a total of 86 yards.
It didn't take long for J.D. McKissic to make an impact for the Red Wolves. As a redshirt freshman last season, the young wide receiver broke the Arkansas State record for receptions in a season with 103 for 1,022 yards—good for the second-most yards in school history.
McKissic was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season, and he was a Second-Team All-Sun Belt Conference selection.
Even when McKissic isn't catching the ball downfield, look for the Red Wolves to use the redshirt sophomore's speed on the edge Saturday, in hopes to stretch the Auburn defense.
McKissic played in high school alongside backup Tigers' quarterback Jonathan Wallace at Central-Phenix City near Auburn.
Adam Kennedy's long road to Arkansas State began at San Joaquin Delta College, where the quarterback spent a season before transferring to Utah State. There, he started and won the final five games of the regular season for the Aggies in 2011, leading them to a bowl berth.
After playing as a backup for Utah State in 2012, Kennedy transferred to Arkansas State, where he is eligible to play immediately while he enrolls in graduate school.
The key for Kennedy in Arkansas State's offense is to play consistently and conservatively. Kennedy finished 9-of-12 for 149 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in the Red Wolves' season-opening win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff last week.
When the Aggies nearly upset the Tigers in the 2011 season opener, Kennedy was with Utah State, but did not play.
Oku, who is playing for his fourth head coach in four years, hasn't forgotten how Gus Malzahn left the Red Wolves out to dry after one season last year. Here's how Oku recalled Malzahn's departure to Kurt Voigt of the Associated Press:
Who could possibly dream that up or even think that could happen to them? To me, it was crazy, and I wondered if I made the wrong decision. Coaches are going to do what's best for them, but it's helped me become a lot stronger today."
On the opposite sideline, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said in his weekly press conference that his defense has received a lot of help from both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who were each with Arkansas State last year.
It's been very helpful this week. They know the personnel. We have seven coaches here that coached those guys last year, so there's very good familiarity with the personnel, and that helps.
Some of the run plays are the exact same run plays, just out of a different set. As we watched the game, it was very good insight. Coach Malzahn spent time with us, just went through things. He knows the things that come off the plays that we did see and what the setup plays are that will probably come off of that.
Meanwhile, Lashlee said Monday that fans can expect quarterback Nick Marshall to settle in for his second start for the Tigers, and that the offense will open up and play less conservatively in Week 2.
"I thought he was very conservative with the football, which is good," Lashlee said of Marshall's performance against Washington State. "As you can see, he opened up a little more in the second half and that's where we’ve got to go as an offense with him and everybody. We have to open it up and make some plays now."
Auburn wins 38-24
The Tigers will be challenged Saturday—perhaps more than some nervous Auburn fans would like—but eventually should walk away from Jordan-Hare with their second victory of the season.
Marshall will settle down at quarterback and should be one of the conference's most improved players from Week 1 to Week 2. He showed flashes of brilliance and all the athletic tools a coach could want in the opener, and with the first-game jitters now out of the way, those talents will start to shine.
Malzahn has a way of tailoring his offense to a quarterback's strengths, and if he could turn Chris Todd into a school-record-setting passer in 2009, the possibilities are almost endless for Marshall, beginning with Week 2.
Meanwhile, Auburn's running backs should prove too much to handle for Arkansas State. The Red Wolves have talent in their starting 11 on defense, but they won't have the depth to keep up with the Tigers' stable of backs. Once the Red Wolves are tired from chasing Tre Mason and Corey Grant from sideline to sideline all night, they'll have to put up with Cameron Artis-Payne hammering at them up the middle.
But it won't be that easy. Arkansas State is bigger and faster than your average "Sun Belt team," and they have playmakers at every key position needed to keep a team in a big-time game, no matter the opponent.
Oku will be a force for the Red Wolves, and the Tigers can only hope to contain him. Saturday will certainly be the first big test for the Auburn linebackers against a strong rushing attack, and their performance will reveal how prepared they are for the SEC competition ahead.
Still, Auburn should be able to ride the momentum from last week's win into another one in Week 2.
Arkansas State may be better positioned to pull off the upset than Washington State, which had to travel all the way across the country a week ago. But Auburn should have made the necessary improvements and adjustments this week to make up the difference.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Arkansas State 24