Western Carolina vs. Auburn: Complete Game Preview
It's homecoming week on the Plains, which means the Auburn Tigers are set to host the Western Carolina Catamounts in an out-of-conference break from SEC action.
It should be an easy Saturday afternoon for the Tigers and another step closer for Gus Malzahn's 4-1 team to bowl eligibility.
For fans traveling to Jordan-Hare—perhaps some making the trip to Auburn for the first affordable time this season—it should be a stress-free afternoon and a chance for several young players to showcase their abilities with significant playing time.
It'll be an easy victory for Auburn, but there are plenty of things for fans to look out for between the whistles Saturday.
Before then, here are the basics:
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Place: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
TV: Pay-per-view, ESPN3
Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network
Spread: Auburn -43, via VegasInsider.com consensus.
Auburn Keys to Victory
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The Auburn Tigers are going to get the win Saturday no matter what. But the biggest "victory" of the day will be getting in and out, honoring the Tigers' seniors, giving the fans and families something to cheer about and walking out without any major injuries.
Get young guys on the field
Regardless of what the scoreboard may say, the day would be considered a loss if Auburn can't pull away from the Western Carolina Catamounts early and finish with a comfortable win. Not only would a tight game through the first few quarters stress out the fans, but it could also have serious repercussions if Auburn can't get its starters rested.
Western Carolina Keys to Victory
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Cash the Check
Let's be honest: the Western Carolina Catamounts don't have a chance to win this game. The Catamounts' "victory" on the day will be a $525,000 payout from Auburn, according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello. That money will help fund the Catamounts' program and give them an opportunity to grow in the future.
Western Carolina will likely get its biggest payday of the season from Auburn. According to Andy Bitter of the Roanoke Times, the Catamounts' only other big-time FBS opponent this season, Virginia Tech, usually pays FCS teams in the "$325,000 to $350,000" range, in accordance with the national average of FBS-to-FCS payouts.
Western Carolina's only other FBS opponent this season was Middle Tennessee State, which has no business paying the Catamounts anywhere near half a million dollars.
Auburn Players to Watch
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There have been rumors humming around outside the Auburn program this week that Malzahn might play highly touted quarterback Jeremy Johnson Saturday, inexplicably burning a potential redshirt for the season.
But for now, those rumors are just that—rumors. Auburn's backup quarterback all season has been Jonathan Wallace. Malzahn gave Wallace high praise when setting the two-deep depth chart going into the season, and he said that he has full confidence in the sophomore were starting quarterback Nick Marshall to go down.
Wallace has even played some snaps this season in the Tigers' Wildcat formation, with Auburn scoring on a play with Wallace in the game against Arkansas State. He hasn't taken many significant snaps as part of Malzahn's every-down system just yet, but will most likely on Saturday—giving Auburn fans the chance to see just how well Wallace operates out of Malzahn's spread.
Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne
After Tre Mason carried the load last week with 25 total touches, expect the junior to rest up and take less snaps Saturday, making the way for Grant and Artis-Payne.
Both have seen significant playing time this season, with Artis-Payne piling up 256 yards and two touchdowns on 47 carries, and Grant totaling 248 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries.
But Auburn fans will have a chance to see even more of them Saturday and put together a better idea of just how potent Auburn's three-headed monster at running back is moving forward.
The Wide Receivers
Besides sophomore receiver Sammie Coates, no one has stepped up for Auburn to become a consistent threat and target for Marshall.
Saturday will be a big opportunity for some other receivers to get touches and find their way into a groove within the offense.
On the back end, fans could also get a better idea of what to expect from Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens, and even Kiehl Frazier—the former quarterback-turned-safety who has now made a slow move back to the offensive side of the ball, and who took snaps at receiver against Ole Miss.
Western Carolina Players to Watch
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Every year, at every guarantee game, there's always that one guy who looks like he should be at the next level. There's always that one guy that looks like he could be a contributor on the other sideline.
Saturday, that one guy that impresses Auburn fans will be sophomore Western Carolina quarterback Troy Mitchell.
Mitchell leads the Catamounts in passing and rushing—and he's only started four and played in five of Western Carolina's six games so far this season. Mitchell is 74-of-127 for 1,030 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, with a 58.3 completion percentage.
Mitchell didn't play in Western Carolina's game against Virginia Tech, but he finished 7-of-15 for 161 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the Catamounts' other game against FBS competition in Middle Tennessee State.
What They Are Saying
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Despite how favored the Tigers will be going into kickoff Saturday, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that Auburn would spend the week preparing for the Western Carolina game just like they would any other week—and that the Tigers weren't looking ahead to Texas A&M:
There's a lot of different philosophies. Some people just want to spend a week and just work on the next opponent and some people don't. We're more of the mindset that we want to treat it (like any other game). We want to try to keep things consistent for our guys. So, for the most part, it's going to be a normal game week. We're preparing for one opponent and we're not really going to work ahead at all.
It's been more of the same from the players' perspectives. "Star" position defensive back Robenson Therezie echoed the coaching staff Sunday.
"We see them as another team," Therezie said. "We have to execute. Some teams would be like, 'That's just a stat game.' We look at it as another team we play and play Auburn football."
As for that rumor about Jeremy Johnson playing if and when Marshall leaves the game Saturday? Malzahn was tight-lipped on Wednesday:
"I don't know yet. We're still working through that," Malzahn said. "Jonathan (and) Jeremy have got a lot of reps in practice since fall camp and even during the season. We'd be confident in both of those guys executing our offense."
Auburn 52, Western Carolina 13
It'll be an easy, stress-free afternoon for the Tigers Saturday.
Auburn will pick up an easy win, and the Catamounts will ride home with a fat paycheck.
What the game will mean for the future can only be decided on the field. Fans have all seen how the Tigers' best 22 have adapted to new systems on offense and defense, but Saturday could reveal just how ready some of the young guys are as Auburn approaches midseason.
But most importantly, at the end of the day, the Tigers will be 5-1 and just one step away from bowl eligibility.
Suddenly, the Tigers' woes of 2012 seem so very far away.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.