The potency of a regular-season college football game still months away is beginning to take shape, and yet, buzz for this contest will likely be marginal as we slowly churn toward the start of the season.
No, it’s not the Iron Bowl. The buzz for this particular game will be just fine. It’s not the Red River [Insert Whatever They’re Calling it This Year Here] or any other staple rivalry game for that matter. And no, it’s not Oregon-Michigan State, although you’re getting warmer (and that one will do just fine, thank you).
If you’re looking for an early "Game of the Year" candidate, take a gander at Auburn-Kansas State on Thursday, September 18.
It’s not circled four times with oversized exclamation points on your schedule—at least not yet—although it should be. And on that note, clear your calendar accordingly. Avoid all obligations and make it to Manhattan, Kansas, on this date if you can. This has a chance to be spectacular for a handful of reasons, and it begins with two very different wizards wielding different wands.
One coached a team in 1962 and concocts success with a solid serving of brilliance, an aggressive pour of experience and an infusion of JUCO ingredients. The other has run three plays in the time it has taken you to read this sentence and has quickly become the most feared offensive engineer in the country. He doesn’t mind starting the occasional JUCO at quarterback every now and then, either.
They are separated by 26 years in age, and yet, each has settled in far different environments. While Gus Malzahn’s coaching stock is almost unparalleled nationally at this very moment at Auburn, Bill Snyder is a strange but somehow fitting adversary on the other sideline.
Snyder isn’t the perfect man to slow Malzahn’s offense—quite frankly, no such human elixir may exist at this point—but he is more than capable to stand in blow-for-blow. He will provide the more deliberate attack, but that doesn’t mean it can’t (or won’t) be successful.
They are different, and that’s what makes this contest special. The matchup between these two schools begins here, at the headsets, and age isn’t the only thing separating them. Expectations for each heading into the season are on opposite ends of the world, although the gap in talent feels slightly smaller.
Here's where things kick up a notch; where the uncertainty of a new playoff format casts an unfamiliar shadow over an early out-of-conference matchup with meaning.
This could serve as an elimination game for the sparkly debut of CFB’s postseason. Or, perhaps it will be a resume-boosting win for one and a good loss—which still be more important than ever—for the other.
Either way, losing early—even when it’s outside the conference against real competition—isn’t favorable. And because this game serves as a kickoff for Week 3, it will carry a little more weight. Win this, and the momentum will be bubbling over into conference play.
The expectation early on—at least according to Las Vegas—is that the team with the momentum will be the larger cat of the two. That cat being the tiger.
Auburn has been tabbed a robust 13-point road favorite (via SB Nation), a line that seems extreme even by Auburn standards. It’s worth pointing out that the Tigers haven’t lost against the spread since September 14, which plays a role in crafting this one.
But for both teams poised for a conference title—Auburn being the more obvious selection of the two—this marks a substantial early measuring stick. If the Tigers win and do so by a spread-like margin, the buzz will continue to build. If K-State pulls what would be considered an enormous upset, the expectations of this team will undergo a seismic shift.
Some people appreciate defense and refuse to sway from their particular brand of hitting, punting and scoreboard silence. It’s a fine choice, and we’re not here to knock football taste buds.
For the rest of us who enjoy being smothered in points, however—the kind of ridiculous matchup that lasts well into the next day and brings about a stream of touchdowns—pull up a comfy chair.
This game could take on that persona, and it’s not simply because of one offense. It begins with that offense, though, and Auburn could be much different (and better) in this department than it was a year ago. And that’s saying quite a bit.
The losses of running back Tre Mason and left tackle/human forklift Greg Robinson cannot be glazed over. These were integral pieces to Malzahn’s attack last year, and they will be missed. But the 2014 team returns, well, pretty much everyone else, including quarterback Nick Marshall, the catalyst for it all.
If Marshall can improve as a passer—and there’s no reason to believe he shouldn’t—good luck. Sprinkle in a talented group of wideouts led by Sammie Coates along with the fascinating arrival of D’haquille Williams, and defensive coordinators can start to twitch.
Auburn is not alone with its potential, though. Kansas State returns a unit rich with talent, including perhaps the best wideout in the country.
Tyler Lockett went over 1,200 yards receiving last season despite missing two games. He will be catching passes from Jake Waters, who—despite splitting reps—scored 18 touchdowns in his final seven games. Senior wide receiver Corey Sexton will take on a more prominent role in his offense, and he should excel as well.
There are questions for K-State, more so than on Auburn’s side. The offensive line, for starters, needs work, and running back is a work in progress. Even with concerns, excitement should be welcomed and points should come in bunches. If Waters trends up like many believe he will, there’s no reason to think this group won’t blow by the 33.2 points per game it put up last year.
And Finally, Unfamiliarity
Tradition is worth appreciating. In fact, tradition is what elevates this sport above all others (in this completely unbiased opinion). But tradition can also become familiar—not boring, but regular—and it feels good to abandon it from time to time.
Now, two teams from major conferences playing one another in a home environment shouldn’t be something radical. The reality of the sport in its current form, however, is there simply aren’t enough of these games. They are unique, and when we do finally get one, rarely are both teams peaking at the same time to create a true appreciation of what’s ahead.
There are no guarantees that the final product will be as captivating as the ingredients, that both teams will peak. But the ingredients are there.
At the very least, this has the makings of a game that will make your Friday morning miserable. And those are the best kind.