Auburn vs. Kansas State Complete Game Preview
AUBURN, Ala. — After a pair of big home wins, here comes the first major test of many for the Auburn Tigers.
Auburn's first road trip of the 2014 season is destined for unfamiliar territory: a non-conference opponent—and a ranked one at that—on a Thursday night.
No. 20 Kansas State, the first of what is currently seven ranked opponents in Auburn's next 10 games, presents an interesting matchup for the defending SEC champions.
Longtime head coach Bill Snyder consistently puts out a veteran team filled with experienced JUCO players and returning starters who rarely make big mistakes and excel in run defense. Offensively, quarterback Jake Waters is a dangerous dual threat with designed runs and big-time passes, usually to star wide receiver Tyler Lockett.
Auburn's high-powered offense will matchup with a disciplined defense that consistently faces up-tempo attacks in the Big 12. With this nationally televised showdown marking just the second time Kansas State has faced a ranked non-conference opponent under Snyder, former Kansas JUCO star Nick Marshall and Co. will have to face a loud and hostile Manhattan, Kansas, crowd amped for one of its biggest home games in recent years.
Before we get into the details of this highly anticipated matchup between SEC and Big 12 powers, here are all the basics:
Auburn Keys to Victory
Get Downfield Fast
Part of what makes Kansas State's defense so effective, especially at home, is its ability to knock up-tempo offenses off their game.
Kansas State's defense ranked No. 3 nationally last season in allowing plays of 20 yards or more. Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee attributes that to the Wildcats being fundamentally sound all across the board, especially on run fits.
Auburn's offense hasn't quite got into the big-play rhythm through the first two games that it had last season, and Manhattan will be a tough place to find that rhythm. But if the Tigers can take piece together some long runs and take their chances downfield—especially in the first half—they could take the crowd out of the game early en route to a big win.
Slow Down Waters on Designed Runs
While Marshall gets most of his rushing yards on Auburn's deadly read-option game, Waters' effectiveness on the ground comes from designed running plays.
"Every quarterback we've played has been pretty mobile, but not like this guy," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said during the bye week. "Coach Snyder is going to run him intentionally about 30 times a game if he has to. That will be a big deal, and just being able to fit the run against him period."
Waters leads the Wildcats in rushing through the first two games of the season, and he ran in his team's last-minute, game-winning touchdown against Iowa State. Teams that defeated Kansas State last season were able to hold Waters to 50 yards or fewer, so limiting his effectiveness on the ground will be paramount for the Auburn defense.
Hold Onto the Football
Ball control has been a good-sized blemish on what has been some great production from the Auburn offense, especially in the running game, through the first two weeks of the 2014 campaign. Auburn has fumbled the ball four times this season, and the coaching staff isn't happy.
"That is frustrating as a coach when you emphasize something all year long—you preach it, you preach it,
you preach it—but it's the one thing that will get you beat," Lashlee said Sunday night. "It's been emphasized even more than it ever has. To me, it takes no ability in the world to hold on to the football. It's all about effort, want-to and being ball-conscious."
Winning the turnover battle is important, sometimes even game-deciding, in football. Kansas State is not a team prone to giving the ball to its opponents, so the Tigers will need to take extra care of the football in a road environment this Thursday.
Kansas State Keys to Victory
Force Marshall to Make Mistakes
Nick Marshall has a tendency to step up his play against bigger teams, but this will be his first road trip of the season—after a so-so start to the season in the passing game.
The Auburn quarterback has the potential to break a big play at any moment, and he has also shown he can be a bit careless with the football against attacking defenses. Kansas State should look to containing the playmaking ability of a dual-threat star who once considered becoming a Wildcat.
While the Tigers' offense was deadly when it was virtually one-dimensional, limiting Marshall's effectiveness through the air will be important, especially for a pass defense that returned only one linebacker and one defensive back from last season.
Try to Match Auburn's Offense Punch for Punch
Auburn's up-tempo attack will be looking to chain together a few scoring drives early and continue its streak of fast starts.
If that happens, the Wildcats can't afford not to match the Tigers on the scoreboard.
Kansas State rarely trailed in its victories last season, and close losses were usually back and forth the whole way. The Wildcats did give up 28 unanswered points against Iowa State, but that was only after they lead 13-0 early in the second quarter. With Auburn's offense focusing on getting on defenses and staying on them—a problem it had last season against Georgia and Florida State—falling into a big hole might be devastating, even at home.
Make the Most of Your Chances Through the Air
Kansas State is definitely a run-first team, and it has the capabilities of frustrating defenses with Waters' previously mentioned running plays and various Wildcat sets.
But when Waters and the Wildcats go to the air, they need to burn an Auburn secondary that has a reputation of giving up big plays.
Ellis Johnson called Waters "a fine passer," and he has a game-changing weapon in Tyler Lockett who can be a matchup issue because he lines up at different positions out wide. This will be the Auburn defense's first true passing test, and it could be the difference-maker in this ranked matchup.
Auburn Players to Watch
QB Nick Marshall
The spotlight will be on Marshall as he returns to the state where he got his second chance in college football and became a valued recruit for Auburn and Kansas State.
Marshall's passing performance against San Jose State wasn't one of his best by any means, and he didn't have to do much through the air in the second half of the Arkansas game. Auburn's receivers will need to cut down on the drops, but Marshall needs to establish more of a rhythm with his targets away from home.
The Wildcats' inexperienced secondary allowed at least 200 passing yards and a 60 percent completion percentage against Stephen F. Austin and Iowa State. With Sammie Coates, who is scheduled to return to action Thursday, and D'haquille Williams, Marshall should get plenty of chances through the air against Kansas State.
MLB Cassanova McKinzy
McKinzy will play an important role at middle linebacker as the Tigers try to slow down a quarterback who favors the run in Waters.
Auburn has rode with McKinzy and Kris Frost at the heart of Johnson's 4-2-5 system so far this year after using plenty of rotation at linebacker last season. McKinzy is emerging as a valued run-stopper in this defense, and he will have his hands full as a vocal leader of a unit going up against a varied and disciplined Wildcat offense.
McKinzy hasn't had much time as a third-down pass-rusher like Johnson suggested during fall camp, but there is still a chance Auburn fans could see him going after the quarterback from the end position Thursday night as the Tigers are still looking for an answer at the spot.
FS Jermaine Whitehead
Against San Jose State, Whitehead became the first Auburn player since Jerraud Powers in the 2007 Georgia and Alabama games to record interceptions in back-to-back games.
This week, the Tigers would love for him to make that three straight as they go up against a veteran quarterback and his go-to, big-play receiver.
Whitehead is one of the defense's leaders, and his performance will be critical away from home. Auburn's secondary is still trying to work out some of the bugs from the Arkansas and San Jose State games, but they have shown some sparks of improvement. Whitehead will once again play a huge part in determining how far forward this secondary has come.
Kansas State Players to Watch
QB Jake Waters
It's impressive anytime you can be your team's leading rusher and passer in a non-triple option offense, and Kansas State has that in the senior Waters.
Waters will be a great test for an Auburn defense that will face a few dual-threat quarterbacks in its demanding SEC schedule. Since he shows great awareness in the pocket and rarely makes a bad decision with the ball in his hands, he has definitely caught Auburn's attention.
"[Snyder] likes big, physical running quarterbacks who are going to have the ability to run over you or speed, whatever their knack is," Johnson said last week. "He designs his offense to run the quarterback. So you can bet on passing situations, keeping him bottled up is going to be a challenge."
WR Tyler Lockett
In addition to dual-threat quarterbacks, Auburn's defense will have to take on several of the nation's best receivers in the upcoming weeks, and that starts with Lockett.
Lockett was 11th in the country last season with 105 receiving yards per game and had 11 touchdowns last season, good enough for the team lead. He is coming off a monster game against Iowa State that featured six catches for 136 yards.
Although he is an undersized receiver, Lockett is dangerous on fade and stop-and-go routes, using his top-level speed and footwork to devastate defenses before and after the catch. Auburn's cornerbacks will look to both limit his touches and make sure he goes down quickly when he does get his hands on the ball.
DE Chase Mueller
How much does Mueller jump out on the film to Rhett Lashlee?
"He plays as hard as anybody I have ever seen," Lashlee said Sunday night. "There are sometimes he’ll either be out of position or miss a play in the backfield, and before you know it he’s tracking the guy down on the other side of the field for a minimal gain...we have to know where he’s at at all times because he’s very disruptive."
Mueller was 14th nationally last season with 18.5 tackles for loss, with 11.5 them sacks, tying him for eighth in the country with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam. He is a key reason why the Wildcats are so effective at stopping the run, and he will most likely be a menace Thursday night, even for a veteran Auburn offensive line.
What They're Saying
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee on Kansas State's defense:
They don’t do a ton but they’re really good at what they do. It’s just a credit to their coaching staff and why they’ve been good for so long. They’re very gap-sound. They’re rarely going to give you something cheap. They’re going to make you earn everything in the run and the pass game.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on the challenges with Kansas State's offense:
They just execute extremely well. They have a good system that fits their personnel. Players know how to execute it, and they don't beat themselves. It's just a challenge. If you're going to make mistakes or miss assignments, then they're going to take advantage of it.
Senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright on loving to play on the road:
At LSU [last season] in the first half things weren’t going our way, but the second half...we felt like it was 70 against 90,000, and we really wouldn’t want it any other way. As a defense we really try to embrace that role of shutting down an offense, especially in their own house.
Head coach Bill Snyder on Auburn's offense, per the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea:
They've got extremely fast, and big and physical receivers and running backs that are quick and change direction extremely well and they're physical up front. You're not playing just Nick Marshall, you got to defend the gamut of offensive football.
What’s going to happen if we put all those things together, if we don’t get multiple false-start penalties, if we don’t have offensive pass interference, penalties on defense and don’t let a punt go back for 82 yards? If you can ask those questions after a win, what’s the limit for this team?
Junior cornerback Morgan Burns on the matchup with Auburn, per The Wichita Eagle's Kellis Robinett:
If we just play tough and don’t back down, we will be good. It’s about not being scared, because they are from the SEC. We can’t look at them differently than any other football team. They are a great team, don’t get me wrong, but I think just viewing them as another team we need to prepare for is important.
Kansas State gives Auburn several matchup issues with its mobile quarterback, star receiver and consistent ability to stuff run offenses. However, the Tigers have a lot more experience on both sides of the ball and a pedigree of performing well in big games from last season.
The line on this game opened at 6.5 points in favor of the Tigers, and it soared up to 10 in the matter of a few hours.
Honestly, that seems like the best line for this game. I don't think Auburn will be able to come in and record a massive road rout against Kansas State's disciplined defense and balanced attack of veteran playmakers.
But do I think Auburn will pass its first true test of the season? Absolutely. I see Kansas State staying within a touchdown or so for the first half and into the tail end of the third quarter, when the Tigers get a quickfire touchdown drive that deflates the Little Apple crowd.
Until an underdog can stay in the game all the way through with the Tigers' powerful offense and strong second-half defense, I will keep picking them to win on the box score—and against the spread.
Auburn 38, Kansas State 24
Let me hear your thoughts on the matchup, your players to watch and a final score prediction in the comment section below.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.