Today’s West Virginia at Auburn college football preview is brought to you by the number 3 and the letter C.
Three is Auburn’s unlucky number in last season’s 34-17 meltdown in Morgantown, where the Tigers took a 17-0 lead and then surrendered 34 unanswered points. Four times in the second half of that game, the Auburn offense went three and out, leaving its defense tired.
Three of West Virginia’s four second-half scores came after the Tiger offense folded after three plays.
Since the last time the Mountaineers saw Auburn up close, the Tigers have added a handful of C’s that will make a critical difference in Saturday night’s showdown in Auburn.
C is for Confidence
A year ago, West Virginia caught Auburn at an opportune moment. The Tony Franklin offensive experiment imploded the week before, and the beleaguered offensive coordinator had been fired after six games.
The Tiger offense had little direction, zero creativity, and even less confidence.
That is no longer the case. Through the first two games of the season, the Auburn offense is brimming with confidence. The Tiger offense that looked lost and confused is now brash and focused.
C is for Creativity
After taking advantage of a few short field opportunities to take the early lead a year ago, the offense went into a shell. Of six second-half series, four followed exactly the same script: Rush wide left. Rush wide right. Incomplete short pass attempt. Punt.
The only exception was a 12-play drive that provided Auburn’s only first downs of the half and ended in a short missed field goal.
That field goal attempt came on the last play of the third quarter with the Tigers trailing 20-17 at the time.
Auburn posted eight plays a year ago against West Virginia that covered more than 10 yards. Three of those plays came on the first Tiger drive. Three of the eight were quarterback scrambles.
Auburn’s offense was predictable.
This is no longer the case. The Tiger offense is aggressive and unpredictable. It attacks from multiple formations.
A receiver leads the team in touchdowns but has not caught a pass. He has thrown a few, however, including one scoring toss.
Offensive linemen have lined up as wide receivers. So have quarterbacks.
The term creative only scratches the surface of what this Auburn offense is about.
C is for Continuity
The Auburn defense grew tired in the second half and faded down the stretch a year ago. That allowed the Mountaineers to feed the Tigers a steady diet of Noel Devine and break their will.
That fade was directly attributable to a complete lack of offensive production.
Four of Auburn’s second half offensive possessions used up less than 1 minute 45 seconds of the clock. One burned 2 minutes 20 seconds. One covered more than 4 minutes. Four of those series gained less than seven total yards.
When a team forces the defense back on the field when it has barely had time to catch its breath, the results are rarely positive.
The key to keeping West Virginia in check is for Auburn’s offense to give its defense ample time to re-energize.
Auburn won’t go into an offensive shell against the Mountaineers this Saturday. The three-and-out series that paved the way for the WVU surge won’t likely be there.
Only once in two games has the Tiger offense failed to stay on the field for at least five plays in a nonscoring drive. It is worth noting that the three-and-out series in the second quarter of the Mississippi State game immediately preceded a Bulldog scoring drive.
Offensive continuity will flip the script for Auburn and allow the defense to deny West Virginia as it did through most of three quarters a year ago — even when the Mountaineers had Pat White at quarterback.
Continuity is lacking for West Virginia. The Mountaineers staved off Liberty in the opener and then rolled in the second half on an East Carolina team that was also shut out in the second half by Appalachian State.
C is for Coordinator
A year ago, Auburn did not really have an offensive coordinator. With Franklin barely out the door, his seat was filled by committee, and the results were bland and ineffective.
The second half meltdown at Morgantown went a long way toward shoving 10-year veteran coach Tommy Tuberville through that same door two months later.
One of the smartest things new Auburn head coach Gene Chizik did after he was hired was bring in Tulsa offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
The offense under Malzahn has completely reinvented itself. No longer staid and stodgy, Malzahn’s offense has flair.
It put up 42 of 49 points against Mississippi State and narrowly missed breaking the 600-yard barrier.
For the first time in school history, two backs topped 100 yards and a receiver gained more than 100 yards in the same game.
For the first time in school history, a freshman ball carrier posted back-to-back 100-yard games, even more impressive when you consider an Auburn running back lineage that includes Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson as well as Joe Cribbs, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, James Brooks, Lionel James, Brent Fullwood and Stephen Davis.
For the first time in school history, two backs (Onterio McCalebb and Ben Tate) each rushed for more than 100 yards in consecutive games.
Setting offensive records is nothing new for Malzahn. Neither is scoring points.
Only six times in the last three seasons has a Malzahn-coached team been held to under 30 points.
As the Mountaineers surrendered 20 to both Liberty and East Carolina, there is good reason to believe that Malzahn can coax another 30-plus game out of Auburn.
If the Tigers top 35, they are virtually invincible. The last time Auburn lost when scoring more than 30 points? Nov. 11, 1996. That game took four overtimes.
C is for Crowd
Last year, Auburn went on the road to Morgantown and faced a fired-up Mountaineer fan base. This year West Virginia travels to Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Don’t think that makes a difference? Since 2000, Auburn is 48-13 at home. Jordan-Hare is traditionally one of the more difficult places to play, and with a crowd appetite fueled by unprecedented offensive exploits, the atmosphere should weigh heavily in Auburn’s favor.
C is for Cold
Don’t forget the weather. A year ago Auburn faced frigid weather on the road. Tigers don’t do cold.
No chance of frigidity on Saturday, where 80-degree temperatures and a slight chance of rain is forecast. The humidity will be a factor, but it won’t have as great an impact since the game will be held under the lights.
C is for Combination
Combine a vastly improved Auburn offense with a traditionally solid Tiger defense — the mix is simply right for a Tiger win.
Auburn’s defense held a better West Virginia team at bay for most of three quarters a year ago. The majority of that defense returned.
Had Wes Byrum connected on a makable field goal on the last play of the third quarter, the teams would have entered the final stanza tied at 20 points apiece.
The Auburn offense simply could not muster enough spark to keep the fading defense off the field, and the negative results were obvious.
With new offensive coordinator Malzahn calling the shots, that lack of production is unlikely to repeat.
It is too much to expect Auburn to continue to post mind-boggling, record-shattering numbers, but the new and improved Tigers should have more than enough in the tank to provide the two critical elements needed for an Auburn win: scoring points and keeping the defense off the field.
In addition to writing and taking photos for The War Eagle Reader, Kevin Strickland serves as the sports editor for the Pickens County Herald, a weekly newspaper in West Alabama where he has covered high school and college sports for the past 15 years. In his career as a sportswriter, he has covered 12 state championship teams; followed the careers of three local football players who starred at college and played in the NFL and covered two local baseball players who played in the majors. He has won numerous Alabama Press Association writing awards including being named the state’s Best Sports Column in 2004.