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Friday Preview: Utah State

And it begins again.

Last year, if you’ll recall, when your regular WarBlogEagle scribe had to take a step away from TWER, I was lucky enough to have the chance for some substitute duty in regular entries such as the Friday Preview. While what I wrote was coming straight from me and the opinion was my own, I tried to imitate Jerry’s style and format for the sake of consistency. And because, well, when it isn’t broke you don’t fix it. This season I’m excited to do some more Friday Previewing , and while the layout is anything but original on my part, as you’ll see, there have been a couple of tweaks. I hope you enjoy, and that I can become just a small part of your 2011 Gameday Eves.

The Good Guys: What is there left to say about the 2011 Auburn Tigers, really?

We could go on and on about how it feels like January 10th was just yesterday, and how we can’t believe that the season is already upon us. We could recount once again an offseason’s worth of discussing the youth of the team and the struggles that they will face. But the truth is that kickoff will be here and the season will be upon these Tigers in one day’s time — whether they’re ready or not.

The challenge for Auburn on Saturday will be to shake the shadow of 2010, and to find its own identity as a team. That’s a process that usually takes several weeks of trials, setbacks, and learning experiences, but Auburn is going to have to do that growing immediately with Mississippi State, Clemson, and the rest of the schedule looming right around the corner.

On Saturday, the Tigers are going to have to come out and match their expectations and showcase their progress in every facet of the game. In everything that they have done in preparation leading up to this season, they’ll have to make it work, because there isn’t enough time to go back to the drawing board.

For Auburn, they’ve really only got one shot at this.

The Bad Guys: There were two real highlights to the Utah State Aggies’ football season last year.

One was beating bitter rival BYU for the first time in 17 years in front of a national, Friday-night ESPN audience.

The other was traveling to a ranked, BCS opponent’s stadium for their season-opening tune-up game and almost coming away with a shocking upset, when they fell to Oklahoma 31-24 last September.

What could have been a landmark year for the Aggies turned sour as they fell to a 4-8 record on the year, failing to improve on the 4-8 mark the year before. Before that there was a three-win season, and before that a two-win season, and before that, in 2006, a one-win season. Needless to say, Utah State is still trying to turn the corner.

But for these guys, it would take just one marquee win to do just that, and they almost got that marquee win in last year’s season opener. Meanwhile, as the schedule becomes more generous in 2011 and Boise State is off the slate in favor of the much more beatable Wyoming, Utah State could find themselves in a position to improve their four wins from last year to five — one win away from their first bowl game since 1997.

When Utah State has the ball: They’re going to run a lot of different formations.

At least that’s what they did last season. Their philosophy is to throw tons of different looks at the defense, while also utilizing their favorite parts of each different set to maximize their use of the multiple looks. They can line up from the Wing-T or from the 5-Wide Empty Shotgun, and everywhere in between, and do it without substituting.

They may play the formation-switcharoo part of their game a bit conservative the first game of the year, however, as neither of the Aggie quarterbacks are as versatile, athletic, or experienced as last years’ senior signal-caller Diondre Borel.

Attempting to replace Borel is junior JuCo transfer Adam Kennedy and true freshman Chuckie Keeton. The Utah State coaching staff has not tipped their cards as to who will be starting on Saturday. You would think that with Auburn writing the check and all, they would show the courtesy of at least naming a starter, but it may not matter all that much in the end; Both quarterbacks are expected to play and see significant time on the field.

Utah State’s first-string running back will be junior Robert Turbin, attempting to make a comeback after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Turbin was a thousand yard rusher in 2009, earning second-team All-WAC honors, before being invited by the coaches to put on a headset and essentially enter a coaching role last year during his medical redshirt season, which should have him more prepared for the game if his knee is at full strength.

Turbin will also be running behind an offensive line returning four starters. But the wide receiving corps could turn out to be the strength on offense—it’s filled with veterans like senior Stanley Morrison and junior Chuck Jacobs.

It’s going to be an interesting match up for the Auburn defense, and we’ll certainly see plenty of situations for Auburn to show off it’s new nickel sets and more aggressive, man-to-man attacks. The youth in Auburn’s defensive backfield will have the chance to be thrown into the fire and gain some valuable experience, spread and isolated against some quality, veteran receivers. Meanwhile, the young players in the front seven will have a chance to cut their teeth against a returning offensive line and a solid ground attack. The defense will be tested in different situations against all of the Aggies’ formations, and will be thrown new looks by their two-quarterback system.

In the end, if this game does turn out to be the glorified scrimmage / tune-up game that so many season-openers turn out to be, it won’t have been a bad thing for Auburn’s young defense.

When Auburn has the ball: I don’t expect Malzahn and the Auburn offense to stay too vanilla Saturday.

Auburn needs to figure out what works and what doesn’t, and what they have and what they don’t have, and soon. That means running their stuff in a live game, in real Jordan-Hare heat, at least unless/until the game is well in hand in the second half.

Playing the foil to Auburn’s offense will be the 3-4 look of Utah State’s defense led by senior linebacker Bobby Wagner, who led the WAC in tackles the last two seasons. The linebackers should be the Aggies’ best unit on defense. Senior Kyle Gallagher is also expected to have a big year.

It will be interesting to see how the young Auburn offensive line handles their blocking assignments on runs and in their pulls against the 3-4, which, for whatever reason, was something even last year’s veteran line always seemed to struggle with.

Utah State’s defensive backfield is very experienced as well, with just one underclassman — a sophomore backup — in the two-deep. But it only returns one starter, senior free safety Walter McClenton, who’ll lead the secondary.

Just as on the opposite side of the ball, here Auburn will once again be faced with some different looks and an opportunity to learn. However, since the Tigers will probably come out the gate at full speed on Saturday, hopefully the Aggie defense won’t provide too much of a challenge. Especially with a defense with as many question marks as Auburn’s has, if the offense can’t start clicking and moving the ball, there could be trouble.

Special teams: For Utah State, it’s all about one guy; Kerwynn Williams.

Last season, Williams set an all-time NCAA record for kickoff return yardage in a season. You could call it a somewhat dubious honor, and more of a testament to how many times opponents scored on Utah State last season. But, no matter how many times you return it, an average 27.25 yards per kickoff return is pretty impressive.

For Auburn, the story on special teams will lie with the kickers finding a rhythm early. As much talk as there’s been about Trovon Reed and Quan Bray as returners this year, what Auburn really needs is for Cody Parkey to begin his shot at replacing Wes Byrum off on the right foot (pun?), while Steven Clark needs to find the consistency he lacked last season.

Reason for Worry: There’s always worry in the unknown, and that’s what we have in here. Besides that, there’s the 11 a.m. kickoff, and you can’t forget the scare that the Aggies gave Oklahoma in Norman in last year’s season-opener. The team can’t come out sluggish; they need to be hyped. The coaches, however, need to be even-keeled and ready to make evaluations. Saturday will be a balancing act.

Reason for Confidence: Off-hand, one would recall that Auburn season debuts in the Gene Chizik era — LA Tech in 2009 and Arkansas State in 2010 — have so far given Auburn fans a bit of a scare. But while Auburn was either tied or even trailing those teams at points early in those games, they were able to pull away with 24+ point victories in both cases. It would appear that of all the scenarios that could play out for Auburn on Saturday, and there are a few scary ones, the absolute collapse and loss does not seem to be among them.

Three Wishes

1. Start out strong. Navigating the mini-Amen Corner, as I would call it, of Mississippi State at home and Clemson away is going to be crucial for this season. If Auburn drops those two games, and heads into FAU at 1-2, this thing could spiral out of control, and quick. Auburn needs to give itself some momentum going into those two games.

2. Find balance on offense. This is not just balance between the rushing and passing games, but also in spreading the ball around. If it hasn’t been hammered home enough already, Auburn is going to be in an uphill fight all year. It needs to find and utilize all of its playmakers; It can’t just depend on one or two guys to carry the load.

3. The hurry-up no-huddle. We all know the no-huddle is going to play a bigger role in Auburn’s offense this year, so it needs to be a well-oiled machine by SEC play. For this game specifically, wearing down that Utah State defense in the high-noon Alabama heat could spell doom for the Aggies.

The Prediction: Auburn should win this game on talent alone.

But hopefully they will win it on much more than talent. Hopefully they will win it on execution, will, skill… on much more than the bare minimum.

Utah State could be a formidable foe out of the WAC, but there are a lot of unknowns with the Aggies. They could be on their way to a two-win season, or they could have a shot at making a bowl run this year. But either way, if the 2011 Auburn Tigers are who we think they are, they’ll be able to handle them easily.

If not, things could get bumpy down the road.

The Final Score

Auburn 38, Utah State 16

Photo via.

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