We asked Auburn beat writer Ryan Black of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer five questions about the Tigers in advance of Saturday’s game.
Black filled us in on the possibility Auburn overlooks the Gamecocks, Malzahn’s similarities to Spurrier on the sideline, how much the Tigers are looking forward to running the ball, Nick Marshall’s development as a quarterback (or lack thereof) and the Tigers’ better-than-it-looks run defense.
1. Is there a chance Auburn overlooks this game considering what the rest of the second half schedule includes?
With other teams and other coaches, this might be a "yes." But Auburn isn't that team and Gus Malzahn isn't that coach. Cliche as it sounds, Malzahn constantly hits upon the refrain of "just getting better each practice and each game."
No, it's not all that quotable. But it's hard to argue with his results thus far.
To wit: Just this year, Auburn has already had two games where it would be understandable if it was "looking ahead": San Jose State (prior to Kansas State) and Louisiana Tech (prior to LSU). The result? Auburn 59, San Jose State 13. Auburn 45, Louisiana Tech 17.
Now you might say neither of those teams are nearly as talented as South Carolina, and you'd be right. But the Tigers were in this same position last year, too. Sitting at 7-1, they had to face a pair of struggling SEC teams in November: Arkansas and Tennessee. Those games came before Auburn hosted Georgia and Alabama, so it wasn't out of the realm of possibility to think Auburn would come out lethargic against Arkansas or Tennessee, right? Not quite. The Tigers, on the road in both contests, soundly beat the Razorbacks (35-17) and Volunteers (55-23).
With those exhibits entered as evidence, I'd say the chances of Auburn overlooking Saturday's game are non-existent.
2. How much of an influence did Steve Spurrier have on Gus Malzahn do you think? We've heard the stuff about the visor, etc., but has Malzahn tried to emulate Spurrier much on the field?
Well, they are both fantastic play-callers and offensive minds, that's for sure. But as you've probably read and seen elsewhere, Malzahn's play-calling the past two years looks more similar to "Spurrier, circa South Carolina" than "Spurrier, circa Florida." Malzahn has always favored the run, though he has shown the ability to adapt in the past. (See his time as Tulsa's offensive coordinator when he directed a pass-heavy attack.) But at heart, he loves to run the ball. Malzahn reiterates that time and time again; they are a run-first team that wants the ground game to set up play-action passes.
As for actual on-field antics ... if you've ever had a chance to watch an Auburn game on television, Malzahn is every bit as excitable and emotional as Spurrier. There are slight differences, of course. Malzahn doesn't wear a headset, so you're not going to see him rip it off in frustration after a bad play or drive. And as perturbed as Malzahn has gotten at times during games, he's never gone "full Spurrier" and actually tossed his visor anywhere — which is too bad.
Maybe that will change one of these days.
3. Are the Tigers licking their chops at the thought of facing South Carolina's porous run defense?
You could say that. But as you would expect, Auburn's coaching staff played up the Gamecocks' run defense like it was the 1985 Chicago Bears. You know, the whole "they've got experience on that defense and they'll have a great game plan and they'll execute well and this is going to be very tough."
Don't believe any of that.
The Tigers are certainly looking forward to running the ball early and often Saturday. Even though they haven't done so at quite the same clip as last year, the belief is they still have the potential to kick things up a notch or two. And Saturday would be a good jumping-off point considering how tough the slate is going forward.
4. How much, if any, has Nick Marshall progressed at quarterback?
This question has been asked, re-asked, slightly altered and formatted in just about every way imaginable to the coaching staff this season. So it's not crazy to say this has probably been the most popular topic surrounding the team this year — partly due to reporters' curiosity, partly due to the coaching staff touting his offseason improvement as a passer.
And make no mistake: That's all this is really about. No one is worried about Marshall running the ball, as he's already topped the 100-yard mark four times in six games.
This is about his development as a passer. And it's been, well, a bit of a mixed bag.
Improvement has shown itself in spurts this season. There have been moments where you see him go through his progressions and make the right decision, dumping it off to a safety valve instead of forcing it downfield. At times, he's shown patience; instead of taking off and running at the first sign of distress, he ends up making a bigger gain because he got out of the pocket and waited for his receiver to break off a route and lose his defender.
But then there have been instances where he reverts back into the unrefined passer of last year. Overthrows aplenty. Forcing the ball into double- and triple-coverage. Plays where it seems like he could take off and run for a positive, easy yardage, but he displays so much confidence in one receiver (Sammie Coates last year, D'haquille "Duke" Williams this year) that he expects them to make the catch no matter how difficult it may be or how bad the throw is.
So has he shown improvement? Yes, incrementally. Is it as much as the coaching staff would have liked? Not even close. Does he still have enough time to change that? Sure.
But will that actually come to pass?
You could say that's the $1 million question.
5. If there's anything South Carolina can feel good about it is the potential to run the ball well and control time of possession. What has the Auburn run defense looked like?
To put it simply, "really, really good." Arkansas has averaged 256 yards per game on the ground; Auburn held it to 153 in the opener. Dangerous Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters had negative-7 yards against the Tigers. LSU is sixth in the SEC at 220.9 rushing yards per game; the Bayou Bengals had 138 versus Auburn.
Only one team has had success moving the ball on the ground against Auburn, and that came in the Tigers' last outing. Dak Prescott and Mississippi State ran for 223 yards and four touchdowns. (It should be noted that entering that game, Auburn had allowed just five rushing touchdowns all season.) Prescott accounted for 121 of those yards and a pair of scores himself.
At least thus far, that appears to be the formula to solving the Tigers' otherwise stout run defense: Have a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback that is nimble enough to elude defenders yet bulky enough to (almost) never go down on first contact.
The problem being, of course, that few teams have a player like Prescott.