The Auburn Tigers are 3-0 with a 20-14 win at Kansas State, adding one of the biggest victories of the young season to their ledger. While they didn't play their best on offense -- no one does against Kansas State -- and needed all sorts of breaks in order to win, a decent defensive performance made the difference.
(However, for the first time in about a calendar year, Auburn failed to surpass expectations. The Tigers' 13-game streak of covering the Vegas spread is done. This one was about 7.5 points.)
The Tigers clamped down on the ground (40 yards) and forced Kansas State to have Jake Waters throw 40 times, the highest total of his 16-game career. The Wildcats' Curry Sexton and Tyler Lockett rang up a few big plays, but Auburn's defense did just enough to limit drives, hassle Waters in the pocket, produce turnovers, and force field goal tries, never a guarantee for college kickers.
It was a game so full of weird mistakes that ... yep, this about describes the experience of watching it:
Seriously, one of these teams -- either one -- should be winning by 20.— Bill Connelly (@SBN_BillC) September 19, 2014
Three things we learned
1. This one's gonna hurt K-State fans for a long, long time. A chance to reach 3-0 nearing the bulk of Big 12 play, score a prime-time win over one of those super-hyped SEC West teams, and record the program's biggest win in at least a couple years? The most impactful upset of the season so far? A glistening feather in the Playoff cap?
Alas. Three missed field goals (nine points), a sure touchdown that was tipped into an interception (seven points), a fumble that gave Auburn a short field (three points), an ugly Waters pick while rolling out in the fourth, and a handful of other uncharacteristic miscues are too much to overcome against a team loaded full of five-stars. And sure, Auburn may have brought its magical field goal force field from last year's Iron Bowl. It's why Bill Snyder said Kansas State lost the game more than Auburn won it.
This outcome still looks good for K-State and the Big 12. But it came so close to looking better.
2. Auburn's offense is not automatic. Coming in, we wondered whether the Tigers' offense would reach the heights this year that it scaled last year. Through two games against lesser opponents, it averaged about 330 yards on the ground, which matches what it put up last year through nine SEC games and Florida State. Thursday night, we got few indications that Auburn will be as good or better than last year offensively.
The country's scariest rushing attack posted all of 3.1 yards per carry Thursday, with a long of only 17. Sure, K-State refuses to give up big plays, allowing the third-fewest 20-yarders in 2013. But Auburn eventually managed to score with patience, with successful drives of nine, 12, and 15 plays.
Going forward, much hinges on the allegedly improved arm of Nick Marshall, who overthrew three potential touchdowns and had multiple passes batted at the line of scrimmage, including one that turned into an INT. He did connect the game-clincher, a 39-yarder to D'haquille Williams on third-and-9 with two minutes to go, but was otherwise erratic.
Was this just an iffy night against an outstanding defense? Will those lobs to Sammie Coates connect later in the year? What if no UGA defensive backs emerge to reroute the ball for him?
But 20 is 20. You take exactly how many points you can get when you visit Manhattan, you exhale, and then you play less-disciplined defenders for almost the entire rest of your season.
3. The SEC West's Playoff résumé is all but bulletproof. The division reaches 17-0 against opponents from outside the division, with away-from-home wins against big names such as Wisconsin, South Carolina, and now Kansas State. Unless an ACC-grade self-sabotage sets in and everyone ends up with three losses somehow, the winner of this division is going to the Playoff.
Auburn itself is in relatively fine shape. That's an insane thing to say about a team that has to travel to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama, plus play LSU and Texas A&M at home, but adding Thursday's win should increase the Tigers' margin of error.
An SEC West team is going to the Playoff. Now we get to have fun figuring out which one.