Auburn and Georgia Southern will kick off their seasons on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game is at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.
The game should be straightforward for Auburn, which enters as nearly a five-touchdown favorite. The Tigers are paying GSU $1.3 million to make this trip, and they aren’t doing that to get challenged. If the Eagles can stay close, that’ll be a big win.
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Saturday is the Auburn debut for quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who’s one of the most important players in the SEC this season. In 2015, he was effective for Baylor after he replaced an injured Seth Russell in November. In three games, Stidham threw 12 touchdowns against two interceptions, before an injury ended his own year. He left Baylor and spent a season in junior college, then joined Auburn in the winter.
From his time at Baylor, Stidham is well versed in the run-pass options that have come to define so many college offenses. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is one of the earliest adopters of those packaged plays, and he could now turn Stidham loose on the rest of the Southeast to devastating effect. If Stidham gives the Tigers elite quarterback play, the SEC West race stops looking like a formality that ends with Alabama in Atlanta.
Auburn is a lot better than Georgia Southern, and Saturday’s game won’t be close if the Tigers are firing on all cylinders. But GSU is a weird opponent because of its reliance on the triple-option offense. Auburn will have had a full offseason to get ready for it, but the Eagles’ power-and-pitch style has caused problems for SEC teams before.
Most famously, GSU ran for 302 yards (and 7.7 per carry) in a game against Alabama in 2011, when GSU was still an FCS program. That prompted an impressed Nick Saban to later say, “They ran through our ass like shit through a tin horn, man, and we could not stop them. We could not stop them. Could not stop them.” The Eagles made T-shirts out of his quote. GSU also gave Ole Miss real problems in a game last year, going up 14-3 in the first quarter before falling, 37-27, and accruing 267 ground yards.
Is that happening again? Probably not. The triple-option isn’t a magical, impossible-to-stop offense that guarantees chaos. But it’s a bit of a wild card, and if Auburn’s defense doesn’t respond well to it, the Eagles could be this year’s Sun Belt team to embarrass (or at least seriously threaten) a Goliath from the SEC.
After GSU, Auburn’s schedule gets daunting an a hurry. Malzahn’s team plays at defending champion Clemson next week, then has a meeting with FCS Mercer before hopping into SEC play. Minimizing the drama this week would probably be good.