The SEC cross-divisional showdown between Auburn (2-1) and Missouri (1-2) on Saturday in Columbia pits two very different Tiger squads against one another. Auburn heads to Missouri looking to shake off a lackluster performance against Mercer, while Missouri is searching for leadership on both sides of the ball entering its conference schedule.
Talking heads may question Auburn’s status on the field — even head coach Gus Malzahn may take the same approach to keep the ear of the team — but make no mistake: This Tiger squad is pushing forward at a healthy pace. The Tigers gutted out a potential trap game against FCS opponent Mercer after a hard-fought 14-6 road loss to then- No. 3 Clemson. Overcoming five turnovers for a 24-10 win showed the heart of the team. More importantly, Malzahn got the game he needed out of starting sophomore quarter Jarrett Stidham before entering conference action.
Missouri fans, coaches, and players alike are each wishing for a do-over for the early portion of the 2017 season. The offense looked electric against FCS opponent Missouri State in Week 1, scoring 72 points, but sputtered against South Carolina and Purdue, posting a combined 16 points over the past two games. To make matters worse, the defense has been porous, allowing 66 combined points to South Carolina and Purdue. Ideally, both sides of the ball should be playing well, but neither side has showed up to play when it has counted.
The time for Auburn to pull it all together is now. Missouri is the first of seven consecutive SEC games for Auburn, a stretch that includes Mississippi State, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Georgia. Missouri needs something positive to build on going forward, on both sides of the ball. Barry Odom needs a young roster filled predominately with juniors and sophomores to rise to a very big occasion against Auburn, or hot-seat rumblings could become roars as the head coach gets deeper into a challenging conference schedule.
Auburn at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Auburn -19
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri’s struggling defense
The Tigers defense, by all accounts, played even with South Carolina, but the offense let down its defensive counterparts with two turnovers while the Gamecocks played clean. The Boilermakers ransacked Missouri’s defense for 205 yards rushing and 272 passing, dominating the time of possession in eating up 43:43 of the game clock. If Missouri wore down early in the trenches against Purdue, Auburn tailbacks Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson and Kam Martin could be in for a big stat day.
Barry Odom pinned the South Carolina loss on former defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, firing him ahead of the Purdue game. Can the defensive-minded coach change the direction of this unit in one week?
2. Missouri’s now-struggling offense
In three games, the Tigers are one of the worst teams in the country in terms of turnovers, giving the ball away eight times — three lost fumbles and five picks. Something is amiss with returning junior starting quarterback Drew Lock, who hit only 12-of-28 passes for 133 yards against Purdue with two picks. The same problems from last year — poor completion percentage and interceptions — continue in 2017 for Lock.
Sophomore running back Damarea Crockett (above, right) was held to 19 yards on 10 carries against Purdue, as he was slowed by a tailbone bruise. The good news is that the SEC’s third-leading rusher is supposed to be healthy for the Auburn game and is expected to put in a full workload.
3. Auburn putting together a complete game
Auburn has not hit on all cylinders yet this season, but all the pieces are starting to coalesce. Jarrett Stidham looked like the quarterback all expected to see in preseason predictions, connecting on 32-of-37 passes for 364 yards with one touchdown against Mercer. Missouri is tied at No. 98 among FBS teams in passing defense, allowing 271 yards per game, a welcomed stat for Stidham and company.
Adding to the good news, Kerryon Johnson is set to return to the backfield after missing two games with a hamstring injury. The defense has been there all along and is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation in total defense, holding teams to 202 yards per game. If the run and passing game can match the defense’s output, this team could be the team to beat in the SEC.
A possible pitfall for Auburn: looking ahead to Mississippi State. It would be foolish for the Tigers not to focus fully on this matchup, but that's perhaps Missouri’s best hope. If Auburn turns in an uninspired performance, concerns about the Mississippi State game will be warranted.
A healthy Damarea Crockett in the backfield will help keep Auburn’s defense honest if running room can be found. But, even the mighty Clemson Tigers were held to less than 100 rushing yards by this unit.
Prediction: Auburn 42, Missouri 7
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.