The 2017 opener between Georgia Southern and Auburn pairs contrasting teams, which could present different challenges to both teams on both sides of the ball. The contest on paper is a David vs. Goliath showdown, but a deeper look holds intrigue that could set up for an exciting game pitting a Sun Belt program on the rise against a SEC team looking to contend for the conference crown.
The win-loss record may not show it, but Georgia Southern was a tough out in 2016 losing tight games to Arkansas State (27-26), Georgia Tech (35-24), Ole Miss (37-27), Louisiana (33-26), and Georgia State (30-24). Auburn has a ton of talent, but should proceed with caution – the Eagles rattled Georgia in 2015 before falling 23-17 in overtime in Athens and also have an upset of Florida in The Swamp in ’13 on their ledger. In his first season as head coach in Statesboro, Tyson Summers switched from predecessor Willie Fritz’s option attack to a spread. The offense sputtered in 2016 forcing a switch back to a flex-bone attack, which means Auburn has had to prepare for a unique offense ahead of next week’s showdown with defending champion Clemson.
Auburn was a tough team to get a feel for a year ago. After home losses to Clemson (19-13) and Texas A&M (29-16) to start the season 1-3, Gus Malzahn’s team took off behind a power-running attack, rattling off six straight wins before losing a head scratcher to Georgia (13-7) on the road. Another loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl and a no-show effort in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma (35-19) was not how Tiger fans expected the season to end, although it has done little to quell expectations entering 2017.
Auburn has seven starters back on both offense and defense, but it’s one of the new faces that has the Tigers in the discussion for a possible SEC title and/or College Football Playoff berth — sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Baylor. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern enters its opener with nothing to lose, and not a lot of returning experience. A total of seven starters are back for the Eagles, three of those along the offensive line. Georgia Southern certainly has its work cut out for as the Eagles look to slay another SEC giant.
Georgia Southern at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -34.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jarrett Stidham’s debut
All of the reviews coming off the Plains are positive about Stidham and his understanding of Auburn’s offense. Gus Malzahn may finally have his first true pocket passer since Cam Newton, which has only added to the hype centered around this Tigers team. Georgia Southern’s defense mustered just 11 sacks last season, which should give Stidham comfort dropping back while getting a feel for his receivers in live action. All the wrinkles need to be worked out before facing a Brent Venables-led Clemson defense that will throw everything at Stidham, including the locker room sink.
2. Auburn’s inexperienced front seven
Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has had to deal with the frustration of preparing his unit for an option offense that the team will not face again, at least in the regular season. When executed well, option offenses are tough to game plan against, which could help Georgia Southern keep this game relatively close even though the Eagles are clearly overmatched on paper.
Another thing Steele will have to work with early in the season is inexperience in the box. Defensive ends Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson are expected to be the tone-setters up front, but have the tough task of replacing difference-makers Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Middle linebacker Tre’ Williams also is being counted on to be an immediate impact player. Are these young guys ready for the challenge? Even though Georgia Southern is a Sun Belt team, the Eagles had the 29th-ranked rushing attack (224.2 ypg) last season.
3. Georgia Southern’s offense
Speaking of the Eagles’ attack, which offense will Auburn see on Saturday, the 2015 version that led all FBS teams averaging 363 yards per game on the ground or last season’s unit that tried to present a more balanced approach (averaged 224 rushing yards, 156 passing)? The good news is that the offensive line returns five players with starting experience, which should help clear some space for running backs L.A. Ramsby and Wesley Fields. On the flip side, redshirt freshman quarterback Shai Werts gets his first collegiate start at Jordan-Hare Stadium. How will he handle the pressure?
Georgia Southern has rightfully earned a reputation for being a scrappy group giving max effort through four quarters. The problem is that this version of the Eagles is young across the board. The depth chart lists a mix of 19 sophomores and freshmen, and there are several junior college transfers — namely linebackers Tomarcio Reese and Deshon Cooper — being called on to make an instant impact.
Auburn has the pieces in place to be an offensive machine with quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the dynamic duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson leading the way on the ground. In addition, there are numerous candidates who can emerge as reliable, if not explosive, targets by the end of the year and three starting offensive linemen are back after helping the Tigers lead the SEC in rushing last season.
No one can blame Auburn looking ahead to next week’s showdown at Clemson, but the Tigers also can’t afford to look too far ahead. Georgia Southern may put up a good fight, but in the end, the Eagles are just too young to line up and hang with a superiorly talented Auburn team.
Prediction: Auburn 38, Georgia Southern 13
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of www.auburntigers.com)