The college football world is focused squarely on the Little Apple on Thursday night, as Auburn visits Kansas State in a high-profile non-conference matchup and one of the top games of Week 4. Tough non-conference matchups usually aren’t the norm under coach Bill Snyder, and the Tigers are the highest ranked non-league opponent to visit Manhattan since Penn State (ranked No. 2) played there in 1969.
The Wildcats are 2-0 after defeating Stephen F. Austin and Iowa in the first two weeks of the season. As expected, K-State easily defeated SFA 55-16. However, the Wildcats struggled in a 32-28 win over Iowa State – a week after the Cyclones lost to FCS opponent North Dakota State.
On the other sideline, Auburn has picked up where it left off last season. The Tigers offense is predicated on tempo and speed, and Gus Malzahn’s attack is averaging 52 points a game so far in 2014.
Auburn leads the all-time series against Kansas State at 3-0. The last meeting between these two teams occurred in 2007, with the Tigers winning 23-13 in Auburn.
Auburn at Kansas State
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Thursday night)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Auburn -9
Three Things to Watch
1. K-State’s Rush Defense Against Auburn’s Offense
This battle is where the game could be won or lost for Kansas State. Auburn’s offensive line was one of the best in the nation last year, but the Tigers lost standout left tackle Greg Robinson to the NFL, and guard Alex Kozan suffered a back injury in the offseason and won’t play in 2014. Auburn’s revamped line has performed well through two games, allowing just one sack and paving the way for rushers to average 6.7 yards per carry. But the Wildcats’ defensive line is the best unit the Tigers will see until the LSU matchup on Oct. 4. Kansas State’s line is led by senior end Ryan Mueller and tackle Travis Britz, and both players need to win the one-on-one matchups at the point of attack. If Mueller and Britz can disrupt the Auburn rushing attack and prevent the Tigers from getting out in space, the Wildcats can limit the damage on the ground and force quarterback Nick Marshall to win this one through the air. When Marshall doesn’t run or looks to hand it off, expect senior Cameron Artis-Payne (289 yards, 6.9 ypc) and Corey Grant (8.8 ypc) to shoulder most of the load.
2. Auburn’s Defense vs. K-State’s Offense
Much of the preseason hype for this game should revolve around how Kansas State will handle Auburn’s pace on offense. While stopping the Tigers’ up-tempo attack is a huge task for the Wildcats, let’s also not forget about the Auburn defense against Kansas State’s offense. The Wildcats average 6.3 yards per play this year and scored 33.2 points per game in 2013. There’s no question Kansas State can put up enough points to keep pace with Auburn, but it’s how the Wildcats plan to attack the Tigers that is worth monitoring. Time of possession can be overrated when judging teams or using to predict the outcome of a game. However, Kansas State leads the Big 12 in time of possession in 2014 and ranked first or second in the Big 12 from 2011-13. Ball control against Auburn is critical, as limiting the possessions of Malzahn’s offense is a good (and simple) way of slowing the Tigers down. Quarterback Jake Waters isn’t flashy, but he’s quietly off to a good start this year (462 yards, 61.4%) and is an effective runner (193 yards in two games in 2014). Waters leads the team in rushing attempts, but Charles Jones and DeMarcus Robinson will anchor the carries from the running back spot. Auburn’s defense gave up its share of yards and points last year but was at its best on third downs and in the red zone. Can Kansas State control the tempo or will the Tigers control the line of scrimmage?
3. K-State WR Tyler Lockett
Even though Tyler Lockett received a mention on several preseason All-America teams, it’s still possible the senior might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. Lockett is an explosive athlete with the ability to score anytime he touches the ball. On offense, the Oklahoma native averages 15.6 yards per reception and has 19 career touchdown catches. Lockett is also a dangerous weapon on special teams, averaging 31.1 yards per kickoff return and has four career scores. Auburn’s secondary allowed 257.7 yards per game last year and gave up 19 touchdown tosses in 14 games. The Tigers have played two suspect passing teams this season, so it’s hard to gauge whether or not this unit has improved. But late Wednesday night, reports indicated safety Jermaine Whitehead – 41 career games – won’t play on Thursday night. Whitehead’s absence is critical against Lockett and a K-State passing attack that ranked third in the Big 12 last season by hitting on 13 passing plays of at least 40 yards. Expect the Wildcats to take a few deep shots against Auburn’s suspect secondary.
This should be one of the better Thursday night games of the season. Kansas State’s offense has just enough firepower to hang with Auburn’s high-powered attack. And as long as Bill Snyder roams the sidelines in Manhattan, the Wildcats will have a chance to win a game like this one.
Expect plenty of points, and both teams could hit on their share of big plays. Auburn’s defense struggles to stop Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett, but the Tigers have too many playmakers and too much firepower to lose.