Auburn, Ala.--Through four years at Ole Miss and nearly eight years at Auburn, as a head coach Tommy Tuberville had never played a team from the Big 12 Conference. After playing Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl, Auburn’s matchup against Kansas State on Saturday will be the second consecutive opponent from the Big 12 North for the Tigers.
The Tigers and Wildcats have played twice before, with Auburn winning in Manhattan in 1978 and again on the plains in 1979. Entering this Saturday’s contest, Auburn is coming off an 11-2 season and is ranked 18th in the AP Poll and 14th in the coaches' poll. Kansas State is receiving votes in the coaches' poll following a 7-6 season ending in a 37-10 loss to Rutgers in the Texas Bowl.
If the Wildcats are to improve in Ron Prince’s second season as head coach and give the Tigers a serious challenge on Saturday, it starts with getting consistency out of sophomore quarterback Josh Freeman. At 6-6 and nearly 260 pounds, Freeman has struggled with his offseason conditioning, but still has potential to make the big play.
“Josh Freeman is an outstanding player, he was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and has a big-time arm,” says Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. “He’s talented, he has arm strength and he can make all of the throws.”
He’ll be throwing against an Auburn secondary that is expected to start a freshman, two sophomores and a senior.
“He’s got a rocket arm, I know that much,” says Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers, who has been perhaps the most impressive DB this preseason for the Tigers. “He can throw from sideline to sideline, he can move in the pocket and he can make some big plays for them. He’s still young and still learning, but he’s more experienced now.”
In late-season wins over Colorado and Texas last season, Freeman was 41-57 for 520 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. However, in the following losses to Kansas and Rutgers he was just 33-65 for 373 yards, no scores and five picks.
“Watching them on film, they can score on you easily,” explains Auburn end Quentin Groves. “I saw where last year they played Texas and it was Freeman’s breakout game and also against Colorado. The thing that I saw was they let him get comfortable in the pocket. They let him sit back there and pass the ball, and we can’t do that if we’re going to have success against him.”
K-State’s leading receiver a season ago is 6-3, 217-pound Jordy Nelson. A former walk-on safety, Nelson will be counted on even more with the suspension of tight end Rashad Norwood, who caught 36 passes a season ago. However, the Wildcats will get some help at the wideout position from a pair of junior college transfers.
“They’ve got a couple of experienced guys and they got a transfer guy that’s a flat-out burner,” Powers says of Deon Murphy. “We haven’t seen him on film because he wasn’t there last year, but from what we’ve been hearing he’s a speedster.”
Ernie Pierce is also expected to help out immediately and Daniel Gonzalez returns for his senior season.
At running back the Wildcats have a couple of options.
“James Johnson and Leon Patton have both shown that they’re capable of big plays,” Muschamp notes. “Leon Patton is a 10.3 100-meter kid that made a lot of big plays for them last year as a freshman. They’re pretty multiple in the formations and shifts that they’re similar offensively to our offense as far as the West Coast in different movements and shifts and bunch looks that they’ll give you, so we’ve had some pretty good preparation throughout camp for it.”
Sophomore Jeron Mastrud steps in for Norwood at tight end, and he’ll probably be left in to help protect against the Auburn speed off the corner in players like Groves and Antonio Coleman.
“The tight ends are great blockers,” Groves says. “The offensive line is rebuilt, but from what I’ve been hearing they’re pretty physical. If we come in with our mind set and we’re ready to play then we should be okay.”
If Groves plays like he did against Florida and Alabama last season then the Tigers should be in good shape.
After coaching special teams last season, Tim Tibesar is in his first year as defensive coordinator. Much like Muschamp’s schemes, the Auburn offense is expecting to see some 3-4 and 4-3 fronts with Ian Campbell as the player to watch out for. Chances are, he and Rob Jackson will be lined up on the left side of the defense most of the night to take advantage of Auburn starting two freshmen on the right side in Mike Berry and Lee Ziemba.
“They’ve got a fast defense and a lot of guys back,” offensive coordinator Al Borges says. “They’ve got what I call a Quentin Groves type with Ian Campbell and he’s a really, really great pass rusher. They’re doing some of the same things we’re doing. In regard to schemes and such we should have half a clue as to how to handle that. They are going to have some things that I’m sure we haven’t seen. There is a little more unknown in this game from a Kansas State defensive perspective than there are in most first games. It’s a little more like facing the staff instead.
“They’ll probably play a 3-4 similar to the way we do, but they’re going to have some things that we don’t do.”
Campbell had 11.5 sacks last season as an end, but he is listed as a strongside linebacker in 2007.
While Auburn’s starting linebackers Tray Blackmon, Merrill Johnson and Craig Stevens average in the 215-220 pound range, the Kansas State linebackers are listed at 227, 231, 245 and 249. Auburn running backs Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Brad Lester, if he plays, are likely to have more success outside the tackles to take advantage of being quicker than the Wildcat front seven.
Without many proven play-makers at receiver and some youth on the offensive line, Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox must watch out for cornerback Joshua Moore, a freshman All-American last season, and safety Marcus Watts as the leaders in the secondary.
Auburn may have an advantage on kickoff coverage and returns because of better athletes overall, but Kansas State punter Tim Reyer could help swing back the field position in the Wildcats’ favor. He averaged 42.1 yards per punt last season. Both teams must replace their kickers.
The Auburn program has had tremendous success under Tuberville, going 71-29 through eight seasons, but the Tigers just 5-3 in season openers. Kansas State has a remarkable streak of 17 consecutive victories on opening day on the line.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6:45 p.m. CDT with Ron Franklin doing play-by-play for ESPN.
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