Now Auburn’s season truly begins. Let’s be honest: Akron and Alabama State don’t offer any real indication of what the Tigers – or any SEC team, for that matter – are truly capable of.
Yes, there is a sense that Bryan Harsin might offer a schematic universe in which quarterback Bo Nix can see and process the game more astutely and fluidly. Harsin has shown signs of being able to work with his personnel and put players in position to succeed in ways which Gus Malzahn could not. There is a possibility that this marriage could work out really well. Yet, what happens against Akron and Alabama State is not a true measurement of how well a player can perform against Penn State. These are different worlds.
Nix and Auburn will go from home games against cupcakes to a prime-time road night game in front of more than 100,000 fans. It’s a completely different ballgame. If Auburn can beat Penn State, then we can begin to get excited about the Tigers in 2021. Right now, skepticism is merited, and Auburn faces the burden of proof in this contest. The Tigers need to show they are better than most people think they are.
1 – Offensive line versus Penn State’s front seven
The Penn State Nittany Lions held Wisconsin to just 10 points in Week 1. The Nittany Lions were great in the red zone, great on third and fourth downs, and great in the final minutes of the fourth quarter when huge plays needed to be made. Penn State checked all the boxes in terms of doing what a great defense should do.
The Nittany Lions have very strong defensive linemen and linebackers. They were able to hold the fort against Wisconsin’s tremendous running game. If a defense can contain the Badgers on the ground, that’s a foremost identifier of elite run-stuffing talent.
Auburn’s offensive line entered this season as the weakest position group for the Tigers. Very simply, Auburn’s offensive line – after what amounted to two scrimmages against Akron and Alabama State – will find out what it is made of. The unit will see exactly where it has to improve and what it must to do be great. Penn State figures to own the line of scrimmage here, but if Auburn can fight PSU to a draw, this game could become a lot more interesting, and the visitors would have a real chance to win in Happy Valley.
2 – Get three takeaways from Sean Clifford and the Penn State offense
Sean Clifford had a terrible 2020 season for Penn State. He and the Nittany Lions’ offense struggled in Week 1 at Wisconsin, getting bailed out by their defense. If Auburn figures to struggle on offense in this game, the Tigers have a reasonable chance of thriving on defense in this game. If they can get multiple takeaways from Clifford, and if they can turn them into touchdowns – maybe one on a pick-six – this game becomes winnable for Auburn. If the Tigers don’t get a single turnover from Penn State, it is hard to see how the offense will be able to do enough on its own to win. Auburn has to give its offense either a lead (pick-six) or a short field if the Tigers are going to pull off the upset.
3 – Bo Nix on the road
No one is expecting Bo Nix to dominate. Can he at least avoid turnovers and see if the Auburn defense can win this game? If getting three takeaways from Clifford is a big key (and it is), Nix can’t cancel out that key by committing two or three turnovers of his own. If Auburn has a plus-three turnover differential and Nix can make some basic plays in third and three or third and four situations, Auburn would have a realistic chance of winning. Bo Nix can’t be expected to soar and play like 2004 Jason Campbell or 2010 Cam Newton. Just play a clean game with minimal mistakes. That would already be better than what we saw in 2020.