Pregame analysis of Auburn's home opener against Tulane:
What: Tulane Green Wave (1-0) at Auburn Tigers (1-0)
When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m. Central
Rankings: Auburn is No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and No. 13 in the coaches' rankings. Tulane is unranked.
Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, in Auburn
Line: Auburn by 18
TV/Radio: TV: ESPN2; Radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)
Three things Auburn must do
1. Strong start for line
Auburn’s five senior starters played a much better second half than they did first half Saturday against Oregon. They opened more holes in the running game (5.2 yards a carry compared to 4.1) and protected true freshman quarterback Bo Nix better (he was forced to scramble only two times compared to seven).
“We were making minor mistakes and really we were killing ourselves. It wasn’t anything they were doing to us,” senior right guard Mike Horton said of the group's first-half performance. “Coming in for halftime, we knew we could run the ball on them, just the feeling. We asked Coach just to lean on us and use us. That’s what he did, and it really worked for us.”
It would be a significant boost to the entire offense if the line can carry over that attitude into the start of Game 2. Tulane isn’t Oregon, but it is plenty talented up front — it will start three juniors on the defensive line (including returning sack leader Patrick Johnson, who had 10 ½ last season) and two more at linebacker, and is coming off a 42-14 win where it held Florida International to just 59 rushing yards on 26 carries.
2. Turn to Williams earlier
Auburn knows by now that receiver Seth Williams can come through in the clutch. He caught both touchdown passes in the team’s come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M last season. He was the player Nix looked to when he needed to convert a crucial third down and score the game-winner against Oregon on Saturday.
Those two games share something in common, though, and, not just that the Tigers came back to win — Williams wasn’t really involved prior to his late-game heroics. Those two touchdowns against the Aggies were his only catches in the game. He caught four passes for 41 yards against the Ducks, and three came on the final drive. The fourth, a screen pass in the second quarter, lost 3 yards.
Of course, a lot of that had to do with the way Oregon was defending Williams. He’s Auburn’s top returning receiver, so a lot of attention was paid to him — excluding throwaways, Nix targeted Williams four other times in the game, but he was bracketed in each of those instances.
The Tigers found a way to get Williams free when it mattered most, though, and he made Oregon pay. Now imagine what he would be capable of if they can establish his presence earlier than the final drive of the fourth quarter.
“Throughout the game I was asking for the ball, but I knew when the time was,” Williams said. “I was being patient with it, and it finally came.”
3. Find No. 2 running back
JaTarvious Whitlow played a great game Saturday, finishing with 110 yards on 24 carries, including 78 after halftime. But Auburn coach Gus Malzahn didn’t want him to run the ball as much as he did — the sophomore dealt with multiple nagging injuries last season, and the Tigers have entered this season with a mentality of “don’t wear him down.”
For that to happen, though, other running backs need to step forward. That didn’t happen Saturday, whether it was because of game flow — “we really needed to go with our veteran guy with the way the game was going,” Malzahn said — ineffectiveness or a lack of opportunity. Nix was the team’s second-leading rusher with 42 yards on seven carries, and wide receiver Eli Stove third with 36 yards on one rush.
Kam Martin carried four times for 11 yards and Shaun Shivers four times for 2. Harold Joiner caught a wheel route for 28 yards but didn't receive a carry. Malik Miller and D.J. Williams both played in the game, but neither recorded a touch on offense.
Whitlow has proven that he’s Auburn’s top option in the run game, but he can’t be the only one. That has been clear the last three seasons, when late-season injuries suffered by Whitlow, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, respectively, sapped a lot of the effectiveness out of the team’s rushing attack.
“That's a focus of ours, there's no doubt,” Malzahn said. “By the time we get to SEC play, we really want all that defined about who we're going with — and in what order. The good thing is that we have two nonconference games now, and we can kind of test some things out and get that ready by the time we get to our SEC.”
When it comes to regular-season non-conference games, Malzahn is right in saying that Tulane is, “really one of the better teams, non-Power Five that we’ve played since I’ve been the head coach.” The Green Wave has improved its win total in each of the past four seasons, is led by a former SEC quarterback and have 27 upperclassmen listed on their two-deep depth chart on offense and defense. The AAC might be as good of a conference as there is outside the Power 5, too. But there’s a reason the Tigers are an 18-point favorite. This is a game they should win, especially in their home opener in front of what should be a raucous crowd Saturday evening. Auburn is 18-0 in regular-season non-conference games against non-Power 5 teams under Malzahn. If the team is re-focused after its thrilling and emotional Week 1 win, can get the same kind of effort from its defense and can make some strides on offense in Nix’s second career start, look for it to get win No. 19.
Auburn 41, Tulane 17