Washington State at Auburn
Time: 4 p.m. PDT Saturday, Jordan-Hare Stadium
Records: WSU (3-9, 1-8 in Pac-12 in 2012); Auburn (3-9, 0-8 in SEC in 2012)
Last time: Auburn defeated WSU in Auburn, 40-14, in 2006
The line: Auburn by 151/2
What it means for WSU: This tough road test is in stark contrast to the Cougars’ 2012 season opener at Brigham Young. Many WSU fans expected at least a competitive game, and possibly a victory in the first game of the Mike Leach era. But the Cougars fizzled, lost 30-6 and the season was a tailspin from there. This season, there is a more controlled sense of optimism, though far less hype than that which accompanied this team a year ago. Auburn had troubles of its own in 2012, so a competitive game is still the expectation, even if considerable improvement by the Cougars still ends up a loss. A victory would be a landmark in Leach’s rebuilding effort.
What it means for Auburn: The Tigers badly need a victory in Gus Malzahn’s first game as head coach, both to establish a sense of confidence in their new head man and also to help erase the bad memories of last season’s miserable finish. Malzahn has preached that it’s a “new day” for Auburn football, so anything other than a win in its season opener – especially against a team that struggled so mightily a year ago – might rile the fanbase. There have been some blows to Auburn’s defense this offseason – they dismissed their leading tackler, and Dee Ford, their returning sack leader, won’t play Saturday due to injury – so like WSU, Auburn’s fans might still be in wait-and-see mode.
Key matchup: Nick Marshall vs. WSU’s front seven
Marshall is a dual-threat, junior quarterback who threw for more than 3,000 yards at Garden City (Kansas) Community College last season, but also rushed for another 1,000-plus yards on top of that. And in Malzahn’s hurry-up, run-first offense, he’s likely to have the ball in his hands quite a bit. It will be up to the Cougars’ all-of-a-sudden-fairly- seasoned front seven – they return five starters in that group – to maintain their assignments, hit their landmarks and keep contain against one of the most mobile quarterbacks they’ll see this season. Marshall also threw 20 interceptions at the JC level last season, something WSU no doubt will have in mind.