Final thoughts (and a prediction) for Penn State-Auburn
When College GameDay picks its weekly location, the message is pretty clear: it expects this to be the best game in college football this week, and by extension, you should too.
And when Penn State selects its annual “White Out” game, the bar is raised a notch. They are telling you this is the biggest game you’ll see in Beaver Stadium this season. Unless you’re living under a rock or just some heathen who shows up in blue, you’ll buy that hype.
So what I am about to tell you may come as a bit of a shock.
Though this may be the best Week 3 matchup nationally on paper (or to be more accurate, whatever digital device you’re using to read this), it is unlikely to play out that way on the field.
If the Nittany Lions are who we think they are — legitimate contenders for the Big Ten East crown — Auburn will not be as stout a test as its No. 22 ranking leads one to believe.
Here is why I think Penn State has a real shot to win this thing going away:
To paraphrase the stereotypical Paul Finebaum Show caller, “They ain’t played no one yet, Paawwwwwl.”
Auburn’s schedule has been like toilet paper. And not even one of the good brands. (Good brands, feel free to contact me regarding sponsorship opportunities.) We’re talking the type of 1-ply that you would use to roll Toomer’s Corner, which Auburn fans should certainly consider doing should their team pick up its first road win over a Big Ten opponent since 1931.
So while it’s factually accurate to say Auburn comes into this game with the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense and No. 1 scoring defense, it would be false to think that actually means anything.
Auburn opened its season with Akron and Alabama State, who were apparently scheduled under the criterion of “schools that are even higher in alphabetical order than we are.”
Akron, a 60-10 loser, is 1-19 since 2019. Alabama State, a 62-0 loser, is 9-10 in the FCS in that same span. The Hornets prepped for SEC play by squeaking out a 14-13 win over Division II Miles College in Week 1.
Penn State, on the other hand, opened the season by shutting down Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin 16-10 at Camp Randall. The Nittany Lions followed it up with a 44-13 win over a game Ball State squad that’s expected to defend its MAC title.
So Penn State is ready for an upgrade in toughness. Auburn is not. Heck, Auburn’s not even ready for a 60-minute game against anybody, much less a top-10 foe. None of the Tigers starters have dealt with the strain of playing a full game this season.
Bo doesn’t know road games
Quarterback Bo Nix is in his third season as the Tigers’ starter, and the belief from Auburn’s camp is that he’ll finally turn the corner after two inconsistent seasons. Certainly, Saturday’s showdown will provide him with his best chance to show that chatter is true.
But until he does that, the proof is in the pudding. And Bo Nix in a road game makes for one of those unappealing British puddings.
Here are the numbers dug up by Saturday Down South’s Conor O’Gara:
- 54.5% passing
- 9-10 TD-INT ratio
- 105.4 passer rating
- 5.7 yards per attempt
- 23 rushing yards/game
- 4-5 record
And sure, those numbers are a bit skewed by the strength of schedule in the SEC West. There are no freebies.
But one of his worst career games was against one of the worst teams Auburn faced — last year’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Nix completed just 51.1% of his throws (24 of 47) with a touchdown and 3 interceptions in a 30-22 loss.
South Carolina never won another game. Only Vanderbilt finished lower in the SEC in opponent passer rating.
Penn State’s secondary is a problem for anyone
Even if we found ourselves in a world where Bo Nix was money in road games, it might not mean much against Penn State’s defensive backs.
The Nittany Lions are 14th nationally in fewest passing yards per attempt allowed, and 16th in opponent passer rating. And though it’s still early enough to take those figures with a grain of salt, it’s more a pinch rather than the entire barrel you have to pour over Auburn’s early schedule.
It will be borderline shocking if Nix gets through this game without turning it over. And it may take him pitching that perfect game for Auburn to pull off the upset.
Don’t let Auburn control the line of scrimmage
If you’ve made it this far, you might be under the impression I think Auburn is basically a Conference USA team. That’s not the case at all.
There’s definitely a path to victory for the Tigers, and it involves mashing the Nittany Lions in the trenches.
As solid as Penn State has looked in the defensive backfield, it has yet to really get after it up front. The Nittany Lions have 12 tackles for loss, which is a middling 69th nationally. And they’ve only produced 3 sacks, which rates 86th. Obviously playing Wisconsin does a lot to bring those numbers down, but that’s the caliber of offensive line Auburn will bring to Happy Valley.
Penn State’s offensive line is the greater area of concern. There are potential leaks for the Tigers to exploit.
The Nittany Lions have allowed 5 sacks, which is 82nd in the country. That figure is skewed given the difficulty of Penn State’s first 2 opponents. Most teams in the country have yet to face a killer pass rush.
However, it is a bit troubling that opponents have one more tackle for loss than the Nittany Lions. Wisconsin lassoed 7 Nittany Lions in the backfield and Ball State had 6 TFLs.
Despite subsisting on cupcakes so far, Auburn’s 22 tackles for loss will still translate against better opponents even if the exchange rate skews the number a bit. TFLs can translate to bad 3rd-down scenarios, forced fumbles, field goals instead of touchdowns, and spooked decisions by a quarterback.
If Auburn beats Penn State, it will be because some very bad things happened in the Nittany Lions’ backfield.
A prediction: Penn State 30, Auburn 13
I expect this game to live up to the hype in the first half — 13-10 sounds about right for a halftime score — before Penn State pulls away.
For me, it’s impossible to get past the Charmin softness (now’s your chance to jump in, Quilted Northern) of Auburn’s early schedule. Obviously there’s a balance in football between being exhausted from having too difficult a schedule and being rusty and potentially out of breath late.
Had Penn State opened its season similarly, it would be fair to expect Auburn to cover the 5.5-point spread and potentially win this game outright.
Instead, it feels like the perfect storm for a blowout that most people didn’t see coming.
White Out night. An opponent who hasn’t faced a single shred of adversity in its first 2 games. An opportunity for Penn State to assert itself as the Big Ten favorite and a legitimate College Football Playoff contender.
Over the course of the season, Auburn will likely prove itself to be a better team than what we see Saturday. The conditions are just right for Penn State fans to have a perfect night.