The defending national champion Auburn Tigers conference affair this Saturday.
A member of the Western Athletic Conference, Utah State is a heavy underdog in this matchup. The Aggies have finished 4-8 the last two seasons under Gary Andersen, who hopes for a turnaround in this, his third year at the helm. Andersen announced that he would also assume the responsibilities of defensive coordinator moving forward, and his defense will undoubtedly face a stiff test in this contest.
As for Auburn, it kept the SEC on top of the college football world last season by completing an undefeated season with a win over Oregon in the BCS title game. That 2010 team's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and several other key contributors have moved on, but considering the talent level that still remains on the roster, don't expect Andersen or any other opposing coach to pity Gene Chizik this season.
"There's going to be a lot of new names and a lot of new faces you're going to have to get used to this year," says Chizik. "I think probably what said it best one day in spring practice was that I asked our guys to raise their hand if they started or played in more than five games at Auburn. I was looking for hands. Wasn't very many that went up."
This game marks the first-ever meeting between Auburn and Utah State on the gridiron.
It remains unclear who will start this opener at quarterback for Utah State, as both Adam Kennedy, a juco transfer, and Chuckie Keeton, a freshman, split reps in camp. While many speculate that Andersen will pin his hopes on Kennedy, the coach sees the mystery as a possible benefit.
"Playing a quality opponent like Auburn, we believe it is important for us to gain every advantage we can," said Andersen. "Announcing a starting quarterback could possibly be a disadvantage for our football team."
While the quarterback position is certainly a concern heading in, the offense can be somewhat comfortable in knowing that there are four returning starters along the line and that should make the transition a little easier for whomever is assuming the most important position on the field.
Robert Turbin, who carried the ball 207 times for 1,296 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, is back to lead the ground attack for the Aggies. Kerwynn Williams can also play a useful role coming out of the backfield as well, after he posted 451 yards and four TDs on 81 rushing attempts, but all indications are the junior will be used more as a wide receiver and kick returner, especially after he set a WAC single-season record with 1,444 kick return yards.
Last year, the Aggies had nine starters return on the defensive side of the ball and they were able to improve significantly over some dreadful 2009 numbers. Unfortunately, further improvement may not come easily with several new faces in the mix for 2011. Still, there is some reason for optimism in the person of linebacker Bobby Wagner, as he leads the transition to a 3-4 scheme. Wagner, a preseason Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List member, a two-time All- WAC First Team selection and the preseason WAC Defensive Player of the Year for 2011, was seventh in the country last year with more than 11 tackles per game.
"I am extremely honored and humbled to be recognized by the media as the WAC's Preseason Defensive Player of the Year," Wagner said. "There are a lot of talented players in this league and to be recognized as the top defensive player is a tremendous honor. I am very grateful. I am also even more motivated to continue the hard work that got me here and have a solid season to show that I deserve this honor."
It can certainly be argued with validity that Cam Newton had the greatest single season by a collegiate quarterback in NCAA history last year. Not only were Newton's stats as a runner and a passer off the charts for the Tigers, but the junior college transfer won both the Heisman and national title in his lone FBS campaign.
Newton went on to be the top choice in the NFL Draft, and he has left some massive shoes to fill for junior Barrett Trotter. After serving as Newton's backup last season and winning the starting nod this offseason, Trotter has the confidence of his coach.
"As we evaluated the whole process, we named Barrett the starter because we feel like that gives us the best chance to win," said Chizik. "It is a great opportunity for him to write his own story and we feel very confident in his ability to keep our standards extremely high and win."
Emery Blake caught 33 passes for 554 yards and eight touchdowns a year ago, and he is the top returning target for the Tigers. Considering the inexperience at the quarterback position, however, Auburn would be wise to hand the ball to tailback Michael Dyer as often as possible. As a freshman last season, Dyer rushed for 1,093 yards and five touchdowns on 182 carries and was extremely impressive in the national title game. The SEC is loaded with star tailbacks, and Dyer takes a back seat to no one with regard to talent. His offensive line, however, is rather green.
Speaking of green, that adjective best describes the Auburn defensive line as well. The linebackers could very well prove to be solid, but there doesn't seem to be a star among the group. Daren Bates headlines the trio in regard to experience, and the junior will be expected to lead the defense both verbally and by example.
Moving to the secondary, the man to watch is safety Neiko Thorpe. A senior who recorded 64 tackles a season ago, Thorpe needs to prove that he is a playmaker, not just a sure tackler with solid instincts.