Saturday’s game against Western Carolina will mark the 100th observance of Homecoming at Auburn and the 87th homecoming game for the Tigers. They are 74-8-4 all-time in those games and have won a school-record 21 straight.
Jeremy Johnson’s debut: There wasn’t much to talk about from this game until Auburn coach Gus Malzahn announced Johnson as the starting quarterback for the Tigers. With starter Nick Marshall not quite 100 percent, the staff opted to go with the true freshman against Western Carolina. Johnson, a former ESPN 300 recruit, will be making his Auburn debut when he takes the field Saturday. He looks the part at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, and he certainly has the physical tools, but how will he adjust to the college game? As a senior in high school, he threw for 3,193 yards, ran for 705 yards and scored a combined 38 touchdowns.
Running back trio: If there was ever a game for Auburn to lean on the running game, this would be it. The Catamounts are allowing 237 yards per game this season against lesser opponents, so Auburn should have no trouble running all over them. Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have taken a backseat to veteran Tre Mason in recent weeks, but all three backs should be able to make a significant contribution Saturday. There’s no better remedy for a first-time starter at quarterback than a strong running game, and the game plan should reflect that.
The Ellis Johnson effect: Auburn ranks near the bottom of the SEC in total defense, but it has been able to keep opponents out of the end zone for the most part. The Tigers rank No. 38 nationally in scoring defense, up 28 spots from where they finished a year ago. That type of improvement seems to follow Johnson, AU’s defensive coordinator, wherever he goes. He made stints as defensive coordinator for Mississippi State and South Carolina in the past decade, and both defenses saw an improvement in the first year. The goal for Saturday will be to keep Western Carolina out of the end zone or off the scoreboard altogether.
Reserves to play: The coaches made it clear all week that the focus is on winning the game. However, if all goes well, there’s a strong possibility that Auburn will be able to extend more playing time to some of its younger, more inexperienced players. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee singled out wide receiver Tony Stevens and offensive tackle Avery Young as guys he would like to see play more this weekend. On defense, freshman Mackenro Alexander is emerging as the primary backup at the Star, and the staff would love to get him some more reps at his new position Saturday.
Looking ahead to Texas A&M: After a 4-1 start and a win over No. 24 Ole Miss last weekend, it’s hard for Auburn not to look ahead to next week’s game against Texas AM. The coaches will likely dumb down the playbook this week, try not to tip their hand, and don’t be surprised if they’re already working on plays in practice to run against the Aggies. Meanwhile Texas A&M will have its hands full with a road trip to Ole Miss on Saturday.