Location: Jordan-Hare Stadium – Auburn, AL
Date/Time: Saturday, September 10th @ 4:30 PM PDT
Head-to-head history: San Jose State (1-0, 0-0 MW) is 0-2 vs. the Auburn Tigers (1-0, 0-0 SEC) - losing twice at Auburn 59-13 and 35-21 in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
A $1.85 million pay day for San Jose State is the only guaranteed win in an otherwise sacrificial David vs. Goliath event at the home of the Tigers.
Or so we think.
Or so we think?
Most critics and the public say no chance in hell for the Spartans. Even the Bay Area weather has offered inferno temperatures this week at SJS practices. Auburn’s version of Hades will be higher humidity, the prototypical SEC crowd and possible thunderstorm delays.
So, let’s challenge ourselves on the improbable
But first, the obvious thought: Auburn will win by having more all-around size, speed and athleticism (though the new CFP format hopefully equalizes the FBS over time).
What else is more beautiful in all that is college football?
A bone-rattling upset, of course.
In their 21-17 win over FCS opponent Portland State last week, the Spartans were a few minutes from a disastrous upset. A closer look at the Vikings showed they were reloaded with enough legitimate transfers and an outstanding dual threat QB to make it game (blurring the FCS vs. FBS lines).
“In the Portland game, there was no film of their quarterback, so we did kind of go in there blind and feel our way through,” said DC Derrick Odum. “With Auburn, we do have some film obviously, so there’s some body of work to reference, but they’re different beasts.”
Head coach Brent Brennan added, “The unknown of that last game is offset by the physicality, size and speed of Auburn.”
Because America roots for the underdog (+23 points in this case), on the back of people’s minds: Can San Jose do it? The intangibles to that point:
- True competitors relish the “us against the world” scenario
- A historic week of scorching temperatures in San Jose to help prepare
- The Spartans see exactly what and who’s coming at them...and they’re big
What’s on the tape?
Auburn’s offensive identity is a triple barreled run game. Last week, the Tigers gained 285 yards on the ground and had five rushing TDs between RBs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter and dual threat QB Robby Ashford.
Also at QB for the Tigers is their power forward-sized, pro-style QB T.J. Finley (6-7, 250 lbs.). Finley started strong vs. Mercer last week but waned in his last two drives with two interceptions.
This is the mano-a-mano game that shows exactly where the Spartan defensive front stands by all relative standards:
- The Spartan D is better than Mercer
- The defensive front faces a questionable Auburn front, relatively speaking. SJS can get to Finley and has a recent history of stopping vaunted run games
- Spartan DBs have to be smart when to offer run support. Auburn’s receiving corp is also still in “proving” mode with Ja’Varrius Johnson the key target to frustrate
Consider Auburn’s 6-7 record last season; it all led to an unprecedented investigation on then first-year head coach Bryan Harsin. But with the Mercer blowout last week, it’s all good again, maybe.
“Coach Harsin has been a fantastic coach for a long time and we’ve gotten to work against each other for years now,” said Brennan from Harsin’s time at Boise State. “We’ve always been friends, stayed in touch and I have tremendous respect for him and his staff.”
Let’s go back in time for a moment
In a 35-22 loss to the Oregon Ducks in 2018, the Spartans made it entertaining - doing a lot with less. Brennan had that SJS team going with energy and conviction. One could deem it a “good loss.” And then there’s Brennan’s signature win against the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2019.
“Every environment is different. Oregon, Arkansas, Los Angeles are all different,” said Brennan on the confidence his program has gained since. “Some have more edge to them and Auburn is one of those places.”
Defensively, Auburn is geared to stop the run. Offensively, the young Spartans’ front is questionable after one game. It’s a difficult matchup to assess on the positive side for San Jose State, but it will show up right away, one way or the other.
The Cordiero factor
Harsin and his staff have first hand experience against the wily dual-threat QB Chevan Cordiero. In 2020 when Boise State visited Hawaii, Cordiero threw three touchdowns in a close 40-32 loss to the Broncos.
Auburn will likely spy Cordiero knowing it can help neutralize the Spartan offense, especially if the Spartan line can’t protect him. Cordiero experienced seven sacks against Portland State last week which completely offset over 50 yards of actual rushing.
Auburn can inflict more pain
“We’ve tried to go back and pin point some things their play caller on defense might like, so there’s some familiarity there when they were with Boise State,“ said OC Kevin McGiven on the question if Harsin’s Boise cohorts might offer insights. “We’ll try to match that up with what they did in their first game.”
“I kind of have some thoughts on how I’d like to attack that style of defense and maybe it makes the game planning a little easier and how to attack it, but we’ll see.” McGiven offered.
If the Spartan offensive line can solidify enough to offer Cordiero more time in the pocket, Cordiero has the ability to absolutely cherry pick a secondary. Case in point is Cordiero’s Saint Louis High QB brethren of similar styles, Jayden de Laura. Now with the Arizona Wildcats, de Laura threw four TDs on 299 yards in the air against San Diego State last week.
With time to assess and throw, Cordiero can do the same. That kind of performance against Auburn would put Cordiero “on the map.”
Certainly, Harsin knows this and of Cordiero’s running back vision.
Enter stage left, the option to throw the same two quarterback sets back at Auburn. San Jose State’s other dual threat QB Nick Nash is a more than capable athlete who can add dimension and depth alongside Cordiero.
Offer Cordiero time, another back field weapon and production from his power receivers - expect a good day:
- Give running back Kairee Robinson one opening with each touch - he can be electric
- Get receivers Elijah Cooks, Justin Lockhart and Jermaine Braddock into the intermediate and long game - the Auburn secondary can be challenged
- Get TE Sam Olsen more involved, along with Nash, to help keep the field wide
Give and get those dimensions and San Jose State has a chance.
Give and get those dimensions to Cordiero and he goes from an accelerant to a multiplier.
On the risk mitigation side, you also need some of the above to help keep Cordiero healthy.
The pressure on Harsin
It’s well-known Harsin’s first year with Auburn was tumultuous with the sudden departures of many players and coaches.
All started well with a 6-2 record last year, but ending 6-7 brought out wolves with big teeth - enough to make Harsin back peddle with Auburn’s investigation.
“His teams are always well coached,” said Brennan on his steadfast support of Harsin. ”Regardless, we know it’s going to be an incredible challenge when you combine all the elements he puts together: personnel, how hard they play and how well coached they are.”
Things still need to pan out in conference play for Harsin this year; considering he has new coaches again. Expectations remain high in such a hot seat that demands delivery now.
“Continuity issues can show up if players transition schemes year after year,” said McGiven on the question of such change. “Different coaching philosophies and even coaches asking them to execute different techniques. That stuff all takes time and takes reps to gel together especially with new personnel.”
“Going through another transition this year, hopefully they’re not real good at running their stuff,” joked McGiven.
If San Jose State even extends itself to a worthy challenge is enough for finicky Auburn fans to question their potential and start to apply pressure on Harsin.
“I know this is cliche’ - we’re excited going down there and we’ll give it everything we got,” said Odum. “It’s all just a process and we’re going to grind through the process and be ready to play.”
Auburn’s fuse can be short and the Spartans are capable with all the above to blow up hell.
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