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What to watch: Auburn vs. Penn State

The Auburn Tigers have already played two games this year, but the season truly begins tonight as they travel to State College, Pennsylvania, to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions. Auburn will face off against Penn State in front of over 106,000 fans this evening, the largest crowd in Auburn football history.

Both teams enter the contest undefeated and ranked in the top 25, but Penn State has beaten Big Ten conference rival Wisconsin on the road and last season’s MAC champion Ball State to get to this point.

It remains to be seen exactly how good the Nittany Lions will be this year, but it is abundantly clear that they are something very different than the overmatched teams Auburn has faced so far this season. Auburn will have a much better idea of where they stand in the college football landscape when this game ends.

The Tigers have done exactly what they were supposed to do against Akron and Alabama State; whether or not they can execute their plans at a high level in a raucous environment versus Penn State will determine if Auburn can win in head coach Bryan Harsin’s road debut.

Take a look at two things that will decide the outcome of Auburn vs. Penn State.

Quarterback Play

Quarterback play is obviously a huge factor in every game. However, Auburn’s Bo Nix and Penn State’s Sean Clifford have a lot in common in their respective careers thus far.

The main commonality between the two quarterbacks is that have each led their teams to big wins, but they both have struggled to complete passes with consistency and avoid turnovers when under duress.

It seems likely that both defenses will attempt to slow the opponent’s rushing attack and force the quarterbacks to make good decisions in the passing game and avoid costly mistakes to win the game. Expect heavy pressure from both defenses in passing situations.

Bo Nix will step into an environment tonight that Penn State fans have assured everyone that will listen is unlike anything he or anyone else has ever experienced. I am unconvinced that it is more intimidating than LSU, Florida or Alabama when those teams are good, but the energy in that stadium will be palpable.

Whether or not Nix can shake his past road performances that have been ugly, execute a plan from the coaches that is hopefully an improvement over the last regime, and remain steadfast in his mission to avoid turnovers will be critical.

If Auburn’s offense can get the ball to its skill players in space by simply completing open passes in the intermediate part of the field, it will open up the Tigers’ rushing attack. If that happens regularly, those very excited fans of the home team may be a little quieter.

Composure

Much has been made this week of the “White Out” environment and Bo Nix’s ability to handle adversity and perform well on the road. Those are fair concerns, but a great deal of Auburn’s struggles away from home have been due to a comprehensive lack of composure.

Auburn’s coaches in the recent past have seemingly been unable to make effective adjustments or changes necessary to combat unforeseen in-game obstacles. Will this new staff led by coach Harsin be able to navigate the uncertainty that lies ahead?

It is certain that multiple things will go wrong for Auburn tonight in Happy Valley. Assignments will be blown, tackles will be missed and bad plays will be called. Can this Auburn Tiger team correct the issues in real-time and fend off the danger of allowing negatives to snowball?

Auburn must have a great gameplan and the resolve to see it through in order to come away victorious on the road against a top 10 opponent. Can Auburn do it? It is time to find out.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers.