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Welcome to the Thursday Night Jungle: It's the Auburn Tigers vs. the K-State Wildcats

Thursday night’s marquee matchup will bring together an unlikely pair under stadium lights: the Auburn Tigers and the Kansas State Wildcats—and it’s got all the makings of an unexpectedly great game.

Both teams are coming off a well-rested bye week. This game is Auburn’s first road trip of the season. College playoff berths are at stake—for a team without a conference championship to grab hold of, like Kansas State, a win against an SEC powerhouse could make all the difference in the eyes of the almighty selection committee.

Welcome to the Thursday Night Jungle: It’s the Auburn Tigers vs. the K-State Wildcats

The game will also feature two quarterbacks who create just as many defensive problems with their legs as they do with their arms. There are also question marks: one team touts an undeniably effective wide receiver, but has no real backups to speak of. Its opponent features two talented offensive frontmen to put points on the board—one who comes by land and the other by air—but its defense holds the SEC record for giving up passes longer than twenty yards in 2013.

Here’s the highlights, lowlights, and sound bites you’ll want to know as the Tigers take on the Wildcats in Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Kansas State Offense: Senior signal-caller Jake Waters is a mobile, dual-threat quarterback, who also boasts the best career passing efficiency rating (156.8) in K-State’s history. So far in 2014, he’s 35-for-57, with 462 yards under his belt.

The Gamechanger: Senior wide receiver Tyler Lockett. Lockett was 11th in the country last season, with 105 receiving yards per game and 11 touchdowns last season. He started 2014 off with a bang: 7 receptions for a total of 145 yards, averaging 20.7 yards per catch.

Aside from Lockett, Bill Snyder’s offensive weapons at wide receiver are largely inexperienced. Snyder will most likely use junior Kyle Klein and Curry Sexton as his swap-outs, but if Lockett can escape Auburn’s wobbly pass defense, he could be the key to keeping the Wildcats close.

Kansas State Defense: Auburn’s offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has consistently noticed one disruptive trend during film prep for Thursday’s showdown: 2013’s Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year, senior defensive end Ryan Mueller. Mueller, a success story who walked on in 2010, caused chaos for conference opponents in 2013 with 11.5 sacks.

Auburn Offense: Senior quarterback Nick Marshall is talented, experienced and used to facing hostile crowds. He’s also had a much slower start to his passing game this season than anyone expected. Marshall is 14-for-25 of his attempts, with 151 yards and one touchdown. He did not start the game versus Arkansas, part of a punishment for a offseason marijuana citation. Against San Jose State, Marshall was back in the lineup, but wasn’t particularly sharp. The quarterback barely broke the fifty percent completion mark, going 10-for-19, with only 101 yards.

In all reality, Marshall has only played in five quarters the entire season. He’s managed to create more of an impact rushing so far in 2014—103 yards on just 11 carries with a touchdown against San Jose State—but the Wildcat run defense is tough, and Marshall will need to solidify his game in the air this week to be fully effective.

The Gamechanger(s): Cameron Artis Payne, senior running back, already at 289 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns for the first two games, is steadily solidifying himself as a playmaker on the ground for Auburn’s offense. In addition, Sammie Coates, Auburn’s lead wide receiver, was out in the game against San Jose State for a minor injury. Lashlee says Coates will be back for this game. Expect both to leave their autograph on the scoreboard.

Auburn Defense: Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said the key to an Auburn win would finding a rhythm offensively and not giving up “cheap touchdowns” on defense. Containing Waters will be a crucial component of that. Auburn has struggled in the past with mobile quarterbacks; in 2013, Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel and Dak Prescott were all able to score rushing touchdowns against Auburn. However, Auburn has been preparing for the quarterback run-designed plays; in fact, while taking questions this week, Malzahn even described Waters as “another running back” on the field.

Auburn’s pass defense needs tweaking as well. The Tigers surrendered a conference-worst 54 plays of 20-plus yards last year. Think it’s a problem of the past? Auburn gave up five passes of 18-or-more yards against San Jose State in Week Two.

The Predictable Predictions: The odds certainly seemed to be stacked in Auburn’s favor, however. The Tigers are the first non-conference opponent with a top-five ranking to be hosted by Kansas State since 1969, and Kansas State’s last win against any top-five opponent was against Texas in 2006. Kansas State has lost its last two midweek games. In the unavoidable SEC-versus-all-other-conferences argument, Auburn’s first victory this season was against the Arkansas Razorbacks, a game which the Tigers won soundly at 45-21. In turn, Arkansas soundly beat Big 12 opponent Texas Tech last week, 49-28. And while the sellout home crowd in Bill Snyder Family Stadium is sure to be hostile, it should be par for the course of an SEC defense—especially one who played in a BCS Championship game just nine months ago.

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