This Saturday, Auburn will take on Georgia State in its last non-conference game before eight straight meetings against SEC competition. The Tigers sit at 2-1 after a tough loss at Penn State, and while several position groups look strong at this point in the season, there are others that undoubtedly need improvement in order to stand up to the rest of the conference.
Let's look at what Auburn needs to fix in Saturday's homecoming game.
This was the most glaring issue in Happy Valley. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford had enough time to write a term paper in the pocket, and that benefit extended to the Nittany Lion wide receivers, allowing them to get open as they forced the defensive backs to cover them for an extraordinary amount of time.
When it was all said and done, Clifford completed 28 of his 32 pass attempts, racking up 280 yards and two touchdowns. The lack of pressure put a strain on the rest of the defense that other SEC teams are surely taking note of, and if Auburn can't find a way to develop a consistent attack against the passing game, the numbers that Clifford put up against the Tiger defense will become a common occurrence this season.
It's hard to say that Auburn's secondary has been outright terrible three games into the season. They've bent but not broken on several occasions and allowed three touchdowns through the air in three games. Roger McCreary has also hauled in a pair of interceptions in the same timeframe, returning one for a touchdown and one to cut off a shot at the end zone before halftime at Penn State.
But the Tigers have also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete an alarming 78.7 percent of their pass attempts, the worst mark in the FBS. That number can largely be attributed to the Tigers' preference for zone coverage three games into the year. The idea is to keep opposing receivers from breaking free for big plays, but against Penn State the secondary struggled to do that. The Nittany Lions completed five passes for gains of 20-plus yards.
There is little doubt that pass-happy offenses like Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Alabama will be able to exploit such weaknesses. The sooner the Tigers show improvement in the secondary, the better they'll look in the middle of the SEC gauntlet run.
Auburn has run with three brand-new starters out wide this season. Demetris Robertson is a graduate transfer from Georgia. Shedrick Jackson has spent his time on the Plains backing up more experienced players and blocking. Ja'Varrius Johnson was reported to have had the best offseason of any player on the roster and was praised by the coaching staff for his consistency.
Johnson was banged up during the Penn State game and saw limited action. Jackson and Robertson have suffered growing pains in their increased workload. To his credit, Robertson has shown the ability to be a No. 1 receiver for the Tigers, scoring three touchdowns on just four touches against Alabama State. But otherwise, the receiving room and quarterback Bo Nix have seemingly been on uneven ground, whether it's been off-target throws or dropping clean passes that land right in the receivers' hands.
Backups have shown some flashes in three games, though. Kobe Hudson in particular has done a lot of good in his increased playing time. Tight end John Samuel Shenker is tied with Robertson for the team lead in receptions. And though he's only hauled in two of his six targets this season, Malcolm Johnson, Jr. showed his big-play ability on a 49-yard touchdown catch in Week 2.
Without a bonafide No. 1 receiver, Auburn will be behind the curve in SEC play. The Tigers need to find their guy before a primetime date with LSU in a stadium they've not won in since the 20th century.
Saturday's homecoming game versus Georgia State kicks off at 3:00 CT.