Thursday, August 20

Auburn Tigers '09: Because it can't be any worse than last season and the offseason, right?

The 2008 Season in a Box
There’s something to be said for failing so spectacularly that one season not only blows up all of our preconceived notions about Auburn, but it also kills the coaching career of a head coach who had gone 75-27 this century prior to that season and had a 13-0 season on the books not even 5 years ago. Really, last year had it all – destroying a previous 6-year winning streak against Alabama, getting blown up by a lackluster West Virginia team on the road with a national audience, and – let’s not forget – the cavalcade of awesomeness that was the 3-2 win over Mississippi State.

Honestly, if this season was in a box that box has since blown up, because the only thing in Auburn’s box last year was an IED.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, everything off the field is different; embattled coach Tommy Tuberville stepped down, Tony Franklin’s offense (which probably wasn’t actually his offense, but at this point we’re fighting over scraps) left, and the boosters got their wish with Gene Chizik, who somehow parlayed a 5-19 record in Ames into a coaching gig at one of the better SEC schools this century. I’m not sure how he did that, but there are worse fates.

What interests me more than Chizik coming in to coach is Guz Malzahn resurfacing in the SEC. We’ll probably circle back around this later – Malzahn’s offense fascinates me – but unlike his previous stint at Arkansas, Malzahn should get full opportunity to run his full offense. What this means for Auburn is they’ll see a faster offense than they’ve seen in likely ever; that doesn’t mean it’ll be better. Not this season, at least – this will be Malzahn’s offense with Tuberville’s troops. Of course, the DC also changed hands – Ted Roof is in at DC. He’ll hope to be more competent than he was when he was head coach of Duke.

Of course, with all that change there really isn’t that much new on the field. Nearly everyone who contributed last year / was responsible for the hellish season is back. We’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader on how to interpret the previous sentence.

On Offense
Malzahn’s first task is going to be figuring out what the hell to do with this QB corps – I’m not going to say they’re bad, but Auburn fans were pining for the halcyon days of Brandon Cox about halfway through the season. On paper, it sounds like a great problem to have; Kodi Burns is a dual-threat QB and Chris Todd trained under Mike Leach, so he understands how to run multiple-WR offenses from shotgun. Of course, in translation Burns is a typical dual-threat QB (can’t pass to save his life) and there’s a reason Todd transferred from Texas Tech (he’s not any good) – and lest Tiger fans cling to the untested Neil Caudle, remember that he wasn’t good enough to displace either of these guys last season.

I figure Burns will get the first shot – when all things mean equal (even if they sum up to crap), there’s no sense to not take the guy who can run as well as pass, even if using pass will sometimes require quotation marks. Hopefully his running of the offense will consist mostly of looking for short passes and option-type plays; Malzahn isn’t beholden to either the run or the pass, and quite frankly there’s no reason not to run the ball at least 55% of the time with this offense. The likely difference this season is that 10% of those runs won’t be QB scrambles this time.

Of course, there’s still the question of who’s running the routes. Auburn hasn’t had a playmaker at WR since Courtney Taylor left town; there’s hope that Mario Fannin can finally step into the playmaker role, but the problem is that he’s a hybrid player. While he certainly has the capability of being a playmaker, there’s been no evidence to this point that he actually is one. Among the guys who actually line up at WR, Montez Billings and Tim Hawthorne are the guys to watch for. It’s tough to make any kind of projection on how they’ll play, though; not only are they on their 4th scheme since they stepped on-campus, but they don’t have a QB who can hit the broad side of a barn. Going by their previous ypr numbers, Billings looks wholly unimpressive while Hawthorne can at least function in the Denarius Moore “he’s our only deep threat and we try that once a game” role. I’d like to think one or both of them can top 500 yards, but that means that I’d also be projecting Burns to have around 1,800 yards passing (when you take everyone else he’d have to pass to into account) and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

I’d expect Terrell Zachery to make a semi-decent contribution (or at least serve as a decoy), but the guy that intrigues me the most out of this crew is DeAngelo Benton, who’s now eligible after being recruited with the 2007(!) class. He won’t have much time to make an impact – while I don’t know why it took him this long to show up on campus, I suspect he sunk his pro career by not trying hard in the classroom – but he was a big deal back when he signed. It also helps that really nobody in particular has separated from the pack, so Benton (or, realistically, some other random guy along the lines of Emory Blake) has ample opportunity. At TE, Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie have both demonstrated competence in the passing game in previous seasons so they’re not bad options. However, neither is a quality talent in the passing game, meaning they’ll be mostly outlet options.

Not surprisingly, Auburn’s offensive success is going to be dictated by the running game – and they’re in pretty decent shape there. Ben Tate returns for his senior season; he’s near 2,000 yards for his career and while even I don’t think he has much of a shot at 3,000 yards total, he’s been better than most people realize. Granted, I still think part of his rushing success has been due to having absolutely no other options, but whatever works. Fannin will see some action here as well, but Malzahn doesn’t seem to prefer two-back sets, meaning Fannin will need some special action to really get his opportunity (or he’ll have to steal it if Tate gets injured). Burns will help keep defenses honest with his legs, but he won’t be any kind of true game-changing running option unless Malzahn goes option crazy.

I’m not totally sure what to expect of this version of Malzahn’s offense, but I expect it to be fast. Malzahn calls plays in a hurry, and while most teams are concerned about schemes and specific plays, Malzahn is at least as concerned about speed if not moreso. When the offense is rolling, it can absolutely wear out an opponent’s defense; of course, those that have been reading the previous paragraphs know just how big that “is rolling” caveat is with this team. I’m going to hope the Tiger faithful give it time – okay, my Tennessee homer wants them to panic in Week 2 – but if they let it bloom I think they’ll be happy with the results.

On Defense and Special Teams
Defense has long been Auburn’s calling card; my suspicion as to why we don’t think of Auburn as a dominant team is their defense has consistently been so far above good that we don’t even think about it anymore. It just happens. (The rest of the reason why we don’t think of Auburn as dominant is their offense has been at best average, save 2004 / 2005.)

The funny part about Auburn’s defense last year is they didn’t rack up the numbers that anyone cares about; their sack and pick totals were lackluster. Still, their overall yardage defense was just about average for the SEC, which qualifies as a step down for these guys – the 4.1 ypc allowed is the most they’ve allowed in the last five years. To some degree, it’s been smoke and mirrors; sure, Antonio Coleman is a beast at DE, but is there anyone else in the front seven that strikes fear in the heart of opposing runners? The LB corps should be fast laterally, but Chizik and/or Roof may want the group a bit bigger than Tuberville had them. The good news among the LB crew is that they only need to replace their weakside LB among last year’s crew, and since standout LB Trey Blackmon spent most of last year injured, they’re used to not having a dedicated playmaker.

Oddly, both Auburn’s leading tacklers from last year were their starting safeties. I’m not sure how I feel about that; on one hand, that may mean teams found a fair amount of passing room against their coverage schemes. On the other – and more likely – hand, that 4.1 ypc against means too many guys got to the second level. SS Mke McNeil and FS Zac Etheridge should be able to handle things again if they get completely out of control again; still, it’s not good if your safeties are doubling as your leading tacklers (seriously, even Eric Berry was only 3rd on the Vols), so for Auburn to return from the brink they need to not make as many tackles. The rest of the secondary should be fine; CBs Walter McFadden and Aairon Savage are both returning starters (Savage from 2006-2007) and Neiko Thorpe is a capable 3rd CB.

I don’t think that Chizik / Roof will have exotic gameplans for this defense; truth be told, I’m not sure how they’ll interact on defense, but I figure that if Auburn hired Chizik for anything, it’d be for his defensive mind. As such, it’d be a little crazy not to expect him to field a more than capable defense.

With all the turnover everywhere else, at least K Wes Bynum is back. Bynum, like everyone else last year, sucked pretty hard, but everyone’s heard of him for his gutshot kick to beat Florida on the road as a freshman, so it’s not like he doesn’t have the talent. From the make-your-own-joke department, Auburn actually has a couple of capable punters in Clinton Durst and Ryan Shoemaker; they’ll get plenty of opportunities, amirite? It’s not all peaches, though – they roll over most of their talent in the return game, meaning Fannin will have to step up here to make the unit worth something. Benton and Hawthorne may see some action here, too.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
While this is going to be one heck of a transition season for Auburn, at least they picked the right year to schedule Ball State. West Virginia is a likely loss since it’s so early in the season (although they have their own issues); if they win that, 2-6 in-conference will get them to a bowl game. If not, you can do the math. They draw Tennessee on the road and Kentucky at home this year from the East, which isn’t terrible as these things go. While I’m not sure I’d expect wins from both those games, 1-1 should be nearly guaranteed. Mississippi State is a home game, so that’s an easy win too. After that, things get dicey; road games at LSU and Georgia are anything but sure wins (especially the LSU game, which will probably kick off at 8) and they get Ole Miss and the Iron Bowl at home. With the Alabama game being what it is, I won’t say they’ll lose that game, but I will say that they’re underdogs in that matchup right now. Ole Miss should be a loss unless we’re all wrong about them.

With that being said, they’re somewhere on that 5-7 / 6-6 cusp; 7-5 is possible if a few things break right. That means they’re headed somewhere in December likely and it’s going to be some crap game nobody wants to go to – did someone say Shreveport?