Friday, September 18, 2009

West Virginia at Auburn Preview: Saturday September 19

Editors's Note: Robert is back again this week following up on the revenge week theme this time featuring West Virginia and Auburn. This game features a matchup between two maligned head coaches that are going for 3-0 starts.

Robert Ferringo
www.docsports.com

Well, Gene Chizik against Bill Stewart isn’t exactly Woody Hayes against Bo Schembechler but we are in a recession so we’ll have to make due with that we have.

Stewart’s West Virginia heads to Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend to take on Chizik’s Auburn squad in one of the key nonconference matchups on this weekend’s slate. Auburn was instilled as a 6.5-point favorite early in the week but has since been bet up to 7.5-point favorites. The total is set at 54.0 for this 7:45 p.m. kickoff on Saturday.

As usual, revenge is the operative word in this matchup and is likely what is driving the betting. Auburn went up to Morgantown last year and was working over the Mountaineers early, posting a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. However, 31 unanswered points from West Virginia led to an easy cover (of a three-point line) and a 34-17 blowout win.

But that was then, and this is now. And things are looking decidedly different in Auburn.

Tommy Tuberville and his Barbeque Bunch are out and Gene “5-19” Chizik are in this season. But while Chizik has led his team to 2-0 start and an 86-37 point differential the real difference between last year’s Tigers and this year’s has been the offensive stylings of new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Gus’s group has been getting things done on offense and it has made Auburn a dangerous, dangerous team in the SEC this year.

Auburn has averaged 43 points and 550 yards of total offense through its first two games. And while Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State aren’t world-beaters, they are a pair of decent teams from name conferences that have each been bowling over the last two years. Last year’s shoddy and whimsical introduction of Tony Franklin’s spread offense was a disaster and one of the main reasons why Tuberville isn’t in Auburn anymore. But I think that some experience with running that type of attack has helped pave the way for Malzahn – architect of the Tulsa scoring machine – and opened the door for this year’s Auburn explosion.

For West Virginia, they have undergone a sort of transformation on that side of the ball as well. With less read-option and more let-‘er-rip passing the Mountaineers are not attacking opponents in the same way. The results, in my opinion, have not been nearly as convincing. WVU is tallying 474 yards per game and 34 points per. But their competition – Liberty and East Carolina – has been decidedly weaker. Also, the decline in production from gamebreaker Noel Devine is a troubling indicator. If WVU has any chance of pulling the upset, Devine needs to be a featured weapon.

One of the keys to being a good handicapper is to expect the unexpected and to be able to “swim against the tide” when everyone else is positive that a game will go a certain way. So while all of the talk – by myself, and by just about everyone breaking down this game – has been about the shifting and successful offenses, I think that this game is clearly, clearly going to be decided by defense. Whichever team can get key stops in the second half is going to win this game. And if one defense gets thrown back on its heels than the other can pull up some crooked numbers faster than you can say “War Eagle”.

Last year West Virginia smothered Auburn in the second half, allowing just 79 yards. However, this is a decidedly different Tigers attack so I don’t see that happening again. But the bottom line is that WVU clearly has the athletes and the speed to play with the boys from the SEC. That is, as long as Reed Williams and Scooter Berry make it through four quarters. Both are a bit banged up (Williams has a sprained foot; Berry a shoulder injury) but word is that both will play. Those are the only two three-year starters on that defense, they are the two best defenders, and they are the two leaders of the unit. If anything happens to either one of them then the Mountaineers could be in trouble.

Auburn’s defense is not as talented as some of the units that they trotted out from 2004 to 2006. However, they are not to be trifled with. Antonio Coleman is an absolute beast at defensive end and an experienced and talented secondary is going to be able to tighten the screws on the fledgling West Virginia passing attack.

With all of the focus on the offenses the easy mode of thought here is that this game will be a shootout. And it very well may be (and if so, that 54.0 total seems like a steal). But if that’s the case then the team that is going to win this game is the one whose defense plays the best. Because of the injury issues cropping up for the Mountaineers I give the Tigers the edge on that side of the ball.

Also, this is where I feel the coaching and experience comes into play. Chizik is kind of playing with house money right now and is able to lean on Malzahn. Stewart looks like Grandpa Simpson and I have to say that I have little confidence in him A) having a solid game plan to counter both the Auburn offensive and defensive schemes and B) having his team prepared to go into a rowdy Jordan-Hare and take on a revenge-minded, and seemingly more talented, opponent. Auburn has 10 three-year starters in its lineup and will have the benefit of the homefield edge. WVU has just five senior starters and this is a game where I feel they will miss last year’s dominating offensive line.

The line movement on this game is significant because 7.0 is a key number in betting because of the percentage of games that are decided by a final score difference of seven points. So for the oddsmakers to have crossed over that 7.0 threshold is indicative of heavy, heavy betting action on Auburn. They are taking about 67 percent of all bets on this game but it’s clearly the size, not the volume, of the wagers that are pushing this number. It looks like the general consensus is a blowout by the SEC rep. Even though Big East underdogs are always one of the best bets on the board and my natural instinct is to go against the grain I would have to say that I agree with them.

Robert Ferringo is a professional sports handicapper for Doc’s Sports Services. You can find more of his ramblings at http://www.docsports.com/.

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