Monday, August 30, 2010

Auburn Preview #2: Another Perspective From The War Eagle Reader

It's always nice to get some different perspectives when discussing SEC football. I was fortunate enough to get two on Auburn.

The War Eagle Reader was kind enough to respond to my inquiries on the Tigers. Their responses are below. You can view my thoughts on Auburn here.

Q: Despite Alabama winning the national title, it seems Auburn has just as much momentum going into this year after the recruiting haul in February. What is the overall mood of the fanbase going into the season?

A: Whoa, whoa, whoa, "just as much momentum"? They won a national title! The recruiting class is awfully nice, but no one's putting Auburn on magazine covers under the word "DYNASTY" just yet, you know.

That said, the Auburn faithful are probably more excited for this season than any since 2006, and arguably any since 2003. (I wish I could have picked two other years, since both of those Auburn teams finished a little shy of their preseason expectations, but oh well.)

It's not necessarily because we expect to win the SEC or go to a BCS bowl--though I think the majority of us would at least expect to be in contention going into the annual Georgia-Alabama "Amen Corner"--but because the dynamism of this staff, the likability of the players, and more than anything the potential thrill of this offense as directed by Gus Malzahn promises to be more fun than anything Auburn fans have seen since Tommy Tuberville's 2004-2005 heyday.

Q: Does Cam Newton have the job locked down at QB?

A: Oh yeah. Barrett Trotter and Neil Caudle are both serviceable (or even better) backups, meaning that quarterback is one of the deepest positions on the roster at the moment ... but neither of them have anything like Newton's potential as an all-around, destroyer-of-worlds-type weapon. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, Newton has both the size and strength to either bull his way past tacklers on the option or throw over them on Malzahn's well-honed collection of deep passes.

The only question is his touch on the shorter throws and his decision-making in the pocket; if Newton can stay accurate on the underneath stuff and avoid interceptions (though that's not an insignificant "if"), he'll rank alongside guys like Tyrod Taylor or Terrelle Pryor as one of the nation's biggest all-purpose QB threats. For serious.

Q: Who steps up and takes over as the lead back now that Ben Tate has departed?

A: Easy: Mario Fannin. Though few fans outside of Auburn or diehard SEC followers know much about him, Fannin has held the title of "most purely talented Auburn back" since his redshirt season in 2007. He's been held back first by a serious fumbling problem, then a shoulder injury, then Tate's ascension to the starting role last year.

But the flashes he's continually shown in his limited touches--see his dynamic long touchdowns on screen passes against Georgia in 2008 and West Virginia last year--have most Auburn fans salivating over the possibility of giving him the starting tailback job full-time.

Though not every Auburn fan agrees, between Fannin, a healthy Onterio McCalebb (the sophomore speedster who dominated Auburn's first four games a year ago before suffering a high-ankle sprain), and freshman mega-recruit Michael Dyer, it's my opinion that Auburn won't miss Tate in the slightest.

Q: Receiver was a very weak spot for the Tigers last year. Who could have a breakout year here?

A: It was? In 2007 and 2008, certainly, but when it comes to 2009, I beg to differ; Darvin Adams finished second in the SEC in touchdowns, third in receptions, and third in yards--the only wideout in the league to finish in the top three in all three categories--and Adams and Terrell Zachery ranked right alongside Arkansas's Greg Childs and Joe Adams and LSU's Terrance Tolliver and Brandon LaFell as the most productive receiving duo in the conference. Auburn has much more pressing problems that the receiving corps, trust me.

That said, the gap between Adams and Zachery and the No. 3 wide receiver was huge (Fannin was the team's third-leading receiver from his H-back position) and Auburn could really use a third wideout to emerge as a reliable option to take the heat off of the first two guys. There's two equally intriguing options: the first is former quarterback and current Wildcat operator Kodi Burns, whose athleticism should make him a legitimate threat in the slot now that his transition year to receiver is behind him.

The other is true freshman Trovon Reed, another jewel of the recruiting class who's drawn nothing but raves in fall camp and is by all accounts electric with the ball in his hands.

Q: What do you think it will take for SEC fans to accept that OC Gus Malzhan's offense is not a gimmick offense?

A: Given that certain SEC fans were saying Urban Meyer's offense couldn't work in the SEC even as it was winning Tim Tebow the Heisman in 2007, it's probably not possible to win them over entirely.

Personally, after it shredded Monte Kiffin's D at Tennessee last year and put up more yards and points on the Tide defense than nearly any other team on Alabama's schedule, I don't think it has a lot more to answer for, schematically. But a lot more consistency (and a few more wins) would hopefully go a long way towards earning Dr. Gustav a little more respect; the midseason swoon the Auburn offense suffered against Arkansas, Kentucky, and LSU last year (though more about the struggles of Chris Todd, in my opinion, than anything to do with Malzahn) took a lot of air out of the balloon.

Q: The defense was the weak link last year. Tell me why it will be better this season?

A: I'll give you three reasons: 1. Depth 2. Depth 3. Depth. Last year Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof were extremely reluctant to play anyone from Auburn's (mostly hypothetical) second string, mainly because Auburn was gashed any time they tried it. Look no further than the 31 points surrendered to Furman--Furman!--for proof. Between that lack of viable options and Malzahn's preferred hyper drive tempo on offense, Auburn's starters faced a ridiculous number of snaps and frequently wore down in the second half as the season continued.

So as terrific as skill-position studs like Dyer and Reed promise to be, this is where the 2010 recruiting class should really pay off when it comes to the 2010 season. Guys like defensive tackles Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter, defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Craig Sanders, and cornerbacks Jonathan Mincy and Chris Davis have all stepped immediately into the playing rotation and should be capable of giving the first string the kind of regular breather they never got last season.

Combine that with the return of Auburn's two best linebackers, three of the four members of the defensive tackle rotation, primed-and-ready senior end Antoine Carter, and three-quarters of the secondary (which will also get a boost from the return of injured safeties Mike McNeil and Aairon Savage), and the Tigers should be able to take a big step forward on defense.

Q: How much respect is Clemson getting as an opponent from the ACC?

A: Probably not as much as they should be getting now that Kyle Parker's made the puzzling decision to return. At this point, Auburn fans see Clemson more-or-less identically to the way they see their in-state brethren in Columbia, who visit the Plains the week following: a solid, dangerous team, but not one that ought to be capable of winning in Auburn's house if Auburn is on their game.

I don't think anyone's expecting "Cousin Clem" to be an easy game--not with the kind of talent Swinney's got at quarterback, running back, and on the defensive front--but I also doubt anyone's got Auburn pegged for a home loss until at least the Arkansas/LSU back-to-back in midseason.

That said, it's a game a lot of Auburn fans are nonetheless looking forward to--it's the only non-conference opponent of note, and the two sets of Tigers have a long, long shared history.

Q: Can Gene Chizik get Auburn over the hump and start to turn the Georgia series back in the Tigers' favor?

A: Part of me wants to say "he'd better"; I would argue that nothing, not even Alabama's re-ascension to the national elite, is more galling or frustrating to Auburn fans today than Georgia's four-game streak in the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry. Despite the road team's traditional success in the series, getting the Dawgs at home--in their first year of new DC Todd Grantham's schemes, with Aaron Murray still just a redshirt freshman--should be an excellent opportunity to end the skid.

But I still can't give Auburn odds any better than 50/50, since I think Murray has plenty enough talent and experience surrounding him to shine and Grantham represents such a huge upgrade on the departed Willie Martinez. Certainly Chizik has enough weapons of his own that he can and maybe should turn the tide this year, but it's my opinion the Dawgs are right there with Auburn in contention for the honor of "biggest threat to Alabama/Florida," and beating them won't come easy at all.

Q: Who are some of the freshman that are likely to contribute?

A: I've mentioned most of them already--Dyer and Reed are locks to see the ball on offense, Whitaker, Lemonier, and probably Mincy to see meaningful snaps on offense. But one "new" name to know is Phillip Lutzenkirchen, the starting tight end who played sparingly as a true freshman behind now-graduated senior Tommy Trott. Lutzenkirchen has tremendous hands and has earned a surprising number of plaudits from Malzahn this fall for his improvement in blocking and route-running. You could see him become Newton's underneath security blanket.

Q: Describe a successful season. Describe a disappointing one.

A: There's no consensus here at all amongst Auburn fans--some will tell you Atlanta or bust, while my fellow Auburn blogger Jay Coulter at Track 'Em Tigers has said he'd be satisfied at 8-4. My opinion is that in the end, it's not necessarily how many wins Auburn claims, it's who they claim them against; after going 0-4 each of the last two seasons against the Arkansas-LSU-Georgia-Alabama quartet--the four biggest annual games on the schedule--Auburn fans want those kind of BIG wins above all else.

Go 3-1 against those four, and some missteps elsewhere will be quickly forgiven. Go 2-2, and there might be some grumbling depending on the final record, but we'll live. Go 1-3 (particularly with only the Iron Bowl played away from Jordan-Hare) and there's going to be some serious griping even if Chizik sweeps the rest of the slate.

Q: What is your prediction for this season?

A: Auburn's home/road split is just about as forgiving as it could possibly be. There's a lot of dangerous teams on the schedule--Clemson and South Carolina in addition to the four mentioned above--but putting the Tide aside, all of them come to Jordan-Hare save for the two Mississippi schools and Kentucky. No one thinks wins in Starkville, Oxford, and Lexington are going to come easy, but Auburn is nonetheless perfectly capable of sweeping those three. Do that, avoid catastrophe against the cupcakes, and even a 3-2 record in the home dates against the Carolina schools, the West rivals, and Georgia--games where Auburn could be the favorite in all five--would likely be enough to set up a winner-take-all showdown in Tuscaloosa for the SEC West.

At the moment, that's what I expect to happen, putting Auburn right at either 9 or 10 wins depending on how the Iron Bowl goes and whether they could maybe squeeze in a fourth big home win. But whether 9 or 10, it's too close a call for me to make.

Thanks again to The War Eagle Reader for their responses.

Other Auburn Preview from Kevin McGrady of Bleacher Report

All SEC Football Previews

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