Monday, August 14, 2006

The 2006 Auburn Tigers, A to Z

C’mon, my originality conscience says. You’re not really going to do that alphabet thing for your Auburn preview, are you? How many articles and previews have you read doing the same thing, 3,000? 4,000?
“Perhaps. But, originality conscience,” I respond, “do you have any other clever ideas?”
Hmmm. Not really.
“Exactly,” I say. So without further ado, ladies and gents, the 2006 Auburn Tiger ABCs…

A is for—what else—ALABAMA. Any discussion of the Tide or Tigers has to start with, well, the Tide and Tigers, and Auburn hasn’t given its fans any preseason reason to do otherwise, what with its full endorsement of this “Fear the Thumb” business. It’s trademark Tubby cockiness, and it’s one of many reasons I’m already terrified of this game three months ahead of time. The others? How about that Auburn could very conceivably enter this game with the SEC West wrapped up but with a loss or two that had knocked them out of the national picture--giving them nothing but pride to play for, a situation Tubby’s never coached well in? That by this point of the season the J.P. Wilson and the rest of the new Tide starters will have plenty of experience? That it’s in Tuscaloosa? That even though you can’t really “throw out the records”—the better team on paper wins this game more often than you might think—it’s still the Iron Bowl and who the hell knows? You ask me, it’s likely it won’t be the Tide who should enter this game with something to fear.

B is for BLESSING, as in one IN DISGUISE, as in Wisconsin’s bludgeoning of Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. It’s bad enough Auburn’s the consensus pick to win the SEC, sixth in the coaches’ poll, talked about here and there as a national title contender. If they’d won their bowl game, though … let’s not think about it. The parallels to 2003 are eerie enough already.

C is for COURTNEY TAYLOR, who should have little trouble becoming the first Tiger receiver since Ronney Daniels in 1999 to top 1,000 yards receiving. The mediocrity of his 2005 season has been greatly exaggerated—first, he was playing sorta hurt, and second, Auburn had so many receiving threats last season no one was going to stand out. He’ll be fine. In fact, with the possible exception of Carolina’s Sidney Rice, he should be the SEC’s best receiver.

And while we’re here, I don’t know of many Auburn fans who are as worried about the rest of the receiving corps as the media says we should be. Obamanu, Aromashadu, and Mix were all good players…but were they SO much better than Prechae Rodriguez, Robert Dunn, Tim Hawthorne, etc. will be this year? No.

D is for DEFENSIVE TACKLE, the one position that truly does worry me. The two-deep in the middle looks like this: junior Josh Thompson, coming off of ineffective and injury-hampered season; Chris Browder, an untested senior converted from defensive end; Tez Doolittle, the most experienced of the group but coming off of a knee dislocation; and a redshirt freshman, SenDerrick Marks. Despite the question marks, the Auburn staff should have them ready to go—Tubby’s always seemed to find a couple of guys capable of plugging things up . But given the strength elsewhere on the Auburn D, it’s a safe bet that opponents are going to test the middle early and often anyway.

Staying with the defensive line, E is for END, DEFENSIVE, for the JCCW’s money the most important position on the defensive side of the ball. (Get pressure from your ends, without having to blitz, and your opponent's passing game is already 90 percent shut down.) Sure, I wish Stanley “Predator” McClover hadn’t bailed. But oh well—we’ve still got Marquies Gunn, Quentin Groves, Octavious Balkcom, and I’m sure three other guys I haven’t heard of but are just as good. Aside from running back, there’s no position Tubby’s done a better job of recruiting the last few years. I’m not worried.

F is for FRIENDLY, or FORGIVING, or FACILE—whichever you choose, they all describe Auburn’s beaut of a schedule. On paper, the three toughest teams on Auburn’s sked are LSU, Florida, and Georgia—and all of them come to Jordan-Hare. Of the four teams in the next “tier” of difficulty—Washington St., Arkansas, South Carolina, and Alabama—half of them (Wazzu and the Hogs) come to Auburn, too. I’m not buying any of that national title talk. But if you were, for theory’s sake, going to draw up an Auburn schedule from scratch that might springboard them into the BCS title game … well, this is it.

G is for “GORGEOUS AL” BORGES. If there’s a silver lining in the endless hype stream surrounding Auburn these days, it’s that 2003 simply isn’t going to happen again while Borges is around. He’s just too good. As in, “Since his hire, Auburn has gone 16-1 in the SEC” good. That good.

H is for HERRING, WILL, one-time secondary weak link and fan punching bag who has gained a certain veneer of respect through sheer longetivity. He’s moved from safety to linebacker this season, which some Auburn fans seem to be worried about. These fans seem to be forgetting that Herring’s strength has always been his run support and strong tackling, his weakness always his pass defending. Maybe he’s been lined up as a safety, but he’s always been a linebacker. Instead of asking “Why?” about his position shift, Auburn fans should be asking “Why didn’t this happen sooner?”

I is for the IRONS-ES, Kenny and David. Kenny is, in the JCCW’s humble opinion, one of the top two running backs in the nation alongside Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson. But it’s senior cornerback David who’s more important to the team. Following Montavis Pitts’ dismissal from the team, behind David and opposite corner Jonathan Wilhite, the Tigers have … no one. Corner is the thinnest position on the depth chart. Running back, on the other hand, is probably the Tigers’ deepest. Behind Kenny wait a) Cadillac-clone Brad Lester, who might have just led the SEC in rushing last season if his injury hadn’t let Irons do so b) good ol’ Tre Smith, the best receiver of the bunch, who I maintain would be perfectly serviceable if need be and c) bruising Carl Stewart, who would probably start a lot of places. Kenny is likely the better player of the two brothers. But David’s more indispensable.

J is for sophomore JOHNSON, MERRILL. Another year, another new unheralded starting linebacker. Another guy who’s undersized, but who’s fast and sound and hits hard and will end up being a possessed tackling machine, just like Travis Williams and Dontarrious Thomas and all those other guys the Tigers have uncovered on Tubby’s watch. I wasn’t happy when I read about Sears’ and Blackmon’s suspensions, but geez, Auburn will still start the LSU game with Karibi Dede (senior), Herring (see above), and Johnson … if there’s a defensive problem, it’s not going to be the linebacking.

K is for KING DUNLAP, Auburn’s new starting tackle and the world’s best-named offensive lineman. His parents could have been circus midgets—no matter, you get named King Dunlap, you’re growing up to be a 300-pound offensive lineman. Dunlap was a hotshot recruit a couple seasons ago and it’s not his fault he hasn’t started before now—he was playing behind Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick. (Good luck with that.) As with the wide receivers, yes, Auburn will have to break in a couple of new faces on the offensive line. But Joe Cope’s still there, Tim Duckworth’s still there, Ben Grubbs is still there—Auburn will likely start three seniors and two juniors on the line. There’s not a lot of depth—actually, it’s pretty much just massive Leon Hart or massive Jonathan Palmer, whichever doesn’t start--but if the line stays healthy it should still be one of the SEC’s best.

L is for LOUISIANA ST., the third opponent on Auburn’s slate and the most pivotal. Lose, and like last season AU’s looking up at the Bayou Bengals in the standings the whole damn season. Win, and especially given the Tigers’ schedule (and the difficulty of LSU’s) the West is Auburn’s for the taking. These are the two best teams in the SEC and it’s no coincidence their meetings have prodcued, in the JCCW’s view, the best game in the conference each of the last two seasons. (Although the, uh, let’s call it “ample” amount of libations the JCCW consumed during last year’s tilt may have colored his judgment.) This is the one to look forward to.

M is for MUSCHAMP, WILL, Auburn’s new defensive coordinator. Last season, Muschamp was the defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins. The last time Tubby hired an NFL coordinator … well, that guy is the head coach at Louisville now and is generally considered one of the best (if not the best) offensive mind in the game. Muschamp also just happened to be the DC for LSU during their national championship season. Suffice it to say, I think this is going to work out just fine.

N is for the NEW YORK TIMES. Whatever you think about the paper’s role in Auburn’s academic scandal, the scandal itself, its impact on recruiting, etc., if you think it’s going to have any impact on Auburn’s season, you’re wrong. The players only care about the scandal so far as it not putting them on probation. It’s not going to do that. They don’t care. No impact. Next.

O is for OBVIOUS heroes, like Irons, Cox, Taylor, Gunn, even Herring. Three less obvious players who might make a huge difference for Auburn this season are: Tommy Trott, the redshirt freshman tight end who will have a chance to take over Cooper Wallace’s receiving duties and who Borges wouldn’t shut up about in his Blue Ribbon preview interview; Kody Bliss, the senior punter and a bona fide All-America candidate whose field position boosts will give Auburn acres of “hidden yardage” all season; and whoever the hell ends up as the nickelback (redshirt frosh Aairon Savage?), since thanks to Borges and Cox and Irons most opponents are going to have to play catch-up, put the ball in the air, and at least try to pick on whoever’s coming on as the nickel.

P is for PRAY, as in what Auburn fans should be doing for Brandon Cox’s health on a regular basis. Backup sophomore Blake Field is a much better option than he was at this time last year, when an injury to Cox would have essentially cancelled the rest of Auburn’s season. But however much Field has improved, the minute Cox steps off the field, nine defenders hit the box and it’s all on the sophomore. I’ll believe he’s ready for that kind of pressure when I see it … so I’m going to go on not believing it and hope Cox stays healthy.

Speaking of, Q is for QUARTERBACK, and to the JCCW’s pleasant surprise it turned out last season that Auburn has one of the country’s best. The 4th-and-10 throw Cox made to beat Georgia last November took more cojones than any Auburn quarterback has shown since … well, since Jason Campbell on fourth down against LSU the year before, but the point is that we’re still talking major cojones. As much as I despise the hype that’s enveloping this year’s team, in some ways I think it’s more deserved than it was in 2003. Take a look at the top 15: does any team have a more proven QB-RB-WR trio than Cox, Irons, and Taylor? You could argue a few, of course (Smith, Pittman, and Ginn at Ohio St., Brohm, Bush, and Urritia at Louisville) but aside from maybe LSU’s Russell, Broussard/Vincent, and Bowe, there’s not even a contender in the SEC. Those three players don’t make up a whole team, of course. But when you have the talent at those positions Auburn does, the other stuff does matter a little less.

R is for RANKINGS, PRESEASON. The coaches have Auburn sixth. Given that it’s probably been a while since a consensus SEC champ at Media Days was ranked even that low, I guess I shouldn’t complain. But look, West Virginia! They just got done beating last year’s SEC champ and returned everybody! Can’t they be ahead of us, pollsters? Florida St.! Bobby Bowden, Leon Washington, the new super-ACC’s best! They’re better than us, right? Sure they are!

S is for SUSPENSIONS, and T is naturally for TOMMY TUBERVILLE. For the JCCW, it’s always six in one, half dozen in the other with Tubby. I’m glad Auburn has Tubby; I like that he wins and I like that for all of the hiccups and speedbumps that have affected his tenure, Auburn’s stayed out of trouble with the NCAA and I do honestly believe that things are better academically for the football team than they have been at points in the past. But whether it’s victory cigars at LSU, fake field goals in routs against Mississippi St., or helping fuel the 2003 hype himself and then blaming it on the media, Tubby’s always been too cocky for his own good.

That dichotomy has been on full display the last few weeks. We can all agree it was the “right” thing to do to suspend two potential starters for the Wazzu and LSU games, but it doesn’t mean Tubby had to do it; remember a few years ago, when Florida suspended players for their first two games, then had their season opener vs. Middle Tennessee St. (I think) hurricaned-out, making Tennessee the second game … and the AD announced the suspension still applied to the MTSU game? Tubby could have suspended Sears and Blackmon for the first two games, or slyly waited for midseason, or done something else to ensure his team didn’t really suffer, and no one would have batted an eye. It was a surprising show of integrity, I thought, and quite frankly earned the man about as much respect from me as his undefeated season did.

Of course, this is still the same coach that pranced around in a “Fear the Thumb” t-shirts, the sort of stunt that just begs for karma to put that kind of arrogance back in its embarrassed place. Sigh. I have more respect for Tubby, yes. But I’ve also been reminded that there’s probably always going to be a ceiling on that respect as well.

U is for UNDER ARMOUR, Auburn’s choice of jersey supplier these days. Like every Alabamian, I wish they’d stuck with Russell. But as long as they don’t do to us what Nike did to poor Florida, I’ll live with it.

V is for VAUGHN, JOHN. The placekicking game has forever been a thorn in Tubby’s side at Auburn, and for all of his outward support of Vaughn following the LSU debacle (said it was really his best season, etc.), I do wonder if behind the scenes Vaughn is getting the same kind of “support” that led to Damon Duval (amongst others) never mentally recovering from a bad game or two. Here’s to hoping Vaughn has his confidence back--and that even assuming he does, that the LSU game doesn’t come down to one of his kicks.

W is WASHINGTON ST. Great. Just what we need. A solid, easily underrated, on-the-come BCS conference team to play just when Auburn is at their most vulnerable to bigheadedness. True story: Tubby is 1-5 at Auburn against nonconference BCS foes regular season (and still only 4-8 when you toss in his bowl games). Especially in August, the Tigers really ought to be able to push Wazzu around. But they should have been able to push Georgia Tech around in 2005 and 2003, too, and Syracuse in 2001 … this game is going to a nail-biter at least, and could very well be another miserable 0-1 start.

X is for XPECTATIONS, the ones that by now are so big they don’t even need an “e” anymore. Bad news. The good news, though, is that Y is for YOUNG, as in what Auburn isn’t anymore. The Tigers have a whopping 23 seniors on the roster, more than any other team in Tubby’s tenure. Hopefully they’ll each remember 2003 and handle themselves appropriately … despite the signals they may be getting from their head coach.

Z is for … you know, it could be for Zach Kutch, the kickoff specialist, but what Z really signifies is the end of the column. Which means it’s prediction time. So what do all these points of worry and points of confidence add up to?

Not an undefeated season. Two in three seasons is asking for too much … if Miami in the early 2000s couldn’t pull it off and the recent USC teams couldn’t, I don’t see Auburn doing it, either, solid as they are.

As for the SEC, it’s going to come down to Auburn and LSU. Given that a) Auburn has the easier schedule b) they host LSU c) I’m not sold on Les Miles, I have to think the smart money is on Auburn. But there’s too many potholes—-Wazzu, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia, Alabama, a stuff bowl game—-to expect an unblemished run. The guess here? 11-1 regular season, an SEC title, a BCS bowl (but not title game) loss, and a final record of 12-2.

SEC preview coming later this week.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Why I still don't especially care about the Hawks

One last summer rant before serious Auburn football blogging gets underway later this week...

It happens every time. Angry fans start giving a GM or coach the requisite Burger King™ flame-broiling after another decision that most invertebrates would have gone the other way on (“Well, Jim, I’m only a starfish. I mean, I have to extend my stomach outside my body to eat, for crying out loud! But to answer your question, no, I do not think the Broncos should use this third round-pick on Maurice Clarett”), and down comes the inevitable “If the fans think it’s so easy, why don’t they come try to do my job for a while” comments.
Of course, the thing is, there are many, many recorded instances of the fans’ collective wisdom being exponentially better than the GM or coaches’ alleged expertise. Very, very few Detroit fans, even standing in the crucible of an NFL sideline with the wind gusting every which way, would have chosen to kick away to start overtime as Marty Mornhingweg did a couple years back in a Lions loss. Safe to say that the few Trail Blazers fans that were excited about the NBA draft in 1984 were less excited about the hotshot gunslinger that had won a national title at UNC than they were for a hobbled center they’d never heard of. And this is one Braves fan who still remembers reading that Bobby Cox had decided to start Charlie Leibrandt in Game 1 of the 1992 World Series, because he was “experienced,” and knew the Braves were “screwed.”
Then there’s Billy Knight, the Atlanta Hawks, and the 2005 NBA Draft. The Hawks, you’ll recall, were sitting in the No. 2 spot and were going to have their pick of Andrew Bogut (no worries game, mate), Marvin Williams (couldn’t start for his college team), and Chris Paul—the best prospect in years at the Hawks’ position of greatest need (point guard) and, arguably, the most important position on the court. A quick survey of halfway knowledgeable Atlanta fans, one of the possible draftees, one raving lunatic, and one Hawks exec on the day of the draft would have gone like this:

Q: Who do you think the Hawks should draft?

FAN 1: Chris Paul.
FAN 2: Chris Paul.
THE JCCW: Chris Paul.
CHRIS PAUL: Chris Paul (the first top-notch prospect in years to express a preference for Atlanta)
FAN 3: Chris Paul.
DICK VITALE: Chris Paul. (Said so during the draft telecast.)
FAN 4: Chris Paul.
BILLY KNIGHT: Marvin Williams.

Of course, Paul went on to have the greatest rookie season for an NBA point guard since Magic Johnson and won Rookie of the Year, while Williams failed to average 10 points a game. Good work, Billy.

To be fair, Atlanta fans were happy after the draft. But that was because word was Knight was going to take Bogut if Williams was gone. Knight’s defenders will also point out that Williams looks very likely to become a quality player, perhaps even an All-Star. But as rare as sweet-shooting athletic forwards are, they’re still dime-a-dozen compared to a bona fide pass-first X-Ray vision court general like Paul.

So, naturally, as Paul took the league by storm and it became clear Knight had shown the kind of foresight associated with Y2K bunker builders, both the Atlanta and national media called him out. Hawks fans (all, what, 37 of them) followed suit, called a spade a spade, and voiced their displeasure--but I don’t think many called for Knight’s firing. One mistake from a guy who inherited a mess of Atlanta rush-hour traffic proportions does not a dismissal make. Nonetheless, Knight had this to say in the run-up to this year’s draft:

Guys are running around saying, 'Point guard, point guard.' But what if I don't agree with that? ... I find [such talk] a little humorous and entertaining ... I always take talent. ... I like good basketball players, and there are a lot of 6-foot-8 players in the draft. And 6-8 is the ideal size …I hear people on sports shows, and I think that person has as much business talking about basketball as I do running the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Well, Billy, no offense, but if the Chairman of the NRC chose “Let nuclear waste spill all over the place” over the “Keep nuclear waste safely locked away” option, I hope you’d still feel justified in criticizing him. Also nice to see you consider the opinions of the precious few Hawks fans that still give a crap as “humorous and entertaining,” a phrase measuring a perfect 10 on the Condescend-O-Meter. Isn’t it cute how the unwashed masses just go on having their own opinions? Silly things.

But the best quote in this batch of gems? “I always take talent.” This brings us to the 2006 draft. The Hawks promised Duke big man Shelden Williams they would take him with the fifth pick of the draft if he was available, and did so. Amidst the biggest flurry of draft night trading in league history, with bushels of players and draft picks changing hands, the Hawks stood pat. Knight then used their second-round choice on 6-10 center Solomon Jones from South Florida.

Let’s go over exactly how levels on which this was an awful draft for the Hawks:

1. Billy Knight takes talent? Not this time he didn’t. Williams will be a solid enough player; he’s a poor man’s Carlos Boozer, a Coach K-trained physical banger that will grab his share of rebounds and (hopefully) putbacks if he can stay out of foul trouble. But saying he’s the fifth-most talented player in the draft is a joke. Everyone knows it. Knight admitted as much, mentioning how poorly the team’s interior defense and rebounding were and saying they took Williams to “help us in those areas.” So which is it, Billy? Do you draft for needs in “areas,” as you did with Shelden, or on talent, as you did with Marvin? The bottom line is that Knight doesn’t really appear to have a draft strategy one way or the other: he’s just grabbing whatever player he happens to take a shine to. First it meant passing on Paul. Now it’s meant passing on a number of guards that would have been more useful.
2. Why on earth would you promise to draft anyone? Someone let Knight know that this isn’t college recruiting, where Williams gets to pick which of several teams that drafted him he’ll sign with. The only thing this accomplished was letting the teams behind the Hawks know they didn’t have to worry about Knight stealing their guy. Kind of you, Billy. ESPN guru Chad Ford had this to say June 15: "The buzz around Orlando on Friday was that the Hawks had cut a deal with Shelden Williams. However, that makes almost no sense. Why cut a deal with a guy this early in the draft, especially one who has a 99.9 percent probability of being there at No. 5?" In other words, he didn't have any proof that the Hawks made such a promise, but still didn't want to accept it as fact because of how mind-bogglingly pointless it was.
3. If Knight was set on Williams, why didn’t he trade down and then take him? None of the other teams in the top 10 were rumored to even be seriously looking at him. (Ford mentioned that the Celtics liked him, then added it could have very well been a bluff to keep the Hawks away from Brandon Roy.) The Hawks could have traded down a good three-to-five spots and still easily snapped Williams up. Knight had the chance to add another asset, and didn’t, for reasons I can only assume are a projection problem: he liked Williams, so he assumed everyone else did, too, despite all evidence being to the contrary.
4. Perhaps Knight would have filled the team’s beyond-glaring need at point guard if there had been a prototypical PG that made sense at No. 5. Admittedly, there wasn’t; UConn’s Marcus Williams was the best of the lot and no one expected him to go before the mid-to-late teens. But because Joe Johnson is such a terrific playmaker, the Hawks don’t necessarily have to have a Paul-like distributor. It’d be nice, but NBA teams can win without one (see the Mavericks, Pistons, Cavs, Spurs, etc.) and there were not one but two outstanding, polished combo guards available that would have paired brilliantly with Johnson: Brandon Roy (more of a 2) and Randy Foye (more of a 1). Knight passed on both and eventually signed a career backup who just spent last season playing behind—you guessed it—Chris Paul. Speedy Claxton’s an improvement, but if I’m an opponent I’m much more worried about the combination of Randy Foye and Joe Johnson than I am the combo of Speedy Claxton and Joe Johnson. Not to mention, of course, that Knight likely could have just had them both.
5. I can admit that Knight has a point when he says his frightfully young team would do better with a veteran as the floor leader. He might be right. But it’s not like the Hawks have one OK point guard and need to upgrade; until the Claxton signing, they had no NBA-quality point guards at all. (Unless you count the useless-at-best Tyronn Lue.) Why not draft a prospect and let him learn behind the veteran? Especially when the prospect is one as tantalizing as Marcus Williams, for the JCCW’s money the best non-Florida player in the NCAA Tournament, and he’s right there for the plucking. Williams slid and slid and slid and still Knight sat on his hands. Eventually the Suns simply put the 21st pick up for auction, with Williams still on the board—and the Hawks watched the Celtics buy it and Williams finally go to the Nets at number 22. Hope Claxton enjoys playing 45 minutes a game. And remember—because of the Hawks’ owners fighting in the War Room, it’s much easier for the Hawks to acquire players via the draft than free agency or trade.
6. The Jones pick … really, does Knight just have something against picking guards?

So even assuming Knight finally ships off Al Harrington one of these days, this is what the Hawks have in the frontcourt: F Josh Childress, F Marvin Williams, PF Shelden Williams, F/PF Josh Smith, and C Zaza Pachulia, all of whom are good enough to start. Bad news, Billy: only three of those guys can start at once. Sure, it’s nice to have a little bit of depth, but the Hawks barely have two starters in the backcourt and you don’t spend a No. 5 pick on a guy who will, in all likelihood, do little more than back up Pachulia and Smith for at least a year and maybe two. In the meantime, Claxton and Johnson are going to wear themselves out—while Marcus Williams, Randy Foye, and Brandon Roy, I’m sure, tear up the league.

To be clear, Knight isn’t an idiot. Smith was a steal. Picking up Pachulia was a nice move. It’s not Knight’s fault that Mike Woodson didn’t know what to do with Boris Diaw. Childress is better than given credit for. But when even the most intelligent parts of your fan base are heralding an injury-prone never-been-a-regular-starter player as a savior, you’re doing something terribly, terribly wrong. And when you have the gall to suggest that your fans’ dissatisfaction is a matter for your own amusement, well, you’ve lost me.

See, I ought to want to follow the Hawks. These days, I like the NBA better than I do the NFL or MLB. And I follow the Braves and Falcons pretty closely (Schuerholz has lost his mind, btw.) I don’t really follow the Hawks—I catch bits and pieces while I keep up with the league as a whole. And until Billy Knight admits that fans who simply want a decent point guard aren’t qualified for a jester’s cap and bells, things are going to stay that way.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Column up

My column on the rise-and-fall of BSC athletics is now posted here, complete with curiously clunky but accurate headline. Enjoy.