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.

1 comment:

Rod said...

Good stuff, J.