Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 A-U pre-view: The Cons

This post is the third in a series. In the event you're looking for the next Cheese Puff Preview, the remaining editions have been moved to in-season. Best laid plans ganging oft agley and all. Sorry.

After hitting the Pros last time out, it's time to count down the Cons side of the argument for 2007 Auburn.

10. The blocking of Tommy "Not a Blocking Tight End" Trott. I think every fan has at least one player on their Favorite Team that they like, sure, I mean, they play for my Favorite Team but ... said fan would also like said player to be a just a bit better at playing football. We're not talking about the Chris Cappses of the world here. We're talking about the guys who aren't really bad ... they're just not as good as we'd like. And when Tommy Trott waved the ball around like a semaphore flag before having it predictably knocked loose inside the Florida 5 last year, he became that guy at the JCCW. He then didn't do much to lose said designation down the stretch as a disproportionate number of the many "Kenny Irons takes the handoff, looks for some room on the right, but there's nothing there and he's tackled for a loss of a yard" plays could be laid at his feet. Sorry, Tommy. But given the, ahem, inexperience along the rest of the line, I'm not sure Auburn can afford to play a TE that can't stick with his blocks.

Counter: Trott is a valuable receiver, and with Bennett and McKenzie both available, he doesn't have to be an every-down player any more. Trott can rotate in when receivers are needed and rotate out when power blocking is needed ... provided he doesn't do it so often it becomes a tip-off.

9. Carl Stewart's new trick hamstring. When I wrote that I didn't want Stewart to come back until 30 minutes before the K-St. kickoff, I was joking. Mostly. But it's looking like Stewart won't be back too much before then, if at all. He hasn't practiced a day this fall and still only "hopes to be full speed by early next week." This is precisely the sort of injury that hangs around like a stale fart (Sorry ...forgot Simmons has that charming phrase copyrighted) all season and even if Stewart does manage to get fully recovered, there's no way he's as in synch as he should be after missing virtually every minute of camp. And (I'll say it again) Cox is the only player the Auburn offense would have more trouble replacing other than Stewart.

Counter: The missed time won't really hurt a player as savvy and experienced as Stewart past maybe the first couple of weeks--and as difficult as those games might be, they're not going to Gainesville or Baton Rouge, either. Auburn's coaches know that, too. Maybe that's given them the incentive to be unusually cautious with an injury that's not as serious as the missed time might indicate?

8. The mortal terror of a potential injury to Cox. That's an obtuse way (the only way we know here, you'll notice) of saying the backup QB situation is still more heart-stopping than the Exorcist. It's terrific that Blake Field has convinced Phillip Marshall the Auburn offense wouldn't become a complete train wreck if he ended up under center ... but geez, I'll believe it when I see it. (Ironically, I desperately hope Cox stays healthy and we never see it. So Blake Field, one of my biggest wishes for Auburn this year is that I doubt you 'til the end. Apologies.) Caudle, of course, is an injury casualty for the forseeable future. Burns might be AU's best bet if Cox goes down, but to have to burn his redshirt the same year we've got a third-year senior starter would be the biggest waste since the Superconducting Suprcollider. And I'm far from convinced even Burns would be a match for most SEC teams.

Counter: Hey, knock on wood, Cox has been plenty durable so far. If he does stay healthy, we could have Canadian alt-country chanteuse Neko Case for a backup QB and it wouldn't matter. In fact, it might be a good idea.

If you'd listened to "The Tigers Have Spoken," you'd have a crush, too.

7. Perpeutual Tubbidity. The big bright green hype machine is spitting out names other than Auburn's these days, but if the undefeated Tigers take down an undefeated Gator squad in Gainesville? If they somehow survive Baton Rouge, even if there's a loss along the way there? Here come the "best team in the SEC whispers" and the talk about a Florida-like run ... and then that Tubby thing happens and everything comes to a crashing halt. 2004 obviously excepted, Auburn's been so allergic to prosperity in recent years I think it might be worth asking the team doctor if Allegra is right for the team.

Counter: Uh, Auburn'll cross this bridge when it gets there. Tubbidity means that, yes, an undefeated season is about as likely as Hillary Clinton getting an invitation to an Ann Coulter dinner party. But it's already about that likely ... or less.

Things get a lot more serious from here, by the way.

6. Rod Smith, No. 1 receiver. Prechae Rodriguez, No. 2 receiver. Nameless Faceless, No. 3 receiver. All right, so the real No. 3 receiver is probably Robert Dunn, or maybe James Swinton or Tim Hawthorne or Chris Slaughter or Montez Billings ... but geez, this year at least, none of these guys (Smith and Rodriguez included) is exactly going to be Terry Beasley. They're not likely to even be Devin Aromashadu or Willie Gosha. Rod Smith is a solid possession guy, but I feel fairly certain Bo Pelini isn't lying awake at 3 a.m. trying to figure out how to contain him, or any of AU's receivers. On paper, this the weakest corps of wideouts of Tubby's tenure.

Counter: It might be true that there's not much difference between Auburn's No. 1 guy and No. 8 guy, but the madding crowd at this position means that the odds are in Auburn's favor that someone is going to end up being a lot better than we expect. Ronney Daniels came out of nowhere. Courtney Taylor was a solid contributor as a freshman. There's too many recruiting stars piled up on that list of names for someone not to break out. (Hawthorne and your swollen recruiting rep, I'm looking at you. Injuries, I know, but I heard more about you last year than I have at any point this fall. What's up?)

5. The Freshman Invastion. When copy editors are writing headlines about your team like "Nine freshmen may play key roles at your team" and your team doesn't play in the Sun Belt, that's not a good thing. Supremely talented as guys like Ziemba, McNeil, and Bo Harris might be, you generally need more than pure talent to survive against the likes of, say, Glenn Dorsey. As noted previously, this is a particular problem for the linebackers. As currently constructed the Auburn defense is an invulnerable fire-breathing death-beast. But should a couple of injuries (Johnson) and/or suspensions (Blackmon) strike, the linebackers are going to the blinking red light on a Dr. Wily invention that screams "weak spot."

Counter: It's not like freshmen, true or otherwise, succeeding in the SEC is unheard of. At Auburn alone since the turn of the century, you've got the aforementioned Courtney Taylor. DeMarco McNeil. Cadillac. SenDerrick Marks just last year. All terrific players, but did any of them arrive with so much more guru respect than Ziemba or McNeil? (Well, maybe Cadillac.) It would be nice, yes, if we had a senior Ziemba to keep freshman Ziemba off the field. But either Ziemba (particularly given that Nall seems so high on him) is probably going to be succeed. And even at linebacker, last year Craig Stevens was able to crack the rotation as a true frosh, and Auburn's world did somehow continue to spin.

4. Then again, it ain't just Ziemba along the offensive line. Redshirt frosh Mike Berry's now the starting right guard. Tyronne Green's a first-time starter at left guard. Jason Bosley only started a handful of games in 2006 and didn't set the world on fire. Ziemba means Auburn will start a freshman at both positions on the right side. The two-deep likely includes yet another true frosh in center Ryan Pugh as well as redshirt freshman Byron Isom. The one guy Auburn fans were definitely counting on to help out King Dunlap, one-time mega-recruit Leon Hart, has continued his underwhelming career by hurting his ankle and watching the unheralded Berry steal his spot.

The bottom line: as far as sure things in 2007 along Auburn's offensive line go, it's Dunlap and no one else.

Counter: Seriously: whatever. Last year's line was supposed to be oh-so-dominant, with seniors like Grubbs and Palmer and Duckworth and Cope around. It never was. Neither was the 2003 line that was going to pave to way to Cadillac and Brown's co-Heismans. Auburn's best lines under Tubby? Like his teams as a whole, the one we haven't seen coming: 2000. 2002. 2004. 2007? I know this: when last year's starters had as much experience as they had and they played as inconsistently as Auburn's did last season, it's better not having returning starters than it is having them. Experience or not, returning starters or not, there's too much talent here for Hugh Nall to let the problems that happened last year happen again. Scary as things are on paper, the JCCW's guess is that by season's end, Auburn's issues here will look greatly, greatly exaggerated.

3. Inevitable regression to the mean. I made a mental note ahead of my my look at Phil Steele's forecasts of doom based on Auburn's low yardage efficiency and repeated success in close games in 2006 that SMQ was a 100 percent guaranteed lock to echo those sentiments in the SEC edition of "Life on the Margins." I brain-locked and forgot to include the note, but sure enough, there it was this week, in handy chart form. Auburn was a very fortunate team last year and to rely on that fortune again isn't just tempting fate, it's having a few drinks with fate after work, asking fate back to your apartment afterward, and leaving fate on your couch while you "slip into something more comfortable." (Fate's going to have a hard time saying no, is what I'm saying.)

Counter: The linked post above mostly covers it. But it might be worth noting that Auburn is 22-6 since 2001 and 13-2 since 2003 in one-possession games (and the 2006 Florida game, which was in disguise). Auburn hasn't finished worse than .500 in those games since 1998, when it went 1-2. I wouldn't usually dare challenge the widely-held and sound statistical notion that there's no such thing as "clutch," that chance really does even out over time ... but that sure as hell looks like a trend, doesn't it?

2. (Un-?) Special teams. A true freshman placekicker. A redshirt freshman punter. The kickoff returner gone with a broken toe for the first several weeks. The punt returner barely hanging onto his job. If these units are as weak as they look on paper and Auburn gets back into the slugfests of 2006 where special teams will make the difference in the game, Auburn will be in Lake Baikal-deep trouble.

A song about what Auburn will be in if Byrum and Shoemaker don't come through.

Counter: For starters, Byrum and Shoemaker haven't sucked in practice. Not even a little bit. God only knows if it'll translate this Saturday, but there's hope. Additionally, when it comes to placekicking, Florida could have had a trained mule handling kicks last year and not done any worse, and it hurt them so badly they only beat Ohio St. by 27 in the national title game. As for the returns, well, Davis'll be back eventually and it's not like punt returning has been a strength since Cadillac left.

1. A schedule that hates you, and hates your children. The consensus SEC champ and No. 2 team in the country. The defending national champions featuring the offense their coach has always dreamed of building. The defending SEC West champs, Auburn's single biggest bogey team and home to the country's single best player. And the team that last November handed the Tigers their most emabrrassing loss in years and by nearly all accounts will have only improved. All four of them are on the road.

And that's just the start. There's also two quality BCS non-conference opponents, the second of which has made an annual habit of felling the biggest redwoods on their schedule. There's the traditional doormat who everyone knows is going to upset one of the conference powers and happens to be innocuously snuggled between the Gators and Hogs like a land mine. And there is always the Tide, now coached by an actual coach, and that game's razor's edge of adrenaline and pressure.

It is a schedule that only a sadist, or Idi Amin, or a Tide fan could love.

Counter: There's no real counter here. Sure, Auburn will stand a good shot of surprising the Gators. No one really know what's going to happen with Arkansas and the Tigers will be ready to sacrifice various minor appendages for revenge. LSU is coached by Les Miles and not Jimbo Fisher. And it's not like winning in Athens has ever been an issue. But blowing any of these teams out will be an order taller than tallerson, and that nagging 6-0 close game record last year makes me think that close games will simply not break AU's way this year. Going just 2-2 on this yellow brick cobblestones-made-from-the-bones-of-baby-seals road will be a terrific accomplishment.

Of course, all but the most "National title or bust!" Auburn fans will be happy with 2-2, because the consensus is that the Tigers will sweep their home games. But since 1993, Auburn's finished with an unblemished home record precisely twice, in 2000 and again in 2004. And three (maybe four, though I really think K-St just isn't that big a threat) teams that will visit Jordan-Hare will have more than a fighting chance and grabbing the upset that Tubby's teams have been so vulnerable to over the years.

There are bright sides to many of the arguments brought forth against Auburn's success this season. The team's critics should remember them. But it's true there's no bright side to this schedule.


TideDruid said...

It could be worse, you could've ended up with Colin Cowherd doing the Auburn-KSU play-by-play.

Michael said...

I appreciate the terror, with so many Freshmen on the OL. But, listen, Grubbs was a 1st rounder -- and some folks felt Auburn's 2006 OL was the best in the nation...last August. THAT was before our QB ended the season a paraplegic. The blocking could just not get worse than last year.

Nico said...

Neko's Canadian by choice, she's a Virginian by birth. You know that voice had to come from the South.

Jerry Hinnen said...

TD: That's absolutely true.

Nico: I KNEW that, I swear. In fact, I even know that's a popular misconception. I know "The Virginian" was one of her first couple of albums. Man, I'm an idiot.