Saturday, August 18, 2007

2007 A-U pre-view: Phil Steele and 2006 in the rearview

The first in a series previewing Auburn's 2007 season.

Auburn's 2006 campaign was the single most bizarro season this particular AU fan can remember. I'd like to think my running-gag recap of the Tigers' 2006 season from the Cheese Puff Previews encapsulates it in reasonable fashion: Auburn handed the eventual national champion and the SEC's second-best team the only two defeats either of them would suffer to a team that wasn't the other, went undefeated on the road including the record-tying fifth straight win over the Tide, and won the Cotton Bowl over a solid Big 12 team. Auburn also got absolutely crushed in a pair of home games against their second-tier rivals, letting a chance to contend for the SEC title slip away despite the kindest schedule the program has seen in years. After the season-opening drilling of Washington St. the injury-plagued Tigers also never looked like the offensively explosive team projected in the pre-season, relying more and more as the season progressed on a defense prone to game-changing plays, the SEC's best special teams, and good old-fashioned luck*.

So which view do you take: that putting together an 11-2 record and claiming the quality of wins Auburn did despite the injury issues and offensive struggles is another example, like 2000, of Tubby's teams overachieving? Or that the complete choke against the Hawgs and Dawgs with a national title shot in view (in both cases), deterioration of an offensive line that should have been one of the nation's best, and general inability to ever look like the exciting, dangerous team that finished 2005 despite the return of so much key personnel was another example, like 2003, of Tubby's hotly-hyped teams underachieving? It's like the arguments between those half-white half-black guys in that ridiculous Star Trek episode with those half-white half-black guys: you can see both sides of the argument at once at all times and it's well-nigh impossible to tell them apart no matter how hard you look at them.

Which one is beating Florida and which is losing to Georgia by 22?

Long-time readers (both of them) will remember that I was pretty decisively on the underachievement side of the fence at the end of the regular season. I have to admit the Cotton Bowl win (and greater distance from the embarrassment against Georgia) softened that stance substantially, as it became painfully obvious just how hobbled (i.e. quite) Cox and Kenny Irons were by that point. 11-2--particularly when the team's key offensive players were operating at about 37 percent for half the year and 3 of those 11 are Florida, LSU, and a Thumb--is still 11-2 is still 11-2 is still 11-2. Yes, it's still a season we're going to look back on with a fond glint in our eye 10 years from now.

But I don't buy the Tommy Tuberville's Best Coaching Job Ever evaluation, either. On the opposite side of the scale of 11-2 is this statistic from Phil Steele: Auburn was outgained in SEC play by an average of 33.4 yards a game. Average yards gained minus average yards allowed. Pretty simple, elegant statistic, and the only SEC teams with worse marks were Mississippi St., Kentucky, and Ole Miss.

Now, does that mark matter as much as the 6-2 record in SEC play? No. But it's not irrelevant, either. Auburn may have been 11-2, but it didn't exactly play like an 11-2 team, either. As I said in the post from last fall, Auburn should have been a better team in 2006 than they were in 2005, and the record--as important as it is, obviously--was the only measurable way Auburn got better. The injuries excuse some of that, but not an offensive line with that much experience and a first-round draft choice (and a second potential one in Dunlap) playing as poorly as they did, or the utter defensive collapse against Arkansas or Georgia, or the occasional coaching blunder like the late first-half ill-advised blitz that helpfully ushered 'Bama back into that game. A good coaching job? Most certainly. Tubby's best? Uh, no.**

The end result of Tubby's actual best coaching job.

The upshot of Auburn's struggles on the stat sheet, if not the scoreboard, are that certain commentators like Steele are expecting the pendulum to naturally swing back the other way, for the breaks that helped lift Auburn to a 5-0 record in single-possession games last season (6-0 if you include Florida, as you should) to break back in 2007. Thus does Steele rank Auburn all the way down at No. 41 and several prominent bloggers leave them out of their initial BlogPoll ballot entirely. Worse luck + tougher schedule + loss of critical special teams advantage = more losses, the equation goes.

And I would agree there's something to it. It's simply not feasible to think that Auburn could go 6-0 in close games again, though they may also not play nearly so many--the Tigers only played five in 2004 and 2005 combined (going 4-1, though two of those were the more-comfortable-than-they-looked W's over 'Bama and Va. Tech in 2004). If Auburn continues to run deficits in the battle of total yardage, yes, this year--without Bliss and V****n and Davis for a while, most notably--they will lose games they won in 2006.

But will they run those deficits? There are plenty of arguments that they won't, but my personal favorite is to look at a second, very different kind of pendulum. Here's Auburn's offense under Al Borges, in terms of points, rushing yards, and passing yards per game:

2004: 32.1 PPG, 183 RYPG, 237 PYPG
2005: 32.2 PPG, 194 RYPG, 216 PYPG
First two games of 2006: 37 PPG, 202 RYPG, 234 PYPG
Remainder of 2006: 22.5 PPG, 139 RYPG, 162 PYPG

In other words, the performance of the Tiger offense didn't just decline after the Week 3 LSU slugfest; it fell off a cliff, with points dropping by a third, rushing by more than a quarter, and passing around a fifth. I would argue that even with the understanding that Borges doesn't have the kind of overall personnel he had in 2004 or 2005, those first 27 games paint a truer picture of Auburn's future offense than the aberrant and injury-hampered final 11 games of 2006. All bets are off if Cox goes down, but otherwise, it's fair to expect the Auburn O to regress closer to (if not match) the mean established during Borges's crackerjack first two years. Combine that with a defense that by most accounts is poised to become a soul-destroying, hope-swallowing Death Machine, and that yardage deficit seems likely to become a yardage surplus in 2007.

So with one pendulum swinging one way and the other swinging, uh, the other, where does that leave Auburn? Although the official JCCW prediction will come later, my guess is right in the same zero-to-three loss range they've dwelled in since Borges arrived. Sorry, Phil.

*I know some fans will take extreme umbrage with the notion that any game won by their team was decided by something other than the brilliance of the athletes and coaches involved, but it's still unlikely Auburn gets the calls the way they did vs. both LSU and Florida (correct calls IMHO, mind you, but ones that could easily have gone the other way), the idiotic fake punt from Nebraska, the continued presence of Mike Shula on the Tide sideline, etc., all for a second straight year.

**BBC link just for the "Wait, the Brits have even heard of college football?" of it.

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