Thursday, August 23, 2007

2007 A-U pre-view: The Pros

This post is the second 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.

I doubt I'll ever be much interested in writing the traditional "Auburn is set at seventh-string tight end, where walk-on Forrest McWilliker has proven himself more than capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time" exahustive positional breakdown. Or even a more casual unit-by-unit thing. There's a bajillion magazines and half a bajillion websites out there that have already done the same thing, and I can't imagine anyone who's reading this isn't already well aware by now that, say, Antonio Coleman, Octavius Balkcom, Zach Clayton, etc. give Auburn great depth at defensive end.

I'd rather talk about exactly how pumped up Auburn fans should be about the fact that we have great depth at defensive end, or how worried sick that we have less than great depth at linebacker. So here's a countdown of 10 Pros, the 10 biggest reasons I'm confident about the 2007 season, accompanied by their respective counterpoints for balance's sake. Next post will be the 10 Cons and their counterpoints. By the end, the JCCW will have pretty much covered the things worth covering with the season now a week away, thank everything holy.

So, the Pros, with the quick caveat that I am most certainly the glass-half-full type and these reflect that:

10. The comic off-season hijinks of our nonconference opponents. When I first started really buckling down on my research for this season (i.e. blew my entire weekly Panera-double-mocha-and-a-cream-cheese-bagel-for-every-breakfast allowance on Steele, Street and Smith's, Sporting News, etc.) the 1-2 jab of K-St. and South Florida had me deeply uneasy. Sure, Auburn had finally gotten over that Week 1 hump (and how) against Wazzu last year, but that was just one decent non-league opponent. What happens when there's two back-to-back, with the substantially more dangerous team potentially lying in wait on the back half after an over-confidence generating initial rout?

Well, the first thing that happens is that Team A's quarterback hops on the Phillip Fulmer see-food diet and starts going 0-for-the-whole-practice*, and Team B sees virtually everyone on the completed o-line two-deep pick up some form of nagging injury. No, Auburn's injury situation hasn't exactly been cause to break out the party hats and kazoos, either, but overall I would guess Tubby's still happier with how his two-a-days have gone than either Prince or Leavitt. Consider the JCCW's Terror Alert level been downgraded a color.

Counter: Isn't this exactly how K-St. and USF want Auburn to see them?
Counter-counter: At home and at night, will it matter?

9. A coaching staff that's better than yours. And I'm not even talking about the two guys at the top of the heap. I'm talking about Will Muschamp. Eddie Gran. Hugh Nall. James Willis. Every one of those guys is a proven, bankable commodity. Say what you want about Ensminger, but he's a former OC at La. Tech (when they were worth a damn) and Texas A&M ... and on Auburn's coaching staff this season, he's coaching the tight ends. The stability and continuity here from is also particularly important when you consider that some other teams we're just a bit interested in defeating ain't got it.

Counter: Nall's Midas touch from 2004 and 2005 didn't seem to be entirely in effect last season, did it? And Muschamp's forces weren't exactly prepared week-in and week-out, were they?
Counter-counter: Meaning a) Nall's due for a rebound b) he'll make adjustments in Year Two.

8. Three professional-grade tight ends. Most schools would be happy just to have "Stone-" Cole Bennett, a Jason Witten clone capable of eating defensive linemen for breakfast in the power running game and when Auburn airs it out, nabbing an on-the-go lunch of any linebacker who tries to cover him. But Auburn also has athletic-as-hell Gabe McKenzie and Tommy "Not a Blocking Tight End" Trott, who while not a blocking tight end has the kind of hands that make Borges gush about his potential every time he's brought up. (You know, I should probably change "the kind of hands that make Borges gush" to a less ... peculiar-sounding phrase. Oh well.)

Counter: Bennett may say he's in great shape after the season-ender last year, but is he? And it's not like Borges seemed to go to great lengths to get these guys involved down the 2006 stretch.
Counter-counter: Borges likely would have paid the tight ends substantially more attention if Bennett had been on of him. Also, with McKenzie and Trott around Bennett doesn't have to be an every-down player--just every critical down.

7.King Dunlap. I made this same joke last year, but if your name is friggin' King Dunlap, you are going to be an all-conference caliber offensive lineman if your ancestry is Borneo pygmy on your Mom's side and Tom Cruise on your Dad's. These are the bedrocks great lines are built around.

Counter: Does Auburn really have the materials to build around Dunlap with?
Counter-counter: Either way, it's simply not going to be any worse than last year. Can't be.

6. The Auburn running back tradition upheld. Remember, if you've forgotten: there were times in 2005 when Brad Lester and Kenny Irons were both healthy, and Lester got more carries. Remember than Ben Tate had the team's highest rushing average for a running back last year by more than two full yards, impressive even if he'd been running against Boy Scout troop 673. And of course Borges has more or less gone on record as saying Fannin's got more talent than either. Two years ago Tre Smith had first crack, but we all expected that even if it didn't work out with Smith, someone would emerge to carry the load. I have confidence in Lester. But if not, hey ... someone's going to emerge again.

Counter: Lester injures himself tying his cleats, Tate's a paper Tiger who built his rep against the Sisters of the Poor, and no really knows yet about Fannin.
Counter-counter: Call me crazy, but I think Al Borges would, in fact, know. This is Auburn. We're not going without a competent running back.

5. Quentin Groves. Tray Blackmon. I pray thusly for you, O my enemies in purple, in crimson, in red-and-black and whatever they happen to call that color at Arkansas cardinal: May your death, at the least, come swiftly. For it will not come without pain. To rest in even the most infintesimal flicker of hope that it shall not is to entreat the grandest of self-deceptions, and bitter lies.

Counter: Groves can be run on and you just know Blackmon's still got one foot in the doghouse.
Counter-counter: Straws, the grasping of, etc.

4. Al Borges. 33-5 overall. 22-3 in the SEC. With his unit coming off of a subpar year and detractors everywhere slamming his quarterback, his line, his receivers. This is a man with too much skill and pride to fail in nearly any circumstance; with these circumstances, when that quarterback is a healthy senior in his third year of starting and the blanket dismissal of his receivers ignores the solidity of Bennett, Stewart, and Smith and he has this many weapons to line up behind his quarterback ... he is simply not going to fail us.

Counter: If the line doesn't hold up, all of Cox's experience and the running backs' speed and the tight ends' versatility won't make any difference.
Counter-counter: If the line does hold up, those things will make this offense one, if not exactly to be feared, to have its efficiency unquestionably respected. Though it will depend on that line holding up.

3. Brandon Cox and the season of disrespect. How startling it's been to see the same quarterback who as a sophomore walked into the overflowing cauldron of noise and hatred that is a 6:47 p.m. kickoff in Baton Rouge, faced fourth-and-goal from the 5 with under five minutes to play, and calmly flipped the ball into the back of the end zone to give his team the lead suddenly told he would not be fit to quarterback at Troy, or Rice, or Lousiana-Monroe. That if Auburn had the sophomores currently quarterbacking at Ball State, SMU, and Arkansas St., they would be better off.

To take Jay Coulter's highly appropriate history lesson one small step further, Auburn has started four other senior quarterbacks in the previous 15 years. Three of them won the SEC West and the other went undefeated while on probation. And now the fifth has every drop of motivation and karma behind him he could ask for. As they were when Campbell got (essentially) booed in the opening game of 2004, the redemption stories are already writing themselves.

Counter: Who's to say he wasn't permanently broken last year? MG isn't the sort of disease that just magically disappears from the body like Magic Johnson's HIV.
Counter-counter: I'm taking his word and his coaches' word that he is 100 percent. If he is not ... well, yes, that will cause problems.

2. Tommy Tuberville, LSU, and Nick Saban. I have precisely zero doubt that after 2004, any coach in the SEC takes public perception more seriously than Tubby does. In fact, you will never convince me he wasn't already invested heavily--and delighted in--his team's clippings in the summer of 2003. That year he was able to blame the overflow of hype for his team's demise. Then the very next year he could blame the lack of hype for his team's vicious snub. It seems unlikely, to me, that Tubby will ever be happy with the amount of goodwill his team receives in the preseason, but that's how it goes for a coach whose teams have been floundering as the favorite and deadly as the underdog for nearly a decade; there will always be too much attention or too little.

But this off-season is a new animal all together. One one side there is the actual business of expectations, and by this point any public figure claiming that LSU will somehow drop the division title is a lone voice crying in the wilderness, taken as seriously as the bum on the park bench babbling madness. In the coaching staff appraisal above I linked to an outstanding RBR post from Outside the Sidelines that goes into great detail on the hidden problems and obstacles LSU faces this season. But for all his quibbling about the tongue-baths lavished on the Tigers recently, OTS still rankes them fourth in the nation and picks them for the SEC title. Brian of MGoBlog has twice now made strong arguments on behalf of an Arkansas team that I happen to agree is being written off far too quickly (just to warn you, he's also predicting an Auburn crash-and-burn). But there, again, sits LSU at No. 3 and as Brian's de facto SEC champ. Even experts (and I mean that as sincerely as I can ... OTS and Brian know far, far more about this sport than the likes of, say, Dennis Dodd) who don't think LSU's that good still think they're better than anyone else in the SEC; even those that think other SEC teams are very good don't think they're as good as LSU. That his team has gone (again) 33-5 in three years and now isn't even considered a threat surely, surely has Tubby griding his teeth in his sleep ... and just as surely has him stoking the fires of his players at every possible opportunity.

But methinks the LSU hubbub merely motivates Tubby. The Saban hubbub likely enrages him. A team that he has beaten five consecutive times, often in brutal fashion, now coached by an opponent he fought to a stalemate at the barest minimum (and once utterly horse-whipped with a team that didn't even win the division) ... and this, and this, and this is already the result.

This, almost certainly, is the most disrespected, overlooked, and just plain infuriated Tommy Tuberville has ever been. This is a coach who made public that he felt slighted on behalf of his quarterback not being named pre-season third-team All-SEC. That is a much, much smaller issue than the media storm enveloping 'Bama and LSU at the moment. And I suspect that Tubby, at this moment, would do nearly anything imaginable to crush the two of them and I suspect he is, at this moment, doing every single thing he knows to do to make that happen. No, he hasn't made too much noise about to the media. But I suspect still he is angry, he is wounded, and he is driven.
And when that has been the case for Tubby--see that horse-whipping I mentioned earlier, coming off the back of back-to-back defeats and LSU being made a heavy favorite on the road--he is not one to lose.

Counter: Motivation doesn't matter if, oh, Cox isn't healthy or Byrum wets his pants or the receivers can't get open in an empty meadow.
Counter-counter: Auburn's had problems before. As I've pointed out previously (at the tail end of that post), they're still 7-1 in three seasons as an underdog or three-point favorite or less, and the "1" was the John Vaughn catastrophe. That is what happens when Tubby and his team are focused and prepared, and they will be focused and prepared often this season.

1.A defense that will devour everything in its path. It's not just Blackmon and Groves. Pat Sims has allegedly been an unholy terror in camp, and he's the only one of the four up front that didn't start last year. Blackmon is flanked by one returning starter who's as steady as they come in Merrill Johnson (when healthy, admittedly) and another talented enough to crack the rotation as a true freshman in Craig Stevens. In the secondary, corner Jerraud Powers and safety Zac Etheridge have been two of Auburn's best players in practice, and neither one is SEC All-Freshman and appropriately-named Aairon Savage or seen-it-all veterans Jonathan Wilhite or Eric Brock. Or, hey, Patrick Lee ...

The point being: find a weak spot. Please. Throw, and Groves and Sen'Derrick Marks are on their way with Savage, Powers, and Wilhite out there waiting. Run the middle, and Thompson and Sims are happy to collapse the middle and expose Blackmon's terrible and merciless wrath. Run on the ends and ... well, best of luck moving Marks (6-1, 291) out of the way. My sole recommendation would be to run right at Groves and whichever of the less-terrifying linebackers is behind him, and pray you make the edge before Blackmon arrives. That's all I've got to offer.

But don't take my word for it. Phillip Marshall's been around Auburn for a long time and isn't prone to hyperbole. Hell, he's the sort who'd be perfectly happy with 9-4. And he says, completely straight-facedly, that this defense could be Auburn's best since 1988. Read it, opposing SEC offenses, and weep.

Counter: All you've talked about is the starting 11. There's no depth here and by the end of the season, this defense will be in shredded tatters just like they were vs. UGA last year.
Counter-counter: At linebacker, this is a vaild point--though Tubby's bunch once stuffed Spurrier and Grossman playing what I recall as a Pop Warner star, Andy Dick, and a J.C.Penney's mannequin at linebacker, so maybe it's not. Regardless, Tubby's recruited well enough that both the line and the secondary can stand a couple of blows. Again: Eric Brock and Patrick Lee may come off the bench. I happen to think that qualifies as good depth rather than the opposite.

This was relentlesly cheerleady, I know. The Cons post will be different. I do have genuine worries.

*HT to Bring on the Cats. Also, their TE is suspended. Good times.


Mark Johnson said...

"A team that he has beaten six consecutive times, often in brutal fashion..."

One of these words isn't true. HINT: "Fear the Thumb." And not Antonio Alfonseca's thumb, either.

I promise my next comment will be positive, befitting the great love I bear this blog, and not fact-checky and b*tchy.

Jerry Hinnen said...

Hey, I doubt I'm the only Auburn fan who's either lost count by now or wants it bad enough to just get a wee bit ahead of himself. Fixed.

Nicely done with the Alfonseca reference. Someone should print up some "Fear Alfonseca's Thumb" shirts, though I'd probably be the only one to buy one.

Newspaper Hack said...

First, OMG I want to say the worst things about Tubby. But I'll leave that for a blog that's not as cordial.

Second, as much as I'd like to see K-State or USF pull the upset, I don't expect it and really don't want it. I mean, even for your worst rival, you don't want them to lose to a team that would make the whole conference look bad.

Actually, I'd really like Auburn to beat the holy hell out of USF. Every time I see a CFB preview, they're so in love with USF and Rutgers and that whole crew that it makes me ill. Plus, USF is filling its team with Bama commits that didn't care enough to get their academics in order and several other things that irritate me about that program.

I may be one of the few Bama fans who say so, but I hope the Tigers hang 60 on those bastards.

Many thanks.