Friday, September 07, 2007

The Works, Bull market-style

7 links (well, slightly more) for 7 "Things to Watch" or "Keys to the Game" or "Impact Factors" or whatever you would like the call them for the South Florida game. I prefer "Stuff That Should Totally Prove to Be Important in Determining the Game's Outcome," but I can understand why ESPN hasn't gone for it yet.

1. The Thing With Feathers. I have watched this clip a hundred times over the past two days and it's going to be a hundred more by the end of the year:

Quentin Groves is the freaking HOPE. No matter how badly Auburn's offense may continue to chase its own tail, they're going to have a chance to score more points than the opposition. And that chance starts with this very, very bad man. USF has a better line (at least, on paper) than KSU, and I doubt Leavitt is going to be foolhardy enough to leave the Hope iso'd on the right tackle with the game on the line, but he is going to have his say.

2. The King. I have some mild disagreement with Jay over at Track 'Em Tigers when he says the fact that Dunlap and his girlfriend having their second child Thursday shouldn't have had any impact on his mental preparation for Saturday. Dunlap didn't actually give birth, no, but ... still, a baby? I'm not a father myself, but I'm pretty sure that when that day comes, I'm going to spend the rest of the week walking around in the kind of daze last seen from the extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, calmly muttering "diapers ... diapers" over and over again to myself. So I'm not really comfortable suggesting the experience shouldn't have been weighing at least a teensy bit on Dunlap's mind.

That said? Jay and I both agree that if this happens again, the offense will be fortunate to put 16 points on the board again. This is an NFL-quality senior. The offense's improvement has to begin here.

3. Terror. I was already plenty a'feared of South Florida in the preseason. After last Saturday? I don't really have any expectations. Maybe Auburn will win. I am hopeful. I would enjoy that.

But boy, I am in a place very, very, far from confidence. I was somewhat surprised to read Phil Marshall's comments that Auburn fans shouldn't have been so displeased with Saturday's win. Take away Robert Dunn's punt return and the GROVESGROVESGROVES TD and these two teams are dead even--on the scoreboard, on the stat sheet (look, they both averaged exactly 4.3 a play), everywhere. Auburn fans do not want to be dead even with Kansas St. Dead even with Kansas St. is equal to losing to South Florida, most likely. Plays like Dunn's and Groves's are great, but you can't plan for them or rely on them. Dramatic improvement is needed, or Auburn will lose this game.

And as no such dramatic improvement--or, and this is another reason Auburn fans were up in arms, any improvement whatsoever--was attained over the eight months between the retina-searing ugly Cotton Bowl performance and last Saturday, I am skeptical said improvement is coming. If Auburn approaches this game expecting anything less than an SEC-quality fistfight--and I've always believed Tubby's Auburn's attitude has mirrored that of its fans--it's going down.

Of course, there is a counter argument ...

4. Elon. Specifically, that Elon, [insert obligatory "Who?"-like joke asking if this is a real school, where it's located, what its mascot is, etc. here], hung with South Florida to the tune of a 28-13 loss.

I suggest you disregard this result entirely. I have little doubt that USF has been preparing for Auburn all summer. I have little doubt that the Bulls sandbagged their offense at every single opportunity. I have little doubt they put the absolute barest minimum of concentration and effort into that game, knowing what awaited them this week.

Remember, too, that USF scraped by eventually winless Florida International by a point last year. It didn't matter much when they took down West Virginia in Morgantown.

5. The Phenom. I thought Ben Tate really wasn't that bad last week. 87 yards rushing isn't eye-popping, but I'm not sure why it's so hard for football fans to add in the 23 yards receiving he was also responsible for and say "110 yards .. .not bad." When he had a seam, he was quality, and I'll be fine with him as the No. 1 back should Lester be gone for good.

But I want to see Fannin. Tubby waited on Irons. He waited on Brown, waited on Cadillac, and I think he's following the same approach here. Tate is quality. But Fannin could be a game-breaker, and as I said, Auburn isn't in the sort of situation tomorrow night where they can afford to leave any bullets in the chamber. It's time.

6. The Gap. USF will not have the better defense tomorrow night, at any of the three units (assuming Blackmon plays). They will not have a better running back (I'll believe the Mike ford hype when I see it ... also, see the preceding note), or tight ends. Their receivers may be better, but not by enough to make a massive difference. Ripe sucker that I am, I honestly think Dunlap will get it together and the line will be respectable, though this George Selvie cat worries me.

In the end, though, I think USF's biggest advantage is at quarterback. Grothe may be somewhat error-prone, but he's also shown the knack for the huge play, the kind that shuts up hostile stadiums and changes games. Cox is made of various steel alloys and has perhaps the most admirable set of testicles on any Auburn player I can remember (you know what, I should really, really find a better way to say he's got guts ... but oh well. And while we're here, No. 11! In your face, Tebow!) ... but he hasn't been a game-changer since 2005. This is fine. Better than fine. He's won left and right even as his body, protection, and (new this week!) brain have failed him each and every week since the LSU game.

But USF is good enough that simply making a handful of solid throws at key times won't be enough this week. If he can't at least come close to matching Grothe's performance, Auburn's advantage on the other side of the ball will evaporate to nothing. The gap must close.

7. Luck. Surely, surely, Auburn's endless wellspring must be nearly dry. The Tigers have been outgained four consecutive games now (Arkansas St. last year was the last time Auburn wasn't). Going 3-1 while having been outgained four straight times is exceedingly unlikely. Going 4-1 while having been outgained five straight times is all but impossible. Again: the bounces, the official's calls, the stunning defensive touchdowns ... these cannot be relied on. Auburn must simply play the better game. Period.

Will they? I said they would just last week, but that 10-2 prediction felt wildly optimistic at the time and now ... well, I just don't really even have a guess at what will happen. It's a toss-up if ever there was one. But truth be told, after las tweek, Auburn coming out and exerting its will on the game, rolling up the yardage, etc. will probably surprise me more than the Tigers finally taking that close loss they've been flirting with for so long.

I've never wanted to be surprised so badly, and the HOPE springs eternal. But as fondly as I'll remember last week's game (for reasons expressed in the post below), the cold light of analysis suggests it just wasn't a harbinger of good things to come.

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