Friday, September 05, 2008

Friday preview: Southern Miss

Couldn't get one of these done for last week, but you can pretty well expect them on Fridays from here on out.

What has two thumbs and threatens to put the Golden Eagles on his back and haul them to an upset? This guy.

First, if you haven't read the Southern Miss Cheese-Puff Preview ... you should, and it's available here.

At stake: Your mileage may vary amongst the Eagle fans, but from this vantage point, not a ton for USM. A 30-point rout might let some of the air out of the "We're back, baby!" balloon Fedora's offense inflated last week, and I suppose it could further harm the Eagles' slowly-declining giant-slayer rep amongst the more studious of we college football fans.

Frankly, though, a game like this is all upside for the Eagles--do anything besides look totally incompetent and/or get half the team hurt, and a loss triggers nothing but a shrug of he shoulders; win, and overnight Southern Miss become co-CUSA favorites, their David-hunting-a-Goliath reputation will be fully restored to its late-'90s Technicolor glory, and new Hattiesburg Mayor Pro-Tem Larry Fedora will be fed as many peeled grapes by toga-clad sorority girls as his heart desires. There's maybe not nothing to lose for USM, but you put what they've got at stake Saturday on one side of the scale and then put nothing on the other, and it's just not gonna tilt all that much.

As for Auburn, a loss will trigger a thousand knee-jerk "All we care about is the SEC, all we care about is the SEC" comments from players, coaches, and fans alike, and they wouldn't be entirely misleading; neither the Ga. Tech loss in 2005 nor the USF loss last year wound up half as damaging as the LSU/Miss. St. losses later those seasons. However: that both of those nonconference losses came at the hands of higher-quality teams while Auburn was enjoying lower expectations than they do this season suggests that this go-round, the fall-out would/should be greater. If Auburn intends to make any kind of national splash, it has to start 3-0 ... or--Ha!--run the table afterwards.

As for what Auburn gains with a win, well, it'd be nice to perform competently enough through the air and win by a large enough margin that whatever top-10 doubts poll voters might have indulged after last Saturday were dispelled. But that's about it--Auburn's got a lot more to lose than it has to gain, as is always the case in these kinds of games, of course.

When Southern Miss has the ball: As you may have heard already: it didn't take long for Larry Fedora's offense to assert itself. As in, the first drive of his first game as USM's head coach. Also the third, the fourth, the sixth, the seventh, and the eighth drives: the Eagles scored on six of those first eight possessions en route to finishing with school records in total and rushing yardage against helpless Louisiana-Lafayette. To be fair, ULL does not have the same caliber of defense as even UL-Monroe and about the only thing they've got in common with Auburn's defense is that they each play 11 guys at a time; nonetheless, it seems safe to assume the Tigers aren't about to pitch a second straight shutout.

Why? For starters, Fedora's no-huddle spread continually racked up the points and yards at Okie St.(Perhaps the Stat of the Century: Fedora's Cowboys averaged 243.5 a game rushing and 243.5 a game passing. I learned that by looking up the word "balance" in the dictionary). Particularly after seeing how quickly the Eagles picked up the scheme last week, it seems safe to assume he's smart enough to find some kind of crease in Auburn's armor. Secondly, there's the guy pictured above, senior running back Damion Fletcher. He went for 222 yards on 21 carries against ULL and last year totaled 1,586 yards to break a USM single-season rushing record that had stood since 1982. He is very, very good.

There was some hope entering this season that Fletcher might be a Lone Ranger at the skill positions for USM, but redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Davis put that notion pretty well to rest against ULL by completing 2/3rds of his passes and rushing for another 71 yards and two TDs (as well as, it's worth noting, drawing a rave review from our guest USM expert yesterday). Davis isn't exactly lacking for receivers, either: freshman DeAndre Brown allegedly looked every bit the five-star stud vs. ULL and led the team in receptions, tight end Shawn Nelson is first-team All-CUSA and an All-America candidate (or so says my Athlon, anyway), and four other receivers from the Eagles' top six pass-catchers return. Bottom line: for all of Auburn's speed, talent, and experience in their back seven, they are going to have their hands completely full with this set of skill position players.

The good news for Auburn? They should own the trenches, especially in the middle, where USM is replacing both guards and their center from 2007. Particularly given how spry Tez Doolittle looked last week, it'll be a surprise if Auburn doesn't get a good push inside and force Fletcher to look off-tackle. (Where he would, delightfully, be introduced to Messrs. Blackmon, Stevens, Evans, Bynes, et al.) USM's tackles are the strength of the line and should have more success, but of course they're facing Antonio Coleman when they're not facing Goggans and Carter.

But just some push and some pass rush won't be enough to keep Southern Miss under wraps. The Tigers will have to out-and-out dominate up front--especially on passing downs, where Davis will be starting his first-ever road game and could theoretically be rattled--or weapons of the quality of Fletcher and Brown, working out of a scheme as sharp as Fedora's, are going to score their points.

When Auburn has the ball: They're going to have success in the rushing game. A lot of success. Like, crazy, gonzo, bonkers success.

Well, OK, maybe not "bonkers." But USM is replacing all four of its d-line starters and it didn't just show in the ULL game, it practically put up a billboard: the Cajuns raged their way to 263 rushing yards on 43 attempts, good for 6.1 yards a pop.

It's true that, as Lanny Mixon pointed out, ULL boasted rush-QB extraordinaire Mike Desormeaux, plus a senior RB and four starters back on their line. But methinks whatever advantages ULL might have had, Auburn can see those with the likes of Tate and Lester and then comprehensively raise with Ziemba, Green, Bosley, Isom, and Pugh. And given Desormeaux's 2007 struggles in stretching the field, I imagine the Eagles also spent much of that game stacking the line. Forgive me, but I don't think the "Auburn's going to have a field day on the ground" limb I'm going out on is all that unsteady. I think we could, like, build a treehouse out here in fact.

The passing game, however, will require this man:

to play the game of football much, much better than he did last week. Whatever you might think of Desormeaux's skills as a passer (what you probably think: " "), he went 9-20 with 2 picks while nearly all of USM's attention--surely, surely--was focused on shutting down the Cajun run. Somebody in the Eagle secondary was doing something very right--perhaps most notably sophomore corner C.J. Bailey, who claimed a starting job as a freshman and had one of the two picks. If Todd and the Auburn receiving corps are not better, USM does not look likely to make them better by mere charity.

That said: Auburn's passing game couldn't really be worse, could it? And as much as I've argued on Burns's behalf this week, it seems reasonable to think the merry-go-round under center had something to do with Todd's ... missteps. As the carousel looks to have stopped (or slowed, perhaps) for at least a Saturday and the running game should give Todd plenty of slack, I'm expecting better things. As in: more completions, more passing yards, and more offensive points than last week, at the minimum.

When special teams are on the field: Auburn should have an advantage despite the fact that All-Name representative Britt Barefoot handles both kicking and punting for USM (or at least he did last week; not sure where returning starting PK Justin Estes went). Barefoot averaged less than 40 yards a punt vs. ULL.

This is assuming that Dunn remains Dunn, Byrum gets over last week's miss, and Saturn V Durst avoids coming back to earth in his second outing.

Intangible to worry about: These:

are two fine gentlemen who, over the years, I've come to accept and even feel a certain nostalgic attachment for, in spite of their both their and their similarly-named colleague's proclivity for on-air malapropisms and mistakes.

That said, after Auburn's stunning and repeated failure to perform adequately when playing in a game whose kickoff time has been set to accomodate the arrival of these gentlemen, I wish I wish I wish they were staying a hundred thousand miles away from Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday.

Intangible reason for confidence: As noted during the Cheese Puff piece, Tubby has never lost to a non-BCS school at Auburn and hasn't even been in danger of doing so since 2001. Some of that is that these have not been particularly challenging non-BCS schools; some of that is that the team has taken care of business.

Three wishes: 1. That Mario Fannin scores a touchdown and/or goes over 75 yards of total offense; I'd really rather not risk Super Mario tuning out on the rest of the season by languishing outside the gameplan. 2. That Auburn drops no more than one pass; the Tigers' quarterbacks, as we've seen, could use the help. 3. That Auburn leads by 10 at the end of the first quarter; forcing a team with as many young players in key positions--Davis in particular--to press and play from behind could lead to a knockout blow and a much more comfortable second half than, honestly, I'm expecting.

Success is/Failure is: 60 percent of passes completed and a win by 14 or more / Fewer than 50 percent passes completed and a loss or a win in which Southern Miss could take the lead on their final possession.

The bottom line: Despite the homerrific source, I'll readily buy Dr. Saturday's assertion that 17.5 points is a peculiarly wide spread between these two teams, given how inefficient Auburn's offense looked in Week 1 compared to the mindbogglingly efficiency of USM's attack. If Auburn covers, they will have played a very good game indeed.

But sheer regression to the mean suggests to me that even after last week, the upset is too much-too soon for the Eagles. I doubt they can execute what remains a still-new offense with that level of precision two weeks consecutively; I likewise don't see Auburn's offense punting six times in the first half again. To boot, Auburn's rush vs. USM's rush defense looks like the biggest mismatch on the board; where the Eagles could make up for it so decisively as to steal the game, I don't know. Competitive, yes, but in the end this game should be Auburn's unless something really weird happens.

But, ah, if Chris Todd once again drops back and summons the demons that plagued Evil Brandon Cox--as he did, let me think back, it's been so long ...oh! Last week-- we could indeed see something really weird happen. The JCCW believes the final margin to ultimately be in Todd's hands; both teams should be able to move the ball, but if Todd is sharp Auburn should roll their way to an easy victory; if he's adequate, the Tigers' advantages on the ground and along the defensive line should be enough to win by two possessions; if we see a series of crushing picks, all bets are off.

And, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong ...

Auburn 31, Southern Miss 19


miller draft genuine said...

Dude...that pic looked like Brandon Cox right down to the #12 jersey. Do NOT do that!

Acid Reign said...

.....There is one thing. Todd will run around in the pocket a lot more effectively than Brandon Cox. Todd hasn't had Charles Dorsey fall on his legs, yet!

.....Auburn better not BLOW this game! I suffered through an 8 PM kick and an overtime loss this time last year. Kharma dictates that if I pay with a crack-o-dawn alarm clock and drive this year, an 11:30 kick should turn out good!

.....I discovered a NEW level of "suck," last September. It's a two hour drive home from Auburn, after 1 AM, after a loss to South Florida. SUCK! We will NOT do that again!

miller draft genuine said...

I really do get nervous about these games. Honestly, I could see Auburn pulling wins out over West Virginia, LSU, and Georgia, and yet losing to Southern Miss and Miss St.

Also, fuck the Big 10. I love Chicago but man I miss SEC football.