Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday knee-jerk: Pick yer poison. Or, rather, the opponent's.

The JCCW's new weekly Sunday feature.

You're an Auburn fan, seated in the ear-splitting lower bowl of Jordan-Hare Stadium as ULM lines up for the kickoff last night. Shakers are shaking, Auburn's bench players are waving their arms in the universal sign for "I can't HEAR you," you're trying to hold your "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrr" for as long as you can without taking a second breath. The Monroe kicker takes a couple steps forward. And then, just as you prepare for Eagle, Hey!, you notice you seem to be the only person still making any noise.

Everyone's frozen in place. The shakers and are in mid-shake, the kicker's leg poised like wax behind him, the Auburn sideline's arms stuck in the air, everyone else's mouth weirdly open. It's like some movie or other you can't remember.

"Cool," you say. Then there's a voice.

"Good evening, Auburn fan," says the voice. "This is God."

"Sweet. Finally nice to meet you in person, God," you say, because you are cheeky.

"The pleasure's mine," says God, chuckling, because even the Almighty can appreciate a little cheekiness. "I'm here--well, I mean, I was here already, omnipresence being what it is, but here in the revealing myself to you sense of 'here,' you follow me ... anyways, here to offer you a choice. In a moment the ball will be kicked off and Auburn's season is going to begin. You are going to be able to choose the ways in which Auburn excels tonight."

"Whoa," you say, because ... Whoa.

"Tonight, you can see Auburn be above average in all facets: in the passing game, the running game, defensively, special teams," God says. "In each of these ways, Auburn will be sound and functional, but they will not be outstanding. They will win by 34 points, 48-14. This is your first option.

"Your second option," God continues, "is that the passing game will struggle. And I do mean struggle--at times it will look like the quarterbacks and receivers spent their last month on the practice field playing canasta and pinochle instead of the game of football.

"But in exchange, Auburn will be completely dominant in all other aspects of the game. The running game will have holes opened for it wide enough to land small planes in, and every back who takes a carry will run with power and purpose. The defense will pitch a shutout despite Monroe's spread putting Hood and Thorpe on the field for virtually the entire game. And aside from a missed makeable field goal, the special teams will look as sharp as they ever have--they'll even get that me-damn punt return monkey off their back.

"In short, in every facet aside from the passing game Auburn will look every bit as good as you, the Auburn fan, had been hoping they would since Burns scored against Clemson last New Year's Eve. They will win by 34 points, 34-0.

"This is your second option. You can take either this scenario, or the all-around above-average one I described for you earlier, and you will see it play out before you. Choose."

"Hmmm," you say. "I can't have everything besides passing be awesome and the passing game also be awesome? Or, like, at least be mostly good if not awesome?"

God sighs. "No," he says. "I can't give you the world. It's mine."

"OK. Well, I guess I'll take the dominance and bad passing over the above-average stuff," you say. "I mean, spread or not, under Tubby Auburn's always won with defense and the running game. So if both of those things are totally and completely kick-ass, that should make up for the passing thing, right? It's not like we've been the second coming of '80s BYU either of the last two seasons anyway, and that's with a running game that's been pretty good, I guess, rather than balls-out excellent. If it ends up that good this year, hell, screw the forward pass. This is the SEC, God! It's about the run. It's about, like, getting 10 more yards out of a punt so your D has that many more yards to wok with. It's about 11-guys-to-the-ball defense and smacking people in the mouth and beating LSU 7-to-freaking-3, God. I will totally take the dominant running game and defense over the decent passing game. That's my choice."

"Probably a good one," said God. "Enjoy the game."

"Wait," you say. "You're sure Auburn can't throw the ball around a bit and still shut those other guys out?"

"Maybe later this season," God said, and the air seemed to smile. "But not tonight. See you later."

"Thanks, God!" you say, as the Monroe kicker's leg accelerates back into normal speed, Eagle, hey! resounds in your ear, Pierre-Louis fields the kickoff, and Auburn goes on to own Warhawk ass as you cheer your throat raw. Except, of course, when Auburn drops back to pass.

Three Stars*

Antonio Coleman. His game-opening sack must have been the easiest one of his career--why yes, Warhawks, we'd love for you to leave our most dangerous defensive end completely unblocked on your first play from scrimmage, thank you very much--but it's one thing to tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage, it's another to utterly clobber him in a Grovesian manner that results in the release of the ball (and possibly poor Kinsmon Lancaster's bowels) and six easy points. Auburn never really had to break a sweat after that. I don't think most plays that broadcasters claim "set the tone for the whole game" actually set the tone for a whole game, but this one did. And all that's before you get to Coleman's four other tackles, including one for-loss.

Clinton Durst, FTW!?! So that's why the SEC's preseason all-league punter couldn't even get onto the field: seven punts for a raw average of 43.4 a pop, four downed inside the 20, and--this the best part--five fair catches leading to a net of 42.3. If maintained over the entirety of 2007, that would have placed Auburn second in the country in net punting, and that's with a couple of jittery-looking first-half efforts.

Robert Dunn. Once again showed off the hands of stone that make him a question mark at wideout. But once again also showed off the Michael Jackson-quality shimmies and shakes that make him such an exclamation point as a punt returner and all-around Guy With Ball in Space. Should maybe give Thorpe and Hood a nod here for being wonderfully anonymous until the point where Thorpe planted that Warhawk receiver like so many discount pine seedlings--but you break a 12-year punt return duck that saddened me every time I heard it mentioned, you deserve some credit, too.

Three Opportunities for Improvement

Khrisodi Burn-Stodd. Obviously. Give Burns some credit for making some things happen with his feet--and displaying why I suspect most Auburn fans would like to see him continue to get the starting nod, assuming his injury isn't serious--but there's not much else I can say that 13-of-27 (in a short-pass system) for 85 yards and both a pick and a TD doesn't.

Establishing the run. Give Tony Franklin a modicum of credit for his blame-hogging honesty in assessing his Auburn debut, but that honesty was needed after seven of his first 10 play calls were passes (despite a Tiger advantage up front that became obvious as the game progressed) and punts on Auburn's first six offensive possessions. I'm not necessarily arguing anything would have been dramatically different had Auburn started the game grinding away on the ground--one second-quarter three-and-out consisted of Lester for 1, Lester for 1, Lester for 2--but nonetheless it didn't surprise anyone to find that this offense's strength was its physicality up front and the stable of backs. It might have been better to have started the game playing to that strength.

Hands. Here we go with the hot potato thing again. Sigh.

Numbers of importance

3.1. Auburn's yards-per-pass-attempt. This is not so much very good.

16. Combined tackles for Neiko Thorpe, D'Antoine Hood, and Josh Bynes in their first major action (or action of any kind) for the Auburn defense. Not bad.

8.8, 3.7. Yards-per-carry for Ben Tate and Brad Lester, respectively, over 13 and 14 attempts. Some of this is bad luck rather that a genuine difference in performance--Lester had a nice gain called back on an Isom hold and got more of his touches in the first half when the Tigers had yet to really start heading downhill--but Round 1 in the battle to become Auburn's late-season starting running back still goes to Tate.

Your bottom line

I might have written a reminder here about how we shouldn't take any win--particularly lopsided ones that even cover Auburn's 26-point spread--for granted, but the nice thing about said win coming against Louisiana-Monroe is that I doubt we need it. Auburn beat the same bunch that handed the SEC its only loss to a non-BCS team in all of 2007 by 34 points. In this post-Appalachian St. era, that's a result that doesn't need any embellishing--even if Texas A&M was happy to oblige by losing to the Warhawks' functional equivalent. (If you want something to be genuinely despondent about, try the loss of Pierre-Louis for the season after one freaking play.)

As for the passing game's woes, I'm not sweating just yet. ULM came in way, way more familiar with Franklin's offense from their battles with Troy, for a start. Season-opening nerves are going to have more of an impact on the precision execution needed for the air game than he ground game. And, again: how many times over the past two years has Auburn won with quarterbacking just as bad--if not worse, given Evil Brandon's interception predilections--as we saw yesterday?

Besides: it'll get better. We didn't see a single thing yesterday to suggest that when it does, Auburn won't be every bit the SEC contender we believe them to be.

*It's a hockey thing.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

2008 A-U Pre-view: the Sked (and ST)

So, we've gone through the pros and cons for both the offense and defense, which should give us a decent idea of where Auburn stands on "paper" (meaning the orange-and-blue colored paper the JCCW would be written on if it was written on anything). But before we apply that standing to how it ought to affect Auburn's record, we should also take a brief look at special teams.

I would say the special teams Pros are as follows 1. If Wes Byrum has the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal, Wes Byrum is going to kick a game-winning field goal. 2. Uh, I'm not ready to expect great things just yet from Clinton Durst--punting on Pat Dye field is going to be very, very different when Auburn's tied 13-13 with LSU with seven minutes to play and 90K boring their voices into your brain--but if he's been good enough to push Shoemaker even this far, someone's going to punt the hell out of the ball. 3. The Theory of Tristan Davis could return to us, stopping hearts and threatening to set YouTube on fire every time he touches the ball. We will, of course, have to believe it when we see it, but even the potential--along with the alleged moves Phillip "Frenchy" Pierre-Louis possesses--is enough to think Auburn's kickoff return should be above-average. 4. Robert Dunn is going to break a punt return this year. As for the Cons, the big fat one is Auburn's kickoffs. Last year Byrum et al could neither put them in the end zone consistently nor squib them worth a damn, leaving things up to the coverage unit, who would go on to earn rave reviews from the nation's sieves. The bottom line was that the kickoff unit played a giant honking role in Auburn honking a couple of games it very easily could have won. Until Auburn proves it has someone who can put the ball into the end zone consistently, this should continue to be seen as a sore point.

Summing up: if Auburn's special teams were fine, by and large, with two true freshman kickers in 2007, they'll be better than fine in 2008.

OK, on to Auburn's schedule and eventually a final prediction.

The Light Workout Focusing on Quads and Glutes.

Tennesse-Martin is a scrimmage and an excuse for uniform speculations.

Nonconference Not-Quite-Cupcakes But Still Teams You'd Want to Eat For Breakfast, So Let's Call Them Nonconference Scones.

As I pointed out in the Southern Miss Cheese Puff Preview, there might not be too much actual difference between the Golden Eagles and Louisiana-Monroe despite USM's obvious advantage in name recognition. Both are above-average mid-major teams. Both have reasons--Kinsmon Lancaster, the arrival of the offensively-minded Larry Fedora--to think they could score a few points on Auburn. Both have reasons--eight starters back for ULM and USM's general defensive solidity--to think they could cause the Spread Eagle some problems. But both are mid-majors and neither expected to be among the cream of that crop. Tubby has never lost to a mid-major at Auburn.

The Heel-biting SEC Underdogs.

Vanderbilt was pretty widely seen in the off-season as being in a "rebuilding" season, and when you're rebuilding at Vandy, that more or less equals 0-8 in the SEC. Then the 'Dores went on the road and pounded a Miami OH team that was supposed to be a MAC challenger and possible bowl team; the rebuilding may be on hold and particularly with the game in Nashville, this isn't a walkover for Auburn. Ditto Arkansas, even if it's hard to take a team that's pointing towards Casey Dick's arm as a reason for optimism; Petrino's as sneaky a devil in offensive scheming as he is in his search for employment and the Hogs (like pretty much every damn body in this joke of a conference) have a top-notch offensive line. And of course after last year no one's looking past Miss. St., even if maybe yours truly doesn't think they'll be as dangerous as is generally believed. Of course, I didn't think they'd be dangerous last year, either.

The Potential Upsets, Bad.

I don't think Tennessee is in for much of a season; every overachievement metric you care to look at suggests they could play twice as well this season and end up with a worse record. And with the upheaval at QB and in the coaching staff, there's no guarantee they'll play even equally as well. But: there's no reason a team as purely talented (particularly up front) the Vols can't put it together for one week, as they did in beating Georgia senseless last year, and Lord knows how far into the clouds Auburn's heads might be if they beat LSU. As much as the Vols scare me, though, I'm legitimately equally afraid of Ole Miss. At heart Houston Nutt is an offensive coach, and there's not much question he's got plenty of tools to work with in Oxford: a giant offensive line, a five-star back in Enrique BOOOOOO! BOO! Davis, receivers as good if not better than ours, and a QB that should be able to put them to use. Nutt's taken way less and rolled up 30 points on us in J-Hare before, and this game's in Oxford. If the Rebels find any semblance of a back seven--the d-line is fearsome--Auburn's not just going to have their hands full; they're going to be one of those cartoon characters packing for a trip who walk out with luggage stacked to the sky.

The Potential Upsets, Good.

I've already gone as record as saying I don't think West Virginia is the top-10, national contending team they've been made out to be. Silly, short-sighted coaching hires like Bill Stewart aren't usually rewarded with those sorts of seasons. But at home, in late October cold, in front of thousands and thousands of couch-burners who know Auburn is the one victim they need to legitimize their season? They're going to deserve to be the favorites. Making Auburn a road underdog against a team I think Tubby and Co. can outcoach and that matches up well (will White be able to take advantage of the Auburn secondary?)--all of which makes me think I won't mind Auburn's odds. Even if it's at home, the Oldest Rivalry in the Deep South looks an even higher hill to climb. The Dawgs are No. 1 with a bullet for a reason and this is, of course, the nation's No. 1 rivalry for making home field advantage completely irrelevant. Still, Tubby's record as a home dog against top-10 teams--which Georgia should certainly be--is, as you may have heard, pretty good. And if the Tigers aren't ready to go after being crushed by those guys two years running and suffering the blackout indiginity, there's something very, very wrong.

The Decider.

If Auburn was a normal program, with a normal set of rivals, LSU would be the biggest game of the season in a walk. It will very likely hand the victor the division. It will be between two teams that respect each other and two fanbases that find the other increasingly annoying. It will be epically close. It will be the game, that, in many ways, lays out the path for the remainder of Auburn's season.

The Everything.

For the last several seasons--ever since 2002, basically--I've looked at Alabama and thought: We should be better than they are. But that doesn't matter. They're good. We could lose. Please, Auburn, don't lose this game. This year, this is what I'm thinking: We should be better than they are. But that doesn't matter. They're good. We could lose. Please, Auburn, don't lose this game.

Classification: Auburn should be a heavy-to-medium favorite in the first six games listed above, but after that, it gets awfully dicey: yours truly would call only the home contest against Tennessee as anything better than a tossup. Sure, on paper Auburn is likely a slight favorite at Ole Miss and 'Bama, but on the road against two solid and well-coached teams, I wouldn't be quite so optimistic from here. Optimistic, yes. But not terribly so--and Auburn will be the underdog against Georgia and in Morgantown.

Best-case scenario: Auburn uses the bye week to out-prepare West Virginia, survives Oxford and Tuscaloosa, scrapes by Tennessee, runs the table against the smaller fry, and splits the home Clashes of the Titans against LSU and Georgia. Result: 11-1 and BCS bowl talk.

Worst-case scenario: The Spread Eagle is a wreck and Auburn trips up in one of their first three games, followed by a demoralizing loss to LSU. The Tigers drop two of the tricky-or-worse triumvirate of Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Alabama and don't have enough to match the worthy-of-the-hype squads from West Virginia and Georgia. Result: 6-6 and first-class tickets out of town for Franklin and Rhoads.

Binding prediction:
As a believer in Franklin's spread, in Auburn's depth, and Tubby's general excellence, I'm going to hew closer to the best-case scenario than the worst. My orange-and-blue glasses aren't so thick I'm going to expect to sweep those potential upsets listed above--it's happened once under Tubby and this probably isn't the sort of juggernaut that can pull it off a second time--but I don't think it's unreasonable at all to expect a split against LSU and the Dawgs and a win over an overrated Big East team after a bye. So call it 10-2. Enough for an SEC West title? Yeah, what the hell: LSU had their turn. Now it's ours.

Now, while I think Auburn deserved a little more serious discussion about a potential SEC title, even I'm not going to expect or predict that particular piece of hardware: it would feel like wearing my wax eagle's wings a little too close to the sun. But is too much to think Auburn's going to send us soaring a few times this season? No, it's not. T-minus six hours, folks. War Eagle.

War. Damn. Eagle.

Friday, August 29, 2008

2008 A-U Pre-View: Defense pros and cons

More, please.

T-minus, oh, 19-and-a-half hours as I start typing. Let's do this.

OK, first, 10 pros and five cons for the defense. Again, biggest reason for confidence/concern last, slighter reasons first.

10. Speed. Auburn's defense--Blackmon, Carter, Coleman, Powers, even Marks when you compare him to his fellow defensive tackles--is still just as fast as ever. And the more pass-based and spread-out and generally less cloud-of-dust the SEC's offenses get, the better Auburn will match up. (Of course, this might be more true if more passing and receivers on the field didn't mean exposing our true freshman corners. Still.)

9./8. The starting corners/the starting safeties. OK, so once you excise that little "starting" modifier things get substantially more dicey back here. But those first four are four I expect we Auburn fans will wind up mighty proud of: Powers looks poised for an All-SEC type season, Etheridge is a terror, Walt McFadden's had the same career up 'til now Pat Lee had up 'til last season (when he was solid enough to go and get hisself drafted, you'll recall) and should be fine, and Mike McNeil has talent to burn. As long as Auburn's in our base four and all four of these guys stay healthy KNOCK ON THE BIGGEST PIECE OF WOOD YOU CAN FIND WITH WHATEVER GIANT KNOCKING HAMMER THEY USE TO RING THE LIBERTY BELL this isn't going to be a sore point. Weaker than the front seven, yes, but still not exactly an out-and-out weakness.

7. The depth along the defensive line. To some extent, the hole left by Pat Sims in one of the defensive tackle spots looks like an issue: there's no proven guy to replace him, no one (aside from maybe 12th-year senior Tez Doolittle) whose name is going to seem immediately familiar to the hypothetical (and likely apocryphal) "casual" Auburn fan. But: those no-names include nominal starter Mike Blanc, the aforementioned Doolittle, Zach Clayton, and man-mountain Jake Ricks, all of which have gotten their fair share of offseason "buzz" and all of whom are likely capable of plugging the Sims-shaped hole. Things are a little thinner at DE thanks to injuries to Jomarcus Savage and A.J. Greene and Raven Gray's redshirt year, but still: Antoine Carter (who finished last year with .5 less sacks and one fewer QB hurry than SenDerrick Marks and generally looked like the next McClover/Groves/etc. to fall from Tubby's DE tree) is a backup. Things aren't shabby there, either.

6. Depth at linebacker. How hotly contested are the three Auburn linebacking spots? Chris Evans was the team's third-leading tackler and he can't even guarantee himself a starting position. Even aside from future 2008 International Wrecking Ball Manufacturer's Association "Man of the Year" Tray Blackmon, there's Evans (senior), Merrill Johnson (senior), Courtney Harden (senior), Craig Stevens (wickedly talented sophomore), and Josh Bynes (ditto) all in the two-deep.

5. Paul Rhoads. I'm not sure how much of an impact an Auburn DC really has on the Tigers' schemes and tactical battle-plans. As Tubby his own self said in the wake of Muschamp's departure, it's his defense; as he didn't say but I'm willing to infer, he just needs someone keen to keep the thing tuned up and running at maximum capacity. That Tubby wanted to hire Rhoads several years back is one point of evidence Rhoads can do just that. A second point is that Rhoads had plenty of success at Pitt whenever he had talent to work with, and--see above--talent is not much of a problem here.

4. SenDerrick Marks. All-SEC defensive tackles who eat double-teams for breakfast and enjoy them so much they have the same for lunch have proven to be pretty useful in my college football following experience.

3. The pass rush. Antonio Coleman on one end. Some combination of potential breakout star Michael Goggans and Carter on the other. Marks in the middle. Somewhere behind them on passing downs, true freshmen are going to be covering what could very well be some very talented receivers. Fortunately, it doesn't look those freshman will have to cover for very long. (A caveat: I thought the same last year, and thanks in large part to Q. Groves's gimpy foot, it never quite materialized. That was just last year, though.)

2. Tray Blackmon. Maybe this is misplaced optimism, sticking him all the way up this list--hard to argue the Little Ball of Hate's ever sustained his brilliance for more than, say, six quarters at a stretch in his two active seasons--but this year his granite body is cooperating. This year his lease on the doghouse finally ran out. This year the only thing that will decide how many opposing lives he ruins is his talent and how intently he puts it to use. As that talent is nigh well all-encompassing and by all accounts Blackmon is ready to employ it to the fullest of his capabilities ... I may be sorely disappointed, but methinks it's going to be awful fun to watch. For us Auburn fans, anyway.

1. Tommy Tuberville. I can't see Auburn having a less-than-respectable defense as long as he's in charge--nor the odds even tilting in the favor of anything other than "outstanding" as long as he continues to unearth the Chris Evanses and SenDerrick Markses of the world. It's not happening.

The Cons. There aren't many, really. When your defense was as good as Auburn's was in 2007 and it returns seven starters and one of the new starters might be Carter or will be Mike McNeil, there's not too much to complain about. Let's make No. 5 Paul Rhoads? just because I guess he could be the second coming of David Gibbs and No. 4 he second defensive tackle position just since I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that Marks is the only viable tackle in the bunch. For a semi-serious con, it's also possible that for No. 3 either an injury to Coleman or struggles on Goggans' part could create a hole on one end of the line. Also, Gabe McKenzie's a hell of an athlete, but being able to go from tight end to the DE two-deep in the space of an afternoon or so is a little troubling from a depth standpoint.

The legitimate concerns, however, are in the secondary: No. 2, safety depth, and No. 1, corner depth and/or the nickelback. Behind McNeil and Etheridge: senior walk-on (and heretofore non-contributor) Jonathan Vickers, redshirt freshman Mike Slade, true freshman Christian Thompson. Behind Powers and McFadden: even more frightening because of the extra time nickelbacks and reserve corners spend on the field, true freshmen Neiko Thorpe and D'Antoine Hood. And after that ... uh, almost no one.

I have a lot of faith in Tubby and Co. to find the proverbial diamonds in the rough in recruiting, and Hood and Thorpe have earned their spots on the two-deep via what has been, by nearly everyone's account though most importantly Tubby's, two excellent fall camps. Still: the kind of freshmen who generally--though not always--excel immediately upon arriving on campus on the Lee Ziemba-Cadillac Williams types who bring a bevy of recruiting hype, five stars, jaw-dropping athleticism, etc. Hood and Thorpe are off to a hell of a start. But until we see them line up over whoever LSU's crew lines up in the slot on third-and-six and see them shut them down, it's more than a little worrisome. And if any member of the starting secondary should go down with an injury KNOCK ON EVERYTHING MADE OF WOOD IN YOUR ENTIRE HOME THREE TIMES God help us.

Special teams and final season predictions tomorrow a.m.

2008 A-U Pre-view: Offense, pros and cons

First: some of this sort of material is already out there on the Interwebs at RollBamaRoll, where I was able to ring Todd up for the SEC blogosphere's first-ever and last-ever podcast in which one of the participants was phoning in from Munising, Michigan. I haven't been able to listen to it, but I'm sure it's chockful of error-y and omission-y goodness. Also I make a really dumb political joke that sounded sharp in my head.

Otherwise, no time for pleasantries: here's 10 reasons Auburn's offense should work this season, ranked in order of least important to most, followed by five it won't.

10. Robert Dunn. Fine, he's in the doghouse. It's just going to make this guy's five consecutive "6 receptions, 110 yards, 1 TD, 77 tackles broken, 4 pints blood shed straining for the first" success in the spread a redemption story instead of a "story." This offense was made for guys who thrive on yards-after-catch, and what Dunn showed at the tail end of last year was that he's ready to YACcity YAC it up all over the place. Work hard and come back to us soon, Robert.

9. Lee Ziemba's Baadassss Song. One knock on the Spread Eagle is that it's too "soft" to work in the SEC. Fortunately, the guy leading the Spread Eagle up front is so hard he damn near ripped the head off of one of his own teammates. This is a less-than-admirable quality when you're practicing and your teammates are the only "opponents" you can find, but now that the guys on the other side of the line are wearing unis of a different color ... well, godspeed, Lee. Somehow I don't think our opponents are going to think of our offense as "soft" once you're through with them.

8. Evil Brandon and the Treacherous Fumblin' Hands of Mario Fannin are no more. Covered to some extent last post, but assuming a) Khrisodi Burn-Stodd doesn't share Evil Brandon's illicit thrill in throwing passes directly to defenders three times a game and that b) whatever disease that caused the skin on Fannin's palms to secrete a greasy, slick substance that made it difficult to maintain a grip on a football has been cured, this offense should turn the ball over less. And thereby, score more.

7. The spread hasn't slipped from the cutting edge yet. There's been some talk this offseason about how the spread won't have any innovative advantage over defenses when everyone's running it, and that might be true to an extent (particularly in the Big 10, where more than half the league is running some version of it) but right now, that's not the environment in the SEC. Florida kinda does. Kentucky kinda does. That's it. This is essentially a brand-new offense being introduced to the conference, and when you look at what some other new and skeptically-received offenses have done in this league (Spurrier's, Borges's, Meyer's though it took Tebow's arrival), there are some pretty big historical reasons for optimism.

6. The hordes at WR. Have you noticed there are 27 different guys or so on Auburn's three-deep at wideout? Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but between Tommy "Not a blocking tight end, because he's barely a tight end at all anymore" Trott and Fannin listed out there and the endless parade of Tim Hawthorne's, Terrell Zachary's, James Swinton's, and Chris Slaughter's lining up, it sure seems like it. Between Rod Smith, (hopefully) Dunn, and Trott, that's three guys I'd feel comfortable with at wideout--and with so many other candidates available, it seems exceedingly likely at least one or two of them will wind up being the kind of solid contributors Auburn needs to turn the Spread Eagle into something that really does force a defense to defend all parts of the field at all times. (My money's on Hawthorne and Slaughter emerging, for no real reason.)

5. Brad Lester. Or someone else. I've already said I think Brad Lester needs to be The Man at tailback for Auburn: he's the guy with the All-SEC explosiveness, he's the guy who can exploit the spread's seams most effectively, he's the guy who most looks the part of the Auburn Running Back that terrorizes defenses and tears past corners and winds up with his picture in the stadium and all us orange-and-blue folk cheering him on on Sundays. But: if that doesn't happen, there's not a damn thing wrong with a bull like Ben Tate and his five-yards-a-carry, nothing wrong if Mario Fannin's shoulder cooperates enough for him to take handoffs. Hell, there's even the chance the Theory of Tristan Davis could make a reappearance. The point: running back will be a strength. Again.

4. Khrisodi Burn-Stodd. Frankly, I'm surprised I'm not more worried about who's the freaking starting quarterback being a game-time decision. It's a general assumption of mine that if there's a two-man QB battle and neither guy has won, neither guy has been that good. But over and over and over again, Tony Franklin--not a guy who seems the sort to sugarcoat things--has told us it's not a case of the two of them simultaneously shrinking from the challenge; they're simultaneously rising to it. Assuming he and Tubby are being honest, maybe in this case having two starting-quality quarterbacks really does mean two starting quarterbacks rather than none. Just to keep the team's psychology uncomplicated I'd still much rather have a 1A and a 1B guy rather than co-No. 1's, but right now the signs point towards both guys pushing each other to success rather than dragging each other down towards failure.

3. Deep and wide. There could still be a little more, shall we say, "top-end" talent at WR. Unless Lester's even better than we think, there's no Cadillac or James Brooks in the backfield. The two quarterbacks have combined for one start at this level. But this is nonetheless perhaps the deepest Auburn offense I can remember. As I said earlier, there's a dozen receivers who allegedly have enough potential to make an impact. There are three, maybe four guys who could take handoffs without any substantial dropoff. After three years of Auburn being one injury to a statuesque quarterback away from disaster, a QB injury won't cause anything but a momentary flinch. The line, perhaps most importantly, is loaded. As the season grinds on and other teams slow down as their various parts fall by the wayside, this offense should continue to churn along just as effectively--if not moreso--than it will in the season's first few weeks.

2. The line. I'm assuming Chaz Ramsey isn't coming back, but even if he doesn't: four returning starters, two future first-rounders in Ziemba and Green, a senior at center, the two-deep filled completely with guys the coaches rave about and that have game experience, and perhaps Auburn's best position coach overseeing it all. With a new offense and general inexpereince, our QB's and receivers are going to need a little slack from time to time. This line will give it to them, or no line could.

1. Tony Franklin is a smart man. I try to avoid placing blind faith in my team's coaches--it doesn't make for interesting reading, if you ask me, and I'll cop to a certain ingrained cynical streak when it comes to football--but something about Franklin just makes me believe, wholeheartedly, he's going to make this work. This is a coach who was blackballed and worked every angle, every edge, to haul himself up by his bootstraps back into the game and give himself this, his greatest opportunity. He's not going to waste it. He's too resourceful. He's too creative. Yes, there will be unfortunate surprises in store for his offense, shrewd game-planning on the other side of the ball. But I just don't see a coach this determined allowing this offense, his offense to fail.

The Cons, briefly. 1. Khrisodi Burn-Stodd has never been a starting quarterback before, and until they/he are, we have as much idea as to what will happen when they/he are as we do how our television really works. 2. The Spread Eagle will also need to be the Stretch Eagle from time to time and find a way to work the ball downfield--but are any of the wideouts up to this task? Rod Smith was our best deep threat last year, not because of his speed or breakaway acceleration, but just because he could win an occasional jumpball. Someone will need to be a legitimate saftey-worrying threat. 3. General first-year-in-the-offense confusion. It shouldn't be a big problem, given that it ran OK after nine practices against Clemson, but nonetheless we can't expect everything to be smooth as silk in a new OC's first season. 4. Chaz Ramsey's gone, dammit.

and the big one ....

5. How will this offense operate in the red zone? When there's so much less field to spread out, is it really going to be able to shift gears and plow forward for those final six yards on second-and-goal from the, uh, six? I have next-to-no-doubt the Spread Eagle is going to move from 20 to 20 with near-maximum effectiveness. I'm less confident the result of those drives will be consistent touchdowns rather than a parade of Wes Byrum field goals when we're asking James Swinton to block. We'll see.

OK, that's it for now. I get home late tonight and--how needs sleep--will have defense and predictions up first thing tomorrow a.m.

We're almost there. War Eagle.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

2008 A-U Preview: 2007 by the numbers

Aaaaaand fate shifts things the other way.

Ah, luck. It's been one of the best parts of the Rise of the Sports Blog (and/or shrewd MSM writers like, say, John Hollinger or, more appropriately, Phil Steele) and associated stat wonkery.

Not that we've all started finding Sacajawea dollars on every sidewalk and make it through every yellow light that catches the suckers behind us, of course, but that good old-fashioned luck has been spotlighted as such an important predictive tool--take a look at Steele's "Turnovers = Turnaround" or net close games marks over the last couple of years, for instance. Or the Pythagorean Win calculations being done by OTS; last year the Pythagorean marked three SEC teams in particular for regression, and all three regressed. Luck matters.

Which is disheartening if taken the wrong way, but now a close game is also a kind of win-win situation, at least when viewed in a certain sober light that usually doesn't arrive until several days afterward: If My Team wins, Hooray, they've won!, someone buy Wes Byrum a "nonalcoholic" (read: secretly alcoholic) beer; if My Team loses, it's just luck, pure dumb luck, and luck'll make up for it on the rebound at some point.

Getting back to the Pythagorean, one of those three teams it expected a regression from was Auburn. Around this time last year I wrote a post detailing how the 2006 team had overachieved (outgained by 33.4 yards an SEC game, 6-0 in one-possession games!) and said that if the Tigers didn't start dominating people statistically, they might have a rough go of it. I concluded that returns to form by Cox and Borges portended that kind of dominance (why I felt free to overlook the mewling babes on the o-line and the general "Eh, whatever"-ness of the receiving corps remains a mystery even to myself), but when it became obvious that wasn't happening it wasn't entirely a surprise when razor-thin contests against USF, Miss. St., and LSU became Auburn losses. Frankly, after that 6-0 mark, going even 4-3 in one-possession games as Auburn did in 2007 is testament that Tubby may buck the regression to the mean somehow: he's now 14-4 in close games since the start of 2004.

So if 2006 had hints about what lay in store in 2007 (namely, those few close losses), what does 2007 say about 2008? It says some very nice things, fortunately. Looking at some commonly applied metrics ...

Conference yardage margin: A Steele favorite, in which we find that unlike the minus-33.4 mark Auburn posted in 2006, the 2007 Tigers outgained their SEC opponents by around 37 yards a game (offense minus defense). This was one of the better marks in the conference, and if the defense can maintain that same stout level of play--not a given, since Auburn has no choice but to line up a lightly-regarded true freshman across from the slot receiver, but likely nonetheless on paper--what seems like inevitable improvement from the offense should lead to an even wider margin this year. Sweet. (For compare/contrast's sake, I give you Tennessee, whose atrocious defending led them to a hideous minus-43 yards-a-game deficit. Yikes.)

Turnovers: Another of Steele's pet metrics, where random fluctuations that push a team's turnover margin too high or too low (see LSU's plus-20 in this department last season) can portend a swing of the pendulum the other way the following season. Again, no reason for Auburn to worry here: they finished dead even in turnover margin last year, with precisely the same number of giveaways as takeaways. If, again, you assume the defense can continue its ballhawking ways while our quarterbacks don't, ahem, occasionally toss off their back foot into triple coverage, Auburn should finish in the black this year. (It probably won't hurt if OTS's projections as they apply to fumble luck prove prophetic as well.)

Pythagorean wins: Not a whole lot to see here, really. Auburn overachieved by less than half a win in SEC play, neither notably lucky nor unlucky (and not drawing mention at all from OTS in his write-up). Five SEC Pythagorean wins (rounded up) isn't bad: given that they came with a frightfully young team that returns tons of key starters and depth all over the two-deep, a full six--which even LSU didn't manage last year--shouldn't be out of the question.

The bottom line: There's nothing here to suggest that if the 9-4 team of a year ago improves its down-to-down performance, as it should, that Auburn's record--particularly given the cushier SEC schedule--won't improve right along with it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Good news, bad news

Good news: Well, more personal good news than general "good news," but one of the three Official Brothers of the JCCW got hitched last weekend in Pensacola. Said wedding was followed by a couple days chilling (actually, given that yours truly arrived at the Gulf Coast fresh off a couple of weeks of low-to-mid 80s in Ann Arbor, "chilling" doesn't feel like the appropriate term) in the lovely South and mowing down about a half-dozen Chick-Fil-A sandwiches.

Bad news: I thought I'd be able to get some bloggin' done on the trip. As you can see, that didn't happen so much.

Good news: After so many long months of hardship and famine, Auburn kicks off their 2008 season in just over a week, thank everything holy.

Bad news: I had so many grand plans for the 2008 A-U Pre-view--not to mention getting, like, twice as far along in the Cheese Puff series--and "just over a week" isn't nearly enough time to do those plans justice. Particularly since ...

Good news/bad news: ... the JCCW and Mrs. JCCW take off tomorrow for the same late August vacay that had me watching the K-St. game in Middle of the Woods, Michigan last fall. It's going to be a sweet trip (we're saying yah to da U.P., FWIW) but the timing, obviously, could be a wee bit better. I'm going to do what I can to get some worthwhile preview stuff up over the next week, but I can't promise you a lot. Sorry. This blog should be better.

The Good news is that at least it will be once this brief period of tumult is over. I was going to hold off on this little announcement until I got the promised update of the site completed (still coming, I swear), but if you noticed that uptick in content between the start of August and last Thursday, that wasn't a random blip; there's been a self-imposed, uh, shift in my employment status that gave and will continue to give me a bundle more blogging time.

In short, the JCCW's old days of two posts in a good week are over, and I should have plenty of time to make this an Auburn blog year-round in addition to indulging my college hoops jones in the spring. I am, as the kids say, stoked--over this coming season this blog is going to get a lot closer to being the blog it ought to be and that its readers deserve than it's ever been. Stick around. It'll be worth it.

Just as soon as I'm not gallivanting around from the panhandle to Lake Superior and whatnot, anyway. See you soon.

Power Poll hoo-ha

The JCCW is entering its second season as a proud, card-carrying member of the SEC Power Poll. Though I suppose you can question how proud I really am, what with the waiting until the very last moment before last night's deadline to turn in my preseason vote.

The preseason assignment from pollmaster Cocknfire of G&BA was to rank the SEC's 12 coaches, which is a bit of a nebulous directive--are we ranking them according to what they've accomplished or who we think is the best coach right this minute? In the end I went with more of the latter than the former, with a certain level of respect paid to Darth Visor and Fat Phil for their ever-receding '90s accomplishments.

The final tally of the poll is available here, but for posterity's sake, the JCCW's ballot and reasoning is listed below. Enjoy.

1. Mark Richt. For all the hand-wringing over whether the Celebration was the right button to push for Ethics and Sportsmanship and whatnot, there's no question it was the right one to push for his team--and given that it's not something Richt would have approved under (probably) any other circumstances, it shows how much he's willing to do for his team. That (relative) ruthlessness combined with his usual frightening consistency makes him No. 1.

2. Tommy Tuberville. Homerrific choice for No. 2, perhaps, but none of the guys below have an undefeated SEC season under their belt and doing what Tubby's done at Auburn--located in a state that has always had and perhaps always will have a certain crimson tinge--is particularly impressive.

3. Urban Meyer. Would move up with another SEC title, but if his defense still isn't fixed this year it'll raise some Q's about his long-term viability

4. Nick Saban. Can't give the Most Powerful Coach In Sports too much credit for what Miles accomplished in his wake, and outside of 2003 he's got nothing Tubby, Meyer, etc. don't. Not yet, anyways--it won't surprise me if that changes in the next few years. *Grits teeth into powder*

5. Les Miles. National titles with two L's still count as national titles. Maybe some of them were Saban's players, but who's to say Saban would have gotten that much out of them?

6. Bobby Johnson. Vandy's best coach pretty much ever. Unbelievable some 'Dore fans were discussing whether they still wanted him after last year ... I know not making a bowl was a disappointment, but that they're even in the hunt even as the SEC is at its strongest point since I've been following it is a hell of a statement.

7. Steve Spurrier.
You have to respect the legacy. But I'm not sure what he really brings to the table these days. Offensive innovation is everywhere. He doesn't like recruiting. He's still struggling to find someone to run a successful defense. Sorry, Brandon.

8. Houston Nutt. As many SEC West titles as Tubby in a place with just as many difficulties--if not more, given the sort of fanbase we're talking about here--means he should maybe be higher. Year-to-year inconsistency hurts, though. We'll see what he does in Oxford.

9. Philip Fulmer. Nine years is a long time and his East titles have left a decidedly fluky aftertaste. But he's still here.

10. Bobby Petrino.
Can't believe this guy is tenth. I mean, seriously. What a joke of a conference. Bobby Petrino, the guy who turned Louisville into a powerhouse and puts together an offense better than anyone not named for a Pope and generally scares the piss out of me. But it's tough to put him any higher when he hasn't accomplished anything in the SEC yet.

11. Rich Brooks. Eh, we'll see what happens without Andre Woodson. Not sure Kentucky was that much better with Brooks and Woodson than with Morriss and Lorenzen--just a little better about finishing off LSU teams they had beaten.

12. Sylvester Croom.
Sure, State's dangerous, at least, but let's see some progress that isn't fueled by pick-sixes and punt returns before we go nuts. Croom's story is undoubtedly worth celebrating ... not sure we'll say the same about his results after 2008.

An update on where I've been for a week coming shortly.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Holy crap, times two

Holy crap the first: If you were wondering what would happen when Matt Hinton--already ridiculously prolific for someone workin' for a livin' at SMQ--got paid to write about our Glorious Game full-time, here is your answer: 27 posts in three days as of this writing, all of them of the same five-star quality we came to expect when Hinton was at SMQ. I'm expecting an expose soon from Yahoo Sports on Hinton's diet, which I figure must be downright Michael Phelps-ian to fuel such productivity.

Holy crap the second: 15 years?!?! You're telling me that if I had a child tomorrow, that child could get his learner's permit, and to celebrate he could drive the two of us to the local, say, Beef O'Brady's to watch Auburn pound new SEC member Flying Car State, and the game would still be on CBS under the same contract they're signing now?

I don't share Will's appraisal of CBS's SEC coverage--Lundquist and Danielson are above-average, I think Tim Brando's a decent studio host, and they recognized the need to get Tony Barnhart on air--but he's 100 percent correct that locking into a deal this long-term won't make much financial sense. Not that I'm any kind of financial expert (day job: journalist), but unless we're talking enough coin that Jordan-Hare winds up gold-plating their urinal troughs, I don't see why a contract of this length is a bright idea.

The Works, Round 3 FIGHT!-style

One day I'll learn Photoshop, and then I'll be able to replace the heads here with Coleman's and Ziemba's, and then won't that be fun?

Auburn ... wins? Honestly, I'm more happy than disappointed about Tubby's Fight Club when it leads to blog-based creativity like so. I suppose the possibility that Ziemba's going to put one of our starting defensive ends in the hospital (I have to type "again" here, don't I? Sigh) again is a little troubling, but as long as the Auburn version of Kyle Turley doesn't start throwing helmets at his teammates, I'm not sweating it.

And as for the tut-tutting from the crimson-tinted areas of the state, WRAS provides the proper response:

In the end, what will any of this matter once actual football starts? Assuming the unlikely event of an injury stays unlikely, none.

Really? I think David Ching's trying to be complimentary when he writes of Phillip Pierre-Louis:
He can flat out fly, but he's about 5-foot-nothing, 100-and-nothing. Maybe a faster version of Markeith Cooper if you remember him.
Um, David, you probably know this, but the Auburn fans I know only remember "The Lizard" when we're forced to. Isn't there some, um, useful player we could compare Pierre-Louis to? Since that's the point--Pierre-Louis looks useful.

Well, he does have time for this sh*t. Coachbots understand that there's no reason not to treat the lowly beat reporters who make their livelihood covering him like the dirt underneath dirt's feet, or to even blow off the Stewart Mandels of the world. They can't offer anything genuinely beneficial in return; the only motivation to give them any help is useless common courtesy.

But of course if a reporter is interested in writing a lionizing cover story that calculations show should help expand a national recruiting footprint, be it for SI or for the likes of Forbes:

coachbots will be more than happy to accomodate you.

Co-sign, sort of. Kyle explains why Georgia should take on Clemson more often, and while I don't think the Auburn-Georgia Tech series ever quite had the animosity present between Cousin Clem and the 'Dawgs--I have an aunt who graduated from Clemson and will merrily curse Kevin Butler's name forever--there are several sections of his post where you could run a find and replace with "Auburn" for "Georgia" and "Tech" for "Clemson" and have it be entirely appropriate. Like Kyle, I can buy that it's not feasible for Auburn and Tech to renew their rivalry on an annual basis; I can't buy that two teams with as much tradition as the Tigers and Jackets can't work out more than one home-and-home over a span of 20 years. (There's a certain amount of irony to all this, of course.)

Buggin'. Lost amidst Aairon Savage's departure, the plague of ACL tears at Florida (which God was totally getting around to after the frogs and blood and whatnot back in the day ... and if you'd like to compare Meyer to Pharoah at this point to top off the metaphor, be my guest) and Sturdivant's breakdown at Georgia has been that Ole Miss has been bitten by the injury bug as well. In fact, he recently came right out and admitted it at Rebel blog the Red Solo Cup, which I don't think I've linked before but which you should probably bookmark/add to your reader pronto. Good stuff.

Elsewhere... the Auburner goes back to school; Evan Woodberry gives us a useful special teams update; TSIB expands humorously on the offensive nickname discussion; and Poseur at ATVS has some interesting thoughts on the Olympics and SEC expectations.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Because the one consistent complaint I've heard about the JCCW is that there hasn't been enough discussion of whether the Mountain West runner-up might be a better team than the WAC champion, I've joined the BlogPoll. This is my preseason ballot.

Which means I should probably explain my preseason polling philosophy, which is that this is purely a power poll, my personal ridiculous guess at which team would beat which team on a neutral field were they to play today. (I think I borrowed that criterion from Peter King's "Fine Fifteen," which is unfortunately not the best place to start.) Schedules are not taken into account and this is by no means intended as a sneaky method of prediction: just because I've got ranked Georgia ranked over Florida doesn't necessarily mean I expect Georgia to beat the Gators or win the SEC East.* Like ninjas, this ballot is about real ultimate power and nothing else.

On with it:

1. Georgia. Neither I nor any sane SEC fan will expect "SEC's best team" to automatically equal "country's best team." But after the last couple of years and given the SEC's BCS bowl record, that might be the case for the nonce. And as I expect Stacy Searels to come up with something to fill the Sturdivant-shaped hole in the o-line, I think the Dawgs are legitimately the best team in the SEC.

2. Ohio St. Sorry. But they return everydamnbody up to and including the drum majors and waterboys.

3. Oklahoma. Per Steele, more returning starts on the o-line than any other team in the country. After the West Virginia game people forgot they were one ill-timed injury to Bradford away from playing for the national title last year.

4. Florida. Impossible to rank them higher with as many question marks on the defense as they have, but Sweet Merciful Heavens will you look at that offense.

5. Missouri. The same team as last year. Assuming that team has improved on defense at all, the Big 12 North is theirs.

6. USC. They have waaaaaaay too much guru-approved talent to go any lower than here, but am I alone in thinking that the--for lack of a better word--spark has left this program? The last two years they've been supposed to romp past the Pac-10 and two years in a row the Pac-10's been more ready for the Trojans than advertised. Now they have a brand-new o-line, a new QB, and a corps of RB's and WR's who haven't done anything serious in two seasons. We'll see.

7. Cousin Clem. Am I really calling a Tommy Bowden-coached team the seventh-best one in the country? Do I really have them ahead of my own Auburn team, who beat them in a bowl game and should so more improvement over the offseason? Yeah, I guess so. When you've got the best set of RB's in the country and a studly defensive line, you have to figure that the year it inevitably all comes together for them will be this one.

8. Oregon. I'm taking a flyer on the Ducks based on the shakiest possible reasoning: this one play, which speaks to something deep in my soul about Chip Kelly's creativity as an OC. Well, that play, and the 56-21 obliteration (sans Dixon) of a legit USF team in their bowl.

9. Auburn. Seems about right.

10. LSU. Likewise.

11. South Florida. As with Missouri and Ohio St., this team (save for its cornerbacks) is back basically intact from 2007. And as an Auburn fan, I can tell you: that team is pretty damn good (one of the underrated performances from last year: they beat bowl-bound UCF 64-12). Now if they can just quit honking games to UConn.

12. Texas. Colt McCoy should be rebuilt by now, right?

13. Wisconsin. The most boringly effective team in America, a virtual lock to be their usual boringly effective selves.

14. BYU. First off: BYU always deserves the benefit of the doubt because a third of their guys are two years older than everyone else's guys. Only three returning starters on D makes me a tad nervous, but I figure Mendehall can coach that side up. In the meantime, the offense looks like it should outclass the rest of the MWC.

15. Tennessee. As stated previously: if Clawson knows what he's doing at all, the offensive line will give Crompton enough time and Foster enough room to make this one of the SEC's best offenses.

16. Texas Tech. Avast ye mateys, and prepare to walk the heart-stopping plank of 12 consecutive 54-50 games!

17. Kansas. Take scheduling into account and they probably drop out of the poll completely, but as SMQ has repeated ad nauseum, last year was not a fluke and with both Todd Reesing and nearly the entire defense back, they belong here.

18. Pitt. Another flyer, this time on the sort of defense- and ball control-first formula (seven starters back from the country's No. 5 unit, plus LeSean McCoy) that Rutgers employed to such great effect in the Big East two years ago.

19. West Virginia. The biggest outlier on the ballot. Bottom line is that I should probably have more respect for one of the nation's best o-lines and the blinding power of White/Devine, but I happen to think Bill Stewart was an awful, emotion-driven hire and that the house of cards built by RichRod collapses (for a given definition of "collapse") without him. That they've spent so much of the offseason talking about having Pat White throw the ball more often is just more evidence. (Note: still not a prediction about the Auburn-WVU game.)

20. Penn St. Another team whose coaching staff holds them back. The offensive line is awfully good, though, apparently.

21. Virginia Tech. Pretty much on sheer reputation, because by all accounts the offense = Tyrod Taylor + ghost town. But you know Beamer will, by hook and/or crook, get them to at least lower-rung top-25 material.

22. Arizona St. The Pac-10 seems pretty likely to produce a third team deserving of a top-20 spot, but I'll be damned if I know who it is. The Sun Devils don't have an offensive live, Cal lost almost everyone of note and lost to Stanford and Washington to end last season, and the rest all look even more unsatisfying. Erickson breaks the tie.

23. TCU. The Horned Frogs seem a little overdue for one of those 11-1 style years, no? What Steele calls the MWC's top defense and returning starters at RB and QB don't hurt.

24. Illinois. Zook has stockpiled too much talent for this team to backslide all the way out of the top 25, even without the kind of guy who's capable of saving the world.

25. Ole Miss. Yes, between their strength on the lines and the grudging respect for Nutt that befits an Auburn fan, I think this is the sixth-best team in the SEC. I will accept my straitjacket with a minimum of fuss.

Also considered: Alabama, South Carolina, Boise St., Fresno St., Oklahoma St., Cincinnati, Nebraska, Utah.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Works, two roads diverging in an orange-and-blue wood-style

Introducing your new Auburn quarterback, Khrisodi Burn-Stodd. The arrival of another week of practice without a leader declared in Auburn's quarterback race seems to have the media circling the situation with even greater, uh, circular force. This hasn't been a purely negative development, mind you--getting to hear an apparent straight shooter like Tony Franklin say Burns vs. Todd is "the best problem I think I've had in my life" is more than a little encouraging for any Auburn fans fretting we might not have any viable quarterbacks at all, much less two.

Then again: I'm not sure Franklin's accurate when he calls the situation "nothing but positive," not when Burns has what seems like a legitimate point when he tells Chris Low it's hard to lead as half a quarterback. Hell, Tubby admitted as much himself.

This is one of a couple of things that make me fidgety with the building momentum towards a regular-season QB rotation, no matter how many articles we read about how great Todds and Burns get along. Not only does it strike me as awfully hard for a team to put its complete faith in a quarterback when there's always going to be the tiny voices inside each player that say "I sure do like Chris/Kodi, but I have to say I'm glad/disappointed Kodi/Chris is coming in," but it's difficult to remember any SEC team that succeeded with an out-and-out quarterback 1A and quarterback 1B approach. Everyone loves pointing to Greene/Shockley or Leak/Tebow or, if you prefer, Cox/Burns. But in every one of those situations there was a clearly-defined starter with the second QB brought in as a (run-first) change-of-pace. Tossing both guys into the pool and waiting to see who floats to the top, as Franklin seems to be suggesting, seems to yours truly a good way to risk the offense thrashing around at the bottom for another year, waiting for the defense to once again throw them a life preserver.

That's not to say, of course, I'm going to abandon hope if Burns takes the first snap against ULM and Todd comes in a series later; if Tubby and Franklin feel that's the best way to go about it, so be it. And reading between the lines, I think Tubby feels more-or-less the same way--otherwise, why not wait even longer to name a starter? But the best-case scenario at the JCCW will remain one guy or the other taking the next several days to look the job over, decide it's his, sign all the appropriate paperwork, and drive the sucker home.

Good news. There's been plenty for Auburn fans to smile about over the last several days, starting with the simple fact that the offense had the upper hand in Saturday's scrimmage. I know that a) with hard facts about the scrimmage curiously made more difficult to come by than Chinese military budget information, their hand may not really have been so much "upper" as "sorta higher, maybe"; b) that any kind of "advantage" the offense had disappeared by the next practice; c) the scrimmage bore as much resemblance to an actual Auburn football game as I bear a resemblance to a shirtless D'Angelo.

But even with all of that taken into consideration: we have a new offense with new QB's and a defense that virtually all logic dictates will rank amongst the nation's best. If the Auburn offense enters the season even within striking distance of the Auburn defense, this is a Good Sign.

Also: Spencer Pybus is going to be a hell of a story if he winds up contributing; Tristan Davis is apparently ready to make Auburn's kickoff return a 2006-style weapon again; and more importantly, he, Merrill Johnson, Courtney Harden, and James Swinton got their degrees.

Franklin sez you suck. You've probably read this Franklin-featuring Ivan Maisel piece on the alleged decline of the huddle already, and Lord knows we've gotten enough Franklin profiles and quotes this offseason to last us through the apocalypse and beyond.

But it's worth highlighting again anyway, just for this little gem:
If you think about it, how many times do you have an extremely complicated NFL offense that has six shifts and motions before the snap, with these geniuses, and they run it and they lose two yards. I could have done the same thing in a lot less time. I've always thought I'm as smart as them. I'll just lose it faster.
I'm not sure I totally buy Franklin's logic here--wouldn't it be better to uh, just slow down long enough to audible into something else?--but as an Auburn fan you have to enjoy having a coach who's willing to derisively call out NFL OC's making five times his salary as "these geniuses." Mostly, I would say, because it seems to be of a part with calling a quarterback draw for Brandon Cox on third-and-five in the fourth quarter trailing by a TD.

Also from the world of Franklin stuff you've already seen is this Fanpost at Track'Em, which is well-done but neglects to mention that even if the yards-per-play drop a touch, more consistency and more first downs and thus more plays (a la the Clemson game) is a huge boon to the defense as well.

This is your legacy, Warriors. Hope you're happy. Senator Blutarsky proves the point I made last January about Hawaii: all the work done by Boise the year before to legitimize mid-majors' right to crash the BCS party has been undone. It's not that I mind the skepticism regarding Tulsa's legitimacy for a BCS berth, but they shouldn't be dismissed out of hand, either--sure, the defense sucked last year, but if it improves to the point where they're blowing teams out 55-20 on a weekly basis, I'm not sure that or their schedule should matter. It's simply about how good they are, and anyone who paid close enough attention last year would have realized that a Hawaii team that needed overtime to beat Louisiana Tech just plain wasn't. (Good, I mean.) A better schedule would be nice, but if even the likes of the Golden Hurricane romp all over it, the JCCW's official position is that they'll deserve their shot. Too bad that thanks to Hawaii, it seems a whole lot less likely they'd get it.

And lastly ... I didn't get all the details right with my recollection of Skip Caray's psychic-flash moment--the movie promo leaked right into his call of the play even more awesomely than I remembered--but that doesn't mean you shouldn't watch this wonderful tribute to Skip from Ernie Johnson and TNT. (HT: AA.) Enjoy.

2008 A-U Pre-view: 2007 in song

First in a series.

Press play.


The lights go on

The lights go off

When things don't feel right

I lie down like a tired dog

licking his wounds in the shade ...


(horns of recovery)


When I feel alive

I try to imagine a careless life


where the sunsets are all


breathtaking ...


(horns of War Eagle)


Next up: 2007 in numbers. Music is recommended and available here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cheese Puff Previews #5: Tennessee

This series of near-substanceless, air-injected preview puffery should in no way be mistaken for actual preseason football nutrition. Nonetheless, the hope is that you will find the series unaccountably tasty and even habit-forming, and as such it is unofficially sponsored by:

It's not week-for-week the way I'd draw it up, but one of the good things about Auburn's 2008 schedule is that after a fairly rigorous three-week stretch of wildcard Southern Miss, rugged Mississippi St., and the annual toughest-game-on-the-schedule against LSU, the Tigers will be able to take a bit of a breather in Week 5 as they play host to ...

Tennessee? Tennessee? %$#@! Seriously, for the love of ... seriously. %$#@. No Ainge, I know, but Arian Foster might be the best back not named "Knowshon" in the league, the o-line is monstrous, the defensive front seven might be a little softer but the secondary is frightening. They're still the Vols. LSU, Tennessee, back-to-back. I know it's the SEC, but come on, who ...

Wait, what? Tennessee's playing who the week before? Florida? Oh.

Well. That's ... that's OK then. I guess.

Last year: Tennessee opened the Phil Fulmer pressure valve a little wider with a 10-win season, one that that included an SEC East title via tiebreaker, a more-than-respectable performance against the national champs in Atlanta, and a bowl victory over Wisconsin. Powering the Vols' run? Luck. Yep, pure, unfiltered, undiluted luck, the 35-14 drubbing of Georgia obviously excepted. (Of course, lucky or unlucky they don't award trips to Atlanta for style points.)

Meanwhile, behind a frightfully green-but-improving offensive line, Auburn rebounded from early upset losses to South Florida and Mississippi St. to upset top-five Florida on the road, take eventual national champion LSU to the wire, and stretch their school-record Iron Bowl winning streak to six on their way to a satisfying 9-4 final record.

Notable previous meeting: In 1989, in what was almost inarguably the sport's biggest rivalry at the time, Auburn and Tennessee met for a climactic clash that would decide the national championship.

Auburn had powered their way into the national title discussion with an undefeated regular season and would continue to build momentum with a five-point win over defending national champion Louisiana Tech. Before a national TV audience on CBS (still a novelty for the sport at the time), the Volunteers took an early lead, although Auburn responded to draw within a single possession early in the second half.

Unfortunately for the Lady Tigers, All-American Vickie Orr struggled with foul trouble throughout the game and picked up her third just as Auburn began to gain their second-half momentum. Despite the efforts of All-American Ruthie Bolton and freshman sensation Carolyn "C.J." Jones, the Volunteers would pull away for the 76-60 win and Pat Summitt's second women's basketball national title.

Damn them.

Actual (football) series history: The inter-divisional rotation hasn't brought the two teams together since Auburn swept two match-ups against the Vols in their division-winning seasons in 2004, giving the Tigers a three-game streak in the series after their 2003 win. Before that victory, though, the Tigers hadn't beaten Tennessee in six tries since 1988 (including a 26-26 tie in 1990).

All-time, Auburn leads the series 25-21-1.

Causes for Alarm

1. This is the sort of thing that would usually fall under the "alleged analysis" section of these things, but the Tennessee offensive line scares me worse than heights, needles, snakes, and Lou Holtz combined. It would be one thing if all they had going for them was the two allowed sacks on 301 pass attempts in SEC play. It would be another if the only other positive was that the Vols' 4.2 yards-per-carry mark was their highest since 2004. But it's something else when they return four of the five starters--fourth in the country according to Steele in terms of returning 2007 OL starts--that made those accomplishments possible. Yikes.

Second-team All-American senior left guard and certified nightmare fuel Anthony Parker.

Yes, Auburn should have a defensive line capable of inspiring a certain amount of terror itself. I'd feel better about their chances at wetting the pants at the Reggie Cobb Oil Change if Marks, Coleman, Carter, etc. weren't facing--yeah, I'm going to come right out and say it--the best o-line in the SEC.

2. I'm convinced somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of the Vols' success in football is attributable to--in the words of a study published by leading researchers in a major medical journal--the "the uncontrollable disruption of even routine mental thought processes, a reflexive impairment the layman might even refer to as temporary brain damage" caused by repeated exposure to Rocky Top over a three-to-four hour period. The study suggested that the occasional, random exposure to Rocky Top during a childhood spent in a Tennessee-centric environment could eventually create a tolerance for the song sufficient to render its immediate effects minimal (though long-term exposure was shown to have its own adverse side effects), but with no such protection Auburn's players and coaches can expect to struggle with the presence of the Pride of the Southland Band in Jordan-Hare.

On the positive side, the study suggested that if Earth ever comes under attack from the sound-vulnerable species of Martians depicted in the film Mars Attacks!*, bombarding the aliens with Rocky Top may prove as equally effective a countermeasure as Slim Whitman's "Indian Love Call."

Causes for Confidence

1. There are two good recognized nicknames out there (that I'm aware of, anyway) for SEC offenses: the "Cock and Fire" and, forgive the homerism, the "Spread Eagle." Both have the names of fierce and school-affiliated birds involved. Both have active verbs (two in C&F's's case). Both have certain pleasant sixth-grade-level sexual double-entendres, which I for one certainly appreciate. And both are clever.

At the moment, the term "Clawfense" is, like the baby bird fiddling with its wings and perched at the edge of the nest, trying to soar into the broader SEC consciousness as shorthand for new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson's mysterious offense.

Frankly, the "Clawfense" already has a strike against it when its players greet it not so much with the obligatory OMG SO GREAT WE'RE GOING TO SCORE A MILLION POINTS but with "uh, a lot of this is going over my head" statements borrowed from the opening of the Bill Callahan era in Lincoln. But it also suffers when it gets nicknamed the "Clawfense," more a Bad Joke than actual nickname.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. even though As any of my longtime readers (or readers of any length of time, come to think of it) could tell you, I am a lifelong appreciator of bad jokes. And as bad jokes go, it's not bad. I'd probably be awful proud of it if it was my bad-joke baby.

But as a nickname? To my ear it just sounds a tiny bit like a streeeeeeeeeetch. Plus, a claw is less intimidating than an entire bird. Plus plus (and speaking of birds) it sounds like the offense built around this guy:

and you don't want your offense to sound like that.

2. Britton Colquitt's a hell of a punter (or possibly, from the sound of it, a law firm), but Auburn doesn't have to care, as his suspension will end the following week against Northern Illinois. Mmmmm, field position.

(I will say this for Fulmer: I'm not sure every coach in this conference would suspend one of his team's best weapons for the back-to-back games against Florida and Auburn and let him come back only when it's time to steamroll a MAC tomato can.)

Actual alleged analysis: Honestly: what the hell do we make of Tennessee?

There are grumblings from certain hunter's orange-colored corners that with an avalanche of hype burying the division's top two teams, the defending East champs deserve to have at least a slushball or two of respect tossed their way. And on paper, there's little question they have a point. The offense is Ainge-less, yes, but Ainge-less isn't so bad when the line is this good, the entire receiving corps returns, and Arian Foster is ready to take 30 handoffs a game when you are, sir. All Jonathan Crompton has to do is not screw it up, and combining his relative experience (junior, one start) with his recruiting evaluations (PS #3) suggests he may be capable of doing much more than not screwing it up.

Defensively, the front seven loses four starters, but two of the returners are mountainous senior tackle Demonte Bolden and tackling-machine linebacker Rico McCoy, and the line gets the "despite the losses, this unit should be tougher up front" treatment from Steele. The secondary, meanwhile, might be in the "best in the country" discussion. There's not a ton to dislike on this side of the ball, either.

But as always, it's the play that's the thing, and the 2007 Vols--who had just as many on-paper reasons for optimism as this year's version, if not more--just didn't play very well if you look anywhere besides the scoreboard. Again, their Pythagorean was awful. They were outgained by 32.7 yards a game, the third-worst mark in the league. They finished plus-7 in turnovers. Whatever their record said, this team underachieved on a down-to-down basis and will have to dramatically improve just to tread water in the win-loss column this year.

And as many positives as the Vols' have, there are reasons to think that if there is improvement, it's not going to be dramatic. Crompton will still have a learning curve, one made all the more steep for Cutcliffe's departure and the Clawfense's apparent intricacies. The wideouts are experienced but--Gerald Jones potentially aside--don't seem the sort to keep opposing DC's awake at night. And even with the staggering late-season improvement shown by the secondary, this is still a defense with several major losses from a unit that gave up 59 to Florida, 41 to the Tide, 45 to Cal. My hunch is that 2008 Tennessee proves to be a slightly better football team than 2007 Tennessee, with the giant caveat of a slightly--or even significantly--worse record.

A loss at J-Hare could--maybe even should--be part of that, um, worse-ness. I like Auburn in the trenches, where our d-line should be able to battle even the Vols' o-line to something approaching a draw and our o-line should have an edge. Frankly, unless the Clawson hire turns out to be a coup, I like the game-planning track record of Tubby and his staff better than I do Fulmer and his. The Vols have also been wretched on the road of late--they've lost their last three away games against ranked teams by a combined 70 points, and that's not even taking the beatdown in Tuscaloosa into consideration.

In the end, though, I come back to the same complaint with the schedule I opened this post with. Don't get me wrong: Auburn fans don't have the slightest bit of whining wriggle room when the Vols are going to arrive on the Plains a week after hosting the Gators. But let's theorize, regardless, that the Tigers emerge battered and bruised from the LSU game (is there any other way to emerge from an Auburn-LSU game?) but with what will surely look like a season-defining victory in hand. Meanwhile, let's say Tennessee gets Tebowned for a second straight year, this time in Knoxville. This scenario would send Auburn into their date with the Vols as an unequivocal home favorite, one ranked in the top-10, in the SEC West driver's seat, and busy soaking up the congratulations and title-talk on all sides. The Vols, meanwhile, would be wounded and angry, while still as talented as ever and likely badly underrated.

If you have been an Auburn fan for any length of time, you recognize this as the sort of scenario that has always been Tubby's biggest Achilles heel. It's also, unfortunately, the same scenario Fulmer has used to save his career on more than one occasion and has perpetually thrived in. It terrifies me.

Obviously, the scenario could just as easily be reversed, with Auburn falling at home to LSU and Tennessee springing the upset over Florida. Or both teams could win and set up a massive clash of undefeateds. Or they could both lose and set up the Raycom Game of the Week. Whatever happens, the point is this: I firmly believe Auburn's too good to go 0-2 over these two weeks. But even if that's a valley too deep to expect Auburn to slip into, 2-0 is likewise a mighty tall hill to climb. The Tigers can get there, no question, but they'd better bring some extra oxygen and the best crampons they can find, because both LSU and the Vols are going to make sure it's treacherous footing every step of the way.

*I haven't met enough other people who enjoyed (or even remember) this movie to really make this reference worthwhile, I know, but screw it--the image of the UT band marching down the streets of Vegas with Martian heads exploding left and right is too appropriate to pass up. Plus, the film's a totally underrated entry in the Burton oeuvre and deserves the attention. So there you go.