Tuesday, September 30, 2008

SECond Look, Week 5: Go West

First, a little obligatory theme music, courtesy of Hey Jenny Slater favorite the Pet Shop Boys:

For those of you not interested in socialist-themed videos of '90s British technopop anthems (i.e. every single one of you except for Doug Gillett) that's "Go West," which is a pretty neat summation for the divisional shift in SEC power thus far this season. It's not exactly a secret, of course, that the preseason "East = The 2008 Colossi and better depth" consensus has been smashed into oblivion--just a look over the interdivisional scoreboard-to-date makes it pretty clear--but the shift is probably even more pronounced than those results make it appear.

Why? Several reasons:

1. The quarterback position is no longer an issue at LSU.
John Parker Wilson wasn't the only one to suddenly have the "liability" bulls-eye on his back removed this weekend. Jarrett Lee went out Saturday against one of the better secondaries in the SEC and proved that his second half at Jordan-Hare was no fluke, completing 18-of-27 for 261 yards, 2 TDs, and one pick. That's a sterling 9.7 yards-per-attempt and 14-and-a-half per completion.

Coming into the season, the conventional wisdom was that the difference between the Powers That Be in Athens and Gainesville and the one in Baton Rouge was that even if the Bayou Bengals' defense, lines, receivers, backs, etc. were all better than the Dawgs' or Gators', the quarterback position would be such a gaping wound it wouldn't matter. Now that it's not so much an issue as a strength, it seems pretty clear it's LSU and Alabama who are, for the nonce, the league's giants.

2. Ole Miss is still better than you think. Yes, the Rebels have two losses. Yes, they got a little bit fortunate with Florida's fumbling problems and got outgained by more than 100 yards. Yes, their defense still needs work.

But remember that both those losses came with the Rebels outgaining their opponent--by 180 yards in the Vandy game's case--and that on a down-to-down basis, there wasn't much difference between Ole Miss and the Gators, if any. The Rebs only managed 10 first downs to Florida's 24, but thanks to the same great big giant whopping plays that Nutt-coached teams have always seemed to come up with, they outgained Florida per rush 3.7 to 3.5 and outgained the Tebow Child 8.8 to 8.4 per-pass. (How those numbers managed to add up to Florida posting a 6.1 overall gain-per-play mark to the Rebels' 5.5, I don't know. I tried to figure that out and it made my head hurt.)

Bottom line: the Rebels' win in the Swamp was a lot less fluky than their losses to Wake and the 'Dores. If they played these five games 100 times, they'd be 5-0 more often than they'd be the 3-2 they are now. As things stand now, the Rebels' game against Auburn in Oxford is at the very least a toss-up, and frankly Nutt's bunch may very well wind up the favorite.

3. South Carolina just isn't terribly good, either. Last Saturday the 'Cocks took on the same UAB team the hapless Vols had rolled up 548 yards against, outscored by 32 points, and outgained by 273 yards two weeks prior. The result? A 26-13 final, only 353 yards of offense, and a 146-yard margin over the Blazers.

It's true that Garcia making his de facto debut may have made things a little unsettled and that the 'Cocks defense will be fearsome as long as it stays healthy, but the evidence presented against UAB (and Wofford, you my recall) is that Carolina has a long way to go and a short time in which to do it. (Then again, I hammered Alabama for a similar performance against Tulane and you see how right I was about that, so take with a grain of salt.)

Add it all together with the Tide's obliteration of the Dawgs, and what it looks like is that unless Vandy can keep their Gladstone Gander act intact, the West will be home to not only the top two favorites for the league title but as many as three of the top four or four of the top six teams in the league.

So with that said and before I have to contemplate how Mississippi St. and Arkansas fit into this little argument, on with the JCCW's ballot in this week's ...

1. Alabama.
Until Oklahoma beats somebody substantial, this is the correct choice for your No. 1 team in the country. I will now go jump off a bridge.

2. LSU. SEC Fashion Watch sez ... In: LSU-'Bama in Baton Rouge; Five Minutes Ago: WLO Cocktail Party; Out: Fulmer vs. Spurrier.

3. Georgia. Well, gosh, I guess devastating injuries to key starters along both lines can catch up with you eventually. Who knew? (Uh, given that I never even slightly wavered from my choice of the Dawgs as your eventual SEC champion, not me.)

4. Ole Miss. Between the win over Florida--every bit the quality win as 'Bama's in Athens or LSU's on the Plains--and the Rebels' generally high-level quality of play, yeah, I think they go fourth.

5. Florida. Attention Dan Mullen gripers: when your offense gains 443 yards, scores 30 points, and only turns the ball over on fumbles, your offensive coordinator is not the problem. As for the 4th-and-1 call, sure, it's predictable, but of course if Mullen tries anything else that doesn't work he gets roasted for not just going with ol' reliable Tebow Smash.

6. Vanderbilt. Bad news for Auburn fans: Bobby Johnson will have a bye week before the 'Dores play their biggest game maybe ever. Good news: doesn't that sorta seem like the same set-up Vandy's always wilted under?

7. Auburn. Can't go higher until they beat one of the teams ranked ahead of them, but I do think the Tigers aren't getting quite enough credit when the defense is as stout as it is; if Auburn was winning 31-30 and 35-33, the grumbling would probably be a lot more muffled.

8. South Carolina. Nice to see the ol' quarterback carousel back in action. How long until Tommy Beecher gets his shot at the brass ring again?

9. Tennessee. Jonathan Crompton's display at Auburn may have been the worst performance I've ever seen from an SEC quarterback, and I've watched Auburn play Mississippi St. every year for 20 years.

10. Kentucky. There's no truth to the rumor the Big 12 looked at the Wildcats' schedule-to-date and offered them honorary membership. Though I understand Mike Leach thought it was a good idea.

11. Mississippi St. Tyson Lee looked like a decided step up from Wesley Carroll against LSU, though to be fair it would have been quite difficult to have been a step down.

12. Arkansas. 191 yards, no offensive touchdowns, two turnovers including a pick-six ... and that was the Hogs' positive side of the ball.

Drive charts

As always, these are courtesy of Joel's magic thingamajig at Rocky Top Talk. First, the pain: this is Auburn's performance against Tennessee Saturday. Note how the entire chart lists to the right as the game progresses:


I figure it's unfair to show that to you, though, without offering a little bit of the bright side as well. The Auburn offense was just as bad in the early part of last year, and then, as you'll recall, they did this against Florida:


Notice how friggin' quickly time expires in the first half after those two long touchdown drives. That kind of TOP is mmmm, mmmm good, and I maintain if it wasn't out of the question for the 2007 Auburn offense to do that it's not out of the question for the 2008 Auburn offense to do the same to the heavy-hitters remaining on the schedule, Vandy included. They did it once to Tennessee, twice to LSU, and if they can keep the penalties down, they're bound to start doing it more often. I think.

And while we're here, just for fun, let's relive the good old offensive days. This is the 2005 Georgia game:


and here's the 2004 Tennessee regular-season game:


We've come a long way, unfortunately. And what the hell, for something not-quite-completely different--it's still a fond memory, save for the drive to the 9-yard line followed by the V****n miss--here's 2006 LSU:


The Works, Khrisodi Burn-Stodd-style

I will say this for our two weeks of Khrisodi Burn-Stodd being separated into his two separate quarterbacks: it did help draw at least a little more interest into the other stories around Auburn. We have a defense! Who knew?!?

Now we're back to "all quarterbacking, all the time," though, at least with quality results from Grotus Acorn:

Last year was the sheer idiocy of burning Burns' redshirt merely to light a fire under a sub-par, injury-plagued, broken-spirited quarterback with little-to-no arm strength. Kodi was the crown jewel of our recruiting class, and pffft went an entire year of his elegibility - for what? A steady dose of Evil Brandon and - in what really bites us in the ass - a backup quarterback with incredible physical gifts who sat on the bench gaining zilch for experience. Which is how we find ourselves in this unenviable position this season of an incredibly gifted quarterback who has exactly zilch for experience. Enter Chris Todd and it's second verse, same as the first - an entire year of Kodi "Mr. Spread Offense" Burns' eligibility will be sacrificed to yet another statuesque, duck-lobbing, decision-challenged white boy with an injury problem. And next year, we're still going to be starting from scratch with Kodi and we're still going to be deficient in effective field leadership.
Man, ain't that the truth.

Though to be fair, Todd was adequate-if-not-better against LSU and got off to a sharp start against Tennessee, leading the TD drive and staying blameless for the failure of the other three first-half drives under his watch: two were ruined by holding penalties and the other ended on the Rod Smith drop. According to Franklin Todd was a play away from being "perfect" up to that point and it's pretty clear reading between the lines at that link he wasn't thrilled with Tubby's decision to send Burns on. Acid Reign opines that the solid beginning was enough to keep Todd as the starter for now:
Ultimately, it's ill-advised to yank a young starter after one bad half, particularly when the calls and the rest of the offense failed as well. Burns deserves more snaps, and should have a chance to run the whole offense. The coaches made the decision they had to make. Todd starts, but we should see Burns some.

There's also the little matter to consider--as AR points out--that Burns has been far from perfect when he's gotten his opportunities. Of course, that may also be a function of his lack of opportunities in the first place:
"When the lights have flipped on, he's gone through one progression and taken off and run," Franklin said. "I think he gets caught up in the enthusiasm and the hoo-rah and everybody is 'Kodi, Kodi, Kodi,' and the adrenaline takes over. You can't let it happen. As a quarterback, you can't ever get emotional. You've got to just be cool. You've got to be level all the way through. You've got to handle adversity and you've got to handle prosperity."

Tuberville said Burns will get better as he gains more game experience.

"Sometimes he just gets too excited," Tuberville said. "That's typical. He hasn't been out there in a game like that. That's his first real big game of the year."
Which is why, as much as I sympathize with Todd, Tubby's decision here is the right one. Burns has to play, come hell or high water. Grotus hits the nail on the proverbial head: what's the point in sacrificing the future for the present when the present's barely any better for the sacrifice anyway?

And, for the record, I don't buy "he got yanked" as an excuse for Todd's second-half malaise. If he had no idea it was coming, if Tubby hadn't taken him aside and said "Look, we're going to work Kodi in this week" at some point, yeah, that's a problem, but come on: Todd had to know this was coming sometime. I'm not sure his in-out-in-out routine has been any easier than Burns's, has it?

Scenes from a troubled marriage. Man, I'm just not sure this is working: So why did Auburn start the second half with Kodi Burns at quarterback?

"Because that was what the head coach wanted to do," Franklin said.

Head coach Tommy Tuberville's version: "It was a mutual (decision)."
Yikes. But let's continue:
"There's the 'Tony Franklin Offense' that I've run most of my adult life, since the Kentucky days, of being able to go and freely do whatever," said Franklin ... "This is definitely not that."
Um ... yeah. Believe it or not, the worst is still to come, though:
"We don't understand what it means to play fast. We think we do, but we don't," Franklin said. "We're going to continue probably to slow down to try and get where we can do what these guys can do -- rather than what people have been able to do in the past. I've got to do what these guys are capable of doing."
Sigh. A big part of me wants to nod my head in agreement with the Auburner's cutting response--I guess those Kentucky and Troy players spoiled him?--though I think it's hard to genuinely accuse him of deflecting blame when the guy has heaped blame on himself from the moment the season started. (Though the Pigskin Pathos maybe sees this as just another kind of problem.)

The bottom line is this: whatever Tubby told Franklin in terms of his autonomy when he hired him, surely Franklin wasn't under any illusions that said autonomy would endure past going without an offensive touchdown at Mississippi St. and rushing for 1.9 a carry in a loss against LSU. Franklin had the entire offseason to make sure the offense was ready; it wasn't. This is his bed and he's going to have to lie in it--or, even better, fight his way out of it.

Pretty pictures. Auburn YouTube legend A96 has a Tennessee highlight package out:

but when "defensive lineman falling unmolested on ribbon-wrapped botched handoff for touchdown" is one of the biggest highlights of the clip, this is probably just best used as an excuse to link to TWER's profile of the man behind the "A96" moniker from last February.

Also in recent visuals, Athens-based JRS of Lifetime of Defeats took some Gameday photos and found that some Dawg fans maybe need to brush up on their spelling:

I'm pretty sure this actually makes that guy the Dutch.

Etc. Auburntron had a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day last Saturday (language warning) ... TWER compares Tony Franklin to Bobby Fischer, which, like, yeah, I don't see it myself but I'm hoping that's just me ... the Auburner gets their Quantum of Solace on, and yes, I do believe that's the worst name for a major motion picture I've ever heard, thanks for asking.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Recap: Tennessee, half the first

Yes, I'm doing one of these for this game. It's called "suffering for one's art," I believe.


--FOG OF INTIMIDATION IN FULL EFFECT ON YO AZZ, VOLS. Or something. Somehow I think I like it better when Tubby emerges in the same color shirt as the players. Until the Arkansas game, when I'll like him better in orange.
--CBS finally finished up their U.S. Open coverage a couple weeks back (this is halfway acceptable since it's tennis, rather than the golf version, in which I would be leading some kind of useless protest WITH SIGNS), so your hosts for today's game are Uncle Verne and the ever-sassy Gary Danielson, who says following a press-conference montage of Phil Fulmer that the Vol head man is "fired as the friggin' Enron guy" if he doesn't pull out a victory today. (I'm paraphrasing.) He also goes into great detail about how Auburn needs Chris Todd to be an accurate passer and how he's the "key" for the Tigers, then stops noticeably short of implying in any fashion that Todd is up to being that passer. Fine with me: I like some sassy-fras in my broadcast.

First quarter

--Morgan Hull takes the opening kickoff, and the kick is so damn short--it lands on about the 12--it takes the Tennessee return guy by surprise and he has to play it off the bounce. Egads. Are there really no Matt Clarks out there anymore we can find? No Matt Clarks? Really?
--I talked up the Tennessee offensive line a good bit over the summer, and I'd say based on this first possesion, they've lived up to Reverse Jinx Reverse Jinx Reverse Jinx! Coleman slams through to pressure Crompton on second down and Goggans takes the honors on third, forcing the incompletion and punt.
--Auburn takes over on their own 45 (the Vol punt = delightfully cruddy) and gets a wee bit fortunate to convert their first third down, as Billings catches near the sticks and curiously turns away from first-down yardage as he's tackled immediately. Danielson: "Judging by that play, I'd say Montez Billings has rocks and old balls of yarn inside his head instead of a brain." (I'm paraphrasing, but damn: sassy.) Fortunately Billings gets forward progress-and-then-some on the spot, and Auburn gets the first.
--Todd has looked sharp so far, connecting with Billings on that third down and finding Fannin (who has already surpassed his level of involvement from the LSU game) on a roll-out for another third-down conversion. Because this is 2008, however, Ziemba's been called for holding. On the ensuing third down Franklin dials up a fake-end-around-surprise-pass for Dunn, which ... um, 2nd-and-6, yeah, 3rd-and-maybe-4 even, but this is 3rd-and-16, there's no possible way the safeties are going to bite on ... oh. They bit like hell. It was almost a touchdown. But, again, because this is 2008, Isom sort of half-asses his block and Dunn is smothered before he has a chance to even think about throwing to the wi-hi-hi-hiiiide open Smith. Danielson both calls Franklin's playcall "the worst one I've ever seen, and that includes when I watched my four-year-old grandson play Playstation" and Tennessee's coverage "a disaster." (I'll you figure out which one is the paraphrase and which is verbatim.)
--You'll never guess who's on the sideline: Peyton "National Champion Heisman Trophy winner Pretty Good Quarterback" Manning! Odds are around 100-1 Verne and Gary will ask for a "waiver" on cloning technologies so he and Tebow can create some sort of quarterback-monster lab child, 50-1 Fulmer will get "mixed-up" and order Manning into the game, and 2-to-3 I'm going to see Manning's smug face so often this broadcast my breakfast comes back up.
--This is sort of how I expect the day to go: Tennessee rushes twice for a first down, throws incomplete, rushes for four yards, throws incomplete, punts. Jonathan Crompton, ladies and gentleman! He'll be here all day, thanks goodness.
--Holy crap, they've got Fannin lined up as the QB in the Wild Hog Tiger! He only went for three yards, but Holy crap! They've got Todd lined up under center! He hands to Tate for six more! Holy crap, they did it again and Tate went for 15! I never imagined that a quarterback taking a snap from under center would lead me to the use of excessive exclamation points! Thanks you Tony Franklin!
--A false start threatens to derail the drive, but Todd calmly finds Dunn on 3rd-and-6 for 14 yards to the UT 27. Two plays later it's 3rd-and-6 again and Todd calmly finds Trott in the middle of the field for another first down. Good to see the LSU game wasn't a mirage; why, Todd looks positively competent, like the sort of quarterback who if he doesn't bobble another snap like he just did on first down might even throw...
--a TOUCHDOWN! Todd connects with Robert Dunn on the post on 2nd-and-11 (there was another false start, yes, thanks for asking) and while it's not Sullivan-to-Beasley just yet, this Todd-to-Dunn thing has a little bit of potential about it, no? 7-0 Auburn.
--Ah yes, that was the rare, elusive, infrequently spotted "exactly what I imagined this offense looking like in the offseason" drive that Auburn has at least pulled out one of in every game this season. It was fun! The question, of course: Can they do it AGAIN? *cue dramatic and possibly foreshadowy-type horn riff*
--It's 1st-and-10 Vols on their own 49 after a big third-down conversion (a nice little pass into the flat for Jones that's wide open in a way that for some reason I never remember our little passes into the flat being), and for the first time in the game they hand the ball to Montario Hardesty. He immediately breaks off a tackle-breaking balancing act run smack up the middle for 17. I know Forster's supposed to be the Man in the backfield, but good gravy, I've watched a couple of Vol games now and this guy's just better. He just is. I'm glad the Vol coaches don't seem to realize it ...

Second quarter

-- ... since they follow up Hardesty's carry with false start-incompletion-nine-yard swing to a different back-incompletion.
--Danielson reaches new sassy heights after that last Crompton misfire, in which the Vol QB fires a tight spiral to the TV dude in the red hat. Gary says it's a bad read "unless he's not supposed to throw a touchdown pass right down the middle." That's not even paraphrase. He actually said that. Ouch-and-a-half, babe. Lincoln does connect on the field goal try, though, and it's 7-3.
--Because this is 2008, Auburn follows up their pristine and perfect touchdown drive with an utter train wreck on first down: Todd fumbles the snap, then hurries it into Tate's belly in classic "You take it!" hot potato form, and then as Tate scrambles to get back to the line of scrimmage Dunn gets called for a hold. The drive fails to recover as Todd can't quite squeeze a pass in to a tightly-covered Hawthorne on 3rd-and-10. I would say that a 69-yard touchdown drive with three third-down conversions followed by a penalty-plagued three-and-out would once again reinforce the idea that Auburn's offense is like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're going to get, hyuck hyuck hyuck--except that in an actual box of chocolates, you do know that there are going to be chocolates and that a certain percentage of them are going to be tasty even if a few are coconut-loaded. If Auburn's offense to date was a box of chocolates, however, you would open it to find two chocolates, about eight Ricola cough drops, scattered stale cashews, and a few individual plastic packets of this stuff. Not quite the same. (Though the line has been pass-blocking really well again. I should mention that.)
--Hey, whaddya know, it's Peyton Manning! I wonder if he's got anything interesting to say to intrepid sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. "These losers aren't fit to carry my jock," he says. "They might have the world's slimmest chance of a win if they'd just pull their heads out of their collective asses just long enough to listen to a damn playcall correctly." Oops! Sorry, Tracy! Apparently sassy is catching! (This is, in fact, not too far off from what Manning actually says, which is basically "Fulmer and the coaches know what they're doing, and the players are the ones who aren't executing or paying attention," and it's like, geez dude, I can totally dig the loyalty to Phil, but Crompton's not the one who volunteered to throw a bajillion times with the UCLA game slipping away, is he?)
--Ugh. Jones out of the G-Gun for 23 on a niftily-blocked play, Crompton on a slant for 14, Foster up the middle for 11 on back-to-back-to-back plays. After the field goal last drive, things are a little too LSU-ey up in here if you ask me.
--Fortunately, Clawson decides it's time to dial up three consecutive passes again, and with incompletions on the first and third (the latter aided by an effective Auburn blitz) Lincoln comes on for a 35-yarder as Danielson literally refers to Crompton's last throw as a "bonehead" decision. Gary, seriously, I'm enjoying the taunting as much as the next guy, but don't you maybe think the sassy's going too far now? 7-6 Vols after the field goal.
--It's an Eric Smith sighting! He loses two yards but successfully lures Tennessee into horse-collaring him, that clever fellow, so it's a net positive.
--Less positive is Rod Smith allowing Todd's pass to fly directly through his hands on 3rd-and-5. Not sure it would have been a sure first--he had tacklers bearing down on him and he looked about a half-yard shy--but it's most definitely not a first after the pass whistles between his fingers for no discernible reason other than freshman nerves. I mean, senior nerves. If you know, that was a thing.
--Durst gets off a nice one, and the Vol returner Rogan elects not to a attempt a fair catch in traffic at the 15. The ball takes an orange-and-blue bounce and is killed at the 5. Danielson--stop me if you've heard this before--is beside himself. "Those are important yards!" he says. Cue the dramatic foreshadowing horn riff for reals this time, because ...
-- ... Crompton's going to take the snap and bounce it off of Foster's elbow in the attempted handoff just as pretty as you please. Jake Ricks then picks an absolutely exquisite time to make his first memorable appearance of the season, falling on the loose ball for a TOUCHDOWN! 14-6 Auburn, and ... I mean, it's just unbelievable that an SEC team could be this consistent about making not just mistakes, but CATASTROPHIC EARTH-SHATTERING HEAD-EXPLODING MISTAKES. If I'm not mistaken, this means that all of Tennessee's three previous turnovers have come inside either their own 10-yard line or the 10-yard line of their opponents. If I was a Tennessee fan ... you know what? Let's not talk about that. This blog doesn't need to go to those kinds of dark places.
--Danielson can't shake his head and cluck his tongue fast enough, calling the botch "inexcusable" on Crompton's part and saying Foster is surrounded by "bad voodoo." My sympathy for Tennessee fans is such at this point I almost wish I could say he was wrong, but, um, Foster really might have a black curse following him around and there really is no excuse for botching an utterly routine handoff on the 5-yard line one week after botching an utterly routine handoff on the 5-yard line.
--Of course, being down is now only half the Vols' problem as they also have to contend with Auburn's continually feisty-looking defense, a defense that on the Vols' ensuing first down makes a terrific tackle (Merrill Johnson) on what ought to be a first-down swing pass to the tight end, on the ensuing second down stuffs Hardesty for a loss of one (Ricks and, as Danielson calls him, "An-tone" Carter), and on the ensuing third down bats down the short pass at the line (Marks). Sharp, sharp sequence there from the Auburn D.
--Dunn is apparently getting bored with people kicking away from him and having to make routine fair catches all the time, so this time he lets the ball bounce and then swivels to snag it in mid-air one-handed before going out of bounds. As if our collective hearts haven't been tested enough this season.
--I'll stop that now, but maybe I shouldn't, because if there's been any Auburn play all season (the Todd throw to Dunn for the last LSU TD excepted) that deserves all-caps, it's Burns fighting off three different tackle attempts, scrambling almost all the way to the sideline, and then firing a strike to Dunn for another set of downs. The crowd is on fire, the sideline is obviously pumped, and because it's a cold cruel world we also get to see Chris Todd, lifeless and shell-shocked on the sideline. Part of me wants to tell the kid to suck it up and celebrate that your team just made a good play. But most of me knows that if I ever got to hear an 87,000-seat stadium cheering its collective throat raw because they'd finally gotten to see me replaced, I don't know how charitable I'd be, either.
--Burns makes another solid play on 3rd-and-12, taking one step to give himself just enough pocket room to find Fannin on a crossing route for the first down. Burns-to-Fannin for 16 yards: Santa must have gotten my letter after all!
--After that it's Burns for 4, Tate for 2, and then Burns zings one at Billings on an out route he can't get his hands to in time. The pass sorta looks catchable but also sorta came up on Billings really quickly. It would be nice if CBS could provide us with a slow-motion replay to figure this sort of thing out, which is why they don't give us one.
--But hey, no sweat, Burns has given the crowd a jolt and gotten Auburn into solid field goal position, the Tigers will go in at the half up 17-6, and unless Crompton mysterious channels his inner Jarrett Lee it'll take a turnover or two to ... Wes Byrum just missed again. Again. From 35 yards. Wes Byrum. What is going on? Why can Auburn never have a kicker who keeps himself in one mental piece for more than a season? Bleargh.
--Oh well, even if Byrum is not Byrum at least Antonio Coleman is still Antonio Coleman. He torches alleged All-America candidate Ramon Foster and buries Crompton for a second-down sack. After that Crompton runs a quarterback draw that pretty well screams "Well, we're ready for halftime, how 'bout you?" And after Auburn comes close-but-no-cigar to blocking the Vol punt, the Tigers answer back "We think halftime sounds great, see you in a few" by running Tate into the line a few times. (Though they also say "Wait, what? I couldn't hear you" as Burns bobbles a snap and my heart explodes.)
--Tracy Wolfson catches up with Fulmer as he leaves the field. "So," she asks, "was that some sort of fluke or does Crompton suck just that badly, Coach?" "Hell if I know," Fulmer says. "Hell if I know how you're supposed to get a guy to run a handoff right in the game when he runs it right a million times in practice every week. You got any ideas?" Wolfson shrugs her shoulders in the universal symbol for "Dude, not my problem" and throws it to Tim Brando in New York. (I'm paraphrasing.)

Second half coming soon.

Ramsey gone

Where there's smoke ...
Scout.com is reporting that Auburn has granted offensive lineman Chaz Ramsey a release.
... there's sucky, sucky fire.

I'm not going to pitch a fit over this--Nall and Tubby have always been able to find some sort of passable cover along the line--but nonetheless this is now three transfers since the start of fall practice, and this one is the most damaging yet. I'm not going to pretend I know what ought to be done about it, but this doesn't seem like the sort of run-of-the-mill attrition you just shake your head at and move on from, either.

These are the things that drive me completely freaking insane

I don't spend too much time here, I don't think, railing against the incompetence of the mainstream media. ESPN and their craven, unholy ilk are just such a phenomenally fat, wide target that I don't think it's worth the effort for someone like your humble Auburn Blogger to even string up the bow 99 percent of the time. I'd rather leave it to the professionals.

But there are times I just have to blow off a little ESPN-derived steam, because unlike politicians or civil servants I expect some tiny, insignificant level of professionalism and competence from my college football media and it's a bit upsetting when I don't get even that. Last week's Bruce Feldman "Hey, even though USC has a long and hard-won tradition of spitting the bit against inferior Pac-10 teams and there's been one season in the last two decades where both the Big 12 and SEC champs went undefeated, let's go ahead and assume in September it's all going to play out just like that" nonsense was one such occasion, which made it all the merrier when Oregon St. blew all those ridiculous column inches to beautiful orange bits. It was so merry, in fact, I've decided to commemorate the occasion with my own 19th-century French literature-inspired LOLthing:

The joy didn't last, however, as over the weekend the Worldwide Leader handed us not one but two examples of such outrageous college football ignorance from people allegedly paid to cover college football that the bile and rage that bubbled up demands I share them with you.

Example the first: during the Louisville-UConn game Friday night, Husky quarterback Tyler Lorenzen* drops back, is swarmed under, and attempts to throw the ball away. But with no receiver in the area and the ball well short of the line-of-scrimmage, the officials flag him for intentional grounding after a brief conference.

This is when either play-by-play guy Bob Wischusen or color guy Brock Huard (yes, I looked that up just for the SHAME of it) tells viewers "Lorenzen should have just taken the sack there, rather than draw the penalty."

Goodness f'ing gracious. There is no difference between a grounding call--spot foul and loss of down--and a sack. None. This is a basic understanding of college football, the sport which you are being paid to announce. And, of course, there was no correction. How is there any freaking way neither you nor your broadcast partner nor any of the producers with their voice in your earpiece know this extremely simple fact about the rules? HOW!?! ANSWER ME.

Example the second is even more egregious: in the "Gameday Final" wrap-up, Ivan Maisel writes the following:
1. October begins with 18 undefeated teams. Vanderbilt and Northwestern are among them. USC and Georgia are not. The Big 12 has five unbeatens, all 4-0, but don't get too excited. The teams with losses have exactly one victory against a team from an automatic-bid conference among them. TCU, which is 4-1 after its 35-10 loss at No. 2 Oklahoma, has beaten Stanford.
So many questions for you here, Ivan:

1. If your point is to tell us not to get excited about those undefeated teams, wouldn't it make more sense to tell us something about them rather than the other teams in the conference?

2. What in the name of God's green earth do you mean by "automatic-bid conference"? Do you mean the BCS conference? Why the hell wouldn't you just say "BCS conference" like every single other college football writer on the planet?

3. Do you honestly not know that TCU is not in the Big 12? Do you? Where exactly have you been for the last 10 years? I thought you were covering and writing about college football, or at least that's what it's looked like with your byline appearing on all manner of columns and stories and so forth, but I guess I was wrong because there are freaking sea urchins who can tell you that TCU is not in the Big 12. And yet you, a man who allegedly makes his living by writing insightful things about college football, apparently cannot. Seriously: HOW IN THE HELL do you even have to think about this? How can none of your editors have noticed? How has this post been up ever since late Saunday night and no one's bothered to correct it? How can you ... you're being paid a paycheck to ... AAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH

*head explodes*

*And not husky quarterback Jared Lorenzen. Just so we're clear.

Monday knee-jerk: I am trying so, so hard to be happy

Rememberin' the good times, back in the first quarter when things were swell.

It's true: when you follow the ol' college wellness class instruction to take a deep breath and let go of the infuriating failure of the Spread Eagle, the placekicking, the quarterback situation, and those repulsive boos as you slowly exhale, Auburn has given us reasons to be satisfied, reasons to be happy, even, with the win over Tennessee Saturday.

For starters, for all of the Lifetime-quality drama we've gotten from the offense and the separation and eventual reconciliation of Khrisodi Burn-Stodd, five games into the season Auburn's record is 4-1. If in July you expected them to come out of this little two-week jaunt against LSU and Tennessee better than 1-1, you probably also expected Ed McMahon to stop by with your giant novelty check by now for subscribing to Self.

There's the fact that Auburn's defense may be human, but only just so; however intent Jonathan Crompton and the Vol offense may have been at taking careful aim at their own third metatarsal and firing away, it's still fair to label their effort Herculean. It's one thing to keep a blind squirrel from finding more than a single nut, it's another to do it when the offense keeps tossing the squirrel into the damn Planters factory. Sure, there's not much doubt that given the current state of the offense Auburn could lose to anyone on the schedule, but I also don't have any doubt that with this defense Auburn can beat anyone on the schedule. Where there are Markses and Powerses and Colemans and backups who are Josh Byneses, there is hope, and nothing will change that.

Kodi Burns is getting snaps and will continue to get snaps. This is a Step in the Right Direction.

If you keep looking, you can keep finding positives. Mathematics has no gripe with Auburn's SEC West chances, such as they are, not when LSU still all three of the other members of the conference's consensus top four remaining on the schedule. Auburn's ranking is still, somehow, some way*, holding steady inside the country's top 15. As baby buzzard-ugly as both the Mississippi St. and Tennessee wins were, neither one was a statistical fluke--Auburn outgained both. Durst is back and still a revelation. The fumbles have been cut out. Tommy Tuberville is still the Auburn head football coach and no one is expecting a single damn thing from his team anymore, which is generally when Tommy Tuberville does his best work.

And surely, surely, oh please dear God, the offense cannot get any worse. It cannot. It must improve. It will improve. The laws of Nature and logic and statistical probability and all that desperate jazz demand it. Don't they?

I don't know. Probably not. They can only mean so much when sure first-down passes go whizzing directly through the hands of your senior wide receiver. There's only so much improvement to be made when the starting quarterback's arm is clearly, obviously, glaringly shot to pieces and his ability to make up for this with his "legs" is "utterly nonexistent." There are only so many points Auburn can score when it becomes necessary for an offense this rickety to put the ball in the end zone each and every time they reach opposing territory, what with field goals no longer a viable option.

You can only be so happy when after five weeks of his inaugural season, the new offensive coordinator talks about how much he's taking out of the playbook as opposed to how much he's adding in, only so happy when on the same day your team wheezes to a two-point victory over the only team on the planet more discombobulated on offense than your own, your team's archrival goes on the road and tears one of the best teams in the country into tiny, quivering shreds. There's only so much optimism to scrape together when the offensive line that was supposed to hold the unit together while the skill guys worked out the kinks is causing the rot from the inside out, one false start at a time.

And, of course, you can only expect them to work so hard to get better when thousands of their own fat-assed fans choose to honor the hard work they've put in to this point, the countless hours they've spent, sacrifices they've made, etc. by booing the hell out of them.

So, yeah, I'm trying to remember the good things. I'm exhaling nice and slow and repeating Vanderbilt's yardage deficits to myself. But there's only so much good that will do when Auburn seems so irretrievably stuck in the good-but-not-great rut they've been in since New Year's Day 2006, when the only thing that would redeem that monotony--an Iron Bowl victory--seems to grow less and less likely every week.

Yes, I have hope. Yes, I have belief. But only so much of it these days.

Three Stars

Wait ... I have to have three?

Josh Bynes. There are many, many things I would like to go back in time and make a wager on--$100 on "Lee Corso will predict Alabama will defeat Georgia on the road and be correct" would probably have turned a tidy profit--but I bet I could have gotten some hella good odds on "Tray Blackmon will become arguably Auburn's second-best middle linebacker" in the preseason. That's not to say I think Blackmon ought to lose his starting job, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't face facts: Bynes made more of an impact Saturday than Blackmon has in any game this season.

The secondary, collectively. Crompton played as poor a game at quarterback as you can possibly play without being intercepted, but it wasn't entirely by accident, not when you've got Tennessee's more-than-serviceable crop of receivers and you finish averaging 2.8 yards per passing attempt. Powers, Etheridge, McNeil, McFadden, Thorpe: we salute you.

Clinton Durst. Not eye-popping numbers in Saturn V's return (43.7 a kick gross, 36.1 net, no fair catches), but a shank on any single punt in the fourth quarter would have meant a field goal try at least and quite possibly defeat no matter how stoutly the defense held. A shank might have even been sorta forgivable, given that we're talking about a guy who's playing his fourth-ever career football game and the first one at home with anything approaching this kind of pressure. The shank never came anyway.

Three opportunities for improvement

Placekicking. This team as currently constructed simply cannot afford to have a liability at placekicker. Unfortunately, that hasn't kept Wes Byrum from officially becoming a liability. 3-of-7 from 20-45 yards is not good enough. It's not even really close to good enough.

Hmmmmmmm, maybe the passing. The run game sort of secretly picked up a bit this week--I know that overall 2.6 per-carry mark is uggggggggly, but Tate and Fannin combined for 93 yards on 23 carries, up over 4 a pop--but the passing game that looked so worthwhile against LSU went face-first into the toilet this week. As in "4.4 yards an attempt with a devastating pick" face-first. Take away the one touchdown drive and Todd finishes 10-19 for 51 yards (or 2.68 an attempt). Some of that is drops, some of it is Tennessee's excellent secondary, and I do have some sympathy with the fact that getting yanked and reinserted isn't easy ... but this is still just bad, bad quarterbacking from Todd.

Offensive line penalties. On Auburn's first five possessions alone, the Tigers were flagged for three false starts and two holds. As if the rest of the offense needed the extra degree-of-difficulty just to make it challenging. Cripes.

Numbers of importance

7, 47, 6.7. Number of offensive touches for Mario Fannin, number of yards gained on those touches, and the average gain on those touches. Please please please let the talk this week about his shoulder just now getting truly healthy be true, because if our offensive coaching staff didn't realize "Hey, this guy's pretty good, why don't we try getting the ball in his hands and see what happens" until this week--or if this becomes a one-game fluke as opposed to a trend--I can't imagine it's a positive sign.

7. Consecutive combined three-and-outs for both teams in the fourth quarter. I'd always wondered what it would look like if you could somehow translate the 1990 World Cup into a game of college football, and now I know.**

4.04; 6. Todd's and Burns's yards-per-pass attempt, respectively. Make of it what you will.

Your bottom line

All those who looked at the 2008 schedule over the summer and thought "That Vanderbilt game could very well prove to be the one that defines Auburn's season" raise your hand. That's what I thought. And you there, in the back: either you misheard me or you're a liar.

Nonetheless, that's where we are. If Auburn can get out of Nashville with their hide intact, it seems pretty gosh-darned likely they'll be able to survive the catastrophic Hogs at home (as if Tubby's willingness to sell his soul for that one didn't make it likely already) and escape into their bye week at 6-1. From there the road trips to Morgantown and Oxford will each be a colossal pain-in-the-arse, but Auburn will at least have extra preparation time for both. IF the Tigers win Saturday, it will seem entirely possible (if not likely, exactly, depending on how close Franklin appears to solving the offensive woes) that the Tigers will head into Amen Corner 9-1 and maybe even in control of their SEC West destiny.

Lose Saturday, and of course all of those wonderful dreams dissipate as quickly as the one you had this morning, just before you woke up, where Auburn won a big SEC game by more than the skin of their teeth.

*That way is called "Wake Forest losing to Navy and East Carolina falling apart."

**I'm well aware that like two people will get this, and I do apologize to the rest of you, but I really think those two people will be like "Oh, dude, totally."

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday preview: Tennessee

Quick programming note: I know I need to get the second road trip post up, but I'd hoped to get more of it finished yesterday afternoon and wrapping it up now might mean no UT preview. So here's this, and hopefully road trip part 2 will show up either later today or tomorrow a.m. JCCW management apologizes for any inconvenience.

Montario Hardesty is quite possibly Tennessee's best offensive weapon, which is why Dave Clawson gave him five carries against Florida.

Cheese Puffery? The last one I managed to complete, yes; it's available here.

At stake: For Auburn, any realistic hopes of bagging an SEC title or BCS bowl bid. Pulling out the LSU game might have given them a one-respectable-loss margin for error, but that sort of luxury is dust in the wind now. It's either win out until the Amen Corner, or start playing for a New Year's Day invitation and good ol'-fashioned pride. Sad, tough, but true.

For Tennessee, despite the noxious atmosphere surrounding the program in the wake of their second straight evisceration at the hands of the Gators, I'm not convinced yet that Fulmer can't once again drag his career kicking and screaming back from the abyss. With the momentum of a win on the Plains, the Tide coming to Neyland, and the remainder of the schedule relatively cushy--sure, trips to Columbia and Nashville and the game against Kentucky won't be easy, but they're toss-ups at worst no matter how far the Vols sink--it's conceivable Tennessee could finish the season taking eight of their last nine, win their bowl, and wrap things up at a blissful 10-4.

Then again, it's equally conceivable--and perhaps even a bit more likely--that road losses to Auburn and Georgia boot the season into a death spiral and the Vols pack it in to the tune of 5-7 or even 4-8. Fulmer's last best chance to steer his team onto the former road rather than the latter comes this Saturday.

When Tennessee has the ball: maybe the band should be cueing up the Keystone Kops theme?

Because, yeah, Tennessee's been that sloppy. Their offense isn't actually that terrible at moving the ball--55th in total offense despite playing 2/3rds of their games against BCS defenses, as opposed to our beloved Auburn Tigers, who sit at 73rd after taking on Sun Belt and C-USA representatives--but it's a wonder they can even walk across the field given how often they shoot themselves in the foot. Against UCLA, the Vols had drives of 51 and 73 yards end in a missed FG and a crushing Arian Foster fumble, respectively, for a total of zero points. Against Florida--in a game in which the Vols actually outgained the Gators 258-243 en route to somehow losing by 24 points--the Vols first successfully drove 72 yards (and ate eight full minutes off the clock) just to give Jonathan Crompton the chance to botch a goalline handoff for a Gator recovery. Then, on their very next possession, the Vols drove sixty yards to the Gator 1 only for Crompton to toss an incompletion on third down and a pick on fourth. Total points: again, zero. Total number of aneurysms induced in the Vol faithful: untold thousands.

Part of me wants to think that the random nature of most turnovers dictates that eventually Tennessee's going to find a way to turn all those yards into points, but most of me thinks that's way too much evidence not to think it's a continuing (and delightfully welcome) trend. It's not like the Vols have been a disciplined team to this point outside of the opponent's red zone; they committed nine penalties apiece in the two losses and rank 108th in the country in penalty yardage.

What Auburn wants more than anything else, then, is to keep the Vols from connecting on the big scoring play. Rhoads and Co. have to force Crompton--in particular--to execute his way all the way down the field and into the end zone on play 10 or 11 of a drive, rather than letting him avoid the killer mistake by scoring long-distance-style on play five or six. I'd be more confident about Auburn's chances to accomplish this if they hadn't failed so miserably at it against LSU, watching the Tigers score from 39, 22, and 18 yards out. Gerald Jones aside, Tennessee won't bring the same caliber of receivers to the table LSU brought, but that doesn't mean Auburn can afford the same kinds of breakdowns in the secondary they had last Saturday.

If Auburn can avoid catching the Crucial Mistake bug themselves from the Tennessee offense, they should be able to keep the Vols mostly under wraps. The Clawfense had plenty of success on the ground against UCLA and UAB but found the sledding much tougher against Florida, averaging just 3.1 yards a pop over 31 carries. Crompton's 5.8 yards-per-attempt mark against Florida isn't awful, but the nine yards-per-completion mark sure as hell is and it's possible even those numbers are a result of Florida's still-questionable secondary; Crompton passed for an eye-gougingly bad 4.5 yards-per-attempt against UCLA.

To be clear, Tennessee's not Mississippi St. For starters, their offensive line is good enough that they're going to give Hardesty and Foster some holes, especially given the way LSU shoved Auburn around for the duration of the second half. It's obvious Crompton has talent if he can ever get his head screwed on correctly and Auburn's not likely to pressure him much; Florida didn't record a sack. After their modicum of success against the Gators, it seems unlikely the Vols aren't going to put together at least a couple of drives. There's plenty of potential here.

Nonetheless, unless the misalignment and conditioning issues Auburn showed last week are more serious than we're led to believe, until Tennessee's offense accomplishes something other than self-destruct against a defense with a pulse, I don't see why we'd expect them to do otherwise.

When Auburn has the ball: it should not look the way it looked when Auburn had the ball against LSU.

Gimpy arm and all, it made sense for Chris Todd to air it out against LSU. Their secondary was--and is--something of a question mark. The run game was going nowhere. They were pretty seriously overplaying the underneath flips and screens that worked so well against Southern Miss.

But the bombs-away approach is not going to fly against Tennessee, not no way, not no how. Both safeties--Eric Berry at SS and Demetrice Morley at FS--were rated as bona fide studs coming out of high school and have done nothing to disprove those assessments; Berry is an All-American candidate as a sophomore. Brent Vinson is the proverbial lockdown guy at one corner and there's depth galore behind him. The Vols picked off UCLA four times, UAB three times, and frightened the Gator coaches into basically skipping the passing game altogether--Florida ran 39 times while only attempting 15 passes all game, and even those only resulted in a distinctly un-Tebow-like average of 6.4 yards-an-attempt.

So, having Chris Todd and his Magical Rubber Arm throw between 30 and 40 passes again, with many of them of the 15-yards-or-more variety? Bad, bad idea, unless you like the idea of Berry dancing 60 yards for a touchdown the other way. UCLA had great success throwing intermediate routes over the middle of the field (thanks in part to DC John Chavis's criminally slow reaction to this strategy, as Hooper points out below) and this seems worth a shot if Todd can make smart decisions with the ball. But it was those kind of routes that got him in trouble against UL-Monroe and off the top of my head, I can't remember Franklin asking him to throw them much since. Despite Robert Dunn's emergence, Todd and the Auburn receivers taking on this secondary is far and away the biggest mismatch in Tennessee's favor. If Franklin makes good on his veiled threats to throw into the teeth of this mismatch anyway, the Vols will win the game, end of depressing story.

Meaning that Auburn has to get of their running game, oh, about 2,347 times what they got out of it against LSU. Although UCLA went nowhere against the Vols, there's hope otherwise; UAB (!) averaged 4.2 a carry on 26 attempts and Florida gained 3.8 a pop (and punted just one time) despite essentially telling the Tennessee defense "Hey, we're about to run the ball" for the duration of the second half. While the Vol front four looks stout, they're breaking in a couple of new linebackers and it hasn't looked like Chavis has put them in the best position to succeed. Theoretically, an offensive line of Auburn's quality should be able to get the likes of Lester and Tate past the front four and into areas where they can pick up some yards.

But, of course, theories only mean so much when 1. over the past three games Auburn has averaged a whopping 2.98 yards per carry (with one of those games against the less-than-sterling Southern Miss rush defense) 2. our best running back--that's Lester--hasn't yet moved out of his apartment over the Indian burial ground 3. our offensive coordinator seems mostly unconcerned with such matters, even if the head coach isn't. The guess here is that Auburn sees more success on the ground than we saw against LSU--they couldn't have less, could they?--but that the mythical, sought-after BREAKOUT game will still have to wait.

And given how badly the thought of Todd throwing one of his patented "This Pass Can Be Used as a Flotation Device" duck jobs anywhere near the vicinity of Berry gives me the heebie jeebies, I think it's safe to say the same goes for the offense as a whole. If they pull off the same two-TD performance they did last week with just maybe one or two field goal attempts tacked on, I won't complain. Much.

When special teams is on the field: Auburn has to win the game.

To be frank, even as good as Auburn's defense has been (second-half vs. LSU sort of excluded) and as mistake-prone as the Vols' offense seems to be, I don't think Auburn's O matches up against their D any better than vice versa. Maybe even worse, depending on how accurate Todd manages to be. I'm not expecting total yardage to lean heavily to one side or the other, in other words, not planning on seeing one team rip off march after march with the other stifled. Down-to-down, it looks about even to me.

Which makes special teams the decider, and that's where we finally get some good news for Auburn: they should flat own the punting contest. Tennessee is 109th in opposing punt returns and 116th--fifth from bottom--in gross punting. Auburn, meanwhile, ranks 60th in that stat despite the Shoemaker abortion from last game, is 17th in opponent's punt returns, and ranks seventh in punt returning their own selves. Assuming Durst is healthy and back to his old (as in "three weeks ago") Saturn V self, each exchange of punts should be a big boost in field position for Auburn. Remember, too, that Tennessee had a punt blocked for a score against UCLA.

Kickoffs are a different story--where have you gone, 2006 Tristan Davis? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you--but in a low-scoring game I can't imagine there will be enough of them to be a huge deal unless someone breaks one or there's an endgame situation a la LSU in 2007 KNOCK ON EVERY PIECE OF WOOD IN YOUR HOME. Kicking should be about even--both Byrum and Daniel Lincoln (he of the game-ending miss vs. UCLA) were money last year and have been curiously shaky thus far this year.

In any case, Auburn's punting advantage should be great enough to declare a Tiger win in special teams. If it's not, well, we only have to look back a week to see what can happens as a result.

Intangible reason for worry: We're all familiar with Tubby's ability to rally the troops when the chips are down and [insert cliche here]; it's not really that much of a surprise he hasn't lost back-to-back SEC games since 2003. Auburn should--should--be ready to play Saturday, despite the potential LSU hangover.

But no one has more lives than Phil Fulmer, not even Phil Fulmer: the Cat Version. In a weird way, I think the pressure's pretty much been lifted from him and his team this week; not a whole lot of people are expecting the Vols to win this game and maybe even fewer are expecting Fulmer to survive the season. Yeah, as I mentioned above, another loss is almost certainly the final nail in Fulmer's coffin--but when the hammer's already in mid-swing, do you really have anything to lose?

Not to mention that, while Auburn lost last week and aren't the prohibitive favorite they'd be if they'd pulled out the LSU game, the Tigers are still a decided home favorite facing a talented, wounded team. Again, coached by Phil Fulmer. The historical trends aren't exactly entirely encouraging.

Intangible reason for confidence: From the Tennessee Cheese Puff piece:
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 (41-17) beatdown in Tuscaloosa into consideration.
Remember that that was written before Tennessee dropped a roadie against a UCLA team that has since lost to BYU and Arizona by a combined score of 90-10.

Between this sort of road malaise and a team morale level that can't lie too far above "taking our ball and going home" at the moment, I do wonder if Auburn might not coax the Vols into imploding with a couple of quick early scores. It's not likely--"couple of scores" is about Auburn's current ceiling, period, forget the "quick" and "early"--but this is the best-case scenario.

Three Wishes: 1. Kodi Burns. 2. More than the three receptions our running backs picked up against LSU; I know Ben Tate could have grabbed one or two more and that they had plenty of touches in the backfield, but a greater effort needs to be made to get them out in space. 3. Two sacks from the defensive ends; hard as it to believe, that would equal their output from the last three games combined, with both of those belonging to Coleman. Neither Goggans nor Carter have one since ULM. Tennessee is obviously going to be a tough nut to crack in pass-protection, but with as mucg inexperience roaming the secondary as Auburn has, the Tigers must have more of a pass rush from their ends.

Success is / failure is: A win / a loss, though another victory sans an offensive touchdown--very much still within the realm of reality--would obviously not be a whole lot of fun.

Your bottom line: This game, to put it delicately, scares the ever-lovin' complete holy crap out of me.

Because my guess is that it comes down to whichever quarterback makes The Mistake first. They're both going to make one and probably several. But there's going to be one Mistake that's going to decisively tilt what should otherwise be a balanced game in one particular direction. Oh, it's coming.

And against this defense, and with his arm so noticeably unable to keep up with his substantial ability to read and react, God bless him, I don't have a ton of confidence in Chris Todd to let Jonathan Crompton be the one who takes the plunge. I feel almost sure in saying Todd is going to throw an interception or two against this secondary; the question is whether Auburn's going to be in position to survive said interception(s) or not.

They very well could be. The Tigers own a distinct advantage in a punting game that should play an even bigger role in an offensively-challenged contest like this one than it would normally. Last week Tennessee could not break into the end zone against a team that, at worst, is likely Auburn's defensive equal. I really, really would like to think that between Tubby's unhappiness with the ground game and Franklin's alleged shrewedness in not pressing against a bad matchup, Auburn's going to do a better job running the football. And as much as I respect Fulmer's ability to pull victorious rabbits out of losing hats, I respect Tubby's gameplanning ability--particular after galling losses, in what's now a must-win game--a heck of a lot more than I do Fulmer's.

So, basically, Auburn's got enough going for them that if they can get out in front early on, they can press those advantages long enough to come away with the win. But, if Todd throws the early interception ... if the Vols' heads perk up instead of sag ... if the nerves on the Auburn sideline tighten up instead of loosen ... if Crompton and the Vol offense finally feel like they can put it all together instead of watching it all fall apart ... Auburn will be in serious trouble. I wouldn't have doubted either team's ability to make some kind of charge after halftime of Auburn's last game, but this week, with these two teams' current psychologies? Whichever team goes in at halftime ahead wins the game.

That's the guess here, anyway, and if the game was in Knoxville, I'd probably think that team was Tennessee. But with the game on the Plains and with Tubby's murderous rage to deal with if it's not, I think the odds say--still--that that team is Auburn.

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

Auburn 20, Tennessee 16

Down, up

Let's be honest: after Auburn-LSU got the Gameday-plus-primetime pregame treatment and then the "another SEC classic!" postgame treatment, it's hard to imagine that the Spread Eagle isn't sitting pretty prominently in Chris Brown's mind when he writes at Smart Football that:
(T)his year's college football season has wowed me with the number of just awful spread teams. Now, there's some good ones: Florida has great talent, and just about every top team has some kind of "spread" element to their gameplan. But there's a ton of just awful spread teams. This topic deserves a much more in depth treatment, but the basic gist is what I forecast a few years ago: the offense just isn't an equalizer anymore, but instead more of an amplifier. If you have great athletes you can isolate them in space, but if you don't then you're just giving them one-on-one matchups they can't win and asking your quarterback to play perfect or you can't win.

I remain skeptical the spread has reached its saturation point in the SEC already when Auburn and Florida are the only upper-echelon programs that run it, but no doubt it's not the novelty it once was. More damning is the point about match-ups a bad spread team--Auburn--can't win. Sure, getting Robert Dunn and Brad Lester into space isn't a bad idea, but a guy like Rod Smith's better off running slants than bubble screens and there can't be much doubt Ben Tate would be better suited to plowing away behind a fullback rather than slipping through a crease on the zone read. To really make this work--and despite what I've written this week about Tony Franklin, I still believe it can--Auburn will need athletes that better suit the spread.

The good news is that one of those athletes appears to be on the way:

I really don't want to be "that guy" who foams at the mouth over his college football team's future players while simultaneously dismissing the team's current players, despite the fact they were, of course, the same ones "that guy" foamed over when they were recruits. Honestly, how excited can we be about a guru-approved prototypical spread quarterback when there's already a guru-approved prototypical spread quarterback on the roster and he hasn't seen the field in two games?

That said: Cotton's ascension from consensus raw-meat project to four-star, Elite 11 Spread Eagle Savior is nonetheless an indication that given Tubby and Co.'s prowess at recruit evaluation--aside from perhaps wideout--it's possible Auburn's going to find the athletes to make this work.

So, yes, "awful" might be an accurate assessment of the current version of the Spread Eagle. Yes, I'm far less confident about Franklin's ability to adapt to SEC defenses after watching him against Mississippi St. and LSU. But it's still ages too early to throw in the towel. This is our offense. This is the offense, barring a complete collapse, Auburn will run next year. We've still got reason enough to believe in it.

HTs to Blutarsky and TWER.

Special Guest Enemy: Hooper of Rocky Top Talk

In its continuing efforts to bring you the reader the most informed coverage possible--or, rather, just more informed than I usually am--the JCCW has once again enlisted the help of an outside expert in preparing you for Saturday's game. This week's victim guest is Hooper of Rocky Top Talk, the Interwebs' leading Vol blog. My Q's are in bold, his A's in quotes, as always. And while I doubt I offered Vol fans anything Jay didn't already in his RTT podcast, my responses on Auburn are up and available here. Enjoy.

1. First things first: how much is riding on this game for Phil Fulmer? If he drops this one and the Georgia game to slip to 2-4, is there any way back for him, even given that the schedule softens down the stretch?

"I may get in trouble with my response here, but I'm going to say what I think is the most accurate answer: nothing is riding on this game for Fulmer. We as a fanbase had very high expectations for the season, and our pride had been injured by the start. A lot of discontent had been under the surface from things like the 2005 season and a lack of SEC championships. The start of this season was the tipping point. Fulmer-bashing is now 'fashionable' for the most vocal parts of the fanbase, and they're going to feed off each other.

"The Vols would have to win in a convincing fashion for most of the games on the schedule. That would keep Fulmer from being bought out for a year (it'd cost about $5.5 million). The next year would then be the make-or-break. The finances may be prohibitive, but if it were up to knee-jerk emotion, he's a dead man walking." (Quick note: for further reading on the Fulmer situation, you should absolutely check out Lawvol's reluctant request that Fulmer step down at Gate21. Gripping stuff.--ed.)

2. How much encouragement do you take from Tennessee's ability to occasionally move the ball against the Gators, even if those long drives didn't necessarily end in points?

"Personally, I take quite a bit of encouragement. It has to be tempered with the understanding that Florida was playing kill-the-clock for most of the game, and the two longest drives took about 2/3 of a quarter to run. But it was still effective movement that gave our defense a rest - a huge improvement from the UCLA game. I think there's a fantastic and powerful offense under the hood, just waiting for the throttle to be opened up. Once they get the timing belt adjusted, the offense should show dramatic improvement.

"But then again, I think that Auburn's defense is worlds better than Florida's. So we may not be able to see an improvement, even if it exists."

3. How much improvement has Jonathan Crompton shown between the UCLA game and now? What does Tennessee need from him Saturday night and what do you think they'll actually get from him?

"Crompton's accuracy has improved. In the UCLA game, he was spraying the ball around the field. In Florida, his passes were much more on-target except when he was under duress. Likewise, in the UCLA game, he never read through his receiver progressions. UCLA figured that out and had up to 3 defenders spying Crompton. Against Florida, he found secondary targets just often enough to keep a little honesty in the defense. He still showed some panic under duress, though. The end-zone INT against Florida was a case of forcing the issue. But he's a fighter, too. He doesn't like to slide when he runs, and he'll give full effort on every play. He's not afraid of a hit.

"UT needs two things from him: leadership and a lack of mistakes. During the pring, he showed energy and signs of leadership that Ainge never showed. It hasn't been apparent yet this season, so we'll see if it picks up. The mistakes ... I addressed that already. I expect fewer mistakes and a bit more enthusiasm, but I also expect a game plan that limits his responsibilities, so it might be a wash."

4. Both of our teams are "adjusting to" or "struggling under" (depending on how polite you'd like to be) new offensive coordinators. What is Dave Clawson bringing--or trying to bring--to the table and why hasn't it succeeded thus far?

"Clawson is one of the most intriguing aspects of UT football right now. Over the summer, UT fans worked themselves into a lather about the new 'Clawfense,' though we knew absolutely nothing about it. Most people settled on it being a West Coast offense, though his offensive stats don't support that theory. Ideally, I think the offense would be about 55% run, with a passing game that uses slants to keep LBs honest and a variety of receiver routes to freeze the safeties. I don't think it relies heavily on timing routes like a West Coast offense really does. (Side note: this is why WCOs never work in college. No college team has the time required to train an offense into an array of timing routes.) The real focus of the Clawfense seems to be finding favorable matchups, exploiting them early, then running plays designed to exploit the subsequent defensive adjustments. A few of these matchups are: Gerald Jones in open space, Hardesty running in the middle, Foster running around the edge, and our tight ends single-covered by LBs or a safety. But even that's speculation; Tony Basilio reported earlier that something like 60% of Clawson's playcalls are getting overruled. If that's the case, then we truly have not seen the Clawfense.

"In a wider view, I believe the reason the offense hasn't worked is because the offense makes too many mistakes. On pass plays, Crompton locks onto his primary target and tips the play to the defense. Foster is hesitant when he runs up the middle, so there's little need to respect that play when he's in. Hardesty has been working well, but he's second in depth behind Foster so we don't see him as much. Clawson has never had the opportunity to use a counterpunch because the offense has never established the initial punch well enough.

"Here's a tip: keep a tally of the significant mistakes that UT's offense makes in the first half. The higher that tally goes, the less effective the offense will be in the second half. Let's set an arbitrary threshold of 5. Less than 5 and the second half should be fun for Vols fans. More than 5, and it'll get ugly fast."

5. After going nowhere on the ground against LSU, we Auburn fans would like to see some push up front this weekend, especially since the Vol secondary looks to be much, much tougher than LSU's. How would you grade out the play of your front seven so far and how do you feel they match up with the Auburn offensive line?

"Let me edit that last question for you: 'How would you grade out the play of your front seven four so far and how do you feel they match up with the Auburn offensive line?' Our defensive coordinator, John Chavis, has appeared to have found the football equivalent to Tom Cruise's Scientology in his Mustang Defense. He's a fanatical believer in it to the exclusion of all other alternatives, but it makes absolutely no sense to the rest of us. Here's the Mustang sieve defense: 4 down linemen, 3 LBs playing about 10 yards deep, and 4 DBs playing the softest zone you've ever seen. We watched that defense for the entire second half of the UCLA game, when we were leading by only one score. So let me grade it this way: the front seven four play very well, but Auburn will undoubtedly figure out a halftime adjustment that UT will never counter. They'll match up well, but they'll get outschemed."

6. Obligatory "players to watch" question: give us some players to watch who have flown under the radar for Tennessee thus far this year.

"It's hard to find players who are 'under the radar' on our team; we've been pretty obsessive about analyszing every little detail of the team so far. The obvious ones are Eric Berry(SAF), Rico McCoy (LB), Brent Vinson (CB), Dennis Rogan (PR), Gerald Jones (WR/QB), and the running backs. But if you really want to know how the game's going to go early, watch the lines. Specifically, watch what kinds of rush/blitz packages UT must defend on offense. If Auburn throws confusing stuff like zone blitzes at Crompton, we're probably doomed. On defense, assume that Chavis will never call a blitz. So if the 4 linemen can't get through Auburn's O-line, expect long time-consuming Auburn drives that end in scores. Our lines are good (very good, in my opinion), but they get absolutely no help."

7. I'm guessing by the Brandon James debacle that the effort to replace to Britton Colquitt has not gone smoothly, and between that and Daniel Lincoln's rough outing against UCLA I'm imagining Vol fans aren't so happy with their special teams units. Any hope for improvement against Auburn?

"I'd really like to pin the Brandon James problem on the backup punter; that'd be the easiest fix. But I honestly believe the backup punter didn't do anything wrong; the punt hung in the air long enough for reasonable punt coverage. Instead, I blame the six missed tackles, including the one where two potential tacklers ran into each other and blocked themselves quite nicely. The other thing to remember is that Brandon James has done this to UT three years in a row (the first was called back on a penalty). It's not a matter of a backup punter; it's a matter of doing the exact same thing without adjustment and expecting different results.

"I'm a little softer on Daniel Lincoln. The OT field goal should have been made, no question. But the other misses were all 50+ yarders at the limit of his range. At any rate, if we're blaming the loss to UCLA on field goal kicking, UT is indeed a horrible team. That game should never have come down to field goal kicking.

"But you're right; special teams are a sore point. Most people point the finger at coaching - more honestly, the complete lack thereof - and I tend to agree. UT has position coaches cover individual aspects of special teams rather than hiring a true special teams coach. (E.g. the receivers coach may handle the punt returners.) I have two problems with UT's approach. First, it doesn't lend itself to cohesiveness. We have a bunch of different individual units on the field rather than one group of 11 players. Second, it doesn't work. We've had tackling and blocking (see: UCLA punt block; also: first half of last year) problems for a long time, and they don't get better. That's a coaching problem.

"So no, I don't expect improvement. Instead, I hope that Auburn doesn't place the priority on special teams that UCLA and Florida did. UT can't overcome a special teams touchdown by Auburn; the Tigers defense is just too good."

8. Lastly, if you had to pick a single key to Saturday's game, the one thing Tennessee HAS to do to come out with a win, what is it? Please tell me it's "wear orange pants." 'Cause I like the pants.

"Heh. The pants. If it weren't for the disastrous start, those pants would be the primary argument in Vol-land. I kinda hope they wear the orange pants too, but I'll avoid those for the sake of my own hide. Here's what Tennessee HAS to do, and this is no joke:

"When (not if) the first (and maybe even the second and third) mistake is made, they need to accept the mistake and move on. Against Florida, the first mistake was the kickoff return for over 50 yards. That took the crowd out of the game. The second mistake was the jump-pass TD with nobody covering the TE. That took the defense out of the game. The third mistake was the personal foul on Foster. That took Foster out of the game. The fourth mistake was the punt-return-TD. That took everybody out of the game. You could see the panic in the players' and coach's (singular) eyes. Game = over.

"UT will make mistakes. They must remember that the game goes on, and that Auburn will also make mistakes. Fortunately for UT, this is a road game. When the first mistake is made, they won't have to endure boos from their own fans."

One brief response on the Fulmer situation, not that anyone in Knoxville really cares about what I have to say on the matter: if it really is a positive for Tennessee that they're playing Auburn (not some plucky mid-major but Auburn) in Jordan-Hare Stadium rather than Neyland, yeah, it's time for a change. If you don't have home-field advantage, you don't have a sustainable program in the SEC, period. It's too bad; Fulmer deserves better.

Thanks again to Hooper and be sure to check out his work at Rocky Top Talk.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Works, GO CRAZY-style

Is it just me, or has it been kind of a slowish news week around the Plains? Does it really feel like we've got--their record be damned--the Tennessee freaking Volunteers coming to Jordan-Hare on Saturday? Maybe it's a side effect of living in Michigan, but from here ... no, not really, it doesn't. Stupid schedule. Wouldn't now have been a seriously good time to host Arkansas?

OK, I'll stop whining. How 'bout a pick me up? How 'bout we all GO CRAZY! with Amare Stoudemire:

I know probably like 2% of my readers know or care who Amare is and that even if you do, it's possible you need to be stoned out of your gourd to fully appreciate theclip ... but dammit, I for one could use more yellow robots and happy green things dancing with NBA superstars in my morning, and I bet you do too.

Moving on ... Newly-crowned backup linebacker Great Story Pybus is unsurprisingly had the first of what's going to be four years of great stories written about him, thanks to his heat-of-the-moment PT against LSU. Here's to wishing he'd been a split-second faster on that bleepity bleeping touchdown pass from Lee, but nonetheless that a guy whose only other I-A scholly offer was from Duke is now seeing time with this unit is just yet another testament to a) Tubby's staff's instincts on who has the capability to contribute b) how quickly James Willis can coach these guys up. (Then again, Willis has been coaching Courtney Harden for four years and he just got beat out by a true freshman who even Auburn barely wanted. Just sayin'.)

Tubby's said this week they want to get Burns on the field, but even though he's only been on the Auburn beat a few days I'm with Andy Bitter:
I'll believe it when he's on the field and not wearing a head set.
You and me both, pal. (Also in that OA-News link: Tubby says Chaz Ramsey is "contemplating several different things, so we’re just going to wait and see what he makes his mind up to do." How very encouraging.)

Co-sign. I maybe sorta hinted at it in the Franklin post earlier this week, but I don't accept "Kodi doesn't know the offense well enough" as an excuse for his absence. If you're running an offense perfectly suited to the physical gifts of one quarterback and a poor fit for the gifts (such as they are) of the other, your job is to make sure the gifted one is prepared enough to run the damn thing and use the other as your fallback. As the Auburner shrewdly puts it:
Consider this, a track coach holds tryouts for one open spot on his team. Two runners run the exact same speed. One runner uses good technical form and the other uses poor form. The coach should choose the runner who had the poor form because he can be coached up. The coach can't do much for the runner who already has perfect form.

Todd seems to have had all the coaching he can handle. Burns is the guy who can be coached up to a superstar level – Burns also has a year more of eligibility than Todd. If everything else is equal, why not coach up Burns?
Word. Also joining this chorus is Auburn football pioneer Thom Gossom, who agreed to write a must-read column for TWER and expresses some doubts about the Auburn offense's direction. The highlight, though, God help me, is this passage about Gossom running into, uh ... you know, let me just reproduce it here:
There was one flashback to yesteryear. One of the former footballers, whiskey breath and all, felt the need to tell me and James and any one else who would listen, how he now felt like he was a black man and the one final wish in his life was to f— a black woman. “I feel black,” he announced. He embarrassed his wife as he continued with his faux soul brother act. “Just one time I’d like to f— a black woman,” he kept telling me. We begged off and fled back to the Presidents suite.

I cannot believe you are this freaking stupid. Bruce Feldman grabs the simmering OMG iz the pAc-10n good enuf 4 USC not 2B left out of teh title game? torch of lunacy with both hands in a blog post titled "Who will be left out of the BCS title game?", a post on which undefeated team might take the pipe that opens like so:
I hope it doesn't come to this, but in the back of all of our minds, c'mon, admit it, you know it probably will.
No, actually, the fact that it's happened once in 10 BCS years suggests to anyone with a brain where apparently you, Bruce Feldman, have an empty space where an attention-deficit chicken runs in circles that it's not probable at all.

One would think that we would learn from things like a season in which USC, LSU, Ohio St., and Oklahoma collectively lost to Stanford, Kentucky, Arkansas, Illinois, Colorado, and Texas Tech. One is always, always depressingly wrong. I know the above comment is unnecessarily savage, but it's freaking September and this kind of "I don't really believe what I'm writing, but let's try to freak out as many people as we can for no reason other than our own traffic/amusement" caterwauling is one of my biggest pet peeves, the sportswriting equivalent of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded room. (While we're at it: et tu, al.com?)

Guess I'll put this here. With it fitting neatly into neither Monday's knee-jerk piece nor most likely part 2 of the road trip posts, I'm not sure where else to comment on the "Miles outcoached Tubby" postgame consensus. But since I probably really ought to comment on it, my take is this: yes, Miles outcoached Tubby. But not that by as wide a margin as you may have been led to believe. Tubby's biggest in-game mistake was not calling timeouts at the end of LSU's final drive: living and dying with a field goal once they're inside the 20 (as Tubby seemed to content to do) is suicide, not to mention it would have been really nice to have another 40 seconds for our last-ditch effort as opposed to ending the game with two timeouts still uselessly under Auburn's belt. Not good.

That said, the team was mentally ready to play and a lot of the other in-game problems (the ineffective running game, the defensive misalignments) seem from here more of the coordinators' responsibilities. Miles's aggressiveness paid off on the final drive, no doubt, but the onsides kick decision has been overrated: LSU went three-and-out and Auburn immediately answered with an eight-play, 55-yard drive. It was the fourth-down stop at the end of that drive that gave LSU their momentum, not the onsides kick. And somehow I don't think Auburn's special teams struggles had much to do with Miles sending out two kickers with the same number, despite what Miles himself will apparently tell you.

Etc. Auburn's basketball schedule is out and the nonconference slate is, as per usual with Lebo, one or two interesting games amidst a wasteland of RPI anchors ... Burnt Orange Nation fisks a shoddy reinterpretation of the 2006 Rose Bowl with entertaining results ... War Eagle Atlanta busts out a cool little fact about Auburn vs. SEC East teams ... RBR + Doug + B&B + BSR = all the UGA-Bama pregame you'll need ... The completed Week 4 SECPP is up ... Jevan Snead is on a milk carton ... aaaand finally, your weekly animated drive chart courtesy of Rocky Top Talk: