So as you already know--unless you don't, in which case, why didn't you?--the 2009 Phil Steele college football preview magazine/secret Skynet world-domination manual was released to the general populace yesterday. Yours truly spent most of last night giving it an initial once-over, and I figure those of you who are waiting 'til the weekend to purchase--or lack the VHT eyesight necessary to read Steele's mini-print, which is kinda understandable--might want to know what our favorite college football Deep Blue has to say about our Auburn Tigers.
He says the following:
1. Auburn's not in the top 50--but they should earn a bowl berth and a winning record. It's a little distressing to look over his top 50 and see such luminaries as Colorado, Houston, and Ohio but no Auburn ... to say nothing of Auburn's doppelgangers at Tennessee landing at No. 39. Steele doesn't seem to see a ton of talent at Auburn at the moment--his computer-driven "power poll" ranks Auburn No. 47, one slot behind Houston (again) and just in front of Arizona St. and East Carolina. Add in his obvious respect for the SEC West (which he repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly notes boasts three of his top 10 teams) and a schedule he rates as the nation's 15th-toughest and it makes sense he doesn't see great things ahead for Auburn in 2009.
However, Steele does stick Auburn on his Most Improved Teams list, at No. 13, and projects a trip to Shreveport--yessss!!!!--to play Colorado in the Advocare V100 Independence Bowl, so it's fair to say he's planning at least a little uptick in Auburn's fortunes. "Chizik steps into a solid situation and the Tigers make my Most Improved list which means they should be bowl bound," he concludes. Better than nothin'.
2. Auburn makes the Most Improved list for a couple of different "better luck"-related reasons. If you've spent any serious time with Steele, you know about his various year-to-year good fortune/bad fortune metrics. Probably the biggest one is turnovers, and Auburn nearly made his world-famous (for a given definition of "world) "Turnovers = Turnaround" with their sparkling -8 final 2008 margin. Not quite double-digits, but Steele clearly feels some improvement there is inevitable (and unless Burns/Caudle totally craters, he's right).
Steele also notes that Auburn had two net close losses last year, losing four one-possession games and winning just two. According to his stats, over the last seven years, 64 percent of teams with two net close losses improved their record next year. Combine the turnovers and the closes losses, and Auburn really should have better luck in '09.
3. Yards-per-point findings on Auburn are inconclusive ... but tend towards positive. Steele's yards-per-point metric is pretty straightforward: the more yards an offense requires to put points on the board, the less efficient--and somewhat unlucky--it is, while the more yards a defense a gives up without allowing points, the more efficient but also the more fortunate it is. (Defenses that "bend but don't break" aren't really as good as teams that never bend in the first place, right?) So Steele has found that teams with high offensive YYPs, i.e. teams that should have scored more points according to their yardage, generally get better the following year while teams with high defensive YPPs that should have given up more points generally regress.
Here's Auburn's problem: in 2008 it fit both categories. It won't surprise anyone who remembers Auburn's dead-last finish in red zone efficiency that Auburn's offensive YPP are high--at 17.44, Auburn ranked 10th in the country in the metric. But if Auburn moved the ball a lot without the points to show for it, it also forced the opponent to do the same: the Tiger's defensive YPP was 17.65, 12th in the country. Both of those numbers are likely to shrink this season.
Here's the good news, though: the correlation between YPP and the expected improvement/decline is much stronger for the offensive version. Some 74 percent of teams that crack the 17.5 threshold Auburn just misses improve their record the following year; because a high defensive YPP can be an indication of a team that's just plain bodacious on D as opposed to merely fortunate, only 58 percent of teams above Steele's (arbitrary?) 17.35 cut-off regress.
So balancing Auburn's YPP on either side of the ball, it's probably not as strong an indicator as either the expected turnover swing or better luck in close games ... but it's still more positive than negative.
4. Auburn's more experienced than most. Steele's final aggregation of his experience data--combining experience on the two-deep, lettermen lost, yards returning, tackles returning, and career offensive line starts returning--ranks Auburn the 36th-most experienced team in the country and fifth in the SEC behind Florida, Ole Miss, LSU, and Kentucky. He notes that even Auburn's relative inexperience on the offensive line isn't a disaster or anything; four of Auburn's projected starters have 7 or more career starts. (Andrew McCain? It's on you, buddy.)
5. The defensive line wasn't as good as perhaps it should have been last year. Here, I'll just let Steele sum it up for you:
Last year they had to replace 2.5 starters including #2 and #3 DC's. They did return 1 full-time starter plus Antonio Coleman who had 7 starts (8.5 sk '07). Auburn slipped allowing their worst overall ypc(4.1) since 1995 (139 ypg) and the D had just 21 sacks ... Coleman turned down an early shot at the NFL, so they have 3 starters returning and add PS#22JC Nick Fairley. They can only improve on 2008's poor numbers.Well, I don't know if I'd call Mike Blanc a returning starter (as Steele does), but here's to hoping he's right about that.
6. Clinton Durst is the man. Not surprisingly for a pundit who places more emphasis on net punting than raw yardage, Steele loves him some Saturn V: Durst is one of only two Auburn players on his All-SEC first team (Coleman is the other) and ranks fourth in his list of the top 22 draft-eligible prospects at the position.
Other Auburn names on the draft-eligible list: Coleman No. 6 at defensive end, Josh Bynes No. 16 at inside linebacker, Zach Clayont (!) No. 42 at defensive tackle, Aairon Savage No. 46 at cornerback, Zac Etheridge No. 20 at free safety, and Mike McNeil No. 11 at strong safety. (Yeah, the safeties are switched from their actual position. Just roll with it.)
7. Despite all that, Auburn doesn't have any elite units. You may know Steele devotes several pages in the mag to ranking the top 33 or 34 units in the country at each position, with little write-ups for the top 15. For the first time I can remember since I started reading Steele in '04 or '05 or so, Auburn didn't have a single unit make the "write-up section. He rated the running backs No. 28, the defensive backs No. 24, and the special teams No. 31 ... and that's it. In his SEC-only unit rankings, none from Auburn rank higher than fifth.
8. Tyrik Rollison is a stud. I don't know exactly how much stock anyone puts in Steele's weird amalgamated recruiting rankings, but prepare to put a little more stock in them if you're an Auburn fan ... at least as far as quarterbacks are concerned. Because he ranks Rollison as his "PS#3" QB in the 2009 class. Yep, the No. 3 quarterback in the entire class, behind only LSU's Russell Shepard and Texas's Garrett Gilbert. Clearly Steele likes him some mobile QBs--pro-style pocket passer and consensus No. 1 QB in the class Matt Barkley (now at USC) was just PS#5, with pro-style 'Bama prize A.J. McCarron down at No. 9. Here's to hoping Steele knows something the recruiting gurus don't. (As a PS p.s.: Clint Moseley was No. 43 here, just six spots behind Raymond Cotton.)
Aside from Rollison, though, Steele wasn't impressed: he ranked Auburn's overall 2009 class 10th in the SEC.
9. The Chizik hire was "surprising," but that's about it. I was fully expecting to have Auburn called out in Steele's annual "Baylor'd" section, in which he castigates schools for ill-advised hasty coaching changes. That section disappeared this year, perhaps to make room for more ads (of which there are more than in any previous Steele that I can recall). And so Steele's only commentary on the coaching change is to note that Tuberville "resigned" and that Auburn "surprisingly" chose Chizik after his ISU experience. This is the nice thing about reading a robot's football magazine for robots: sometimes, there just isn't room for editorializing, even when there is room to note that walk-ons Mike Gibson (5'11" 227 Jr), Michael Alexander (5'10" 201 So), Davis Hooper (6'0" 201 So) and FB Jason King (6'0" 223 Jr) have been "added to the mix" at running back.
10. Other assorted tidbits. Also gleaned from Steele's comprehensive statistics/results page:
--Tubby's record against the spread this decade was incredible: 54-42-1 entering last season. Such a shame about that 2-9 finish.
--Kentucky hasn't beaten Auburn since 1966.
--Steele rates Auburn's "homefield edge" as a "4.25." I have no clue what this means.
--After finishing with a positive turnover margin four out of five years, Auburn has been neutral or negative each of the past two years.
--The visitor has won 6 of 7 between Auburn and Arkansas.
--After a three-week span in which they beat Mississippi St. 3-2, lost at home to what would wind up an 8-5 LSU team, and beating hapless Tennessee on a fumble into the end zone, again at home, Auburn was still ranked No. 13 heading into the Vanderbilt game and No. 20 the week after.
--For weather information in Auburn, call 334-636-9764.
Yes, that last tidbit is included near the top of Steele's Auburn page. Which is why, truly, this is the greatest of all college football publications.