Okay, okay, I apologize for the near-utter lack of posts as we roll up to the season. Real life has (quite rudely) intruded mightily upon blogging for most of this summer, and making things worse, at least where Auburn is concerned, there are far more questions than answers out there for the time being. In all the times I've been asked how I think the Tigers are going to do this year, I haven't been able to come up with anything more eloquent than a shrug, and for good reason: there are way too many unknowns in 2009. With an entirely new coaching staff and a whole lot of new faces on the field (to say nothing of all the similar shakeups at many of the '09 opponents), I can safely say that I don't have the foggiest idea what the final record is going to look like--but then again, neither does anybody else.
My track record is no better than anybody else's when it comes to predictions (although it's also no worse than the collective "wisdom" of the SEC sportswriters who picked AU to win the West last year), but this recent graphical breakdown of the Tiger starting lineup by Charles Goldberg at the Birmingham News is a nice starter for commentary:
(Note: a friend emailed me the above graphic, but I can't for the life of me find it on al.com's site. Anybody who knows the correct link, please add a comment or send me an email, and I'll be happy to add it to this post.)
To start off with the defense, I'm afraid Goldberg is probably being, if anything, generous to AU's effectively one-deep linebacking corps. Without casting aspersions on the three guys who are starting, after a spate of spring and August injuries, there's almost literally nobody behind them--and even the starters, notably Eltoro Freeman, aren't completely healthy. If I were an opposing offensive coordinator, I'd plan to run right up the gut the whole game and wear those LBs out. On the other hand, I think he's way underrating the defensive line, which has enough depth and developed talent to be very good again this year; the only question mark is at left end, where Michael Goggins has apparently been bounced in favor of JUCO newcomer
In similar terms, while I think Goldberg is right to credit the offensive line starters for being a good group, there's just precious little backup there. If even one of those guys goes down, Auburn is in serious trouble. Assuming Gus Malzahn can avoid calling a "Meercat" offense including that awful east-west draw (with the added benefit of no blocking), I feel safe in saying that the Tigers will have a vastly-improved running game in 2009. I wish I could argue his points about the quarterbacks and receivers, but let's face it: no wideout on the roster has significant catches, and the one returning quarterback with significant playing time was pretty awful last year. No, that wasn't always his fault, but not unlike his head coach, the burden of proving that he can be (a lot) better is Chris Todd's to deal with until and unless he does so.
I'd also extend that point towards Auburn fans who've gotten worked up over being picked last or next-to-last in the West, or at somewhere in the second half of Division 1-A in the extended preseason polls. Look, folks: Auburn was terrible for most of last year. The most significant win? Toss-up between 5-7 Tennessee and 7-6 Southern Miss. We then went and hired a coach with a losing streak as ugly as your average ramp-rat in Tuscaloosa. What the heck are they supposed to think? I'll give you a hint: it sure isn't "championship contender."
Now, like every other preseason prediction, those are based on perception as least as much as reality, and predictions certainly aren't destiny. But, again: you've got to prove the perceptions wrong. It's not up to the observers, no matter who they are or how little they might be paying attention, to change their minds first. You've got to give them reason to.
Auburn's first opportunity to present its case, for better or for worse, is Saturday night.