Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Looking Forward: Auburn

My apologies (again) for not getting anything posted the last few days. Suffice to say, real life takes priority over blogging, and real life has been busy.

At any rate, I ought to get in at least something of a post on expectations for 2007. I'll break from my own tradition this time around and start out with Auburn, and I might as well jump in with what scares me.

After jumping out to a solid start in the opener against Washington State, Auburn took a giant step backwards offensively in 2006. The backfield was riddled with injuries, the receiving corps was an object lesson in what happens when you lose three thousand-yard receivers to graduation, and the line was rarely better than average. Even so, a battered Brandon Cox could usually move the football between the twenties, and with an all-senior kicking game and usually-solid defense, that was enough to win in eleven games, two of those against the eventual #1 and #2 teams in the final polls.

I wish I could say that I expect things to be much better in 2007, but frankly, I can't. I'm not worried about Cox, or at least about his play. I am worried about his health, particularly given the youth of four of the five guys charged with protecting him. If Cox absorbs another 34 sacks this year, the record isn't likely to be pretty. I also wish I could say that I trust Hugh Nall to coach up the line, but frankly, I don't. I do think Nall is capable of doing so, but his lack of consistency from year to year just doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

Auburn has quality running backs and tight ends stacked up from here to Sylacauga, but as of A-Day, I didn't see any receivers who could get open down the field. Phillip Marshall, who's seen the August practices, thinks the receiver problems have been solved, and I sincerely hope he's right, but I'll have to see it before I believe it. I'd also like to see the fireworks return to Al Borges' attack (and I don't mean that flea-flicker from the Georgia game, Al) after a season in the doldrums; happily, I am optimistic on that front.

Unhappily, I am less optimistic about an all-freshman kicking game. This is probably as good a time as any to dredge up Dye's Law, which states, You're going to lose a conference game for every true freshman you have to start. I'm not making a prediction here, but there are two true freshmen starters in the current Auburn two-deep, and one of them is Wes Byrum, the placekicker (the other is offensive tackle Lee Ziemba). I'm not saying that freshmen can't perform on special teams, but I am saying that having freshmen on the field tends to make weird things happen. Sometimes those things are good, but more often they are not. Suffice to say, the kicking game makes me nervous.

With all that hand-wringing out of the way, I'm quite happy to say that I expect great things out of the 2007 Auburn defense. Up front, the only SEC team that can even touch Auburn in quality or depth is LSU (which has beaucoup of both, and then some). Auburn has traded some experience for talent at linebacker, but I don't expect to see any significant fall-off there. I do think the secondary will miss David Irons, but I suspect an improved pass rush and more experience coming back at safety will help cushion the blow.

What I'm really expecting out of this defense is consistency. The 2006 defense was good enough to hold LSU to three points (chew on that for a while, Notre Dame snobs), but also bad enough to get shredded by a good Arkansas and mediocre Georgia. I think it's more than reasonable to expect much more consistent performance in DC Will Muschamp's second year. With the exception of freshman backup free safety Mike McNeil, everybody in the two-deep has had a couple of years in the system now, and that ought to mean a much more cohesive squad, one that can change looks and coverages with fewer mental breakdowns. The talent and schemes are certainly there, now it's just a matter of execution. With senior leadership from quarterback-killer Quentin Groves, I like this defense's odds.

Let's just be up-front about the schedule: it stinks, even the home slate. After the more than respectable opening pair of Kansas State and South Florida (the latter of which is the really worrysome opponent in my eyes), Auburn doesn't have an eye-opening opponent at home until the Tolbert Game at the end of the season. This isn't to say that none of the visiting conference teams will be any good; anybody in the SEC can trip you up if you aren't careful. Vanderbilt (which probably has its best team in a generation) and Ole Miss (which gave an error-plagued Auburn fits last year) could both be trap games if AU isn't mentally ready, and let's face it, nobody wants to get Croomed.

And of course, the road schedule speaks for itself. In point of fact, it kind of sounds like Hannibal Lecter. Beyond Auburn's traditional second home in Sanford Stadium, none of the road sites are places where the Tigers usually play well, and all four of the road opponents (Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia) should have pretty good teams, at the very, very least.

I hate to put a damper on expectations, but splitting that slate would probably be a hell of an accomplishment. Problem is, Auburn will certainly have to go at least 3-1 on the road to have any hope of making it to Atlanta the first week in December. As the aforementioned Dr. Lecter remarked upon sizing up a Kenyan marathoner, "That's going to be tough."

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