Unfortunately my plans to do week long previews of the SEC teams Alabama will face this year fell apart over the last month while Charter screwed around with my internet service, so the Teagles get a one shot deal before I start breaking down our own beloved Tide tomorrow. That means no Q&A with our rival bloggers, but you should all check out both Track 'em Tigers (to whom I will link many times throughout this preview) and the Joe Cribbs Car Wash, two excellent Auburn blogs that I would have certainly asked to participate in this preview had things worked out like I had planned. Oh well, there's always next year, and if any of you Auburn Bloggers want to come up with a response letting me know anything I missed or just got completely wrong, e-mail us at rollbamaroll -at- gmail.com and we'll be happy to post it here or link to your site. On with the show:
Auburn is riding a phenomal decade of success on both the playing field and in the recruiting wars. Though there are quite a few question marks for this year's model, the Tiger faithful won't be satisfied with a "rebuilding year" effort from their team. Plenty of young and talented players are available to plug in, while senior leadership at QB and one of the best D-lines in the league give Auburn fans a reason to hope and believe the Tigers can continue the success they've seen over the past decade. Last year's team was plagued by injuries, most notably to QB Brandon Cox and to the backfield, and they were forced to win with defense and special teams. Though that worked against LSU and Florida, it hampered the Tigers in their losses to Arkansas and Georgia when they got down quickly and were never able to fight their way back. If this year's team is to avoid those kind of pitfalls, the health of Cox is of the utmost importance, and an O-line that returns only one starter from one of the worst units in the league at protecting the QB last year needs to come together quickly.
QB Brandon Cox
For the '07 Tigers, it all starts with Brandon Cox. The senior QB, despite playing with an injury for most of last year, threw for 2198 yards (163-271 for 14 TDs and 9 INTs) while leading Auburn to an 11-2 record that included wins over Sugar Bowl Champs LSU, National Champs Florida, and Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. Track 'em Tigers rightfully wonders where the love is for Cox, though the continuing issue of whether or not the o-line can protect him probably has something to do with that. LT King Dunlap started all 13 games last season and anchors a line on which he is the only returning starter. This is likely the most inexperienced o-line in the SEC, and it's a huge question mark for the Teagles. Line coach Hugh Nall mixed and matched his players during the spring, and the possibility of true and redshirt freshmen starting in the opener is a scary situation. RG Leon Hart, who saw action in all 13 last year, is nursing an ankle injury giving redshirt freshman center Mike Berry a chance to start in the season opener in his place, while true freshman Lee Ziemba is expected to start beside him at RT. Auburn loses a two year starter in center Joe Cope, who will be replaced by junior Jason Bosley. Fortunately, Bosley started four last year in place of an injured Cope, so there is experience there. At LG is likely Tyronne Green, a junior who saw action in all 13 games last year.
Bolstering the line is a trio of impressive TEs. Senior Cole Bennett missed most of last season with a broken ankle, but he returns to join Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie, who both filled in admirably for him last season. Trott and McKenzie combined for 23 catches, 241 yards, and 3 TDs last season, and they'll look to play a significant role in the passing game this year with a more wide open offensive game plan and a lack of proven receivers.
Leading receiver Courtney Taylor is gone, leaving Rod Smith the leading returning pass catcher with 26 for 452 yards and 4 TDs. The former walk-on needs to continue his emergence as a go to receiver, but he'll need some help from his fellow WRs. Montez Billings and Robert Dunn showed improvement in the spring, and they'll both join Smith in three receiver sets. Prechae Rodriguez also returns with 14 catches for 168 yds and 1 TD, while Tim Hawthorne, a highly touted recruit out of high school that redshirted last year, will look to make an immediate impact.
The backfield is fairly cluttered for Auburn after a season of ups and downs for the RBs. Leading rusher Kenny Irons is gone, taking both his 941 yards and his sex midget with him, leaving Brad Lester and Ben Tate to vie for the starting job. Lester appears to have locked it down, at least for the opener, but RB by committee looks likely on the plains, with Tate also getting plenty of carries and guys like Mario Fannin and Tristan Davis also getting touches. They are all talented, if inexperienced, but their performance, like Cox's, is also tied to the o-line.
Just like the offense, the line is the key for Auburn's defense this year, but fortunately they return plenty of starting talent up front. 1st Team All-SEC selection Quentin Groves anchors the line at DE, and he'll also play at OLB in the 3-4 looks DC Will Muschamp intends to run this season. Groves led the team in sacks last season with 9.5 (Chris Capps said to tell you "You're welcome.") and will once again be a force up front for the Tigers. Sen-Derrick Marks is also a key playmaker for the d-line. The sophomore played both tackle and end last year, and his versatility will be important for DC Muschamp's new schemes. His 38 stops last year included 3.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs, and he'll be counted on to play both the run on the inside and rush the passer from the end. NT Josh Thompson started all 13 last year, and his 44 tackles is tops on the line. There's a lot of talent to rotate around him, as well, with Mike Blanc having a solid spring at DT and Pat Sims, who recorded 16 stops last year, also manning the DT position.
DE Quentin Groves
The secondary will also be a concern early on, as there are plenty of familiar names but not a lot of consistency. CBs Jonathan Wilhite, Patrick Lee and Jerraud Powers are all capable, while the safety positions are stocked. SS Eric Brock, the second leading returning tackler on the team is being pushedb backup Zac Etheridge, who showed plenty of potential in the spring, while the FS position is manned by the leading returning tackler Aairon Savage. The talented sophomore had 43 stops last season, but has yet to play at a consistent level. Muschamp expects a lot from his secondary this year, and feels they have the talent to deliver if they'll develop into the consistent every down players they can be.
|9/1||vs Kansas State|
|9/15||vs Mississippi State|
|9/22||vs New Mexico State|
|10/27||vs Ole Miss|
|11/3||vs Tennessee Tech|
This year's schedule does the Teagles no favors. While an opening date against Kansas State appears dangerous, the Wildcats were blown out numerous times last year and notched their signature win over Texas only after QB Colt McCoy was knocked out of the game. Week two is where the trap lies, as USF comes to Auburn. The Big East Bulls finished 9-4 last year after notching an upset win over West Virginia to close out the regular season, and they'll be no cakewalk for the Tigers. Next up is a visit from Mississippi State, who hasn't scored against Auburn in two years now. Their offense should be far more potent this year, but I doubt they'll be able to overcome the Teagles. New Mexico State comes calling next to provide a tune up for their first road game, a trip to the Swamp to face the Florida Gators. I have my concerns about Florida this year, but the Swamp is a daunting enviroment, and this will be a tough road opener. They return home to face Vandy on October 6th before heading back out to face Arkansas and LSU in back to back road games. McFadden ran all over Auburn last year, while the visitor in the LSU/Auburn series has typically had little success in the past seven years. They get a brief respite at home when Ole Miss and Tennessee Tech visit, and a trip to Athens gives Auburn a chance for revenge after last year's humiliating defeat. They take a week off before welcoming our own beloved Tide to Auburn to close out the regular season.
Best Case Scenario
Gimme wins over K State, Mississippi State, New Mexico State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee Tech, plus imminently winnable home contests against USF and Vandy gives Auburn seven built in wins, while trips to Arkansas and Georgia, where the visitor usually has the upper hand in both series, sits the Teagles at nine wins. A win in the Swamp against an inexperienced Florida D puts them in double digits, and another victory over the Tide, who will still be adjusting to Coach Saban's schemes, gives them an 11 win season and a chance at Atlanta if LSU falters.
Worst Case Scenario
Gimme wins over K State, Mississippi State, New Mexico State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee Tech, plus imminently winnable home contests against USF and Vandy gives Auburn seven built in wins, but trips to Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, and the Swamp all spell disaster for Auburn and a visit from the Tide, who are adjusted to Coach Saban's schemes and playing their best ball of the season, ends the season on a considerable down note.
There are the seven built in wins, and the Arkansas and Georgia series tend to favor the visitor, and there is certainly the scary possibility that, even with the considerable coaching upgrades, Alabama won't be playing the kind of football it needs to win on the road in the SEC until next season. Trips ot LSU and Florida are also dangerous, so I picture this team likely winding up somewhere around eight or nine wins.