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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Auburn

A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason.
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The least you should know about Auburn...
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 9-4 (5-3 SEC; 2nd/West)
2003-07: 50-14 (32-9 SEC)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 21 • 13 • 10 • 7 • 20
Returning Starters, Roughly
15 (8 Offense, 7 Defense)
Best Player
The scouts are more enamored with tweener end/tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, but just hit a Google Image search on the kid and you’ll see the heir to the Auburn edge rushing mantle is Antonio Coleman. It was Coleman, not Quentin Groves or likely first rounder Pat Sims, who recorded an unseemly 13 tackles for loss in one five-game stretch against SEC teams (including LSU and Georgia) as a sophomore, in addition to leading the team in sacks and quarterback hurries. He probably can’t do this, but like Groves, Stanley McClover and Reggie Torbor before him, Coleman is a hopped-up outside linebacker (6-2, 243) at end that most tackles can’t touch on long-yardage downs.
You Know You’re a Tiger/War Eagle If...
You are in possession of a functioning penis and yet have also spent several consecutive hours enthusiastically, unironically snapping a pom pom (probably while using the business end to stir a drink, or – at least once, during your frat days – wearing a tie). Auburn certainly is not alone here (indeed, the entire state of Alabama is culpable), but it is the most egregious waver of poms, or shakers, or whatever the kids are calling plastic streamers attached to a stick these days, and as such invites dumptruck-fulls of shame. As a handheld fan device, cowbells rout pom poms by a mile; even the wretched inflatable thundersticks beat till limp by second rate crowds are preferable for actually creating a din above "shucka shucka." Face your fate like any good, red-blooded, camouflage-drenched Republican state must: pom poms are for sissies.

Also, if you really, really want to correct me about the improper use of "War Eagle."

* According to Rivals
What's Changed. Whatever metric you want to use, there's no question about the direction of Auburn's passing game the last four years:

You would not be entirely wrong to say, "Well, yeah, but Brandon Cox..." Remember, though, that Cox was the starter for all of 2005, and only went down as his career progressed, with interceptions increasing and touchdowns decreasing along with yards and rating each year, to the point that coaches turned at times last year to an erratic true freshman in a desperate search for the old "spark." Even most SEC fans can't name Auburn's starting receivers the last two years (of the ten Tigers who caught double digit passes last year, six were running backs and tight ends). Borges' offense gradually devolved from something fairly explosive in Years One and Two to a waggle-heavy, possession-oriented dump fest designed to avoid mistakes and bleed the clock. It was actually pretty good within that mission - the low-scoring wins over Florida, Arkansas and Alabama and the near-upset at LSU are largely explained by the offense's ability to dominate time of possession despite being outgained on a per-snap basis in each of those games.

But without a Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown or Kenny Irons in the backfield to fuel the favored power running plan that Borges used at his best to set up a lethal play-action attack, and with LSU and Florida shining the path to the future, the creaky two-back set has heaved its last breath and died. Hello, Tony Franklin:

Ninety percent of the Tigers' plays will be run out of the shotgun, whereas previously 90 percent of plays were run with the quarterback under center. While Tuberville always has preferred to set up the pass with the run, Franklin prefers the opposite approach.

"We want to throw the ball a lot, especially a lot of quick gains to receivers," Franklin said. "We want the defensive linemen to turn and be running sideways. The longer the game goes on, those linemen get more tired and more tired, and then it gets easier to run the football. We're throwing the ball all over the place, and then we pound it at them."
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Exciting business, but the open question is how much throwin' Franklin is set on as opposed to a Rodriguez-style focus on incorporating the quarterback as an every-down running threat. Kodi Burns certainly fits better in the latter category, and was the offensive star of the Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl by virtue of his very un-Cox-like elusiveness from the gun. Ex-Texas Tech signee Chris Todd is the passing option, though the best guess if Franklin is looking for "a lot of quick gains to wide receivers" (i.e. easy throws even a future pro kick returner can make) is that Burns can probably get by just fine in a Pat White-type role. Either way, the day of the burly plowhorse that's defined the Auburn offense for decades - Bo Jackson, James Brooks, James Bostick, Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson, et al - is fading fast.

Please, Tony, don't hurt 'em.
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What's the Same. Will Muschamp deserves a lot of credit for an aggressive beast of a defense in his two years here, but the Tigers' national rank in scoring defense the four years before Muschamp's arrival were 13, 9, 1 and 5. The sun never sets on Auburn's endless reserve of slightly undersized hellions in the front seven, and anyone thinking the absence of Muschamp, draft-bound Quentin Groves and Pat Sims or human cinder block Josh Thompson portends vulnerability will be ducking for cover soon enough. The next wave is Antonio Coleman and Sen'Derrick Marks, two of the most productive members of last year's killer rotation as sophomores. Tuberville's defenses have always been based on speed first, and the best straight-ahead, power-oriented offenses can still make some headway - last year, that included Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia and Clemson, which collectively averaged 178 rushing on 4.5 per carry - but God help any offensive line lacking the beef to shove its way out of third-and-long situations, or even third-and-medium: opposing offenses converted about 50 percent of third downs with less than four yards to go last year, compared to about 27 percent with four or more to go and the nigh-unblockable pass rush bearing down.

Boy, You'll Be Sophomore Soon. It's hard to say how much of the offense's nosedive began with the line, a hard luck outfit that started with uncertainty at four positions, shuffled all every spot at least twice and spent most of the year with three true freshmen at the front. And yet...when the freshmen are as highly regarded as Lee Ziemba, Chaz Ramsey and Ryan Pugh, frustration turns very quickly in to optimism as growing pains are presumed passed; it's reasonable to think, with the entire starting five back and a new scheme based on keeping defensive lineman from charging decisively upfield, Auburn's line could mature into one of the best in the SEC. At the very least, failing to hit four yards per carry for the second straight year (the average was a paltry 3.28 in SEC games) would be a mark of shame, spread or no spread.

Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Amid the buzz, intrigue and handwringing wrought by Franklin's scheme and the attendant quarterback puzzle, the best headline was born of an old-fashioned slugfest - "big on big," as they say - wherein Ziemba knocked Antonio Coleman unconscious for 10 or 15 minutes in the course of a post-play scuffle. Coleman was briefly hospitalized with a cervical sprain (ha ha), which must not be as serious as it sounds because he was back at practice days later, albeit equipped with a neck brace.

So AC is okay, Ziemba is okay with AC, and Tommy Tuberville sees no evil:

"It was just two guys competing and he got hurt," Tuberville said. "There was no intention on either side. Both of them got after it all day long. You're going to have a lot of competition. Anytime somebody gets hurt when you're trying to block them, you kind of feel responsible. But there was zero intention. It was both guys competing all day, each was punching each other right and left. That's football. You just hate something like that ever happens."
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Guys punching out teammates in the Spring? That's football! Tubs hates something like that just he hates chop blocking - no, really, really hates chop blocking - we're sure.

One wonders: in the process of punching Coleman right and left, what was Ziemba's intent?

Auburn on You Tube. I don't know that there's anything particularly amazing about this, and really, that's the point: a man in a huge, fluffy, cartoon tiger costume with another man strapped to his back can jump out of a moving airplane, on pretty much any day of the week. What a country!

I thought the tension really built there towards the end.

See Also: Throwin it Deep With the Sister of Neil Caudle ... Count the black guys as Auburn takes on Georgia in 1971. ... And a one-sided version of one of the great games I've ever seen: Auburn 36, Florida 33 from 1994.

Best-Case. Atlantastic.  If Franklin's offense falls into place out of the gate, as the spread is wont to do, a very year-away-looking team could be on top of the league and right in the conference race in a matter of weeks. Two games in September stand out as make-or-break toward winning the West, both at home: LSU on Sept. 20 and Tennessee on Sept. 27. Combine those with a nice (but ultimately meaningless, in terms of the SEC) trip to West Virginia in October and the annual throwdown with Georgia, and no team searching for an identity on both sides of the ball can be expected even in the most optimistic sense to survive into the Iron Bowl intact. Just split of those four would set the Tigers up nicely for their third ten-win effort in four years - there is no Florida, Arkansas is rebuilding on offense and Alabama is under Tuberville's thumb until it proves otherwise. If one of those wins is over LSU, AU becomes the early division favorite, beats the teams it's supposed to and wanders into the Georgia game with a chance to lock the West down. A perennial top ten contender at this point.

Worst-Case. Last bus to Shreveport: There are many snakes in the grass for such a young team: Southern Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Alabama. Offenses have been known to reject transplants, especially in Year One, and especially when run by potentially one-dimensional sophomores. A wave of mistakes by Burns puts the Tigers in jeopardy of losing maybe two of those "danger" games on top of three or four heavyweight smackdowns from LSU, Tennessee, West Virginia and/or Georgia. Bowl eligibility is probably not in any danger, but it could be just that: the Independence or Liberty Bowl and a lot of "Get `em next year."

Non-Binding Forecast. January or Bust: Plenty of AU partisans are certain to think, "Look what happened the last time we had a new offensive coordinator" in 2004, but this edition does not have the tools, personnel-wise, to reach those heights. West Virginia is a nice, rare interregion game in October, but the difference between a possible BCS bid at 11-2 and the Music City Bowl at 8-4 is precisely the wild card games the Tigers won last year - Arkansas, Alabama, the rotating East rival (Florida last year, Tennessee this year)  - and eliminating bizarre losses like Mississippi State. Not much really stands out about this team, but Tuberville has built a good talent base that can count on nine wins on a reliable basis. The only games the Tigers will definitely be favored to lose entering the year are LSU and Georgia, with WVU and UT looming large. Another 9-3, Cotton Bowl-type effort feels right.