Auburn vs. The World
In 2006, in order to reach the Promised Land of Glendale, AZ, Auburn must battle 13 opponents (and the biased national media, of course). To aide Auburn on its quest for college football's holy grail this year, howeve,r, Auburn has added Will Muschamp, football's top defensive mind. Muschamp understands zone blitzes - and the fact that in Latin, Jehovah starts with an I.
Auburn vs. The Spread
College football's most trendy offense is appropriately named, b/c it is spreading through Division I-A (and I-AA with App State using it) like HIV, and ESPN is its bathhouse. It leads to lots of highlights in other conferences, but not a lot of points in the SEC. This year, Auburn will face as many as 3 teams that feature the spread as its base offensive alignment for the first time in modern history, and the first time probably ever.
The spread is a formation featuring 3-4 WRs, usually one back, and usually with the QB in the Shotgun. Auburn's opponents running the spread, or a version of it, will be Washington State, Florida, and probably Arkansas.
The theory behind the spread is to live up to its name by spreading out the defense. The positioning of the WRs causes the defense to expand itself, thereby creating wider running and passing lines. Additionally, so the theory goes, the defense will have to basically "declare" what it's going to do, b/c as the WRs come set, they will have to be accounted for by defenders. Many WRs increases the likelihood of man coverage, and the wider gaps give the WRs more room in space to work with, and make the defenders cover larger areas. All of this helps the running game by creating naturally occurring seams and gaps for the RBs to do their thing.
Like communism, this stuff sounds great in theory, but collapses in the face of a strong defense. The strategic defense initiative for bringing down the evil empire of the spread is to 1) be able to man cover multiple receivers and tackle in space, 2) have speed on defense to be able to close the widened gaps in a hurry, and 3) disguise coverages to "trick" the QB into making bad decisions. Auburn should be able to do all 3 this year.
Wilhite and Irons provide the best tandem of CBs in the nation. Aairon Savage is a natural corner who provides solid coverage skills, though he will likely be inconsistent early. As noted earlier, two of the starting LBs, Herring and Dede, are DB converts, and so they'll have better coverage skills than your average LB. Auburn has put together the most physical August practices since the Dye era, and that will translate
The speed on defense is there in droves. Tuberville is of the old school Miami way of thinking in which you recruit speed, speed, and more speed and sacrfiice size if you have to. Defenses that are able to recognize the play and move laterally can cause the theoretical "natural seams" to close. This is particularly important vs. Florida and Urban Meyer's spread option attack. We saw what happened to Meyer vs. Alabama's fast LB corps a year ago.
Disguising coverages is particularly effective vs. the spread b/c the spread relies on quick decision making by the QB (which is one of the fundamental flaws of the spread in that it 1) leads to mistakes, and 2) leads to dependency on short and horizontal passes, so in essence it "spreads" the field horizontally, but tends to shrink it vertically). Texas fans have seen this in action. Recall the play against Texas Tech in '04 in which Texas ran a zone blitz, and Tech QB Sonny Cumbie threw the ball directly into the hands of Texas DE Aurmon Satchell.
Why did he make that throw? Because Satchell wasn't supposed to be there, accoring to Cumbie's read. What a zone blitz does is bring at least one non-lineman (often a DB) to rush, while a DE drops back into coverage. The more complicated zone blitzes will involve a great deal of shifting among the defenders. What this does is cause the QB to misdiagnose the play. Usually, when a LB or a DB blitzes, he leaves the space or man he would normally cover unaccounted for. It is thus the job of the QB to find that space and deliver the ball there. In a zone blitz, howev er, the rotation of the defenders fills that space. So, the zone that was to be unaccounted for by the blitzing Texas defender was filled by the DE Satchell. Cumbie couldn't figure that out, b/c in the spread, he had only 2.5 seconds from snap to release to make the appropriate sight adjustment. He could not, and Tech paid the consequences. The quick decision making process makes pre-snap reads all the more important, so being able to ensure rhat the presnap alignment of the defense is misleading is incredibly advantageous in defending the spread.
To counter this, some spread offenses (think Texas last year) will run a no huddle offense. New Arkansas OC Gus Malzahn wrote the book on the hurry up, ho huddle offense (literally; the book is available on Amazon. It is not as good as Al Borges' book, also available on Amazon, about coaching the West Coast QB). What the no huddle does is diminish the time and opportunity for the defense to make its adjustments and disguise its coverage. Wazzu will likely do this as well, as they've had 9 months to prepare. This will be a challenge for Auburn, and will likely lead to some big plays since it will be the first game in Muschamp's system.
Ultimately, however, we can look to history. Against the 4 Big 6 SEC defenses Florida faced last year, the Urban Myth averaged a whopping 12.5 ppg. Elite SEC defenses can handle the spread, and Auburn will do just that.
Auburn vs. its rivals
Florida has been covered. Auburn is fortunate to have Georgia and LSU visiting the Plains this year, and Alabama at Jordan Hare West in Tuscaloosa (Auburn has never lost to the Tide in T'town). LSU will present a big early season test, regardless of venue. The two sets of Tigers have played each other dead even in each of the last two seasons, and had both road teams not suffered kicking meltdowns, the outcome could've been different in each case. LSU is the most talented team on Auburn's schedule, featuring a boatload of talented WRs and RBs, a stout defense, and a big, well coached offensive line. LSU has question marks at QB , where JaMarcus Russell is incredibly talented, but has been inconsistent. Matt FLynn replaced an injured Russell in the bowl game, and was spectacular. And then there's much ballyhooed phenom Ryan Perilloux, another name that the Texas fans that read the Ocho will remember.
Auburn's run stuffing ability should be top notch, which will force the QB to beat them. And, while the WRs are big, they've been inconsistent at catching the ball. Auburn's CBs will be good enough to force the QB to make perfect throws to make the big plays, and I don't think any of them can do that. Fisher coached in the past with Terry Bowden and Rick Trickett, so he may try to run some spread formations, particularly depending on what kind of success Wazzu has it. Refer to the above about the likelihood of success.
Where Auburn will win the game is that Al Borges' offense will outplay Bo Pellini's LSU defense by a significant margin. Last year, AU ran wild on LSU, with Kenny Irons putting up a 200 yard effort. Auburn was unable to seal the deal, leading to 6 field goal attempts, 5 of which were missed. This year, Irons has had more time as the starter (it was his first game winning back the job last year), and has had more time to gel with the line. Combine that with a supportive home crowd, and AU should do better at finishing off drives vs. the Bayou Bengals. Pellini's pass defense has also been suspect in each of the last two years (recall what Matt Leinart did to OU in '04, and what Sam Keller did to LSU a year ago), so Brandon Cox should look to have a big day. Alternatively, since Les Miles coaches LSU, Auburn could don its orange jerseys and spot LSU a 20+ point lead (people who watched the Texas -OSU game in '04 or LSU-Tenn in '05 will know where that one is coming from).
Georgia must travel to the Plains late in the season. In a year in which the SEC can legitimately claim to have 8 of the nation's elite RBs, 3 of them play for Georgia. Kregg Lumpkin, Danny Ware, and Thomas Brown could form one of the more potent rushing attacks in the country. Unfortunately for Bulldog fans, their coach is Mark Richt,a nd so he won't let them. He is still yet to heed Tommy Tuberville's advice from '01 that he needs to learn to run the ball effectively. The Dawgs are breaking in a new QB, and will start the year with 5th year Joe Tereshinki III under center. That won't last, Likely, by the time the Auburn game comes around, the Bulldogs will be starting Matt Stafford, the super talent from Highland Park, Texas. Stafford has a cannon, but is too fat to be mobile and is a freshman. As much as Richt relies on the QB, and relies on the pass to set up the run, Stafford will be relied upon to win this game. True freshman QBs will not beat a Will Muschamp defense.
Alabama's offense continues to get worse in each successive year of the Mike Shula era. Without Prothro (he'll be lucky to walk normally again after the disaster that was his surgery) and Croyle, the trend should continue. The offensive line was abysmal a year ago, and is fundamentally unsound (they block flat footed, which means ultimately, they end up on their heels, rather than on the balls of their feet). While I'm not ready to predict a replay of last year's 11 sack masterpiece, not even stud RB Ken Darby will be able to produce under the circumstances he's in, at least against the elite defenses.
Joe Kines has been brilliant as Alabama's DC in each of the last two years, fielding a top two unit both times. Kines is the only reason Shula still has a job in Tuscaloosa (and Kines was a Mike Price hire!). However, the Tide was thin last year, as evidenced by its inability to handle two top flight teams in a row late in the season (they were spent after LSU, and couldn't match it in week 11 vs. Auburn). They lose 7 starters off that defense, and though Kines will have this unit playing respectably, you don't lose names like Anderson, Ryans, Roach, Peprah, etc. and simply reload, at least not with Alabama having to depend on some probation thinned classes from a few years ago. Auburn will get the Tide's best effort, and Alabama will likely make things interesting for a half, but eventually, superior talent, depth, and coaching (at least Muschamp vs. Shula) will win out.
Auburn vs. the other teams
Aside from the spread teams and the rivals, the only troubling game for Auburn is the Thursday night road trip to face Steve Spurrier and the S. Carolina Gamecocks. Auburn humiliated Spurrier a year ago in Auburn, winning 48-7. It was the second worst loss for Spurrier in his collegiate coaching career, and only Tommy Tuberville's friendship - and the gift TD it created in the closing minutes - saved the ball coach from a shutout. This year, the Gocks will be stronger at the offensive skill positions, as its RB situation came together late in the year, plus the addition of Boyd will make them stronger. The WRs should be stronger as well, and Blake Mitchell, who didn't play vs. Auburn, has another year in the offensive system. S. Car must replace three starting OLs, but those losses are offset by the fact the new ones now have two years in Spurrier's zone blocking, pass protection type schemes, while last year's crew had to immediately switch to that from a power oriented, run blocking scheme of Granny Clampett (aka Lou Holtz).
While the offense will be improved, Tuberville has solved Spurrier. The 2001 Florida offense was the second best Spurrier ever had, and it was held to 20 points by Auburn, despite the fact that the battered AU D was a ragtag unit of young players replacing a bunch of injured starters. In some ways, defending Spurrier is like defending the spread teams, except his offense is more fundamentally sound in that it's better at creating its own running lanes and better at stretching the defense vertically. Still, look for Muschamp's aggressive defense to force multiple turnovers, and put the Gamecock D on its heels. The defense will be no better than average by SEC standards, and AU should have no trouble with it. Plus, Kenny Itons, a S. Car transfer, will have something to prove when he goes back to his old stomping ground. He will stomp all over S. Carolina, and so will Auburn.
So, my prediction is 13-0 and an appearance in the nameless NC Game.