A random, too-soon look at Auburn's prospects next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
What's Changed. The theme for Auburn at this time last year was the steady deterioration of the passing game in the last three years of Al Borges' tenure as offensive coordinator, and the pending rehab by crackerjack spread guru Tony Franklin, whose debut on a short turnaround in the '07 bowl win over Clemson had visions of exploding scoreboards dancing in the partisans' heads. Thing is, I watched that game, and while a win is a win, I never quite got what the hype was about -- outgoing quarterback Brandon Cox was underwhelmingly Cox-esque, and freshman Kodi Burns, the heir apparent, hit only one of four passes, mainly because the defense either didn't respect his arm or eventually forgot he was allowed to throw at all. It didn't exactly amount to fireworks; but hey, they'd only been working on it for a week or two.
In retrospect, that game was clearly the high point of the brief, turbulent Tony Franklin Experiment, which (depending on your perspective) either brought down the Tommy Tuberville administration from within or simply pulled back the tarp on its already-rotting core. Burns really just couldn't throw: He was quickly benched by Franklin in favor of Chris Todd -- a poor man's Brandon Cox, a description one wouldn't have thought possible a year ago -- and after being reinstated following Franklin's midseason ouster, Burns finished the year as the lowest-rated starter in the SEC with a staggering ratio of seven interceptions to just two touchdowns. The only positive was that he curtailed the picks against rivals Georgia and Alabama down the stretch ... games in which the Tigers scored 13 and zero points, respectively. It was just that kind of year.
Maybe the complete and utter collapse of the Auburn offense needed to happen -- 3 to 2 in Starkville, the Tennessee punt-fest, the shutout at 'Bama, all of it. If new O.C. Gus Malzahn transplants even a the fraction of the prolific success he created at Tulsa -- or at Arkansas, where his system was apparently shelved to take advantage of the Razorbacks' ludicrous backfield talents en route to the SEC West title in 2006, or even in the Arkansas high school, where his self-styled "up-tempo" philosophy smashed records, won championships, produced dazzling recruits and propelled Malzahn to the next level -- the tribulation will be worth the paradise.
The question isn't whether Malzahn's relentlessly fast-paced spread will "work in the SEC," as the old canard goes, but whether it suits the specific talents of personnel that so thoroughly rejected the last spread transplant. Much of the problems were laid at the feet of longtime Tuberville assistants who have shuffled along with their old boss, but the Tigers are still built to be the kind of between-the-tackles, power-running team that defined the Tuberville era (and almost every era before it on the Plains), with big, straight-ahead backs Ben Tate and Mario Fannin and a motley crew of receivers who haven't inspired any confidence even if they were suddenly bequeathed a competent passer. It's not like Malzahn isn't flexible -- Tulsa finished fifth nationally in rushing last year en route to leading the nation in both yards per game (for the second straight season) and yards per play. It's just that the Hurricane had tremendous balance, and the pegs in Auburn's passing game haven't given any indication they can fit into that hole.
What's the Same. The Tiger defense was still 14th in points allowed, holding seven opponents under 20 and keeping the team in the game with turnovers that either went directly for scores or set up scores against LSU and Arkansas. The unit definitely deteriorated down the stretch (losing six of seven amid turmoil and staff shakeups will do that to you), but given the returning talent and experience at all three levels and Gene Chizik's stellar track record with defenses that aren't Iowa State, it's safe to say this will remain a typical Auburn defense: Undersized at end and linebacker but tremendously fast, and hell if they get you in a position with down-and-distance or on the scoreboard that renders the running game a non-factor. Teams with the most success against Auburn have typically been the ones that can bring it between the tackles.
It's not reasonable to expect this group to resume the string of top-10 finishes it scoring defense the Tigers strung together from 2003-07, which even outpaced Virginia Tech's run at or near the top of the same category. But if AU can shave off two or three points per SEC game, that might be the difference in a respectable bowl destination and a holiday trek to Shreveport or Birmingham.
New blood. Tate and/or Fannin can be a reliable, workhorse type, but the Tigers are desperate for a real threat on offense; even rival assistant coaches are calling out AU's lack of playmakers in the preseason magazines.
There's not much in that department on the returning roster, but there are a couple intriguing guys in Chizik's first recruiting class. Exhibit A is prep school project DeAngelo Benton, a two-time academic loser who stunned everybody by shunning his longstanding commitment to LSU in favor of the other Tigers on signing day, then stunned everybody again by actually qualifying to play in the fall (hey, third time's a charm). The only knock on Benton is that he's been on the shelf, but the fact that LSU stuck with him -- and that Auburn still considered him worth poaching -- is evidence that the former five-star is an enormous talent, if anyone can actually get him the ball.
Part of the answer to that quandary may be Exhibit B, Tyrik Rollison, a scrambly true freshman from Texas who didn't have the most impressive offer sheet in the world but did wind up as Rivals' No. 2 "dual threat" quarterback in the incoming class, behind only LSU star-in-waiting Russell Shepard. So far, we can make the following assumptions about the incumbent quarterbacks: a) Burns can't thrown, and b) Todd can't run and can only barely throw. We also know that c) As bas as those two were, career backup Neil Caudle only got on the field for five snaps against Tennessee-Martin -- yet he left the spring in a virtual dead heat with Burns to be No. 1. If we also assume Rollison can run, his arm might be worth a flier in case of another slow start.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. It's always a bad sign when you're considering the messianic qualities of true freshmen, but one noob has already established himself: JUCO transfer Eltoro Freeman was part of new defensive coordinator Ted Roof's starting linebacker rotation almost from the first whistle in the spring, and left as the likely replacement to dearly departed Tray Blackmon on the weak side. Freeman doesn't have flashy guru ratings, but junior college transfers who commit early in the process aren't necessarily on the scout's radar, and he fits the mold -- like Blackmon, Karibi Dede, Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams before him -- of the small-but-fearless pit bull types Chizik seems to prefer.
Best-Case. Still worse than you might think. The Tigers don't run into a game that makes me think, "No way they win that one" until an unusually late visit to LSU, on Oct. 24; the first seven games are all extremely winnable. Even optimistically, though, a competent offense with a respectable ground game and few mistakes is not likely to run the table against West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas. If Auburn manages to take two of those three for a 6-1 start, then pulls an upset over LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia or Alabama down a brutal stretch, I'll believe them at 7-5. The fantasy is a slow improvement that builds to a two-week coming-out party over Georgia and Alabama en route to a momentum-building New Year's Eve in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, but I'm thinking more along the lines of the Music City.
Worst-Case. A competent offense with a respectable ground game and few mistakes still seems on the far side of probability; I don't trust the quarterbacks. A bad start -- say, back-to-back home losses to Mississippi State and West Virginia, which is very possible -- and the wheels can come off of this thing really fast. There are no gimme wins in the conference. I won't relegate them to anything as humiliating as losing at home to Ball State, but there's no net preventing a fall to 1-7 in-conference and another lonely winter.
Non-Binding Forecast. I respect the talent base here and the nearly decade-long run at or near the top of the conference, but the tank was completely exhausted last year. And whatever's left isn't likely to be enough in this division -- the only team in the West I like less than Auburn is Mississippi State. I like Malzahn's track record, and I think the defense will ensure a lot of close games. But like last year, I don't see the personnel on offense to pull them out. I don't think the Tigers have the firepower to win more than three SEC games, and if they finish better than 6-6 overall, all the initial snickering over the Chizik hire is officially retracted.
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Previous Premature Assessments: Fresno State, Clemson, Kansas State, Colorado State, Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Kentucky, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Arizona, Iowa, Connecticut, Purdue, Tennessee, California.