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Big Games On the Schedule, Part 3, 10/24, Auburn

Quick!  Who is Auburn's best player?

I really couldn't say either.  I actually seriously considered not including Auburn in this little series.  It's not so much that I don't think Auburn can beat us, it's that we really have no idea what Auburn will be like.  An all-new coaching staff headed up by a guy with a 5-19 record has filled itself out with some respected assistants, including Gus Malzahn, the former high school coach who has had success as an offensive coordinator at Arkansas and Tulsa.

It wasn't that I was not taking Auburn seriously.  It was more that I did not know what I would write about.  

Finally, the decision to write about Auburn literally came to me in a dream.  I had my first football-related dream of the offseason last night.  I dreamed I was in Tiger Stadium watching LSU play Auburn.  The dream was brief.  Auburn had the ball and was driving.  The last thing to happen before I woke up was that Auburn was near the goal line, 1st and goal inside the 5, but we got a sack pushing them out to the 8 yard line.  I woke up and decided that I would write about Auburn this morning.

Everyone remembers how putrid Auburn's offense was last year.  In case you need a reminder, in the SEC they were tied for 10th in scoring offense, 8th in total offense, 10th in passing offense, 10th in passing efficiency, 8th in first downs per game, and 8th in third down conversion percentage.  That's actually better than I was expecting when I started researching, but one has to keep in mind that they were running an offense in the first half of the year that was actually intended to pick up the pace and maximize the number of plays.  Their game-cumulative statistics such as total offense, scoring offense, passing offense, and first downs should be inflated simply by the fact that their style of play should have, in effect, lengthened their games in terms of how many plays were run.

The real story is told when you see that they scored 3 points against Mississippi State, 13 against Vandy, 7 against Ole Miss, 13 against Georgia, and zero against Bama.  Strangely enough, they actually beat MSU with just 3 points.

Much of the personnel that struggled in 2008 returns for the 2009 season.  All three QBs who saw action, and who combined for 54% completion percentage (not that bad really), with 7 touchdowns and 13 interceptions (now, that's bad), return to fight it out, perhaps even with some newcomers in the race.  

The wide receiver corps that did not exactly have any high-flyers actually lost its best player in Rodgeriqus Smith.  

The most dynamic player they have is probably Mario Fannin, but previous coaching staffs have struggled to figure how to most effectively use him.  He returns kicks, plays some running back, plays some wide receiver, and I think I remember him lining up in the shotgun a bit last year.  Among players who received more than 8 carries last year, Fannin led the team in rushing average (with a pedestrian 4.4 yards per carry) and he was the 3rd leading receiver in both yards and receptions.  His numbers may be a little deceptive however when you realize that he had 460 total yards on the year and 87 of them came on 2 plays, a 35 yard run and a 52 yard reception.

Now Gus Malzahn will be the next coach to try to figure out how best to use Mario Fannin.  It wouldn't surprise me at all if Malzahn figures it out.  Malzahn of course comes from Tulsa, which was an offensive powerhouse, at least in C-USA.  Their QBs averaged an astounding 9.99 yards per attempt in 2008.  Their offense scored 87 touchdowns.  They scored 50 or more points six times, and 49 points once.  

Then again, they gave up 70 points to Houston.

Which brings up the defense.  Playing a high play-count offense like Malzahn runs puts pressure on a defense, by keeping them on the field.  If you crank up the number of plays in the game, the other team gets an increase as well.  Last year, the Auburn defense held up fine under this kind of pressure.  Considering how little help they got from the offense, it was actually a wonder they did as well as they did.  Their 14-12 defeat of Tennessee was a remarkable defensive performance, as their offense gave the ball to Tennessee again and again near midfield in the second half, but never even gave up the go-ahead field goal.

It was a remains something of a no-name defense.  Gone are stout performers Sen'derrick Marks and Jerraud Powers.  Also gone is the disappointing and distracting Tray Blackmon.  Some other players will have to step up and become the big play guys.  Probably the strength of this defense will be at the defensive end position, where Antonio Coleman and Michael Goggans provide a very solid tandem.  The interior has to find some players, though.  The whole defense does not really have a lot of star power, with the exception of Coleman.  There are solid players like Walter McFadden and Zac Etheridge, along with some emerging players like linebacker Josh Bynes.  

They took a no-name defense last year and made it a very solid unit, but this is a different coaching staff.  We really don't know what they will be able to do and we don't if Auburn will be a walkover or if they will be a tough team this year.  We'll know more when September passes into October, after Auburn has played Mississippi State, West Virginia, and Ball State.