Sunday, October 28, 2007

At last, it's Football Lite

AUBURN -- Ahhh, homecoming. It's a light week leading up to a light game with a chance to write about players down the depth chart.
Problem is, so many of Auburn's freshmen have played this season and been written about.
As Auburn gets set to play OVC opponent Tennessee Tech this week, it'll be interesting to see what Auburn does with quarterback Kodi Burns. The coaches had to burn his redshirt earlier this season, so perhaps he'll get extended action against TTU.
If so, it'll be interesting to see if Al Borges et al let Burns do more than the limited game package he has shown so far this season. Seems like it would help Kodi Burns and help Auburn.
If they need him to play later this season, he will have shown a few more things on film. He has an arm, arguably the strongest arm on the team. Might as well make Georgia and Alabama respect it.
In other notes, it's interesting that Auburn jumped to No. 19 in the AP poll and No. 16 in the coaches' poll with a not-so-impressive showing against Ole Miss. Other teams lost, of course, and maybe this wacky season has taught poll voters to appreciate the value of a win ... style points optional.
Oh, and suspended wide receiver Robert Dunn will be back this week. He's expected to play against TTU.
More details in Monday's Star. Enjoy a beautiful Sunday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Beat but on the beat

AUBURN -- Greetings from a tired beat writer.
Auburn has played three road games in four weeks, and the one home game fell on the same weekend as the races at Talladega. Lots of travel. Lots of short nights of sleep.
To give you an idea of the life of a beat writer, I covered an 8 p.m. game Saturday at LSU. I got back to my hotel room about 1:30 a.m., got to bed at 2, got up at 6:15 and hit the road by about 7:30 so that I could reach Auburn in time for a 3 p.m. session with Tommy Tuberville.
More interviews followed, then writing, then driving back to Oxford.
Needless to say, once I got home at about 11 p.m., I was not long for Sunday night. After a month's worth of weekends similar to that one, I could sure use an open date.
I'm sure the players and coaches I cover, not to mention my fellow beat-writer chums, feel the same or worse.
I guess the real question for Auburn's players would be, can they get over an emotional loss as well as fatigue in time to avoid a real letdown against Ole Miss on Saturday.
Auburn's 30-24 loss at LSU on Saturday was, to use the word of one of Auburn's players today, "devastating." Auburn had a one-point lead with just more than three minutes to play and lost on the last play from scrimmage.
Auburn was that close ... and that far ... from beating a legitimate top-five team in one of the more difficult places to play.
There's been lots of talk this week about a penalty that was waved off, a questionable spot on a key play in LSU's last drive, Auburn's offensive woes in the third quarter and Auburn's defensive woes in the second half. In the end, it was a great team against a very good team. The great team had the ball last at home and made the plays.
Just talking to Auburn's players this week, most seem to see it that way. They don't see the loss as a reason to give up on their season, though an SEC West Division championship isn't likely.
The Tigers have winnable games against Ole Miss and Tennessee Tech coming up, followed by pick'em rival showdowns with Georgia and Alabama.
The Tigers could still finish 9-3, 6-2 SEC and likely wind up somewhere like Tampa for the holidays. They will long lament the early loss to Mississippi State, but a positive outcome remains reachable for a team with 66.7 percent lower classmen.
That seems to be the talk here this week. Maybe that's enough to keep a bunch of college football players from dragging.
As for travel-weary beat writers, there's always caffeine.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Of pig calls and barbecue pits

FAYETTEILLE, Ark. --- Not to brag, but I feel like I have the best seat in Razorback Stadium today.
I'm on the front row of the press box, far left corner as I look out. The window to my left lets me see the tailgate scene, and I have a nice view of the big, tent-dotted hill across the way.
The scene just screams college football. Add clear skies, a moderate temperature and stout breeze, and it's a perfect day to cover a game.
Because I'm in a corner, I have all kinds of office space to my left. I could actually take a nap in the floor to my left, if so inclined (or declined).
There's no one seated immediately to my right because of the staircase, so elbow space galore! The nearest writer is my friend Christa Turner from the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer. Shouts out to her family in Pleasant Valley, Alexandria and White Plains.
This Auburn-Arkansas game is a hard one to analyze. I see reasons why both teams could win it.
I see more reasons in Auburn's favor. First, I think Auburn's defensive line is the best of Tommy Tuberville's nine-year Auburn stay and will win its share of battles at the line of scrimmage. Also, I like Auburn's offense against Arkansas' defense.
Arkansas has given up a combined 83 points in its two SEC games. Auburn's offense has six drives of nine plays or more and five of 74 yards or more in the last two games. Auburn's best defense against Arkansas running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones is keeping them on the bench.
On the Arkansas side, no one completely stops McFadden and Jones. Also, Arkansas has an X-factor on kickoffs. The Razorbacks, with McFadden and Jones as the deep men, average an SEC-best 26.5 yards a return. Jones averages an SEC-best 34.4 yards. Auburn ranks No. 11 in the SEC in kickoff coverage, giving up more yards per return (38.3) than Jones averages.
If Auburn's offense is successful in milking time of possession, then its kickoff team cannot let Arkansas make up time with returns near midfield or better.
A flag-stretching wind blows from the enclosed end of the stadium to the fieldhouse end. If Wes Byrum kicks off that way, he has a good chance for touchbacks. It'll be interesting to see what happens with the coin toss ... if Auburn gets the wind to its back.
Well, Auburn's team just arrived. I see Tommy Tuberville, state trooper and two sons in tow, walking across the field. Players are filing in, as well.
I see center Jason Bosley (knee) and linebacker Tray Blackmon (ankle). That means they're on the travel squad, so they must be able to play today. I also saw a player who looked to be linebacker Merrill Johnson (shoulder).
Defensive end Quentin Groves (toes) just walked in with heavy taping over his lower right leg. He's running and doing agility drills and does not appear to be hobbled. The Under Armour tank-top undershirt indicates that he intends to suit up.
No word yet on safety Aairon Savage (knee).
I hear the Kentucky-LSU game beckoning from the TV behind my head, so I think I'll check it out.
Happy football watching. Reply if you want to chat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Is Auburn really back?

AUBURN -- Greetings from the media work room here at the Athletics Complex.
Not that one misses much by not being here. There's steady beat-writer banter, some that fans would find amusing and some that fans might not find so amusing.
Hey, we're a bunch of cynical reporters, some more so than others. What can I say?
There's also the occasional walk-through of coaches, players and staff. Grad assistant and former Auburn safety Travaris Robinson came through to nuke his lunch a little while ago, and wide receiver Prechae Rodriguez popped in for a snack-machine stop.
All that's said in this room is off record. Believe me. It's better that way.
On to things you really care about, I've sat here today pondering whether to believe that Auburn's current three-game winning streak is truly the sign of a season back on track or just a respite between disappointments.
The Tigers have certainly looked impressive. The offense, in particular, has gone from porous to potent. This thanks to three freshman linemen bringing energy, running back Brad Lester returning from suspension, Montez Billings boosting the receiver corps and quarterback Brandon Cox returning to form.
These factors and the improvement of running backs Ben Tate and Mario Fannin have allowed offensive coordinator Al Borges to throw more of the playbook at Auburn opponents, and it's starting to look more like a Borges offense again.
Auburn scored on its first three possessions against Vandy on Saturday, doing so for the first time since the 2005 Iron Bowl. Auburn had the SEC's best offense in 2005.
But just when it seems Auburn got going, injuries have begun to mount. On defense, All-SEC end Quentin Groves, middle linebacker Tray Blackmon, will linebacker Merrill Johnson and safety Aairon Savage, all starters, are less than 100 percent at best. On offense, starting center Jason Bosley has a sprained knee and is not likely to play Saturday at Arkansas.
Bosley's injury could be a shock to the continuity that Auburn's offense had begun to form. Injuries on defense come as Auburn has set to play the SEC's top-ranked offense and the nation's No. 2 rushing offense.
It's one thing for Groves, Blackmon, Johnson and Savage to sit out against Vanderbilt. It's another thing for them to chase Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones with bad wheels and wings.
There's no doubt that Auburn is playing far better than it played in losses to South Florida and Mississippi State, but, to borrow a NASCAR term, injuries can act as restrictor plates on progress ... if not brakes.
Players may suit up and play on Saturdays, but not at 100 percent. The unseen factor is missed practice time, which stunts season-long development.
There's already enough parity in college football such that one key player injured can make a major difference on most Saturdays. Auburn has several.
If injuries continue to keep players out of practice, then Auburn's resurgence could run out of gas before Auburn runs out of games.
The Tigers still control their destiny in the SEC West Division, but they face consecutive road games at Arkansas and No. 1 LSU. It'll be interesting to see how things look two weeks from now.