Monday, August 25, 2008

Season preview

With the season drawing ever closer, Auburn is preparing to embark on what it hopes will become an SEC Championship Game run.

The Tigers are ranked 11th in the USA Today poll. Much is expected from a team that will feature a new starting quarterback – not yet named – and two new coordinators.

With several unknowns on the Plains, let’s examine what we do know:

  • The Tigers have two very good options in the run game in Brad Lester and Ben Tate. The duo is already proven, though not in the new system. Lester is the bigger home run threat of the two, even if he didn’t show it last year.

  • There are stars on the Auburn defense. DT Sen’Derrick Marks, DE Antonio Coleman, CB Jerraud Powers and S Zac Etheridge should all rank among the SEC’s best at their position. If LB Tray Blackmon ever finds a way to stay on the field, he could also emerge as one of the conference’s best.

  • The offensive line will at least be decent. All five starting offensive linemen return. G Chaz Ramsey will likely redshirt because of offseason back surgery, but the other four are back. G Tyronne Green should be one of the conference’s best linemen and T Lee Ziemba is a rising star. Last year’s line was young and sometimes needed extra help in pass protection, but now the freshmen from last year, Ziemba and T/C Ryan Pugh, have a year of experience.

  • Solid depth at LB. LBs Chris Evans, Merrill Johnson, Craig Stevens and Blackmon all have significant playing experience. LBs coach James Willis also thinks Courtney Harden adds quality depth and Josh Bynes is a potential star.

  • Special teams should be strong. K Wes Byrum proved to be clutch as a true freshman last year, nailing game-winning field goals against Florida and Arkansas. P Ryan Shoemaker was named preseason first-team all-SEC and he might not start. Clinton Durst appears likely to steal his job.

That’s about it.

There aren’t many more known quantities. There are, however, plenty of questions:

  • Who’s playing quarterback? Will it be Chris Todd or Kodi Burns? Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville repeatedly claimed during the offseason that there would be a “clear-cut starter.” That’s looking less and less likely. Teams can win with two quarterbacks, but what happens when there’s a loss? When Auburn trails by four points in the fourth quarter of a key SEC game, which quarterback will take the field? If that quarterback can’t lead a winning drive, how does that affect chemistry?
    “I think the best person for the offense, that’s who we should play,” Tate said Sunday. “I think everybody can pretty much see who should be the guy out there.”
    That’s a problem. If the players side with one quarterback and the other starts, would it divide the locker room?

  • Secondary depth. Etheridge and Powers started all last year. Starters S Mike McNeil and CB Walt McFadden have zero career starts between the two of them. From there, it only gets worse. Redshirt freshman Mike Slade and true freshman Christian Slater are the first two reserve safeties. Jonathan Vickers, who was given a scholarship just last week, is the only other safety. True freshmen D’Antoine Hood, Neiko Thorpe and Harry Adams are the only reserve cornerbacks. One will play regularly in the nickel formation – at least until CB Ryan Williams escapes Tuberville’s ambiguous “doghouse.”
    One more injury to a starter in the secondary would be devastating and could potentially cripple the unit.

  • Depth at defensive tackle. Everyone knows about Marks, but beyond him await four relative unknowns. Mike Blanc will likely get the first chance to start alongside Marks. Jake Ricks, Tez Doolittle and Zach Clayton also figure to see significant time. Doolittle is an especially good story. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility after Doolittle tore his Achilles heel last year during preseason camp. At least two of those tackles must produce this year.

Those are some major questions. Every program has questions, but the first two, in particular, are bigger than most.

Auburn has plenty of talent this year. That's why the Tigers were picked to win the SEC West and are virtually unanimous as a top-15 team.

As the season start, they also have plenty of questions to answer before they're considered any type of a championship contender.

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