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2009 A-U Pre-view: the schedule, the prediction

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First, let us sum up. Over the past three days we’ve looked at the entire team in its separate pieces. The offense like so: the running backs, the offensive line, the quarterbacks, and receivers of all designations. The defense has its linebackers, its defensive line, and its secondary. Don’t forget the special teams.

But of course, the pieces of a football team often get put together in a way that doesn’t look a thing like the picture on the box. And here is where I point out that I think the offense will be prettier than its pieces suggest–our quarterback and his receivers have a great many questions asked of them, but there’s no better foundation on which to start answering them than on a stout and angry offensive line and a collection of solid running backs. When you really can run first to set up the pass, the pass has a funny way of getting completed more often than you’d think. And we now have an offensive coordinator who by every account understands this.

However, I’m not quite as bullish on the defense as my comments on the defensive line and secondary might have made it seem, principally because of that same offensive coordinator. Gus Malzahn turned Tulsa’s offense into the most feared unit on his conference’s level in the country. But it’s silly to think his offense–and its willingness to force both sides of the ball to play far more plays than in the average game–didn’t also help turn Tulsa’s defense into a deeply subpar unit, even by Conference USA’s standards. Especially given Auburn’s depth concerns, the pace of Auburn’s offense is going to mean the defense probably will not match the on-paper expectations I’ve laid out for it.

So the net result of all this summarizing, then, is probably nil. The offense will be better than expected. The defense will be worse. The team will be about the same.

Next: what about luck? It’s funny that everyone accepts that “you need a little luck to win a national championship” but that so few people seem to acknowledge that sometimes a team needs a ton of luck–good or bad–to go, say, pulling a totally hypothetical record out of the air here, something like 5-7.

Auburn needed bad luck to go 5-7. We all accept that close games can turn on a single play; when that play is a fumble bouncing wildly into the arms of the opponent instead of your team or a deflected pass that lands in the hands of the opposing quarterback’s intended receiver anyway, there’s no other way to say the game turned but on luck. And over the course of years, luck evens out. Which is why 71 percent of the teams Phil Steele has tracked that lost 2 close games more than they won improved or held their record the following year. It’s why, accoding to Steele, 80 percent of the teams that suffer a double-digit negative turnover margin for the season rebound or hold their record the next year.

Auburn didn’t quite make that threshold, but at -8 in tunovers in 2008 and with 2 more close losses than close wins, they were unlucky. They were also unlucky in the scoring department: at 17.44 offensive yards per-point scored, Auburn should have scored many more points than they did based on their yards gained. This is Steele again: he notes that 82.5 percent of teams with an offensive YPP mark of 17.5 (which Auburn just misses) improve or hold their record.

Put all of this together, and Auburn should be a luckier team this season. If they are exactly as good as last year, with no improvement whatsoever, it’s likely they will be at least 6-6 and possibly 7-5. Keep this in mind.

OK, but what about the schedule? Let’s look at it.

1. La. Tech: The Bulldogs scare the kittens out of me. But they remain a WAC team with precious little recent history of success traveling to SEC stadiums; remember, that Miss. St. upset last year took place at home against a much worse team than this year’s Auburn should be. Auburn’s starters should be too much for a team like the Bulldogs at home–should be–and this is the one week I’m confident all of Auburn starters will be ready to go. Verdict: Likely win, barely

2. Mississippi St. These Bulldogs were the worst team in the conference in yardage last season and lost more than they gain in Mullen and his recruits. Plus, the game’s in Auburn. Verdict: Likely win

3. West Virginia. The ‘Eers might still be the closest thing the Big East has to a favorite, but with as much as they’ve lost on the offensive line (you see what happened to line-deprived Oregon last night?) and as little as I believe Coach Stew brings to the table, I refuse to believe Auburn’s that big an underdog to this team. Again: it’s at home. Verdict: Tossup

4. Ball St. The Cardinals opened up the Stan Parrish era last night by losing to one of the worst programs in the country. By 10 points. At home. And it wasn’t even as close as the score indicates. Verdict: Very likely win

5. at Tennessee. It’s in Knoxville and the Vols should have an outstanding defense, but they also have Jonathan Crompton at quarterback. Verdict: Tossup

6. at Arkansas. Unless Ryan Mallett is much worse than we expect or Auburn’s offense is much better (and much more capable of taking advantage of a potentially soft Hog D), winning in Fayetteville will be a tall order. Verdict: Likely loss

7. Kentucky. The second-worst team in the conference by yardage last year won one SEC game on the road–by one point in Starkville, three weeks before losing 28-10 at the worst Tennessee ever. They return just 12 starters. It’s in J-Hare. Verdict: Likely win

8. at LSU. It’s probably going to take a  stronger Auburn team than this one to snap our losing streak in Baton Rouge. Probably. Verdict: Likely loss

9. Ole Miss. This is exactly the sort of game Houston Nutt has made a wonderful habit out of losing over the years–on the road, lightly regarded opponent, not much appearing to be at stake until BAM. But this late in the season, with Auburn’s depth issues and the Rebels’ talent, I’m not seeing it just yet. Verdict: Likely loss

10. Furman. Verdict: Win.

11. at Georgia. As close as 2008 Auburn got to beating 2008 Georgia, I wouldn’t rule this out. Willie Martinez is a threat to turn Georgia’s defensive wine into water at any time, and who knows what they’re going to get out of Cox. But yeah, with all five of the Dawgs offensive line starters I don’t see an Auburn team this thin winning in Athens in week 11 of their 11-week slog. Verdict: Likely loss

12. Alabama. The bye week should help, and Auburn will be better than last year/Alabama (slightly) worse, but will they be 36 points better/worse? Verdict: Likely loss

The best-case scenario is, then? Auburn holds serve in those first four home games, downs Kentucky and Furman, edges Tennessee, and then uses a Malzahnian offensive explosion to pull a pair of shockers: one at home over the Rebels or Tide, one on the road over the Hogs or Dawgs. Result: 9-3.

OK, so what’s the worst-case scenario? La. Tech springs the upset as the offense works out the kinks, WVU is still too potent for the Auburn D, the four road contests result in an 0-4 sweep, the Rebels and Tide are overwhelming, and even one of either Miss. St. or Kentucky gets a couple of bounces and walks out of J-Hare with a win. Result: 3-9.

And: what’s your final prediction? I have tried and tried to come up with a way to justify predicting an upset over LSU, Georgia, or Alabama, and if any one of those games was earlier in the season, I’m sure I’d have succeeded. But given Auburn’s terrifying depth problems and the bounty of talent all three of those programs have, I’m afraid it’s not happening.

But if we can count those as losses, we can count some wins, too: Miss. St. and Kentucky shouldn’t have enough to beat Auburn on the road, and Ball St. and Furman should make four W’s. Then there’s three winnable games in La. Tech, WVU, and Tennessee. With all three of them coming in the first five weeks of the season, two of them at home, and Bill Stewart and Lane Kiffin the opposing coaches in two of them, I don’t think it’s outrageous to think Auburn goes 2-1 in those three match-ups.

So we’re up to 6 wins with games at Arkansas and at home against Ole Miss remaining. Can I honestly, rationally predict an Auburn victory in either of these? No, I can’t. But this is where that discussion of luck comes in: if Auburn really does get a bit lucky, shouldn’t they be able to win one game they’re not supposed to? After going an entire season without an upset last year, shouldn’t a program that’s always prided itself on doing just that be able to manage it at least once this go-round? As improved as Auburn is going to be overall–huge leaps on offense, only mild regression on defense–shouldn’t the luck factor on top of that be worth a two-game improvement?

I am an Auburn fan, after all, so my answers are Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes. 7-5 it is, though I can’t in good conscience say a team this thin is more likely to go 8-5 than 6-6.

Would you be happy with that? 7-5 would be terrific. It would be a bowl game, a massive step in the right direction, a sign that with so much returning along both lines and in the defensive back seven, 2010 would be the year Auburn returns to the upper echelon of the SEC. Yes, I will be more than happy with 7-5.

And if they don’t make that? 6-6 is fine if we’re talking 3-1 nonconference, 3-5 SEC. But a 2-6 record in the SEC or a second straight 5-7 overall mark would be … troubling.

Fortunately, the wager here is that that’s one bridge we won’t have to worry about coming to, much less crossing. Auburn won’t be a losing team again this year.

Final preseason post coming first thing tomorrow a.m.

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