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2010 A-U- Pre-view: The schedule, the prediction

Concluding WBE’s season preview series. Previously, the offense: QBs, RBs, the OL, and WRs. The defense: the DL, LBs, DBs. The special teams. Also: expectations, and the SEC.

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Let’s start by summing up what we’ve “learned.” If you noted both the tenor and the “final grades” of the unit-by-unit previews, you probably understand how I feel about the general state of being of the Auburn offense vis a vis the Auburn defense: the former is vastly improved and very good. The other only could be.

But I think it’s worth pointing out a couple of things:

1. For all its problems last year, the defense did well enough to give Auburn an eighth or even a ninth win. The Kentucky game was not their fault. The Alabama game was not their fault. And Auburn’s two biggest wins of the year–West Virginia and Ole Miss–were both fueled as much by key defensive takeaways as by offensive dominance.

The point of that is this: even if Auburn’s defense doesn’t improve at all, offensive improvement alone could get Auburn to 9 or 10 wins. And what are the odds that the defense doesn’t improve at all? I think they are very, very slim indeed.

2. I think even saying “I think the receivers will be good and maybe very good, and the line will be good and maybe very good, the running backs will be awesome, and Cam Newton will be awesome” doesn’t do justice to how good the offense should be as a whole, functioning unit.

Because assuming that Malzahn has Newton coached well enough to be even average in terms of accuracy, there’s nothing this offense can’t do.That sounds like ridiculous hyperbole, but … where’s the weakness? It can throw long to burners. It can throw short to sure-handed possession-types. It can throw swings to playmakers on the edge. It can run between the tackles, it can run outside the tackles, it can run with the tailback or the speedback or the quarterback or the wide receivers. Because it can do all these things, it can stay permanently unpredictable.

Again, that’s all somewhat dependent on Newton being able to keep that completion percentage up. But if he does, and nothing in Malzahn’s track record says he won’t, this is going to be one of the best offenses in the country, one perfectly capable of winning games singlehandedly.

So, add 1 and 2 together, and you can see why even if I don’t see Auburn’s defense becoming a juggernaut overnight (or special teams to anything more than average aside from kick returns and Wes Byrum), I still believe some big, big things are very, very much in play for the Chiznick’s men.

What about luck? It’s going to play a huge role in Auburn’s season, as always, but good luck trying to predict it via the swing of the pendulum … since last year’s pendulum didn’t swing in either direction. I guess it did a little in the direction of close wins–Auburn went 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, the second straight year they’ve finished under .500 in that ledger. So maaaaaaybe we’re due to go over the mark in one-possession contests this year … though it’s not something I’d count on, not when it’s not like Auburn’s been better than their final record either one of those years.

In terms of turnovers, Auburn finished at +2, so there’s no reason to expect them swing one way or the other in particular. (Auburn might be a good bet to at least stay in the black, though; the secondary proved to be efficient ballhawks last year, and Malzahn’s quarterbacks have never thrown large numbers of picks.)

In short: I don’t think there’s anything to see here.

Anything else before we break down the schedule? Nope:

1. Arkansas State. It’s been forever–the Brett Favre-at-Southern-Miss days, in fact–since a mid-major won at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It would probably take another player like Favre to pull it off against a fully healthy, fully prepared version of the current squad, and the Red Wolves don’t appear to have one. (For more info on ASU–I’m not doing a second team-specific preview–check out their Cheese Puff file.)

Verdict: Almost certain win

2. Mississippi State. Thursday nights are made for home underdogs. Always have been. Auburn has the better team. They may have a much better team. I’m not sure that means anything in a cowbell-infested Davis-Wade.

Verdict: Likely win, but barely

3. Clemson. I really, really, really wish Kyle Parker had come to his senses and not risked his baseball millions on another pointless year of Clemson football. But oh well: I still don’t think he’s got quite enough weapons around him to keep up with Auburn in Jordan-Hare.

Verdict: Likely win

4. South Carolina. They didn’t look half-bad last night, did they? As expected, having a guy in the backfield Spurrier actually trusts enough to hand the ball off to should help immensely, and Alshon Jeffrey is a terror. Still, playing Auburn on the road is miles and miles away from playing what ended up a pretty poor Southern Miss team at home, and at times the ‘Cock D struggled with the G-Eagles’ up-tempo spread looks. Uh-oh.

Verdict: Likely win, but barely

5. UL-Monroe. Whatever.

Verdict: Win

6. Kentucky. Without Corey Peters and their two outstanding linebackers of a year ago, I don’t see ho the ‘Cats don’t get flat mauled up front. Sure, Cobb and Locke, Locke and Cobb, but it took Auburn’s worst performance of the year for a probably-better Kentucky team to beat last year’s probably-worse Auburn team, and it’s not like Lexington provides some powerful home advantage.

Verdict: Likely win

7. Arkansas. Mallett and Friends vs. our secondary could be a mismatch, but that also depends on Mallett remembering to pack his mojo in his travel kit, something he hasn’t done yet as a Hog. And Newton and friends vs. the worst defense in the SEC could be just as spectacular a mismatch. Is a more likely mismatch, in fact. The game is at home.

Verdict: Likely win, barely

8. LSU. I’m just repeating myself by this point: I don’t think LSU is any good and if Auburn is as good as I think they are, Auburn should beat them playing at home. The end.

Verdict: Likely win

9. Ole Miss. We hear so much jabbering about how Nutt does his best when he’s overlooked, but the last time he was coaching a team that looked this iffy on paper, he went 5-6 in Fayetteville. The time before that–which was the year before that–he went 4-7. I don’t see the horses for the Rebels to stay with Dr. Gustav’s offense, no matter where the game is played.

Verdict: Likely win

10. Chattanooga.

Verdict: Win

11. Georgia. The atmosphere for this game is going to be flat ridonkulous, and we all know the week of the UTC game is going to be spent preparing for the Dawgs. But whatever advantage Auburn gets there could be canceled out by the Dawgs’ potential advantages up front on offense, and with their receivers vs. our secondary. Way too early to make even a hint of a call here.

Verdict: Tossup

12. Alabama. Let’s be sensible for just a second: Alabama is, at the worst, a 9-or-10 win team. So about as good as we expect to be, again, at the worst. And the game is at their place. If it was in Auburn, I’d say something different, but as is, rational as I feel I have to be …

Verdict: Likely loss, but not by much

So, what’s the best-case scenario then? A national championship.

Yeah, I said it. I don’t see why it’s not possible Auburn gets through the regular season at 11-1 with this friendly a schedule; after all, it’s been noted in places a lot less biased than this one that Auburn could be favored in their first 11 games. Let’s say they get upset once, OK, then upset ‘Bama to even things out … voila, that’s 11-1 and an an SEC West title. Win one in Atlanta, hope there’s enough carnage elsewhere in the country, and you’re off to a one-game scenario for the crystal football.

This is exceedingly, tremendously unlikely, of course. And no, even I don’t see the kind of 2004 destroy-all-comers talent to make me think an undefeated season is within the realm of possibility. But there’s a lot of room within the realm of possibility, I think, enough even for this.

And the worst-case scenario? Loss to Mississippi St., a split against the two Carolina teams, a slip-up against either Kentucky or Ole Miss, a 1-2 mark against the LSU/Arkansas/Georgia contingent and the final humiliation in Tuscaloosa … and you’re looking at 6-6 and a very interesting offseason for Gene Chizik.

OK. But what’s your actual, final prediction? I’ll start by saying this: I think Auburn wins 10 games this year.

But whether they need the bowl game to do it or not … it’s hard to say. Try as I might, I don’t see Auburn sweeping the Arkansas/LSU/Georgia games. I obviously like our chances against each individually, not only LSU but against all three, but it’s hard for me to expect to regain the upper hand in our series against all of them all in the same year. I think there’s one loss there. (Though with two wins, I won’t complain.)

Is there a second somewhere that isn’t Tuscaloosa? It would take an upset, because unless Carolina or Clemson are much better than we’re expecting (we’ll know more about the ‘Cocks next week), Auburn will be the favorite in each of the other eight. But three of those games–Miss. St., Carolina, and Clemson–look like the sort that could be eminently loseable for a team with a defense that still needs as much work as Auburn’s.

Then there’s the Tide. I think a win in Bryant-Denny is possible, without question. It’s more than possible. But still: that’s a damn good team, playing at home for what I suspect will be the SEC West title; even if Auburn comes in with two SEC losses, that ‘Bama will have at least one seems likely. The game will be huge, massive, the biggest in the rivalry since 1994. And the coachbot, much as it makes me want to tear my hair out to say it, has done very well in big games.

So: I think Auburn escaping the eight non-rivalry games without a defeat is a little unlikely. I think beating Alabama at Alabama is a little unlikely. But I think Auburn can pull one of those rabbits out its hat anyway, and they go 10-2. I can’t bring myself to predict an SEC West title; 9-3 is a lot more likely in my mind than 11-1, and 9-3 won’t cut it, and 10-2 is probable-but-not-guaranteed. (How’s that for hair-splitting?) But it’s going to be a damn fine season regardless.

So you’d be happy with 10-2? Ecstatic. Assuming two of the wins were against our rivals, I’ll be fine with 9-3, even.

And what wouldn’t you be happy with? 9-3 where all three of the losses come to one of the Arkansas-LSU-Georgia-Alabama quartet, or any record worse than that. There’s too much experience on this team and the schedule is too kind to settle for eight wins, in my opinion.

Put another way: this is too good an opportunity for Auburn to waste having just another season. It has to be more. And I believe, fully, that it will be more.

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