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Friday preview: South Carolina

One of the most worrying aspects of Garcia's 2010 to date is that his hair is most of the way back.

What’s at stake: Oh, just either team’s realistic SEC hopes, that’s all.

OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration; with all of Auburn’s really big inter-divisional games ahead of them and one of Carolina’s already in the win column, it’s possible for both to hang onto their Atlantan dreams even after a loss. But then again … Auburn still has dates with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and LSU. Carolina’s got it just as bad, with the Tide, Gators, and Hogs all still to come even after the Georgia victory.

And you have to ask: if you’re Auburn, and you can’t handle Carolina at home, do you really have a shot at winning enough of those later games to win the West? If you’re Carolina and you flunk your first road test against a team that struggled with State and Clemson, how are you going to handle Gainesville or a visit from the Tide?

In short, this is the sort of game an SEC contender wins. But only one of them will.

When Auburn has the ball: Cam Newton had better be on his game.

Because the early returns are that the ‘Cocks aren’t going to give up a whole lot of yards on the ground. Through three games, Carolina ranks 12th in the country in average rushing gain allowed, and if holding Southern Miss to 2.5 yards an attempt and Furman to 1.9 might not mean a whole lot, holding Georgia to a miserable 2.3 a pop most likely does. And as you might expect with numbers that impressive, sacks play a big part–Carolina’s one of only eight teams to have already recorded 11 sacks this season. ( 7 of those came against Furman, but netting three against the Dawgs is still plenty noteworthy.) Senior end Cliff Matthews is the danger man, but the whole front seven is doing its job.

So why, then, did the ‘Cocks give up 404 yards (on 84 snaps!) to Southern Miss, and 325 to Furman? Because when the opposing QB’s have had time to throw, the pass defense hasn’t been great; the Eagles went Northwestern, throwing 57 times and completing 38 of them for 337 yards. Bad average, but consistent movement. Georgia only threw 21 times but completed 14 of them for 9.1 yards an attempt. Furman even managed 8.6 a pass, going 19-for-32, and that’s not because they were facing scrubs; the game was still 31-19 midway through the fourth. The ‘Cocks have a couple of ballhawks and big-name players back there in corner Stephon Gilmore and safety DeVontae Holloman, but to-date, the pass defense as a whole looks a bit shaky.

Of course, they seem to be a little shakier defending the underneath stuff rather than the downfield bomb, and we all know what Auburn’s going to prefer; plus, the line will have its hands full trying to give Newton enough time against Matthews and Co. After last week’s feeble performance in the straight-ahead run game, it’s also hard to see Auburn dictating things in the middle of the field.

So how does Auburn make its offensive hay? First off, the line is just going to have to be better; obviously Auburn can’t just abandon the power game that made its name a year ago. But they’ll also have to make sure McCalebb gets his touches attacking the edge, and Newton will have to be accurate on the swings and screens that are likely to make a big return this week after taking last week off. Now would be a great time to see the Swede Killa finally become a part of the offense, too. Auburn isn’t the sort of team to nickel-and-dime its way down the field, but a little bit of nickel-and-diming before going for the kill shot would probably go a long way towards giving Newton some opportunities for a big one.

(Oh, one more thing: Carolina’s made a habit of letting opponents into their red zone and then stiffening there; Georgia netted six points out of three trips inside the ‘Cock 20. Auburn must take advantage of those opportunities.)

When Carolina has the ball: we’re going to find out just how good this allegedly improved offensive line really is.

OK, the “allegedly” part is overly cynical; they plowed Georgia for 189 total rushing yards and Southern Miss for 6.4 a carry. (Only 4.6 a carry against Furman, which is a bit odd, but whatever.) Previous ‘Cock lines wouldn’t have touched those numbers if Dr. Moreau’s unholy surgical union of Bo, Herschel, and Darren McFadden was running behind them. They’re better. But …

1. Auburn’s defensive line is playing at a level even higher than the Dawgs. Fairley’s putting up All-American numbers, the other members of the tackle rotation are sound, and Antoine Carter’s all over the place. They’ll be a challenge.

2. The ‘Cock line hasn’t exactly been airtight against the pass rush. They’ve given up 9 sacks already, tied for 98th in the country, with the Dawgs getting to Garcia five times. Fairley and Carter are salivating.

If the ‘Cocks don’t hold up against Auburn’s defensive front, they’re going to have a hard time moving the ball. Bynes (and possibly Freeman) are strong enough to keep Lattimore in check if they can get to him without too much interference, and Garcia’s struggles when confronted with pressure are well documented. (He threw two picks, one returned for a touchdown, just last week.) If Fairley and Co. are going nuts, Garcia’s not the kind of quarterback and even Lattimore’s not the kind of back that’s going to make something out of nothing.

The flip side to that dilemma: if Carolina can keep the Auburn defensive line in check, the Tigers are in trouble. Alshon Jeffrey (6’4″) and Tori Gurley (6’5″) are nightmare matchups at wideout; Craig Stevens and Daren Bates have yet to prove they can deal with blockers in front of them; and if Auburn gets pushed out of their pass rush lanes, Roof’s units have also had major troubles containing quarterbacks as mobile as Garcia.

It’s beyond cliche to say “it all starts up front.” But in the case of this offense against this defense, yeah, it all starts up front. Auburn had better win there, or it will lose everywhere else.

When special teams is on the field: Well, don’t expect to be handed the game by the opposing kicker this week; senior punter/kicker Spencer Lanning is solid.

But Auburn may actually have an advantage when it comes to kickoff coverage; Carolina ranks near the bottom of D-I.

Intangible reason for worry: Judging by their performance, Carolina obviously didn’t spend Furman week preparing for Furman.

Intangible reason for confidence: In addition to 1. playing at home 2. facing the sort of running back and sort of offense they’ve recently succeeded against 3. being due for a comprehensively good offensive performance, I think that Auburn’s coaches and Mike Dyer are really, really going to want to have the last word (or the last word for this year, anyway) on the Dyer/Lattimore story. That’s usually the sort of thing–like the idea that Team X wants “revenge” for Team Y’s win three years ago, or whatever–that I think is secretly totally irrelevant … but Lattimore’s decision was so high-profile and the comparisons with Dyer so inevitable I think this time, yeah, it might have an actual impact.

Three wishes

1. Two defensive turnovers. Please. Auburn has two turnovers “forced” so far this season (placing them 109th in that statistic), and one of those was a botched snap. Some of that is two smart, steady quarterbacks in Aplin and Parker, but it’s time for Auburn’s D to start making the kinds of big plays that saved the 2009 season against West Virginia and Ole Miss.

2. For God’s sake, no penalties that negate first downs inside the 20. The offense is struggling, or at the least inconsistent; it’s fair to say that. It’s also fair to say that when that’s the case, nothing’s more crippling than having a sure scoring drive erased on a useless flag. STOP IT, AUBURN.

3. Dyer outgains Lattimore by 50 yards or more. A fan can dream.

Your bottom line: I gotta say, I felt pretty good about this game earlier in the week. The hype, distraction, and general “pssh, ACC team” feel of last week is gone. The feel this week is “uh-oh, this team is good and ours might not be that great.” I like that a lot better for Auburn’s chances, especially when the opponent has been hearing for two weeks how awesome they are.  If you couldn’t tell from the “intangibles” section, I think those things tilt towards Auburn in this game … and given that the two teams seem about even in terms of talent and quality, that ought to be enough to push Auburn over the top.

And then I re-watched the Clemson game, and then I looked up Carolina’s stats against the run. If Auburn’s going to run the ball successfully, they’re going to have to be leagues and leagues better than they were last Saturday. And if they can’t run, I’m not sure Newton’s ready already to shoulder the entire load.

But, you know, crazy optimistic me, I think they are going to be better. Maybe not leagues and leagues, but enough to keep the ‘Cocks honest … and I don’t see enough reasons to be afraid of the Carolina pass defense. I think Auburn can find some holes. I think they’re due to really play a solid all-around game. And I think the ‘Cocks are maybe too dependent on Lattimore–he’s a phenomenal player, but Auburn’s going to be almost as ready for him as they were for the other power backs they stoned last season.

I dunno. Last week I was afraid Auburn wasn’t going to be ready and they were going to play a poor game. I’m just not afraid of that at this point. If Carolina wins–and they may–I think Auburn is going to make them earn it.

And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …

Carnac

Auburn 30, South Carolina 23.

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