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Friday Preview: Florida Atlantic

Peace out, Coach Schnellenberger.

The Good Guys: October is coming. It’s coming fast.

But first, Auburn has a home contest with Florida Atlantic that will hopefully help get the Tigers back on track. Auburn has taken the week to look itself in the mirror, and focus on improving its own game. That’s usually not the approach you’d like to take with any FBS competition, but against the Owls, and with dramatic improvements needed to be made before the upcoming October stretch, it’s a drastic measure that Auburn needs to take.

No disrespect to Clemson, but Auburn’s biggest opponent so far this year has been themselves. In last week’s game in Death Valley alone, Auburn blew its own 14-point lead, and blew chances for the defense to get off the field and for the offense to stay on the field.

Auburn will take this week to (quickly) fix those mistakes and right the ship before the meat of the conference schedule.

The Bad Guys: For FAU, this is a paycheck game, helping to boost their program and pay off their brand new on-campus stadium.

It’s also one of the final games for legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger. After building the program from the ground up over the past 11 years, Schnellenberger can ease on into a South Florida retirement the very same year he accomplishes his goal of bringing a football stadium to FAU’s campus.

But that won’t happen until mid-October, as the Owls begin conference play with two road games after opening the year at Florida, Michigan State, and Auburn.

FAU had their bye week last week, but it doesn’t appear that it’s going to help them much tomorrow. The Owls will take their lumps (and their money), just like they did against Florida and Michigan State in weeks one and two, before preparing themself for their real season, when conference play begins.

When Florida Atlantic has the ball: This is the matchup we’re all looking forward to, featuring, as I’m sure you’ve heard, a defense ranked 117th in the FBS in total defense, and and an offense ranked 120th in total offense.

But, hey, at least Florida Atlantic’s offense has an excuse for their play. They’ve played against vastly superior teams, they’ve played every game on the road, and the fact that they’ve only played two games inflates their statistics.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s defense is just bad. And it’s not something that’s going to get fixed in a week. It’s not something that’s going to get fixed by the end of the season, either, and it really isn’t something that’s even going to get fixed by next year.

But, in the short term, at least Auburn will be able to build some confidence on Saturday.

FAU’s offense runs out of a basic, pro-style scheme. Their starting quarterback is junior Graham Wilbert. We’ll also see some playing time for backup David Kooi, or as he’ll quickly be known as throughout the stands in Jordan-Hare Stadium, “the tall one,” as his full 6’7″ frame gives the Owls a change of pace.

FAU’s rushing offense has been virtually nonexistent so far this season, but what little their is is lead by senior running back Alfred Morris.

For the Auburn defense, Saturday will be a good chance for the young players to see some snaps, for the veterans to bounce back and gain some confidence, and for the unit’s most talented players to separate themselves.

For Florida Atlantic, who has yet to score a touchdown this season and whose only field goal came off of a Florida turnover, it will be their chance to find the end zone — probably a couple of times the way this defense is playing.

When Auburn has the ball: The 3-4 scheme always gives Auburn’s spread offense fits, but on Saturday I don’t think they’ll have too many problems with it.

The FAU defense is spearheaded by their big man in the middle, redshirt senior Jarvis Givens. Givens and junior linebacker David Hinds will have to be contained by the Auburn offensive line — which has actually been playing better than expected, especially after the lineup changes before the Mississippi State game.

Redshirt senior safety Marcus Bartels leads the Owls in tackles.

For Auburn, getting its offense back into a groove will obviously be a goal. Beyond that, and young players getting snaps in the second half, you’d hope that players will begin to separate themselves, especially at positions like wide receiver and offensive line where the depth chart hasn’t been set in stone.

You’d also like to see Auburn do better in converting third downs this game. Regardless of the competition, being clutch is a skill and stepping up in big moments is necessary, so you’d like to see Auburn catch those passes and make those completions and keep their feet moving when it matters on those third down plays.

The offense hasn’t been a problem for the Tigers so far this season, so you wouldn’t expect to see any troubles this week. But if there is against the FAU defense, it could quickly become a problem in the future.

Special Teams: FAU has been solid on kickoff returns this season, as returner Willie Floyd is averaging 26 yards per return.

As for the Owls’ punt return unit, well, they’ve forced so few punts that they haven’t fielded any.

On the flip side, FAU hasn’t been doing too much scoring, either, so there’s no telling how many times we’ll get to see Tre Mason on Saturday.

Florida Atlantic’s kicker is junior Vinny Zaccario, a transfer from Memphis, who has the Owls’ only score of the season with a 27-yarder against Florida. He missed his second attempt against the Gators, and remains 1-for-2 on the year.

Reason for Worry: It seems that this was the pivitol time of the year that sent both the 2009 and 2010 Auburn teams on their way for the remainder of the season. In 2009, it was around this time that the 5-0 Tigers were shellacked by Arkansas, beginning the fall to a 7-5 regular season. In 2010, of course, we all remember the breakout game against South Carolina that sent Auburn on its way to the national championship. Unfortunately, this season the late September / early October is looking a lot like the 2009 version, which could spell disaster for Auburn if solutions aren’t found quickly.

Reason for Confidence: After the first week of the season, and the close call against Utah State, we all said “This is the best thing that could have happened to wake up this young team.” A week later, after another close call against Mississippi State, Auburn folks were saying the same thing. A week after that, and a loss against Clemson, it’s hard to say that any more, or that Auburn’s problem was ever needing a wake-up call. Perhaps, then, what the young Tigers needed was not to face any adversity that would leave doubts in their minds, but to instead build their confidence and self-esteem. On Saturday, Auburn has a good chance of doing just that.

Three Wishes

1. Get the ball to their players. Last week, Mike Dyer had just 16 carries (and was seemingly only on the field for just those 16 plays), Emory Blake had just one catch (for a touchdown), and Philip Lutzenkirchen had zero catches. Auburn needs to stop tying their hands behind their back offensively and give the ball to their best players.

2. Find a play-calling identity. Either Auburn is going to run the offense full speed and the defense is going to go all out to try and make plays and get quick stops, or the offense is going to slow it down and play more methodically while the defense plays back and takes less risks — not both.

3. Build confidence. We don’t need to see Barrett Trotter out there throwing three interceptions going into the South Carolina game. Everyone needs to build their self-esteem and feel like their playing with a new team by the time next Saturday rolls around. Auburn can’t go limping into Columbia next week and expect to come anywhere close to pulling the upset.

The Prediction

Auburn isn’t going to have any trouble with Florida Atlantic.

But I do expect FAU to find the end zone, and I do expect Auburn to show the same inconsistency and same woes in their weak areas.

Problems as basic and fundamental as the ones Auburn has don’t get fixed in a week, especially when the coaching staff doesn’t appear to even be trying to make any radical changes.

The bounce-back games are always telling, but it will be interesting to see Saturday night if Auburn is going to be able to survive the rest of the year as it is, or if things actually are getting worse and worse as the weeks go by as the statistics show, and if this season’s wheels really are falling off.

That said, Auburn will earn a victory on Saturday. And regardless of the outlook, football is football and wins are wins. So enjoy it.

The Final Score

Auburn 37, Florida Atlantic 17

Photo via.

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