Wednesday, November 12

Auburn Q&A: Chatting with a Plainsman in exile.

One unexpected acquaintance I made while getting the full Big Ten Xperience up in Ann Arbor last year around this time was one Jerry Hinnen, an Auburn grad who got transplanted up to Annerber due to his wife attending medical school up there. Earlier this week, Jerry -- obviously undaunted by what could charitably be described as a rather taxing season of Auburn football -- asked me if I'd be interested in doing a Q&A exchange over GMail chat, and that sounded like fun. Actually, pretty much anything related to the Georgia-Auburn rivalry is fun to me, but anyway, here's the half of the exchange in which I picked Jerry's brain; meanwhile, he also got the chance to pick mine over at his blog, the Joe Cribbs Car Wash. Here we go:

So anyway, earlier today you seemed a little surprised that I was so focused on Auburn's motivation (or lack of same) for this game. So sate my curiosity -- I know you're not exactly in close proximity to the Plains at the moment, but what's your take on their mental state at this point? Are they still fired up to try and go out with a bang, or are they in danger of packing it in, as Tennessee's players appear to have done?

Yeah, I suppose I was a little surprised, which I think comes from having watched Auburn all season and knowing that -- not to spoil the entire remainder of your interrogations -- that no matter how motivated they are, this just isn't that good a team. If they play up to the uppermost level of their abilities, yeah, they're going to be competitive. (That in itself is a big if, however.) There's a reason they squeaked by Tennessee and Mississippi State, though, and that's that top-to-bottom they're not all that different from the Vols of Croom's Bulldogs. I wish it was otherwise. But they're just not. As for their motivation level . . .

If Auburn can come out as they did against West Virginia or LSU and put together a good drive on offense, maybe take an early lead, they'll hang together and I think you'll see the same amount of passion and energy we've always seen Tubby's teams play with. But when things have gone south for this team this year -- the second halves against Arkansas or West Virginia, for instance -- they've really gone south. Like, Tierra del Fuego south. If the Dawgs come out swinging and put them on the mat in the first quarter, Auburn'll get up -- but they probably won't have the same force behind their punches either, so to speak. Especially at home, Auburn's got to have a good first quarter and a good first half.

Above, Tierra del Fuego, where Auburn's offense has apparently been mingling with the penguins for the past couple months.

So when you say "this just isn't that good a team" -- and you've said it a few times today -- is that a talent problem, or is this team still good enough that they could've made something of this season if the coaching situation had been more stable?

You don't end up having the kind of season Auburn's had -- the worst of Tubby's 10-year tenure by light-years, his inaugural 1999 campaign included, unless Kodi Burns channels the spirit of Ben "400 yards in a half or whatever between the hedges" Leard -- without breakdowns not just in one or two areas but in all of them. Yes, outside of what is still a fairly solid offensive line, the offensive lacks playmakers. Burns is still greener than the Libyan flag. RB is usually a strength, but Brad Lester and Mario Fannin (the team's most talented RBs) have been hurt while Ben Tate just doesn't have the jets. The receivers all go through bouts of the dropsies. So there wasn't/isn't a ton for Tony Franklin/Steve Ensminger to work with.

That said, it's not all that different from what Borges had last year and he put together something that wasn't an embarrassment, even if it usually wasn't anything to keep DC's up at night, either. The Franklin experiment was a complete disaster -- by now it seems pretty clear he never found a way to get the position coaches on board, Tubby wasn't willing to step in and iron things out, and the whole thing got pulled in so many different directions it wasn't able to ever get pulled back together again, so to speak.

As for the defense, they've been hammered with injuries and kept on the field for way too long. They haven't been good, but the rot started on the other side of the ball.

Kodi Burns makes a play against Tennessee-Martin, who is no relation to Curtis, Doc, or Lockheed.

Well, at least they put up some points on UT-Martin. How much can the rest of us take from that game? I know it was a gimme opponent, but it looked like Kodi Burns really took things over and made some plays -- is this becoming his team? Are the Tigers any closer to finding an offensive identity now?

Yes, they are, and that identity is pretty much "Hey, let's see if Kodi can pull something out of his rear end." He's got major footwork issues, his decision-making killed Auburn against Ole Miss, and he's still going to be making just his fourth-ever start-to-finish performance Saturday. Against quality defensive lines like LSU's and Ole Miss's, the traditional straight-ahead ground game has gotten Auburn nothing. After the Kentucky game I'm hopeful Auburn can get more push up front against the Dawgs than they did against the Tigers or Rebels, because if they can loosen up that front seven just a bit, get those safeties to creep just a little closer to the line of scrimmage, I think Burns can hit a couple of downfield passes.

Third downs, however, are all about Burns's legs, either scrambling for a first on his lonesome or buying time to give his receivers a chance to get open. Auburn will put the ball in his hands and hope something good happens. He's got the talent that it's possible something will more often than not. He could really use the help from the big uglies and the ground game -- I'd like to see Fannin get a few more carries than the past couple of weeks -- but the offense is still probably going to go about as far as Burns can carry it.

One thing that's really puzzled me about Auburn's offensive struggles is the fact that that running game, usually such an integral part of the offense, has been pretty meh for the past few weeks. Again, is it the coaching situation that's holding them back, or has the Auburn backfield really fallen off that far from the Cadillac/Ronnie days?

On a side note, Bulldog Nation is still mulling the idea of making the day these two guys declared for the NFL a schoolwide holiday.

Certainly the talent at tailback isn't what it used to be. Lester and Fannin have both shown flashes in the past, but both have been hobbled or otherwise slowed -- Fannin spent half the season at receiver, for instance, ostensibly to protect his shoulder and give Franklin someone to throw screens to -- and haven't ever really lived up to the promise Lester showed in '06 or Fannin showed at the beginning of last year. Tate's a workhorse and if he was at Wisconsin they'd probably turn him into a god, but Franklin's system required a back who could hit the hole a little quicker and with Ensminger at the controls it's been an eight-in-the-box extravaganza that Tate doesn't have the foot skills to navigate.

But that also speaks to how the running game has suffered due to schematic problems, too. Franklin was never a rush-first guy and so this particular Auburn team never got a good foundation for a ground game. Now neither our linemen nor our backs look as comfortable as they did in the past firing off and getting a good push, as I mentioned particularly against quality D-lines. It would have taken some really, really special coaching to turn the wreck Franklin left behind into a traditional punishing Auburn ground unit, and Ensminger's just not that special.

So it sounds like Georgia is gonna have to get some pressure on Burns early and often to put this one away. and clearly that's something that we've struggled with all year long. How has your O-line held up against the pass rush? Were there any teams in particular that seemed to be successful in getting to Burns?

Actually, this is one thing Franklin did seem to manage to accomplish -- the pass protection has by and large been good to outstanding. Left tackle Lee Ziemba has been playing hurt and has had some issues late in games, but aside from that, that's been pretty much the very least of Auburn's worries. If I was gameplanning against Auburn's offense, I'd plan to do the opposite on passing downs -- I'd rush three or four and drop everyone else into a zone, both forcing Burns to make the right decision throwing the ball and theoretically limiting his ability to break loose running the ball.

To hear Dawg fans tell it, this means Willie Martinez will dial up a steady diet of blitzes, so maybe that's something we've got going for us. (Just FYI, as an example: Auburn held Ole Miss without a sack.)

As far as the Tiger defense is concerned, who's likely to have more success against them on Saturday, Matt Stafford or Knowshon Moreno?

Moreno. After reviewing the West Virginia and Ole Miss game tapes pretty closely, it's pretty clear the linebackers are the secret Achilles heel of the Auburn D. Oh, the secondary's banged up and terrifyingly young and the D-line -- also not exactly a picture of health -- hasn't quite lived up to its billing at times.

He did it in the black jersey; can he do it in white?

But the linebackers have just not made plays over the last few weeks. Tray Blackmon's out hurt, so sophomore Josh Bynes stepped in at MLB and looked awfully passive. Sophomore Craig Stevens is generally solid in pass protection but hasn't excelled at run-stopping, and his backup is unheralded (though a future stud) true freshman Spencer Pybus. On the other side, seniors Chris Evans and Merrill Johnson are probably our steadiest LB performers, but both have nagging injuries and both have had their moments of madness as well. Unless our D-line absolutely manhandles the patchwork Dawg O-line (which I don't see happening as long as Stacy Searels is on your sideline, damn you), Moreno's going to have some big openings to run through.

This is more for my own curiosity than anything else, but what's the general mood of the fanbase regarding this game? Have THEY written off the season, or are they still hoping to salvage something from it?

Depends on whom you talk to. Some are still predicting Tubby to wave his magic wand and sweep the Amen Corner; some are expecting two humiliating blowouts that sweep Tubby out the door. As with all fanbases where a long-time coach is struggling, there are some pretty deep divisions between the fans who are convinced Tubby should be dismissed yesterday vs. those who are adamant he's the right guy who just made one really, really bad decision in hiring Franklin.

There are, of course, plenty of fans who are hanging out in the middle, too, which is I guess where I'd be. No, there's not a whole lot of rational reason to expect a victory in either of these last two games, but Tubby's won an awful lot of games over the past decade where rationality didn't hold a whole lot of sway. If there's any coach out there who could take this ragtag bunch and find a way to upset a Georgia or Alabama, you look at his track record and you have to think that guy is on Auburn's sideline.

He's ripped my heart clean out of my chest before, it could certainly happen again.

So that brings me to my last question: You think Tubby's coaching for his job this weekend?

No, not this weekend, and probably not two weekends from now, either. A third straight blowout in a rivalry that Auburn fans do care an awful lot about (even if that other one does tend to occupy our thoughts a wee bit more) won't help him, and if there's one thing that I think could chase Tubby out of the program, it might be an obliteration at the hands of Nick Saban, Coach of the Year. At that point I think there might be enough broad support for doing something drastic, coaching-wise, to seize some of Saban's momentum away before it gets completely out of hand. Or so the argument would go.

My completely non-insider guess, though, is that Tubby agrees to clean house on his offensive staff and gets one more year regardless of how these last two games play out. However nauseating this season has been, however incapable of creating a consistently, uh, consistent offense he might seem to be, Tubby's still won more consecutive Iron Bowls than any coach Auburn's ever had. That and the lingering memories of the 2004 juggernaut should be enough to get him a chance to clean up the mess he's made.

Well all righty then . . . I guess that about wraps up everything that was on my mind at the moment. Just for the record, I'm still biting my nails about this game, and probably will be until the clock hits four zeroes on Saturday.

(My reasons for the nailbiting, and a bunch of other stuff about the game, will go up in the Auburn preview on Thursday. Thanks to Jerry Hinnen for suggesting this, and anyone wanting to know more about the Tigers in general would be well served by a visit to the Joe Cribbs Car Wash sometime in the near future.)

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