Enter the Tigers!
War Eagle, everybody! Can you believe it? College football starts tonight! It has been a long, gray, rainy summer, but the sun is finally back, and so is our favorite sport! It all starts with an SEC double-header tonight, and Auburn will be back in action Saturday night at 6:00 PM. We cannot wait!
The fun begins tonight as South Carolina hosts the North Carolina Tarheels at 5:00 PM Central Time, and the opening SEC slugfest features Ole Miss at Vanderbilt at 8:15 PM. Anyone else feel like that’s a pretty late start for a Thursday night game? These were the two surprisingly good teams in the league last year, and ESPN is going to have them both playing till midnight on a week night? Makes one wonder if SEC football has sold its soul to the network.
With CBS out of the picture the next two weeks, the league’s whole TV picture is dictated by ESPN. Saturday’s headliner games feature Mississippi State playing Oklahoma State in Houston, Texas, at 2:30 PM on ABC; Virginia Tech vs. Alabama in Atlanta at 4:30 PM on ESPN, Washington State at Auburn at 6:00 PM on ESPNU, Georgia at Clemson at 7:00 PM on ABC, and TCU vs. LSU in Arlinton, Texas at 8:00 PM. The rest of the games Saturday are of the cupcake-feast variety, although I expect Western Kentucky to give the Kentucky Wildcats all they can handle in Nashville. That game is on ESPNews at 6:00 PM.
The big news out of Auburn this week is that a final fall depth chart has been released, and there are a lot of surprises on it. There have been shakeups on the defensive line, at the return positions, and in the receiver corps. I think a lot of that is due to injuries, which is worrisome going into a tough opener against the Washington State Cougars. The Tigers have had the toughest fall camp in at least five years, and we may see a product reminiscent of the Tuberville years the first couple of weeks of September. Remember, we used to see a team slow out of the gate in those years, but pretty dominant by November as they were forged in the brutal August heat.
I was quite amused by some of the quotes coming out of Pullman, Washington from Cougar head coach Mike Leach. He was asked about coaching against Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson way back in 1997, when Kentucky beat Alabama in overtime. Leach’s response? “Son of a gun. I didn’t know that. Well that’s good to know. I didn’t know that. I felt like crazy that I’d known about his career for a long time. I had no idea.” Think that might fire up the Auburn defense a little more?
When asked about defending new Auburn starting quarterback Nick Marshall, Leach had this to say, “He obviously can (throw the ball vertically). He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy, which is exactly why he’s had the opportunity to play two major positions on the team. I think he’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.” That doesn’t sound like a guy terribly confident in his defense, does it?
Leach also mentioned that it has been a lot hotter this summer on the west coast, and that’s true. Much is usually made of teams coming to the muggy southeast, and struggling, and probably a lot of that is overblown. This year has featured a scorching summer out west, while the southeast has had one of the coolest summers in memory, with lots of rain. There likely won’t be any advantage due to the weather in this one.
One of the major storylines in this game against Washington State will be the matchup between Auburn’s defensive line and the Cougar offensive line. Most of the Cougar line is made up of former walkons, and it had been suggested that if Auburn can’t do well here, it may be a long season in the SEC. This week, Auburn’s depth chart indicates that the Tigers will go with last year’s starters Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker at tackle, while defensive ends Craig Sanders and LaDarius Owens will both get their first career starts against the Cougars. Color me surprised! Auburn’s best pass rusher Dee Ford will miss the game, and it seems that seniors Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae are banged up, to be benched. Expect to see true freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel in early at the end spots.
At linebacker, Jake Holland is back in the starting middle linebacker spot, with Cassanova McKinzy at will, and Justin Garrett at the “star” position. Garrett missed almost two weeks of fall camp with his foot in a protective boot, and we’ll be interested to see how he holds up. He’ll be mostly in coverage against a pass-happy Washington State offense.
This past spring and summer I’ve raved about a deep and talented secondary, but injuries and dismissals have culled the unit. Right now, there is basically a three man rotation at the two positions, and a ton of inexperience beyond that. You’ll see Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy starting at corner, with Ryan White backing up both spots. At safety, starters will be Jermaine Whitehead, and young sophomore Joshua Holsey getting his first ever start at safety. Backing up both of those guys will be senior Ryan Smith.
Another big surprise came in the return game lineup. Evidently senior cornerback Chris Davis has won the starting punt returner spot, ahead of Quan Bray and Trovon Reed. Having a new guy back there makes me a bit nervous, and it seems risky to have the top cornerback playing a special teams position where big hits are common. Tre Mason and Cory Grant have been named as the kick returners. Mason does have some experience there, and took one to the house for a touchdown in his first game against Utah State two years ago.
On the offensive line, right tackle Patrick Miller held off a charge this fall from redshirt freshman Avery Young. Miller was a big liability last season as a true freshman starter, but this past A-Day he looked really improved. Tackle and center play must be near-flawless for the Gus Malzhan running game to work. Those three guys must control their opponent without help, and keep the defender out of the play. We’ll be watching that right side of the line closely Saturday night.
Another mild surprise is that junior C. J. Uzomah did not run away with the starting tight end job. I’ve always liked the blocking of Brandon Fulse, and Fulse is named as a co-starter with Uzomah. Uzomah is also listed as a co-starter at wide receiver, indicating that he’s going to be moved around a lot. The depth chart lists four wide receiver starters, which is kind of ridiculous. Those are Sammie Coates or Uzomah; Jaylon Denson, Quan Bray and Ricardo Louis. I think we may see a handful of plays with all four of those guys on the field at once, but I think it will be far more common to see two guys out there, with Fulse and Jay Prosch leading the way blocking.
As expected, incumbent Tre Mason held onto the starting running back role, but I think we’ll see a lot of transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, who looked like a brutal, shifty between the tackles runner on A-Day. I also think that we’ll see Corey Grant take over Onterio McCalebb’s spot as the wildcat tailback. Grant is supposed to be one of the fastest players on the team.
Well folks, I can’t wait for this season to start. Saturday, we’ll have our usual Trackemtigers.com open thread up, and as always, feel free to participate. War Eagle, and let’s crush those Cougars!