Greatest Fears: Each Opposing Team’s Best Chance To Win – Part 1
photo: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
As a fantasy football guy, weekly match-ups are something that I must be fairly proficient at exploiting to expect success. If you’ve read my blog, you know I am a firm believer that there is always a winning combination of players either on my roster or hanging around in free agency. Even if my opponent has a far superior set of weekly players to field each week, there are several tricks I can employ to win the match-up.
That typically means that I have to be extremely bold in my decisions. I may have to start a defense against a throw-happy team where I know there will no fantasy points awarded for “points allowed.” But, while that defense may allow a lot of points, they may have an extremely talented defensive backfield capable to intercepting three or four passes. Maybe one of those goes for six points. And maybe that defense even has a top-flight return game that has the potential to run a kick back at any point.
I may have to start a low-ceiling tight end on a team with a top level QB/WR combo playing a decent defense in hopes that I can vulture five catches and a touchdown. Maybe I start a backup running back on a top rushing team in order to handcuff the elite running back on my opponent’s roster. Perhaps the starter will be rested in the second half. Meanwhile, I rely on my own top producing players and hope they put up their averages. While I don’t play a ton of money leagues, being bold and exacting on my game-plan decisions has won me a lot of match-ups, even some that I shouldn’t have won.
The point is, each and every match-up has a soft spot that can be exploited if you are bold and exacting with your game plan.
The same can be said for almost any game in college football, even on the Auburn schedule.
While Jacksonville State, San Jose State, and Idaho appear to have little chance at pulling an upset, the other teams on the schedule already have at least a chance to win outright. Opposing coaches will game plan towards their strengths and Auburn’s weaknesses. These particular bits of game-planning are certainly known by the Auburn coaching staff and could be cause for them to lose sleep. Let’s discuss each one.
September 5th: Louisville in Atlanta
The broken record says Auburn’s defense will improve drastically. Auburn gave up a whopping amount of points in the last five games against good offenses. The Auburn defense has a task on it’s hands against former Auburn offensive coordinator turned pundit punching bag, Bobby Petrino. True, year in and year out despite the conference, team, and talent pool, the man produces a very potent offense. Auburn has been in a record-setting defensive slump since Muschamp left for Texas. Surprisingly, it isn’t the Auburn defensive side of the ball that will have coaches concerned the most. Instead, Louisville’s defense should worry all Auburn fans. It certainly will worry the coaches.
Louisville was ninth in the nation in total sacks, 26th in tackles for loss, and the very best in passes intercepted in 2014. At one point in the year, the Cards were the best fantasy defensive/special teams unit. At least they weren’t very good at forcing fumbles, which bodes well for an Auburn team that will undoubtedly run a significant amount in this game.
Both Louisville defensive ends and two of the three linebackers have landed on some form of All-ACC team. The third LB is TCU transfer Devonte Fields who was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman before sitting out a year. This is a guy with NFL talent, itching to make the most of what many consider a one-and-done type year. Up front, Louisville could be one of the best teams in the nation.
Adding fuel to the fire, consider that Auburn’s presumed starter at center, Golson, will be making his first start at center against a 3 – 4 defense. That has to be one of the worst-case scenarios as he will have to play someone in the zero or one gap as opposed to a typical 4 – 3 system where a defensive tackle would be in a two- or three-technique. That means that Golson will be pounded every single play by a 310 pound DeAngelo Brown as opposed to spending his time double teaming, chipping, or pass protecting. That will be a tough job to do after making presnap calls and snapping the ball. There is no doubt that there will be at least one bad snap in this game. Fans have seen that happen to Auburn centers in their first start before. Keep in mind that one of the legitimate worries people have with Golson is his extreme height for a center. A 310 lb. nose tackle hitting him under the chin and gaining leverage is a scary thought.
Louisville led the nation last year in interceptions. However, the Cards lost their entire secondary. Holliman and his 14 total INT’s are gone, as well as Sample, the rop producer. In their place are a couple of big name transfers. One-time UGA starters Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins look to start. Both of these guys are very talented. Harvey-Clemons is a beast at 6’5″, 230 lb.
It is frightening that Louisville is designed to be a ball-hawking defense that puts pressure on the QB to force errant throws. That’s the way the Grantham defense is built and they tend to be better early in the year. It is even more frightening that this defense has had months to prepare for first-time full-time, starter Jeremy Johnson. It is almost certain there will be turnovers and sacks in this game. How will Johnson respond to adversity? That’s been the question all along, and it will be emphasized in this game. After he gets sacked three times and throws a pick in the first half, will he be able to buckle up and win the game late in the forth quarter?
September 12th: Jacksonville State at Auburn
Let’s be real. The chances of Jacksonville State winning are so infinitesimally small that it isn’t worth talking about. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t fears going into this game. There are some legitimate concerns having nothing to do with losing. One of two things will happen: Jeremy Johnson will come out and play a few series and work up a lather, or Sean White comes out and starts his first game before giving way to Tyler Queen in the second half. Coaches say they have a lot of faith in Sean, especially as a backup. What happens if he gets hurt in a game that doesn’t matter, heading into a huge game against LSU which is one of the more physical series in all of college football?
Likewise, the loser of “The Battle in Auburn’s Backfield” will get an opportunity to be the lead back. In either case, what happens if (presumably) Barber/Robinson goes down with a season-ending injury? You can go a whole season with one QB, barring injuries. The same cannot be said for running back where at least two players will be called upon each game.
What of other positions? There really isn’t another single position that hurts quite like QB and RB, but Tiger fans saw what happened with Carl Lawson out in 2014.
Granted, injuries of any sort can happen as easily against the Gamecocks as with the Crimson Tide, but the second game of the year is a poor place to lose anyone, especially on a unit with limited depth. Auburn is very short-handed in several positions. Losses on the two-deep could be brutal, especially with a physical LSU team the next week and MSU the week after.
September 19th: Auburn at LSU
The purple-and-gold Tigers may be the most devalued team in all of the SEC this year. Though the program has been an NFL factory for over a decade, this particular team has a lot of gaps to fill from a team that across the board wasn’t very good. Auburn won’t be afraid of the offense, since it knows that it will be playing against a run-first team with questions at QB. However, it is folly to think that LSU doesn’t have the talent to become another great team.
While Fournette is a solid back, many forget that Neighbors, his lead blocker, graduated and is seeking an NFL team. The offensive line has to replace both guards, which can be a recipe for disaster. Though LSU has very capable receivers, it won’t have a QB, at least this early in the year. Add in what many think will be Auburn’s best pass rush in almost ten years, it is possible to see a struggling LSU offense continue down the same path as 2014.
What will keep Malzahn (and Lashlee) up at night is the retooled LSU secondary. Though the defensive coordinator spot has changed from Chavis to Steele and the D-line to Orgeron, one spot has not. Corey Raymond is still the defensive backs coach. This unit was third in the nation against the pass and returns three of four starters. All three of these returning starters make Lindy’s All-SEC teams in some capacity.
The last DB spot will be filled with Kevin Toliver, a five-star recruit who is 6’2′, 192 lb. and runs a 4.5 40-yard dash. Though he is a freshman, he enrolled early and looks to be penciled in to start. The DB’s faced only 385 passes and picked off 10 of them for a 2.5 percent interception-to-pass-attempt ratio, which was at the very bottom of the SEC. Much of this seeming lack of turnover production stems from the fact that LSU was 43rd against the run. Teams pounded the rock against LSU in 2014. With the anticipated improved D-line play, this unit’s turnover production will go up dramatically. LSU has superior size at the defensive back position with only one player under six feet tall.
With Auburn’s questions at receiver outside of Duke Williams and LSU’s extremely talented secondary, there is a very real chance at LSU turning the tide in the defensive backfield. Recently, Auburn has struggled to get consistent production from receivers, and Duke Williams was veryy quiet against his home-state school in 2014. He can’t afford for that to happen in 2015. Though the game is not at night, a pick-six is enough to inflame Baton Rouge.
September 26th: Mississippi State at Auburn
There is no other game that is quite as physical each year than this early season SEC West match-up. It doesn’t seem to matter how talented the Bulldogs are, they always come loaded for bear against a typically more talented Auburn team. This divisional game has produced some of the very best games in the last 20 years, many of which frequently go down to the last second (see 2011 and 2013).
This is truly the only game outside of the Iron Bowl where rankings do not matter. In 2014, Auburn left Jordan-Hare after a surprising beat-down of LSU, looking the part of one of the nation’s best teams. The Tigers absolutely fell apart in Starkville against a team that would stand at No. 1 longer than any other team in 2014.
This Bulldog team won’t be the same team. Only four starters remain from an offense that was as physical and versatile as there was in all of football. Though the line lost all but two starters, it will be the physical running of Josh Robinson that will be the most missed aspect. Yes, Dak Prescott is back, but most people agree that the Dak in 2015 will be closer to the Dak of 2013. Until the offensive line gels and has a few tough games under its belt, Prescott will have to scramble a lot. The good news for MSU fans is not only can his scrambling pick up yards, but it could lead to down-field throws to De’Runnya Wilson, creating a match-up that few defensive backs in college football could win.
Now in his third year as a starter, Prescott will add considerable game-play experience and moxy to his already complete dual-threat ability. That will make him look and play a very similar game to Tim Tebow, who threw for 200 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT while running for 75 yards and 1 TD against Auburn in a memorable Gator loss. Take away a receiver fumble and a blocked kick, and Florida wins that game.
So, why should Prescott scare Muscahmp?
Prescott is nearly impossible to bring down in the backfield, a la Ben Roethlisberger. Unlike Ben, who is a statue in the pocket, Prescott can step up in to the pocket and throw deep or step up in the pocket and run, hit the edge and run, or hit the edge and throw deep.
That last part is the scariest aspect. Auburn does not have a player in the secondary that can match up to Wilson, a 6’5″, 225 lb. beast. Giving Prescott the opportunity to buy time and find a soft spot in the Auburn secondary is an edge that Auburn can not afford to give. He is already gifted enough to succeed against even the best and tightest coverage.
What happens when Wilson is running a short route, say an out, and Prescott finds the edge of the pass rush? Auburn’s corners freeze just for a second to account for Prescott, and Wilson hits the sideline. Seventy yards later, Auburn wonders how a 3rd and 7 turned in to a morale-busting TD. That’s the kind of thing that can, and will, happen with Prescott if he is forced to run.
Check back soon for the next four games on the schedule!