Lay off me. I don't have photoshop.
Jerry, the proprietor of War Blog Eagle and previous blogger at Joe Cribbs' Car Wash, was my pick for Blogger Q&A this week. He came on RC Radio last night and did a bang-up job, and his answers to my questions for this segment were excellent. My responses are now up on his site.
Anyway, on to the good stuff.
1. I know you get sick of answering this question, but I have to ask. Auburn jumped out to a huge start. I was really sold on the Malzahn offense and thought a lot of people were eating their words about Chizik. Explain what has happened in the last three games. Sure, we understand LSU, but Arkansas and Kentucky?
Do you remember that Wile E. Coyote cartoon where he gets the Batman outfit with the giant wings? And he jumps off a cliff and struggles for a moment, but then before he hits the jagged rocks below he figures it out and starts flying around? And so now he's looking sharp and feeling really good about himself when he runs smack into the side of a mountain?
That's kind of what's happened to Auburn's passing game--for those first five weeks Chris Todd was one of the two or three most efficient passers in the SEC, top 20 nationally, cool and calm in the pocket and stunningly accurate. Starting with the Arkansas, game, though, he's missed a ton of open receivers, looked decidedly indecisive when under the slightest hint of pressure, and short-hopped a few balls that have made it open season amongst Auburn fans on a) how healthy his surgically repaired shoulder really is b) how long he'll be able to hold off career nonentity Neil Caudle for the job. To be fair to Todd, though, Auburn's wideouts have refused to get themselves open, a previously impregnable pass-protection scheme has sprung leaks, and perhaps most importantly opponents have made taking away Malzahn's swings and screens to the running backs priority No. 1. The end result is that Auburn's averaged 4.6, 3.8, and 4.1 yards per pass the last three weeks, and Todd's numbers are even worse than those (which are boosted by a couple of Kodi Burns surprise throws and a garbage-time drive by Caudle vs. LSU).
Auburn's running game has been good-to-great anyway and the defense has been about as squishy as you'd expect it to be given how thin it is and how quickly a struggling Malzahn offense puts them back on the field, but ask pre-alien-Crompton Tennessee how far even a good D (which Auburn doesn't have) and stout running game get you if you're totally unable to throw the ball.
2. Onterrio McCalebb got the ball 22 times in week one. Since then, he hasn't approached that amount. What gives? The guy looks to be great with the ball in his hands. Talk a little bit about Ben Tate and why he's good enough to limit McCalebb's carries to single digits.
I'll get the talking about Tate out of the way first: he's been terrific. He's always been powerful, but he's running with a particular edge this season and his balance, vision, and speed are better than they've been at any point in his career. He's been Auburn's best player, either side of the ball, for four weeks running.
But you'd still see McCalebb getting his 15 touches if he wasn't hurt. He sprained his ankle against Ball St. (on a failed fake punt! we're all still very happy about that decision) and though he still made several big plays against Tennessee, he hasn't been the same since. He left a number of yards on the field against Kentucky and LSU, either reacting slowly to the hole or just stepping out of bounds rather than looking for contact, and frankly I'd like to see him take the next two weeks off and come back healthier for Georgia. You're right that the McCalebb we saw early in the season is a hell of a weapon, the sort of pure-top-end-speed home run threat from the tailback position Auburn otherwise currently doesn't have--though the passing game is the bigger problem, it's not a coincidence Auburn's offense went south when McCalebb's health did. Unfortunately, that health means Ole Miss won't have to worry about him until 2010.
3. Who is the best offensive player that no one talks about? Defensive player?
Offensively, 4/5ths of the offensive line--LT Lee Zimeba, LG Mike Berry C Ryan Pugh, LG Byron Isom--have actually played fairly well even during the current losing streak. Tate's had some quality holes, even against stacked fronts or in obvious running situations (i.e. 1st-and-10), and they didn't allow a sack vs. Kentucky. Ziemba, in particular, has recovered from his injury-, penalty-, and Tony Franklin-plagued 2008 to become the same kind of impact player he was as a freshman in '07. (Since I know you're wondering: the other 5th of the line, RT Andrew McCain, has committed some absolutely killer penalties and hasn't been as strong in pass-pro.)
Defensively, keep an eye on junior DE Antoine Carter--Carter's battled inconsistency and injury issues for most of his career and only came back from a torn meniscus a few weeks ago, but he made things happen (as the saying goes) against Arkansas and Kentucky to snatch away a starting job from longtime incumbent Michael Goggans. Assuming Ole Miss pays special attention to Antonio Coleman on the other end, Carter is probably our best chance at getting any kind of pressure on Snead.
4. To quote Steve Spurrier on quarterbacks, "If you've got two, you don't have any." During the offseason, Auburn had as many as three. Talk about Chris Todd. Would you prefer to see another quarterback? Which one?
Three? Auburn had four semi-legitimate challengers for the starting job as recently as the middle of fall camp, and that was after redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter (the late-2008 second-stringer) tore an ACL in the spring.
But now we're down to just two--Todd and Caudle. (Burns has been shifted to WR-slash-Wildcat specialist and couldn't beat out Caudle in the spring anyway; he's out of the picture. Tyrik Rollison is an athletic four-star freshman built for this offense, but he was just a little too raw to hand the reins to this early; there's no chance they burn his redshirt this late in the year.) And frankly, at this point I'd like to see what Caudle can do. Todd seems to have the support of the team and I don't think the coaching staff wants to open the can of worms that comes with quarterback juggling, but we're going on four weeks now since he's gotten anything--and I mean anything--done on the field. If he played any other position this badly (well, maybe not linebacker, we've got two true freshmen on the two-deep and behind them it's all walk-ons), he'd have been benched last week.
Caudle's a redshirt junior who Todd beat out in nine days or so of fall practice (Todd missed spring ball after surgery), had never risen above third-string until this year, and has a reputation for interception-throwing he did nothing to dispel by offering up a terrible pick on his first pass of the season (vs. Ball St.). But he's more mobile than Todd and at some point you really do have to take a chance on the devil you don't know rather than submitting meekly with the one you do. Todd will start Saturday, but if Auburn's down early and Todd's looking the way he's looked the last three, don't be surprised if Caudle gets a shot.
5. What's your prediction on the game? Tell us how you think it will go, and give us a final score.
Do I have to? I'd like to think that the combination of the early kickoff on the road against an unranked opponent the week after a big performance would add up to a Rebel letdown in the early going, but the way Auburn's offense and Ole Miss's defense are playing at the moment, that only counts for so much. The Rebels have too much offensive talent and Auburn not enough defensive talent for your guys not to put up a good number of points on the scoreboard, and unless Todd got some new cyborg implants for his arm this week or Caudle is an unexpected savior, Auburn's not going to do the same. I'm thinking something like Ole Miss 31, Auburn 17, and if you'll excuse me, I have some acid I'd like to splash in my face.