This week's Q&A was conducted with Auburn's The War Eagle Reader Blog. They probably won't have my responses up there for a while, but that's my fault. I didn't see their questions until a few hours ago.
1. So Cam Newton isn't bad at football apparently. Obviously the guy is a freak, but can you talk about some of his offensive supporting cast that helps make the offense go?
Sort of, but let's be clear: Cam Newton (and the offense designed around him by his rather-intelligent offensive coordinator) is what makes the offense go. Still, it wouldn't go far without the Auburn offensive line. Lee Ziemba is playing at an All-American level at left tackle, and center Ryan Pugh and guards Byron Isom and Mike Berry are all All-Conference caliber at worst. They were just shirt of an outright disaster against Clemson, but Chizik called them out for it that week and ever since they've just been crushing people. 440 yards rushing against a defensive line as strong as LSU's doesn't happen without a LOT of wide-open lanes, and the line opened them up again and again. I kind of want to buy them all steaks, since that's apparently what offensive linemen like.
Elsewhere at the skill positions, not much has changed from last year: Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery are the main receiving threats, Mike Dyer is the Ben Tate-like power back, Onterio McCalebb the home-run threat at tailback. One difference is that Auburn has, after a season and a half under Malzahn, finally gotten a couple more receivers involved in the passing game: Emory Blake has emerged as the third wideout and a major threat on bubble screens, and tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen has become a steady option underneath.
2. Gene Chizik has experience a lot of success after the "we want a leader not a loser" spectacle. Is this more a reflection of him doing a good job or the assistants around him? What does he bring to the table, and what do some of his assistants (more than just Malzahn please) add?
Since not even the most rabid Auburn partisan expects Malzahn to stay longer than another season or two (if that much), this is the million-dollar question facing the Tigers right now, especially since Chizik's supposed area of expertise--defense--has been a sore spot ever since he arrived.
But it's simply hate for hate's sake to say Chizik has nothing to do with Auburn's success beyond hiring Malzahn. For one thing, he also hired guys like Trooper Taylor and Tracy Rocker and Jeff Grimes, who have been great recruiters but who also have each of their units (wide receiver, defensive line, offensive line) playing light years beyond their levels under the previous regime despite coaching much of the same talent. For another, Auburn's program seems legitimately tight-knit, focused, and mentally stable--the sort of all-for-one-one-for-all atmosphere that Jetgate poisoned irreparably as long as Tuberville was around, and helped lead to a tendency to lay a serious egg once Auburn fell behind. The kind of comebacks that Auburn pulled off against Clemson and South Carolina (not to mention the steely fourth quarter drives against Arkansas, Kentucky, etc.) don't happen unless everyone is on the same page, mentally and emotionally speaking, and Chizik has every member of his staff and team on that page.
3. Who is the best defensive player on your team about whom no one is talking? What about the most unheralded contributor on the offensive line? What makes them both so special?
Honestly, the defense doesn't give you a whole lot past Fairley and dynamic middle linebacker Josh Bynes; the defensive ends have been merely OK, the other linebackers inconsistent, the secondary--mostly--a disaster area. So we'll just go right back to defensive tackle, where Fairley has been the star but rotation colleagues Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc have both had outstanding seasons, both clogging up the middle of the line and rushing the passer. Clayton is more a straight-ahead bull while Blanc has more agility and is adept at swatting down passes and tackling ball-carriers from behind as they pass the line-of-scrimmage. Part of Fairley's immense success is that he's not the only player in the middle of the line you have to worry about.
As far as unheralded players on the o-line go, Ziemba and Pugh are usually the first two names mentioned so I'll go with Mike Berry, the senior left guard who's just been mauling people all season long since an iffy start against Mississippi State. One of Auburn's favorite plays is to run a sweep with both guards pulling and either Dyer or Newton behind them; it's slow-developing but has hit for a lot of big gainers this year with Berry wrecking fools at the point of attack.
4. I think that every school in the SEC has a drastically different fanbase. Talk a little bit about the fan dynamic in Auburn. Also, in one or two paragraphs, what separates your fans from Alabama fans?
This is the sort of thing that every fan of every team will probably say about their own fans, but with Auburn I think it really is true that "Auburn" is its own community, its own--pardon me--family. Between the closeness forged by the medium-to-small-sized city in which it's located, the constant "otherness" experienced by Auburn people in a state where the majority of college football fans root for the other guy, and general affability of Auburn folk both to each other and (for the most part) fans of other schools, our connection to Auburn and to each other becomes a point of intense personal pride for those us who are part of that community. For the overwhelming majority of us, Auburn isn't just the place where we went to school, it's a large, large part of who we are. Again, I know that fans of virtually every school (Ole Miss no doubt included) will say that, but I think it's more true at Auburn than most, and that means the tie firged with the football team is as intense as you'll find anywhere.
As for what separates us from Alabama fans, well, Lord knows that there are a ton of 'Bama graduates who love their school and their community as much as I love Auburn. But you don't win as many championships as they do in a football-mad state like ours without picking up some bandwagoneers. And that's fine. But that previous paragraph? No, I don't think it applies to Alabama the way it does to Auburn, not as much.
5. What's your prediction for the final outcome? Score? How does it happen?
I'll go ahead and tell you: I'm terrified of this game. Nutt, for one thing. Masoli ,for another; I said at the start of the year that I didn't think he'd help the Rebels' bottom line, but that once he got his legs underneath him in Oxford that he was good enough to pull one huge upset before the year was out. At home, against an undefeated, top-ranked team that may be a little empotionally spent an due for an off-game ... what better time?
But two things work in Auburn's favor here, I think. One is that the Rebels simply haven't been good against the run, and Auburn runs the ball too well not to take major advantage of that, even if they're not perfectly on top of their game. The other is that while I know Masoli isn't bad as a passer, I'm also not convinced he's accurate enough to take advantage of Auburn's secondary the way Arkansas or Mike Hartline did. Auburn's going to give Masoli a lot of underneath throws, and if he can hit all of them, the Rebels will move the ball ... but I don't think he'll hit enough.
So I like the home team to lead at the half and keep this a one-score game well into the fourth. But I think Auburn's got enough to pull it out in the end, 33-28 or something like it. Then again: Auburn's won a lot of one-score games this season. To play another will be playing with fire.