We did this week's blog Q&A with WarBlogEagle. They should have their Q&A up soon. It's not their fault it's behind ours. I literally hit send 2 minutes ago. Anyway, here are our questions and their answers.
1. So we've all seen the problems with the tiger offense, or spread eagle. We see that it is ineffective. Still, do you think it's possible that the team could just be learning the offense still? Do you hope to see a totally new offense next season or just some tweaks to this one?
Well, the Spread Eagle as envisioned and half-assedly installed by Tony Franklin is dead. The insistence on shotgun snaps, the four receivers on the field at all times, the hypothetical (and never put into practice) snaps early in the play clock ... that's all been scrapped. Against West Virginia, Auburn lined up primarily in the I or an ace set and only switched to spread formations on passing downs. So to the extent that Auburn is "still learning" the new offense as practiced by Franklin, nope, that's done. Are they still re-learning the "new" offense that Auburn ran under former OC Al Borges and is currently under the direction of former tight ends coach Steve Ensminger? Yes, and it should be a little more fine-tuned than what we saw in the WVU game. But given that the team didn't begin practicing with the Borges sets until four or five weeks into this season and that Auburn's just not the most talented team offensively, the ceiling for this offense is so low I'd suggest the Rebels be careful they don't bump their heads. (ZING!) Auburn's currently 109th in the country in total offense and if they crack double-digits by the end of the season I'll be stunned.
As for next season, I wrote a post this week that touches on the issue in more detail, but I fully believe that the past two seasons have been such a disaster offensively it's time to nuke everything and start over from as blank a slate as Tubby can engineer. My preference is that Auburn live up to the spread-centric promises it made on the recruiting trail and hire a spread guy with some balance in his resume, a la someone like Missouri's Dave Christensen, but those guys don't grow on trees. We'll see.
2. Talk a little bit about your stable of running backs. It seems like we've seen glimpses from each of them, but none of them can really put it together for a streak of good games. What gives?
Auburn supporters are so used to having great running backs the fanbase has barely noticed that, frankly, the 2008 corps haven't come close to matching the tailback standard set throughout the bulk of Tubby's tenure. It's not all their fault, of course: between Franklin's RB-unfriendly system, the mass confusion on the offensive line, and the lack of any kind of downfield passing game to open up the box a bit, Auburn could have Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown back there again and it wouldn't matter too much. But unfortunately the Auburn backs haven't made the best of this bad situation, either. Senior slasher Brad Lester--almost certainly the most talented tailback Auburn has and its most experienced by a mile--has been hobbled by injuries all season and just can't seem to build on the sparks he's still managed to flash here and there. Junior power back Ben Tate's gotten the majority of Auburn's carries this season, but he's just not quick enough for the outside-centric runs out of the spread and he's lost too many yards this year reversing field in the search for holes that aren't there. He's a much better fit for the Borges sets, but now he, too, is nursing a hamstring injury that against WVU seemed to rob him of what little explosiveness he had. Sophomore Mario Fannin's probably Auburn's best remaining option, but he started the year at WR when the coaches wanted to protect a shoulder injury from the spring and he still doesn't seem to have all of his vision and confidence back when lined up in the backfield. Still, he's got a nice balance of quickness and power and I wish he'd take over the carries currently going to Tate. There's also speed merchant Tristan Davis, who they've ironically got playing fullback (and doing it surprisingly well vs. WVU), and true freshman bulldog Eric Smith, both of which have some potential but are unlikely to receive more than token carry or two.
It's not a bad group even with the injuries, but on this offense they needed to be a lot better than "not bad" and it just hasn't happened for them.
3. Who is the best defensive player on your team that no one is talking about? Why is he so good?
Well, some people are talking about defensive end Antonio Coleman, but probably not as many as should be when you realize he leads the SEC in both sacks (6) and tackles-for-loss (10.5). It's especially impressive when you realize Auburn's getting very, very little out of the DE position on the opposite side of the field (where sophomore Michael Goggans has been banged up and the other member of the rotation is converted tight end Gabe McKenzie) and that Coleman's also been battling through some minor injuries. He's pretty much the complete DE package: fast, strong, heady, and a very sure tackler. He'll play on Sundays.
4. Tubberville... gone after this season?
With principals in this little drama as inscrutable as Tuberville, Bobby Lowder, and AD Jay Jacobs, you have to take any and all guesses about what's going to play out with a grain of salt. But I think Tubby hangs on for a make-or-break 2009 season. It's certainly within the realm of possibility he gets canned and there's no question a loss to Alabama to cap off a 5-7 season--the far-and-away most likely final outcome for Auburn's year--would turn the heat up to stifling levels. In that situation, I'd put the odds on his return as probably no better than 60-40. But I don't think it'll happen for two reasons: 1. He's earned enough goodwill on the Plains that the majority of Auburn fans will be willing to give him a one-season mulligan 2. he's got a sizable buyout that in the current economic climate won't be easy even for the likes of Lowder to cobble together.
5. What is your prediction for the game?
Not one Auburn fans will be happy to read. It's the third verse, same as the first two, as against Arkansas and West Virginia: Auburn's facing a talented and well-coached offense that's going to move the ball no matter how well the rattled-and-battle-scarred defense plays, and if those Arky and WVU games are any indication, it's not going to play particularly well regardless. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Auburn's offense is taking baby steps forward but they're still nowhere near ready to put up more than a handful of points without a lot of help from the D and the special teams. Against both Arkansas and WVU they got tons of that help and it still wasn't enough. Auburn's 4-4, but those four wins have come against two hapless mid-majors and in the narrowest of scrapes over the two worst teams in the SEC. They have yet to beat a team remotely in Ole Miss's caliber and on the road, with the defense still licking its wounds and team morale almost certainly as its lowest ebb yet, it's awfully hard to see it happening Saturday. Unless the Rebels have the same sort of turnover orgy they put into action against Vandy, they should win the game.