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Friday, November 13, 2009

Behind Enemy Lines: Auburn Tigers

It's Friday, another rival comes to town, so that means it's time to check in behind enemy lines with Auburn beat writer Andy Bitter of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.

I zipped off a few pointed questions to Andy earlier this week, and he was kind enough to give us the inside scoop on how the Tigers are preparing for tomorrow's showdown between the hedges...

David Hale: So Auburn wins five in a row to start Gene Chizik's career there. Then they drop three in a row, including an ugly one to Kentucky at home. Now they've won two more in a row. Looking deeper at the home/road splits, it looks like the Tigers play much better at Jordan-Hare than they do on the road, too. So what Auburn team are you expecting to show up Saturday?

Andy Bitter:
That's tough to tell. This is certainly a streaky team, and right now it's in one of it's hot streaks. That three-game losing streak really came out of nowhere, though. And it's hard to figure out why the offense, after dominating the first five weeks, suddenly dropped off the face of the earth. But now Auburn appears to have shored things up on the offensive side, so it would surprise me if it laid an egg in Athens. And it's true that the Tigers have played poorly on the road, especially their last time out at LSU, a 31-10 loss that wasn't even that close. But Auburn has historically played well in Athens (the road team in this series always has), so I think you'll see at the very least a competitive team out there Saturday.

DH: Chris Todd certainly seems to have blossomed this year and Auburn is now one of -- if not the -- most potent offenses in the SEC. What's been the key to the turnaround?

A lot of people began to question the health of Todd's surgically-repaired shoulder when Auburn struggled through that rough patch last month, but he's bounced back with two games where he's thrown the ball well, particularly downfield. I don't know how much of his bad performances were based on Todd as much as it was the entire offense not clicking. He had very little protection in those games and other teams appeared to have a better idea of what Auburn was trying to do on offense (ie. they were jumping bubble screens, etc). So as much as people want to pin those problems on Todd and Todd alone (it's a popular thing to do on the Plains), I think that's unfair. He's a fairly resilient quarterback who's gone through a lot in his career. This seems to be one of those bounce-back times.

DH: Teams have made a habit of rolling a safety over the top to help stop A.J. Green this season, with limited success. What's Auburn's plan, and will someone like 5-9 Demond Washington be up to the challenge of going up for jump balls against someone like Green?

First of all, Washington is 5-9 in high heels. I'd put him more around 5-7 or 5-8. But he does have cover skills. He was a cornerback prior to moving to safety, so matching up with a receiver, even one as physically gifted as Green, won't necessarily be daunting to him. Despite Washington's limited size, he still shows pretty good ball awareness when it's up there. (That being said, I don't like anybody's chance of going up for a jump ball against Green.) But Washington had pretty well established himself in a rotation at cornerback before moving back there. And he's pretty fearless when it comes to sticking his nose into the mix. Will that hold up over the long haul? For someone his size, probably not. But for these next two games, Auburn hopes he can get the job done.

DH: Auburn ranks 93rd nationally, allowing nearly 170 yards per game on the ground. Georgia ranks 83rd nationally, mustering just a shade over 130 yards per game on the ground -- although they have looked improved recently. So which unit might be in line for the better day?

The Tigers fared a little bit better on the ground against Ole Miss, save for one bust when Dexter McCluster broke off a 79-yard touchdown run. But it's still an ongoing problem. Tackling issues have been a constant problem all year. And although Auburn has shored up its weak-side linebacker spot with Eltoro Freeman, he's still out of place on occasion, leaving the defense open to big gains. The only real ground game Auburn has shut down this year is FCS Furman. I think Georgia is quite a bit better than the Paladins, so I'll say the Bulldogs get healthy on the ground this week.

DH: Wes Bynum is one of the SEC's best kickers, but the rest of Auburn's special teams have been a mixed bag, particularly in the punt-return game. Given that Georgia has one of the country's top punters, is that a concern for the Tigers?

I think Auburn's almost to the point where it will do punt returns high school style, with a guy back there under instructions not to touch the ball under any circumstances. It's comical. I think Philip Pierre-Louis had three punt return attempts last week against Furman. Two went for negative yards and a third was muffed for a turnover. It's an overlooked part of the team that hasn't cost it a game yet but probably will. Gene Chizik has taken a bigger role in deciding the punt returner and claims to have made it a top priority this week, but if you don't have anyone with that particular skill set that you can trust, there's not much you can do to hide it. All four of the guys the Tigers have tried back there have looked shaky. I can't imagine that suddenly changing this week.

DH: Any injury updates? Will Onterio McCalebb play?

Wide receiver Travante Stallworth (knee) is out. McCalebb doesn't sound like he will, judging by the coaches' comments (they won't come out and say anything definitive, of course). They're preparing Anthony Gulley to be the speed sweep guy in his place. He scored two touchdowns last week despite having never played running back before. So I don't know if McCalebb's absence is that big of a deal other than just his raw speed.

DH: We heard Lane Kiffin say that he thought the Georgia game was the most important of the year for his program in terms of getting things rolling in the right direction and helping with recruiting. Auburn has dropped three in a row to Georgia, and they have a first-year coach who needs to recruit Georgia heavily, too. So where does this one rank for Chizik? How about for the players, some of whom stand to graduate without ever having beaten the Bulldogs?

To steal a Chizism, "it's huge." Then again, he says that all the time. I think it's an important game, like you said, but still ranks behind the Iron Bowl, obviously. Chizik has made recruiting the state of Alabama such a priority that he hasn't really said much about recruiting Georgia, where Tommy Tuberville pulled a lot of talented players from during his 10-year run. Six of Auburn's 20 commits are from there, so it's obvious they're not ignoring it altogether. I think, as you pointed out, the greater motivating factor is beating Georgia for the first time in a while. It doesn't sit well with a lot of seniors that they haven't notched a "W" against the Bulldogs. And the whole Soulja Boy fiasco still bothers a bunch of them to this day. So yes, I think a win here would be doubly satisfying for Auburn, especially since it would likely lock up a trip to one of the SEC's premier bowl games.

Big thanks to Andy for some great insight. You can check out more of Andy's Auburn coverage at the Ledger-Enquirer HERE, read his excellent Auburn blog HERE or follow him on Twitter HERE.

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