Auburn football got off to a great start in 2009. Consecutive wins against Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Ball State, and Tennessee got the Tigers into the top 25.
Last week, Auburn traveled to Fayetteville and was beaten by Arkansas. A 5-1 record is acceptable to most Auburn fans in new coach Gene Chizik’s first year. But now, the schedule gets much tougher.
As we're now halfway through the season, I wanted to take a look at how the team has performed, and take a look at what is to come.
Gus Malzahn’s run-first version of the spread offense has been a tremendous success thus far. Offensive production is up, and Auburn is actually near the top in every statistical category for offense.
It’s been quite a turnaround from last year. Chris Todd has had an excellent season, passing for 12 touchdowns and only throwing two interceptions. He has been in control of the offense and, for the most part, has been able to capitalize on teams loading the box against the run. He’s even third in the SEC in passing efficiency.
Defenses are doing that because Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb are having tremendous years. Ben Tate leads the SEC in rushing and McCalebb is sixth. Auburn is second in the conference in rushing, only behind Florida. The rushing attack has set up the offensive success this season.
A new attitude on the offensive line has succeeded and Auburn has returned to its roots—dominating the line of scrimmage in the trenches.
Wide receivers have been the brightest spot this year. Assistant head coach Trooper Taylor has done an excellent job with a group that has previously underachieved. Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachary have established themselves as starters and walk-on Jay Wisner has proven reliable.
Tight end Tommy Trott has improved and Mario Fannin has made some big plays in the passing game. The offense will have to keep producing, as better SEC defenses lie ahead on the schedule.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof came to Auburn with a limited amount of experienced players on the defensive roster. While the starting 11 are very talented, there simply isn’t that much depth.
The defense has been good at times and porous at other times. Third down defense and having more than two experienced linebackers have been the biggest problems.
On the defensive line, senior Antonio Coleman has under-produced due to a wrist injury.
Antoine Carter, Jake Ricks, Mike Blanc, and the reserves all need to do a better job at getting some pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The secondary has held up pretty well thanks to a terrific surprise in the play of true freshman Daren Bates at free safety. Walt McFadden and Neiko Thorpe have been above average corners.
But as mentioned, the linebacking corps is experiencing difficulties. Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes are playing their tails off, basically taking every snap on defense. Eltoro Freeman was thought to be the answer at the other linebacker position, but he’s struggled with adjusting to SEC football.
Adam Herring has attempted to fill the void, but quite frankly, he isn’t ready to defend SEC running games. It’s true freshmen waiting to play behind those guys. How well this unit holds up or improves is one of the keys for the rest of the season.
Special teams has been fairly disappointing thus far. While Wes Byrum has rebounded and gone 11-for-12 this season and Clinton Durst has punted fairly well, the return game has been miserable.
Kickoff coverage has been spotty at best, and it took five games for Auburn to have a game without a muffed punt. Kickoff returns have produced little to nothing as well. To have a shot against the big teams of the SEC, the special teams have to become more special.
On a different note, recruiting has gone very well so far this year. Auburn is making a push for some of the top offensive playmakers and has stocked up with commitments at linebacker and on the offensive line, two areas of concern this season.
Chizik and his staff seem to be doing things the right way and in an effective manner, which should keep the talent at a high level for years to come.
The second half of the 2009 schedule is considered tougher than the first. A home game with Kentucky is followed by a trip to Baton Rouge. Then Ole Miss and Furman come to the plains before the last road trip of the year to Georgia. And of course, Alabama comes to Jordan-Hare the day after Thanksgiving for the annual Iron Bowl.
Auburn still controls its own destiny in the SEC West. Obviously, a lot would have to go right for them to make a run to Atlanta to play in the SEC title game. But LSU, Ole Miss, and Georgia have looked over-hyped at many points this season.
If Auburn can respond to the Arkansas loss and take care of business against Kentucky, it will set up a huge game at Death Valley next week against LSU to see who the top challenger to Alabama will be in the SEC West. It will definitely be interesting to see how Auburn stacks up against some of the top teams in the conference.
War Eagle and enjoy the rest of the season!
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