As the Auburn Tigers get set to start fall practice on Saturday, August 2nd, they are coming off a SEC Media Days that saw them picked to win the SEC West, despite their unresolved quarterback situation and the defending national champs in their division as well.
The Tigers history seems to show that they relish the underdog role, but if they are to achieve the goals that head coach Tommy Tuberville has for this team, they will have to put aside past short comings and win despite having the bullseye on their back.
So here's a comprehensive look at the 2008 version of the Auburn Tigers and what to expect in 2008.
3 Question Marks Heading Into the Fall:
1. QB Situation
The Tigers are in an interesting dilemma heading into fall practice. They have to find a new starter to lead the new spread offense, and as of right now the battle isn't settled yet. They have two guys they feel are capable of doing the job, but haven't decided on a starter, and even if they do name a starter, there's a good chance both will play anyway.
Returning from last year is sophomore Kodi Burns who as of right now is the starter, but battling with him will be Junior College transfer Chris Todd. Burns has all the tools to be a great player, but he still is inconsistent at times and leaves the coaches wondering if he can be the consistent answer throwing the football.
Chris Todd has been running the spread offense since his high school days and was brought in specifically by Tony Franklin to compete for the job. Todd was setback in the spring by a recovering shoulder injury and that hampered his ability to really compete and show the coaches how good he can be.
This battle should be very entertaining in the fall and we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Burns enters as the starter and the leader in the clubhouse if you will, but a healthy Todd could give him a run for sure.
2. Playmakers at Wide Receiver
In the new spread offense that is being implemented on the Plains, it is imperative that the wide receivers be able to make plays in space and show some ability in the open field. The spring showed some promise, but not enough to satisfy Tony Franklin.
Senior Robert Dunn seems the most likely to excel in the new offense being a quick, elusive receiver in the slot. He should be able to create some big plays this year. Another player being counted upon is returning senior Rod Smith who brings stability and leadership to the receivers and will be counted upon to make plays in the outside and be a consistent player for Franklin and the offense.
After those two, there are a lot of unknowns. While the Tigers have some talented players at receiver, most of them haven't proven anything yet and will have to come into their own in the fall and get used to this offense. The addition of converted sophomore running back Mario Fannin to the receiving corps should help get some ability to make some plays in the open field as well.
3. Depth in the Secondary
Auburn lost both starting corner backs from last season as well a starting safety as well. So the question will be finding new corners and building depth behind them.
Returning at corner is junior Jerraud Powers, junior Walter McFadden, and junior Aairon Savage. All three played last season, Powers was thought of as a starter, and they all bring with them solid experience. Returning at safety is sophomore Zac Etheridge and sophomore Michael McNeil. Etheridge started last season and was one of the better defenders on the team, while McNeil played a limited role last season, he will be asked to step in and be the man this season and play up to his potential.
The question won't be about the starters, but about the depth behind them. If any of the starting corners and safeties get injured, there's a good chance that Auburn will be looking at a freshman to come in and contribute right away.
It will be very important for the coaches to find some freshman in the most recent class to come in and contribute right away to build depth in the secondary or they could run into problems down the road.
3 Strengths Heading Into the Fall:
1. Offensive Line
The Tigers were faced with a tough decision last fall. Their offensive line was not playing well and they had to choose whether to stay with the current line, or go to true freshman to come in and energize the line play. They took a chance and went with three true freshman on the line and it seemed to turn their season around.
Now a year later, they return one of the better offensive lines in the SEC, and a very experienced one as well. Having all five linemen returning in 2008 should only help the transition that's being made to a new offense and help protect whichever new quarterback takes the reigns to start the season.
2. Running Back Depth
Throughout Auburn's history, if there's ever one position that is always a strength, it's at running back, and 2008 doesn't look to be any different.
The Tigers return senior starter Brad Lester, junior Ben Tate, and senior Tristan Davis. All three running backs will play and get a lot of carries. The majority of the carries will go to Lester and Tate though and they seem to compliment each other well.
Lester seems to fit the offense well with his quickness and ability to make people miss. Tate should bring a little more power to the running game and provide a solid 1-2 punch for the Tigers.
The sleeper could be Davis. After a promising freshman season that saw him have an almost 10 yards per carry average on the ground, he was moved to defense in 2006, then was injured last season after battling for the starting job in the spring. If he's healthy, he could provide Auburn with a third running back that can be a real game breaking ability both running the ball and returning kicks.
3. The Linebackers
In what looks to be the deepest set of linebackers Auburn's had in years, this position is a definite strength for the Tigers and should help ease the loss of both defensive tackles in the middle.
The potential star of the group could be junior middle linebacker Tray Blackmon. Blackmon has not played a full season yet at Auburn, off the field issues and injuries have kept him on the sidelines, but the coaches are really looking forward to a healthy Blackmon to lead the defense for an entire season. Backing him up will be promising sophomore Josh Bynes. Bynes would be starting on a lot of teams and will really push Blackmon and will provide the Tigers with some real quality depth at that position.
They also return two seniors to man the strongside position in Chris Evans and Merrill Johnson. Both have plenty of experience to fall back on and both are perfect examples of hard working players that have made the most out of their chances. Evans and Johnson were not recruited by many out of high school, but both find themselves battling for the starting job and will be counted upon to bring leadership to the group.
They also return sophomore Craig Stevens as the starter on the weakside. Stevens is an extremely athletic player who fits what Rhoads and the defense are all about very well. Backing him up will be senior Courtney Harden who has played as a backup for a couple of years now and provides the Tigers with a solid backup.
One setback they suffered was the loss of sophomore Bo Harris. Harris was the backup last season even starting a game against Alabama, but academic issues have forced him to transfer.
Grading the Auburn Tigers:
Currently the Tigers are unsure of a starter, but Franklin believes both have what it takes to win games and both will probably play.
Running Back: A-
The Tigers have three dependable running backs, all with different skill sets and all with experience.
Wide Receivers: B-
While Auburn has lots of talent and potential, most of them haven't proven anything and will have to show they can excel in a new offense.
Tight Ends: B
Returning starter Tommy Trott seems made for this offense, should be a real weapon. Solid backup in Gabe McKenzie as well.
Offensive Line: A
Returning all five starters, plus quality depth, makes this unit one of the SEC's best.
Defensive Line: B+
Auburn returns two All-SEC players in Sen'Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman, but has to replace two other starters, otherwise this would be an A grade.
Tigers return everyone at linebacker and will field a quality two deep at each position.
Defensive Backs: B
The starters have experience, but the depth is lacking. Better hope there aren't any injuries.
How does Auburn's schedule shape up in 2008?
If you are an Auburn fan, just remember the even years. The even numbered years are when Auburn gets LSU and Georgia at home, and has shown to provide the Tigers with the best chance of success and reaching the SEC Championship Game. In the year 2000, Auburn made it to Atlanta, in 2004 they went undefeated, in 2006 they were 11-2.
While Auburn's schedule is tough just like any SEC team, they face LSU, Tennessee, and Georgia in Jordan-Hare Stadium. That should provide a huge advantage for the Tigers and give them the best chance of the teams in the West of reaching Atlanta.
What would be a successful season?
Auburn enters 2008 as the media pick to win the western division, and of you asked most Auburn fans, they would say the same.
Even with two new coordinators and a new quarterback, coach Tuberville feels like there is enough talent coming back to reach their goals of the SEC Championship Game. With the ever increasing toughness of the SEC, Tuberville and Auburn are starting to feel some pressure to win another SEC title and take advantage of the opportunities they have with in state rival Alabama still in a transition and the Tigers favorable schedule.
Tuberville has recruited well and has Auburn in a position to be successful, but it's time to come through if you are Auburn when you are favored, and not just when you are the underdog.
A successful season for the Tigers is getting to the SEC Championship in Atlanta. That's goal number one for Tuberville and his staff. If they can accomplish that, they will most likely be 10-2, or worse case 9-3. It also wouldn't hurt to keep the streak going against Alabama that currently sits at six games if you are a Tiger fan as well.
Bottom line, if the Tigers don't reach the SEC Championship, there will be many Auburn fans that view this season as a disappointment and a missed opportunity with LSU looking for a new quarterback, Alabama not back to full strength under a new coach, and the great home schedule in their favor. Only time will tell if this Auburn team can make good on the preseason predictions, put aside the underdog role, and win despite the expectations.
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