Don't expect Auburn's student body to sneak out and grease the railroad tracks before this one. First, because Auburn students are smart enough (no, really) to know the Tech team will arrive by bus. Second, because this just isn't as big a rivalry as it once was.
The Wreck Tech Parade will be back, but it meant more when Auburn was an angry speed bump in Bobby Dodd's golden 1950s road. It even meant more when Pat Dye brought the Tigers back to prominence in the 1980s, measuring progress partly by whupping the Yellow Jackets.
The diminished rivalry is sad for lovers of Southern football tradition, but it could be a good thing for the Jackets. Tech would love to catch the Tigers thinking more about improving on last year's No. 2 national finish, instead of worrying about how to stop Reggie Ball to Calvin Johnson.
The Jackets travel to the Loveliest Village of the Plain (That Has an 87,451-seat Stadium) hoping that Ball's decision-making will no longer limit his unquestioned talent. They'll need a quick start by an untested offensive line, and a disruptive defensive effort to stop Auburn's reloaded offense from getting comfortable. Two solid defenses get the early-season edge; I expect a low-scoring nail-biter a la Tech's 17-3 win in Atlanta two years ago.
Where they're coming from: Auburn finished 13-0 and won the SEC in 2004, and many of their fans felt they should have played for the national title (imagine, SEC fans feeling dissed by the media/NCAA/smart people). This year, they may be the second-best team in the SEC West, behind national-title contender LSU. But the Tigers have six starters back on each side of the ball, and a boatload of talent, and they could threaten to break the BCS-bashing record again.
Tigers to watch: Sophomore quarterback Brandon Cox leads an all-new backfield, but he has the luxury of playing behind a big, experienced and talented offensive front, led by senior tackle Marcus "The Decatur Eclipse" McNeill (6-9, 337). If Cox can do a fair imitation of departed star QB Jason Campbell, the Jackets' well-regarded defense will need to earn their press clippings. Oh, and the pass catchers are great, especially junior wide receiver Courtney Taylor, who is on the Biletnikoff Award watch list along with Tech's Johnson.
Who's hurt: Auburn tailback Tre Smith, the top candidate to replace all-everything Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams, had an emergency appendectomy in late July, but still expects to start as well as return kicks. Cox has missed some practice reps with a sore arm, but scheduled to start with redshirt freshman Blake Field as his backup. Tech defensive tackle Joe Anoai missed some workouts to save his surgically repaired shoulder. Offensive guard Matt Rhodes returned to practice last week after sitting out much of the preseason with a bum knee, allowing the starting five to work together for the first time in weeks.
Xs and Os: Auburn offensive coordinator Al Borges runs a complicated West Coast offense that will test Cox's brain as much as his arm, requiring short, accurate passing, quick reads, and good ball fakes. Tech's tendency to stunt could hurt it if Cox can execute. On defense, the Tigers' 4-3 gets a new coordinator in David Gibbs, defensive backs coach for the Denver Broncos last year, which might mean more secondary blitzes. Expect Tech Coach Chan Gailey to try to wear down the Tigers with big doses of tailback P. J. Daniels between the tackles, while keeping the secondary honest with occasional deep throws to Johnson and Damarius Bilbo.
Key matchups: Tech's rebuilt and banged-up offensive line vs. Auburn's defensive speed. Tech has four new starters in its front six, and some barely healed preseason injuries. Line play will be key to junior QB Reggie Ball's quest to make his coach and fans forget his sophomore stumbles. Auburn's defense isn't huge, but has great speed that could slow Tech's essential running game and keep Ball from getting a good look at his receivers.