The Robertson Report

[Premium Article] They were 7-2 with two to play. Their destiny was in their own hands. The two remaining games were against their in-state arch rival and a team that has spawned one of the hottest rivalries in the conference over the last several years. The good news was they only needed one of two to capture the SEC West once again. They had their arch rival at home and things looked promising. They dropped both games and were relegated to a minor bowl game. Mississippi State right? Wrong!

The nightmare of the late season swoon belonged to Auburn in 2001. They were manhandled at home by Alabama and lost a poorly contested affair with eventual champ LSU. One would think in a rebuilding year a 7-4 season with a tie for first in the West would be acceptable, nope. The top two assistant coaches were fired. A mid-season upset of top-ranked Florida highlighted the season, but a very inconsistent vanilla offense is what was remembered about the season.

Much has been made about the coaching job a year ago and rightly so, but when you put things in a little different light you can understand Tuberville's logic. Auburn was three long field goals away from 4-7. To put it bluntly, they were lucky and Tommy T knows it. With the early departure of Rudi Johnson, the 2001 Auburn offense was very similar to the 1999 offense. Auburn struggled to put points on the board in both seasons, but the Tiger defense kept the mediocre offense in the game just long enough to get in field goal range.

At times in wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Auburn looked overmatched. Something had to change and change they did.

The 2002 Tigers will have to learn a new system on both sides of the ball. Make no mistake, it's still Tubby's team, but there will be more then cosmetic changes made to the football team. Tubby has always been a riverboat gambler, but the riverboat ran aground at the end of 2001. The War Eagles dropped their last three contests and the performance could best be described as mundane.

The first task for new OC Bobby Petrino is to name a starting QB. Daniel Cobb has the rifleman type arm, but has a propensity to throw into coverages. Jason Campbell has all the athletic skills needed to be a great QB, but lacks confidence and has a real problem with his internal clock. He will take sack after sack after sack instead of throwing the ball away. Cobb throws the picks and Campbell is scared to pull the trigger. Petrino has his work cut out for him, but the early money is on Campbell. He is the future. Plus, there is no sense in investing more downs in Cobb, a player who will be gone at season's end. The QB situation will be even murkier with red-shirt freshman from this year's class.

Auburn thinks Carnell Williams is their man. He has great speed and falls forward after contact. However, he is still thin. Williams suffered a broken clavicle in game 10 against Alabama, but otherwise showed decent durability for a true freshman. The gap between Williams and the rest of the pack is huge. He emerged from a committee of backs a season ago to be the #1 guy. The competition gave him the ability to learn on the fly, without the pressure of going it alone. Look for Williams to have a great campaign if he can stay healthy and the Tigers can stay out of long yardage situations.

The receiving corps is a huge concern. The only returning letterman with any real quality game time experience is Marcell Willis. Willis will have plenty of diapers to change as he is surrounded by underclassmen. Tubby is even counting on a few freshmen contributing this fall. Auburn has never been a full vertical team and this year will personify a one dimensional offense. They will look to run to establish a passing game as one will not exist without it. This corps will see a lot of single coverage. They must produce if the Tiger's attack expects to have any teeth.

Depth is also an issue on the offensive front. Sure, they have plenty of bodies to throw at the problem, but there is little to no game experience behind the two returning starters. Center Ben Nowland is battle-tested and will be counted on heavily to bring along the new starters. The development of this group will determine a lot. If this group can't open hole for the running game, it will be a long, long year.

The Tigers will hang around in some games just like they did a year ago solely on the efforts of their defense. Demarco McNeil returns to stalk opposing ball carriers for a 3rd season as a starter. McNeil needs to generate the push he did in 2000. McNeil was double-teamed most of the season and will be as well in 2002. Someone must step up to fill the gap. Spencer Johnson should reap some of those benefits. Reports are he hit the weights hard in the off-season. Look for Johnson to make some noise. He has been a little beaten up. If he can stay away from the injury bug, he'll make a difference. The ends will need some development. Reggie Torbor will man one side while the other side is up for grabs between Jay Ratliff and Steven Bouldin. Both will see action, but Ratliff should emerge as the starter.

Linebackers are a plenty on the plains. They are long on talent if not experience. Karlos Dansby should star and Dontarrious Thomas may challenge for post-season honors. Lemarcus Rowell looks to have taken care of business in the classroom, so he should provide quality depth outside. There are a lot of underclassmen, but they were big-time in high school and with a year on the strength and conditioning they should be ready to provide some depth.

The secondary should remain solid. Auburn started two new corners a year ago and both preformed admirably. They had a few growing pains, but they shut Florida down. This group should be the heart and soul of the defense if the front wall can create a pass rush. Roderick Hood emerged as a true cover guy and Carlos Rogers did all that was asked of him and his job seems secure this season. Rashaud Walker returns again to punish pass catchers that stray too far over the middle. Stanford Simmons finished the season as the starter, but was unseated in the spring by Donnay Young. That battle should be hotly contested throughout two-a-days.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention difference-maker, kicker Damon Duval returns for his senior campaign. Duval was a Lou Groza finalist a year ago and will be one of the nation's best again this year. In close games, this guy pulls them through. He was the difference in 3 wins.

SCHEDULE
========
Southern California
W. Carolina
Vanderbilt
@ Mississippi State
Syracuse
Arkansas
@ Florida
LSU
@ Ole Miss
UL-Monroe
Georgia
@ Alabama

Auburn likes home cooking. I will commend the Tigers for following the SEC's trend of one major non-conference opponent. The USC game will be a good barometer of what the Tigers have this season and my initial inkling is it won't be much. If they don't take 3 of 4 non-conference games, chances are Auburn will have a losing season. The law of averages has to catch up sooner or later. The offense has fewer weapons than it has had the past two season and Cadillac Williams can't do it alone. There is no Tim Carter or Ronney Daniels to stretch the defense anymore. Look for Auburn to face eight to nine people in the box nearly every down. They don't have the personnel to challenge a team in the passing game. One of the biggest obstacles for the Tigers is the conference road schedule. Four very tough contests. The Tigers have had trouble at the dog pound the last few trips. Florida will try to hang half a hundred on them to avenge last year's loss. Ole Miss vs. Tuberville? Nuf said! The Iron Bowl on the road. That's about as bad as an SEC West team can have it in conference. Look for Auburn to win one of the four, but it wouldn't be too much of a shock if they lose all four. When you add in the fact that Georgia visits the plains late in the season, a losing conference record seems like a virtual certainty.

I like Auburn, but they aren't a very good football team. Their luck ran out down the stretch and the offensive problems will continue. Look for the War Eagle faithful to be in a full blown tizzy come late October.

Until next time,

Steve Robertson
Galatians 6:16-17


Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is therobertsonreport@hotmail.com.


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