2006 Season Preview (Game 11): Auburn

I almost can't believe that there will be football in Sanford Stadium this Saturday, but, since the season is almost upon us, it's high time I finished my series of game-by-game analyses of the Bulldogs' 2006 opponents.

If you haven't done so already, be sure to peruse my previews of Western Kentucky, South Carolina, U.A.B., Colorado, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Florida, and Kentucky, but, for now . . . it's time to remind ourselves that you can't spell "awful" without A-U.

I hate Auburn.

The Game

Georgia v. Auburn
Jordan-Hare Stadium
Saturday, November 11

The Opponent

Georgia renews its ancient rivalry with the Bulldogs' oldest (and, I would argue, most despised) rival when the Red and Black tee it up against Auburn on the Plains.

The Tigers lead the all-time series with a 53-48-8 ledger against the 'Dawgs, but the two teams have a history of close games. Just in the last 14 years, clashes between these two combatants have been settled by scores of 14-10 in 1992, 23-23 in 1994, 37-31 in 1995, 56-49 (in four overtime periods) in 1996, 29-26 in 2000, 24-17 in 2001, and 24-21 in 2002. Last year's meeting was decided by a one-point margin, 31-30, but the game was closer than the score indicated.

One oddity of the series is that both teams are lacking in home field advantage where the other is concerned: Georgia has a winning record in Jordan-Hare Stadium and Auburn has a winning record between the hedges. Fortunately, this game is being played on the Plains rather than in the Classic City.

Away sweet away!

A Brief History of Auburn University

A poor illiterate farmer named Clem fell off of a turnip truck near what Auburn fans themselves describe as a "village" in eastern Alabama. Along with his wife and his mule, Clem decided this would be a good place to found a university. Clem and his wife had a son, who later moved to South Carolina, where, he, too, founded a university, which Clem's son named after himself.

All right, that's not altogether accurate. Actually, the East Alabama Male College was established at the 20-year-old town of Auburn in 1856. The first campus building, "Old Main," was constructed in 1859 and, that fall, it welcomed the initial 80 students, who were instructed by six faculty members.

Like virtually all Southern colleges, Auburn struggled in the years following the War Between the States. Upon becoming the region's first land-grant institution in 1872, the school was renamed the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. 20 years later, the university began admitting women and fielded its first football team. In the interim, Old Main burned and the building that would later be named Samford Hall was built on the same site.

After once again being given a new moniker, the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, in 1899, the college began "placing a scientific emphasis on the liberal arts tradition" under the guidance of the school's president, Dr. William Leroy Broun.

One of Jim Croce's most memorable hits was a song about the Auburn president who stressed both the classics and the sciences. (Photograph from Undercover Media.)

As the institution and its curriculum continued to expand, the school underwent its final name change in 1960, when it officially adopted the nomenclature by which it had been known informally: Auburn University. At this point, astonishingly, the college had more names than its football team had mascots.

Auburn University is comprised of 13 schools and colleges and its main campus at the eponymous village enrolls approximately 22,500 students, virtually every one of whom will have to look up the word "eponymous." While we're on the subject of words containing more syllables than most Auburn fans can comprehend, I should mention that the institution commemorates its sesquicentennial this year.

A Brief History of Tiger/Plainsman/War Eagle Football

It's pretty much been about 115 years of uninterrupted cheating.

All right, that was a tad too brief. Dr. George Petrie brought the sport to the Plains and coached four games, all of them in Atlanta, during the team's initial season in 1892. The Plainsmen's first game was a 10-0 win over Georgia, thereby beginning the Deep South's oldest gridiron rivalry.

During the Tigers' first six years of football, Auburn hosted only one home game, playing six road games and 16 neutral site contests. This was a harbinger of things to come, as Auburn seldom faced prominent rivals on its own field during the early years of its football program.

The "Iron Bowl" rivalry with Alabama was, of course, played at Birmingham's Legion Field for many years. The Crimson Tide would not travel to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time until 1989 and it was not until 1999 that the series truly became a home and home arrangement. This change of venue has proven beneficial for the Tigers, who are 6-2 against 'Bama on the Plains.

Likewise, longtime rival Georgia Tech was unwilling to visit the Auburn campus. The Plainsmen and the Yellow Jackets faced off on the Golden Tornado's campus in almost every year between 1906 and 1959, then the series began alternating between Atlanta and Birmingham. The Ramblin' Wreck would not begin playing Auburn in the Tigers' home stadium until the 1970s. Tennessee also paid its first visit to Jordan-Hare Stadium in the 1970s, nearly three-quarters of a century after the rivalry commenced.

Finally, Georgia and Auburn annually met at Columbus, a neutral site in the Bulldogs' home state but nearer to the Tigers' campus, from 1916 to 1958, with the sole exception of the 1929 game in Athens in Sanford Stadium's dedicatory season. Although the two teams have taken turns hosting one another since Fran Tarkenton's junior season at Georgia, 59 of the 109 series meetings have been played at neutral sites.

Anything to keep my loyal readers happy. (Photograph from The Providence Journal.)

Although the Plainsmen experienced periodic downcycles, there have been three extended periods of gridiron success in Auburn history. The Tigers won 99 games in 18 years under Mike Donahue, who led the team to undefeated seasons in 1904, 1913, and 1914. Auburn won 175 games in 25 years under Ralph "Shug" Jordan, who guided the squad to a dozen bowl appearances (including one Sugar, one Orange, two Sun, and six Gator Bowls) and the 1957 national championship in a season in which the probation-shackled Tigers were ineligible for postseason play.

Most recently, Pat Dye won 99 games in 12 years, captured four of the six S.E.C. championships in school history, and took Auburn to nine bowl games. It remains to be seen whether the Tigers, 24-3 in their last 27 games, are experiencing a brief upswing or enjoying their fourth period of football prosperity . . . although the fact that Auburn has won or shared five of the last six Western Division titles would appear to be evidence of the latter probability.

Returning Starters

The offense has five starters back from last year's team, including a trio of linemen, quarterback Brandon Cox, and---most ominously---running back Kenny Irons. The left side of the offensive line has been lost, as tackle Marcus McNeill and guard Troy Reddick are gone, and all of the first-team wide receivers need replacing, including unpronounceable standouts Devin Aromashodu and Ben Obomanu.

Six starters return on the defensive side of the ball, where three of four linemen must be replaced but two linebackers and three defensive backs remain in school. (Actually, the strong side linebacker, Will Herring, previously played safety, but we'll be getting to that after a while.) Linebacker Travis Williams, a three-year starter, is gone, but cornerback David Irons, Kenny's brother, is a strong presence in the secondary.

With 58 returning lettermen, 21 seniors, and accomplished underclassmen such as redshirt freshman linebacker Tray Blackmon, the Tigers have more depth and experience even than their 11 returning starters would tend to indicate.

Coaching

In his first nine years as a Southeastern Conference head football coach---four at Ole Miss and five at Auburn---Tommy Tuberville never finished a season with fewer than four losses. In 2003, Coach Tuberville was nearly fired in an ugly incident that ultimately cost Auburn's president and athletic director their jobs and caused the school's academic accreditation to be placed on probation.

Coach Tuberville celebrates the Auburn Tigers' 2003 national championship---NOT!

The resulting staff shakeup paid big dividends for the Plainsmen in 2004. With Al Borges calling the plays and Gene Chizik running the defense, Auburn went undefeated and captured its first conference crown in 15 years. The War Eagle did not soar quite as high after Coach Chizik's departure, but Auburn's defense should be much improved under new coordinator Will Muschamp.

Coach Muschamp, a four-year Georgia letterman under Ray Goff and the defensive co-captain of the 1994 Bulldogs, was quite simply the best coaching hire in Division I-A this past offseason. When Brian VanGorder left Athens for Jacksonville, I was hoping Coach Muschamp would make a homecoming and become the Red and Black's new defensive coordinator, but it was not to be.

It won't be long before Will Muschamp, a rising star in the profession, is a head coach somewhere . . . hopefully, at a school the 'Dawgs don't play on a yearly basis. In the meantime, his addition to the Auburn staff makes the Tigers a markedly more fearsome foe.

Offense

Last year's Plainsmen led the league in scoring offense (32.2 points per game) and total offense (409.8 yards per game). No S.E.C. squad scored more total touchdowns (50), offensive touchdowns (47), rushing touchdowns (28), or red zone touchdowns (34). The Tigers finished second only to Arkansas in rushing offense (194.1 yards per game) but they ranked seventh in the conference in pass offense (215.75 yards per game).

Despite the fact that his team finished in the middle of the pack in terms of its aerial attack, Cox quietly compiled the fifth-best single-season passing numbers in school history last year, amassing 2,324 passing yards. Cox's backup, Blake Field, has starting experience, albeit against Western Kentucky.

The Tigers' most experienced returning receiver, Courtney Taylor, was hurt throughout most of 2005 and missed some of fall practice due to injury, but he is expected to assume a leadership role this year. Auburn's top three wide receivers are likely to be Taylor, Robert Dunn, and Prechae Rodriguez, who snagged just 37 catches between them last fall.

"37?" (Photograph from Moviehole.)

In order to help offset some of the offseason losses at the position, freshman running back Mario Fannin and sophomore defensive back Anthony Campbell have moved to wide receiver. Meanwhile, tight end Cooper Wallace is gone, so senior Cole Bennett is likely to take his place in the lineup.

To shore up the interior of the line, Ben Grubbs has moved over to left guard to replace Reddick, joining fellow returning starters Joe Cope at center and Tim Duckworth at right guard. Left tackle King Dunlap lost a little practice time to injury recently, but he should not lose playing time on account of it.

Everything you just read? Forget about it. Here's everything you need to know about Auburn's offense:

(Photograph from Sports Illustrated.)

This guy is back.

Kenny Irons had one carry in his first game on the Plains and he didn't become the starter until Brad Lester was injured halfway through the season. Nevertheless, Irons finished the year with 1,293 rushing yards and he went over the century mark in five of his last six games.

Irons's backups, Lester and Carl Stewart, each have had injury problems, so incoming freshman Ben Tate, who enrolled early so he could participate in spring drills, could make it into the mix, but none of that will matter. Irons is the team's workhorse and the Tigers will ride him to a double-digit win total.

Defense

Herring, the team's leading tackler during his three years as a starter at safety, has moved to outside linebacker, where Coach Muschamp hopes to use him in the new coordinator's extensive blitz packages. The linebacking corps has already suffered from injuries and suspensions, so Herring is determined not to lose playing time to a strained hamstring.

Other position changes on the defensive side of the ball include Tristan Davis, who moved from running back to free safety, and newly-minted linebackers Alonzo Horton and Steve Gandy, who formerly played defensive end and strong safety, respectively. Gandy's spot in the secondary most likely will be taken over by Eric Brock, who will be flanked by cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and David Irons, the latter of whom was awarded a sixth year of eligibility. Both corners have wrestled with injuries during fall practice, as Wilhite gave his wrist a twist and Irons has been troubled by a hurt hamstring.

That's Eric, with a "c," not an "n," and Brock, without an "ovich." Julia Roberts will not be playing defensive back for Auburn!

Karibi Dede, who started 12 games for the Tigers in 2005, returns at middle linebacker. A mild ankle injury sustained by Merrill Johnson is not likely to sideline him, but a hard charge by Blackmon may oust the weak side linebacker from the starting lineup.

Up front, defensive end Marquies Gunn is the lone regular starter returning on the line, although Quentin Groves, who started three games last year, returns to the first-team defense at the other end spot. With Coach Muschamp on board, Auburn will experience an upgrade on the defensive front, despite the loss of experience.

For all the fanfare surrounding Auburn's offense, the final score of the Plainsmen's 2006 spring scrimmage was 7-0. Take that for what it's worth.

Special Teams

The Tigers' placekicker and punter are back for their respective fourth seasons in the starting lineup. Kody Bliss averaged 45 yards per punt in 2005.

While John Vaughn hit only 12 of 20 field goal attempts last fall, five of his misses came in a single game against L.S.U.

Dawg Food

As always, part of my pregame analysis involves offering a recommendation regarding the proper fare for eating prior to the contest, with an eye toward bringing the Bulldogs good luck through the ritual exercise known as feasting on the flesh of the enemy.

With apologies to Paul Westerdawg, here is what I suggest you serve as the main course at your tailgate:

(Photograph from Auburn University.)

War eagle tastes like chicken.

What Worries Me Most

Georgia's rivalry with Auburn is among the most intense in the Southeastern Conference, due in part to the proximity between the schools, the constant cross-pollination between the programs, and the fact that the Plainsmen's 2006 roster includes over 25 Peach State natives.

If I had to pinpoint a single factor that causes me the greatest apprehension where the Plainsmen are concerned, it would be the fact that William Larry Muschamp will be standing on the Auburn sideline.

What Will Happen on Saturday

It's hard to predict what will happen in a game like this. The better team often loses, but not so frequently that it can be counted on to happen with predictability. This could be a defensive struggle or an offensive shootout and my best guess on the eve of the game is liable to be no better than my gut instinct right now.

Two things, and only two things, are certain about this game:

  • Whatever happens, it will be gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking, and heart-rending to watch.
  • I hate Auburn.
Coming soon: Georgia Tech.

Go 'Dawgs!

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