Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Outback Bowl Preview

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***UPDATED 12/11/14***

Still fuming over the fiasco that was the 2014 Iron Bowl. Don't worry. Me too. And while I managed to limit my complete and utter aggravation in the 2014 Iron Bowl Review, just trust me that it's there. I mean, how could it not? Don't you just think about any of ALL THESE PLAYS that happened...or didn't happen...and say "Why?" and "What if?" 

"Why did we throw a behind the line screen to a true freshman on the first play?"

"Why didn't we take another shot from inside the 10 before halftime?"

"Why can't Ellis Johnson do ANYTHING RIGHT?"

"Why can't anyone cover #9?"

Sure. Me too. 

No, the Tigers didn't make it to 11-1 and a berth in the SEC Championship. No, they didn't Roll the Tide in the House of Cards that is Bryant-Denny. But it's over now and the Auburn Tigers are headed to Tampa to take on the Wisconsin Badgers. All things considered, this is the best bowl game Auburn could have hoped for, following the....dissatisfying....conclusion of the 2014, which we previewed in our WAAAYY Too Early Predictions way back when. 

This season has all the flavor of the 2003 squad that went on to play in the 2004 Music City Bowl, which I attended with about 10 of my friends against the.....you guessed it.....Wisconsin Badgers, which I predicted to be my surprise team of the year in my College Football Top 10 Teams in 2014

How do I feel about that right now? Well, Bucky didn't finish in the Top 10 as I expected, and while they did lose to LSU, as predicted, I didn't see the loss to North Western. Don't worry, no one else did either. I did expect them to lose to Oh-Hi-Oh in the Big 10 Championship, though. 59-0? No. I didn't see THAT. 

Most of you know all about Melvin Gordon, who has been perhaps the most consistent running back in the country with his 2336 yards, 26 TDs and setting NCAA records with his amazing performance against Nebraska. Most of you probably don't know much about Clement, who backs up Gordon, and has 800 yards on his own, or anything about McEvoy the QB, and his 500 yards and 6 TDs he has added. Oh, sure, they don't have much of a passing attack, which is 1961 yards if you add all the QBs together, good for 119th in the nation. And why would you when you are 4th in the nation with 314 rush yards per game? 

Oh, it might also be that your defense is the 13th best in the nation at allowing only 20 points per game. 

That's all the easy stuff to talk about. The stuff everyone knows. Let's talk about some things that matter. 

Wisconsin played 4 ranked teams all year, only 1 of those a Top 10. Of those teams, only 1 team had either a balanced or pass heavy attack, that being the Ohio State squad, who put up 59 points. Yet, it can't go without notice that even though Jones threw for 257 yards and 3 TDs, the Buckeyes RB, Elliot, ran for an astounding 220 yards and 2 TDs. LSU, Nebraska, and Minnesota featured something very similar , which lead to a 1-2 record or a 1-3 if you count Northwestern. All 3 of these teams are run heavy or run dependent  teams with at least one dynamic running back. Nebraska had Abdullah, LSU has Hilliard and Fourenette, and Minnesota has Cobb. Additionally, Northwestern, the other team that beat Bucky, is a run heavy team and Justin Jackson the NW RB rolled up 160 yards. 

Now, I know you can point to the Nebraska game and say that Bucky handled Nebraska and Minnesota fairly easily. Bo Pelini is currently without a job because, in losses to Wisconsin and Minnesota, he limited Abdullah's carries to 18 and 20, despite the fact that Abdullah is one of the few NFL-ready backs. I know this, because Abdullah was on my fantasy team and I watched both of these games and he abandoned the run almost immediately. Some of that is due to Abdullah being banged up weeks before in a tasty matchup against Purdue. The Gophers were in the game until the end and their leading RB, Cobb, still ran for 120 yards and Leidner, the QB, ran for another 50. Unfortunately, the Gophers aren't too good on defense(34th) and they couldn't shut down the Wisconsin rushing attack.

Now, if you throw out the outlier in Nebraska, you see that the path to beating the Badgers is hitting them with a formidable rushing attack while stopping theirs. How ironic that the thing they are the best at is the thing they are susceptible to. Luckily, few teams in the Big 10 are any good at rushing or stopping the rush. And, if you have a multi-threat QB...well....you can do what Ohio State did. 

So, Wisconsin has to travel to Tampa to take on our Auburn Tigers. Will you be there? Well, we will. I'm about 5 minutes from ordering my tickets. 

I look at 4 games on the schedule and ask myself "who is the Auburn offense?" In the losses to Mississippi State, TAMU, UGA and the game against Samford, you left the game wondering what you had just seen. Samford comes after a vicious thrashing by Georgia and 7 days before the Iron Bowl, so I think you can throw that out. Plus, take into consideration that until halftime adjustments, former Auburn staff members, now on Samfords staff, were undoubtedly catching the calls. What's in common with these other games? How about first play turovers? Against State, TAMU, and Alabama, Auburn has had a first play turnover. Only against Alabama did Auburn right the ship, going on to set offensive records in a loss at BDS. 

Which brings us to the real reason that Auburn is 8-4. They have the 60th rated defense in the nation. Had it not been from some stout play in the first 5 games, it would be dramatically worse. After all, Auburn's defense behind now-fired Ellis Johnson, allowed 30+ points in 6 of it's last 7 games on the way to the worst statistical performance in Auburn history. Think about that for a second. Despite the best recruiting that Auburn has ever had over the last 5 years, this group will finish as the worst in Auburn history. 

Well, Johnson is gone (and don't let the door hit you) and Auburn is left speculating on who will lead the Tigers (or is it Tiggers? :-p ) on defense. I am not sure what history says about interim or new coaches in bowl games, but we can make some assumptions. 

1) According to the recruiting sites, Auburn has recruited very well. Even on defense. 
2) Throughout the year, Johnson was unable to get any pressure on the QB, despite who the Tigers were playing. Tipping my belief that he was being outcoached through game film breakdowns. All I have to do is point at the Iron Bowl. At no point was any attempt made to stop Amari Cooper. Johnson went in his last presser and tried to say he "rolled coverage" to Cooper. No he didn't. This is the same guy who said in the last weeks that he didn't care WHAT fans though of his coaching. That is the line of a guy who has given up. 
3) Without the ability to breakdown film, it is impossible to gameplan for new coaches/players. Time and time again you see a backup look like a star, or an interim coach (USC offense post-Kiffin) look like a genius. Gameplanning is much of the battle, and if a new coordinator comes in, it will be tough for Wisconsin to gameplan. 

So, with the terrible defense that the Tigers have put on display, and the 1st play turnover trends that the offense has shown, it's pretty obvious to see WHY Auburn is 8-4. 

Auburn's Offense vs Wisconsin Defense
Auburn had been able to move the ball on essentially everyone. Aside from an amazing performance by UGA, no one has been able to shut the Tigers down other than the Tigers themselves. Marshall will end his career as possibly the best....and most unappreciated QBs as a Tiger, despite being Unstoppable for pretty much the entire year. He has thrown for 2300 yards,  18 TDs with 7 INTs. Of those TDs, many of them were batted balls.  He has run for 11 TDs and 780 yards. But, this playmakers have had fumblitis for much of the year, which have limited his bottom lines.  

Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 1482 yards. While it was impossible to break Mason's record from last year, 1400 puts him in the thick with the long legacy of terrific Auburn backs. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry with 11 TDs. 

This Auburn offense isn't as polished or dominating as the 2013 unit, but it makes up for it with its diversity and balance, thanks to the addition of Duke Williams and much improved play from Quan Bray, whom I thought was the key cog to making this offense hum, way back in my Post A-Day thoughts.

Though we have spoken briefly about the struggles of the Wisconsin defense, we do have a solid data point to refer to. In 2011, Gary Andersen, then coach of the Utah State Aggies, was able to stuff the Auburn rushing attack, which by years end, was the only thing the Tigers really had. He limited the Tigers to just 78 total yards and forced Barret Trotter to play his best game of this career to throw for 261 yards and 3 TDs. Surely I don't have to remind you of who the offensive coordinator on the Auburn sideline was. I do admit that despite losing Andersen 2 years ago, Utah State has maintained one of the best run defenses in the nation.****And in a crazy turn of events, he has left for...wait for it...OREGON STATE?!?!?!?!***

What will be compelling will be whether Duke Williams and/or Sammie Coates will declare for the NFL draft and how that will affect the play calling in this game. Will they be heavily showcased? Will some of the outbound seniors get some love? Or will newcomers have coming out parties? I said it a few weeks ago, but the personnel groupings throughout the year have tipped the play caller's hand, at least to me. Ray, Davis, and Stevens are recivers that didn't see much time and when they did, were largely used in run blocking. Yet, whenever these guys had the rock thrown their way, they took advantage. I can't remember a drop between the 3, which I can't say the same about some of the starters. This would be a prime time to introduce them to starting roles, assuming Coates and Williams declare.

I fully expect number 44 to get the first touch, this go around. I will say this, CAP will have his time to shine at the Senior Bowl, his Pro Day, and the combine. With Roc Thomas having his redshirt pulled, I wouldn't be surprised that he becomes the feature back against the Badgers.

Either way, I don't suspect Auburn to have much of a problem scoring points as long as that first play isn't a turnover.
Advantage Auburn

Auburn's Defense vs Wisconsin Offense
I can't remember a defense in the SEC who has had such a regression. Sure, there have been defenses who have lost starters and stars from year to year. I have seen defenses be exposed midway through the season. I have not seen a defense that looks totally incapable of keeping up with an offense. It all starts up front, of course. Despite losing Dee Ford and Carl Lawson, whom I expected to be the lead man in my 4 Horsemen of the Sackocalypse, Auburn has been unable to get ANYTHING going up front against any level of competition. Not only did it surprise me, but it has surprised even the media who had made guys like Gabe Wright, whom I wrote about as
THE  force to be reckoned with, their All-SEC pick, just to see him be limited to a handful of behind the line stops. That lack of production forced Johnson to do some things to bring pressure. Namely, constant edge and/or LB blitzes. B ringing 6 and 7 men forced the Auburn secondary to play man to man, usually with their backs to the ball. Despite that, Auburn had a star emerge in Jonathan Jones, who lead the SEC in pass defense efficiency. He broke up 12 passes and had 6 INTs. Aside from Ole Miss' Golson who had 9, he lead the rest of the SEC with 6. However, guys like Therezie were forced into roles that limited their play-making ability, despite being an impact player in 2013 as Star 27. The very definition of the star is a hybrid player capable of playing in run and pass defense, though not necessarily built for either, but thrives on being mobile and free to make plays. Therezie wasn't given that ability this year as he was a pure reactionary player at times.

What can you really say about Auburn's defense other than it is the statistically the worst in Auburn history?  It made regression throughout the season and much of that seemed to come from gameplanning. Johnson seemed to want to force opposing offenses to adapt to him instead of taking away their strengths. We all saw how that worked.

On the flip side, the Badgers have a Heisman finalist who is trying to make a statement to close out his college career before going to the NFL. What scares me about Melvin Gordon is that he has the ability and a coaching staff willing to give him as many touches as it takes to win a game. We saw it against Nebraska as he set multiple records. When Wisconsin identifies a weakness, they will exploit it and you will not see them trying to outsmart themselves, which I can't say the same about the Auburn coaching staff.

Outside of Gordon, the Badgers only have 1 legitimate passing threat. Erickson has 730 yards, 3 TDs on 51 catches, which is double the next man. The next man is Arneson who has 27 for 350 and 4 TDs. Much like the Auburn team of 2013, these receivers are not used for possession but for play action pass. The good news is, Jones has shown that he can win those 50/50 battles, as opposed to Mincy, who has been picked on. The issue is that Johnson's 4-2-5 relegates corners to specific sides of the field, not on players. So, Wisconsin has the ability to motion into the formation and matchup they would like. Since Auburn hasn't named a coordinator, it is impossible to know who Auburn will try to limit Erickson.

It is also possible that after his 3 INT performance in the 59-0 beatdown against the Buckeyes, Stave may be benched for the more dual threat McEvoy, who started ahead of Stave. McEvoy struggled against LSU in the opener, tossing 2 TDs without a TD, so whoever starts against the Tigers has had struggles this year.

The problem is, I don't think Auburn can stop Gordon and the Badgers who are eager to prove themselves after getting waxed.
Advantage Winsconsin

Special Teams
Gaglianone is 55 for 57 on extra points and 17 for 22 in field goals. He has a range of 50+ yards where he has gone 2/3 over 50 and 3/4 from 40-49.

Carlson is perfect on extra points and 17 for 21 in field goals. He has struggled outside of 40 yards where he is 4/7.

Auburn has shown flashes with Bray as a punt returner earlier in the year, but has struggled to do anything down the stretch. The Auburn kickoff returns have been a non-factor.

Advantage Wisconsin

Auburn has opened as the favorite in this bowl game. It is an interesting matchup, for sure. Preparation time almost always benefits the offenses, but I can't help but think that Auburn's defense will use it wisely and come out improved. Honestly, how could they now?

Now Wisconsin is without a head coach, and the coordinators aren't exactly known quantities.

To me, this game is a pick 'em. Who gets the ball first and who gets it last?

Auburn travels well and has history of winning in Florida. Auburn has won against North Western in Tamp, but did lose against the Badgers across the state in Orlando.

The series between these two are tied at 1-1-1. That's right. The 1931 matchup was a tie.

Auburn shows up for bowl games and checks in at 8-2 in it's last few including 2 BCS Championship game appearances. Their losses? You guessed it. FSU and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is 3-7.

I saw the matchup in 2003 in person and Auburn won. I am going to this one as well, so I can't help but think that will turn the tide.

Auburn wins 45-43