Most Commodore fans looked at the Auburn matchup this summer and recognized it as a winnable home game for James Franklin. However, few Vandy supporters would have predicted that their team would be a seven-point favorite over a Tiger squad that started the season ranked in the top 25.
The Tigers have suffered through the miserable kind of half-season that is usually reserved for the Vanderbilts and Mississippis of the SEC. Auburn's offense has been non-existent over the course of a 1-5 start in 2012, scoring just 16.2 points per game - good for 116th in I-A football. Their lone win, and only game in which they scored more than 20 points, came in an overtime effort against Sun Belt stalwart Louisiana-Monroe. Their struggles have former SEC and national Coach of the Year Gene Chizik squirming as his seat gets warmer and warmer as the fan backlash grows against him.
No one knows that better than our blogger compatriots at WarBlogle and College and Magnolia. Both are stellar gazettes of Tiger athletics, and both have been inundated this past month with the apathy, despair, and hints of self-loathing that Commodore fans had gotten used to during the Robbie Caldwell era. However, Auburn has the chance to cultivate some optimism with a road win in Nashville on Saturday, and you can bet that Chizik will have his team fired up in an effort to turn things around.
We were fortunate to get the WarBlogler and Chris Furhmeiser from C&M to help preview this weekend's matchup. We mailed them a list of questions about the Tigers, and boy, did they ever deliver. Their answers are below, and if you want to read more of their work, be sure to check out WarBlogle (www.warblogle.com) and College and Magnolia (www.collegeandmagnolia.com).
1a. Auburn's season so far: dumpster fire, or herpes outbreak?
WarBlogler: Considering I hate the term "dumpster fire," I'm going to say herpes outbreak. As far as I know, most forms of herpes are treatable. The problems with Auburn right now are treatable. They have talent, and good portion of the talent on this team have won at Auburn. The problem right now is mental due to many changes made in the offseason.
There are two cures. Get rid of the pro style and go back to the spread, given the fact that most of the players were recruited for that. Or get rid of Scot Loeffler and bring in a more experienced play caller. One of these has to happen at the end of this season.
Chris Fuhrmeister - College and Magnolia: Hmm. I'd say this season has been like lying on a dirty mattress in a dumpster, contracting herpes from said mattress and then going up in flames in said dumpster. It's been a disaster that no one, not even the most pessimistic Auburn fan, could have imagined.
1b. What's been the catalyst for Auburn's stale play in 2012? More specifically, the Tigers are scoring less than 12 points per game in SEC play this year. What has kept the offense from being effective this season?
WB: I guess I kind of just answered this one, but I'll elaborate. The problem goes back to style and play calling. These offensive players came to Auburn to play Malzahn's spread. There was talk that Scot Loeffler and Chizik were going to slowly transition to a full pro style in a year or two. I haven't seen that happen.
All I've seen is sporadic, questionable play calling devoid of any flow. It's like Loeffler is running what he thinks would be balanced and will attack weaknesses while he ignores what's actually working in that game. There is no deviating from the game plan. Sometimes you have to do that.
CF: There have been various issues throughout the season, but it comes down to two things: poor quarterback play and erratic play-calling. Kiehl Frazier is an incredibly talented quarterback, but is not suited to run the type of pro-style offense Scot Loeffler employs. Frazier has been running a Malzahn-type spread his entire life, and he has been lost for most of this season. To make matters worse, Frazier is a pretty emotional kid, and he gets down on himself after mistakes. After an interception or bad throw, Frazier completely loses his confidence and shuts down.
Hoping to provide a spark, Loeffler and Gene Chizik handed the keys to the offense to Clint Moseley at the beginning of the second half against Arkansas. He threw a touchdown and two picks against the Hogs and didn't really do much to impress. Last week against Ole Miss, he was 8 of 8 in the first half but 3 of 10 in the second. I'm not sure if the coaches believed Moseley would actually provide a spark, but anyone that has watched him play knows that he isn't likely to be the reason an offense suddenly gets into gear.
Speaking of coaches, Loeffler's play-calling has come under quite a bit of scrutiny. With bad quarterbacks, solid running backs and a great lead-blocking full back, you might think Auburn would want to focus on the power run game. Loeffler has done that at times this year, but he always gets away from it. My guess is that he feels he needs to change things up to keep the defense off balance, but sticking to the run would do that. It would open up the pass and the sweeps and stretch plays to the outside. But Loeffler never sticks with the runs up the gut, and that leads to tougher passing situations for Auburn's underperforming quarterbacks and not much room on the outside for Onterio McCalebb, the Tigers' change-of-pace back. All in all, Loeffler's game plans have been puzzling at best.
2a. Clint Moseley took over at quarterback four games into the season but has gone 0-2 while passing for only 275 total yards in those games. What can we expect to see from him in Nashville?
WB: He will hand the ball off a lot. He did a decent job in the passing game at Ole Miss, but when Auburn needed a score late in the game, he threw a terrible pick that showed his mental state wasn't exactly ready for that kind of pressure. Last season, when he took over halfway during the season, I believe he led the country in throwing pick 6's.
Auburn had success running the ball last week, so I fully believe they will run 75% of the time this weekend.
CF: As of right now, we don't even know if he'll start. Chizik hasn't released that information yet, and he probably won't until Friday. If Moseley starts, here's what you'll see: a pocket passer with a decent arm and no mobility. Moseley is capable of making good throws, but just like Frazier, he's been known to miss receivers, too. And if opposing defenses pressure him, he has no chance of avoiding a sack. He's one of the least mobile quarterbacks I've ever seen at Auburn, and that includes Brandon Cox.
Moseley did pick up a first down on a nine-yard scramble last week, but that was a rare exception and not the rule. The only thing going for Moseley is that he doesn't seem to have the confidence issues that Frazier has. When Moseley makes a bad throw, he can bounce back. That just doesn't happen with Frazier.
2b. Given Auburn's unsteadiness in the passing game, can we expect to see a steady diet of runs from an above average Tiger backfield?
WB: I'd just scratch this one since I pretty much just answered that one above. :)
CF: I'd like to think so, but as I mentioned, Loeffler can't be trusted to stick to the run game, even when it's working. Last week against Ole Miss. Tre Mason, Auburn's best power back, received 13 carries in the first half and picked up 40 or 45 yards and two touchdowns. Auburn was tied with Ole Miss at halftime. In the second half, Mason ran the ball five times, and the Rebels outscored Auburn 24-3. I'm desperately hoping Loeffler will let the running game carry the offense for 60 minutes, but he hasn't given me any reason to believe that will happen.
3a. Auburn's defense has been hit-or-miss this season, and looks particularly vulnerable in the fourth quarter. Do you trust your defenders to hold onto a lead on the road late in this game? What has been the cause of Auburn's fourth-quarter woes?
WB: I'm not really sure. They've struggled all year with the spread, so maybe it's fatigue. They did a decent job against LSU's pro-style offense, but we've all seen that their offense isn't that great. I think there are a few guys on the defense that are carrying everybody else (Senior LB Daren Bates) and when they tire out, the rest of the defense can't take up the slack.
CF: I really don't trust anything about this team, so I guess I can't trust the defense to hold onto a late lead. Honestly, the defense has taken steps forward this year, but it has too many things working against it. It's always difficult to transition to a new coordinator with a new style, but Brian VanGorder has the burden of de-Roofying his older players. Ted Roof, Auburn defensive coordinator from 2009 to '11 was just awful. He taught terrible fundamentals and instilled bad, bad habits in his players. VanGorder has been trying to un-teach those habits, but it takes time. Auburn has young talent, of which we'll see a bit more this weekend, that wasn't corrupted by Roof, and it's easy to see how much better off those players are from learning from VanGorder from the get go. Unfortunately, they're young, and they make young mistakes. The combination of older players with bad form and younger players who make green mistakes has made for an incredibly difficult transition year.
In the fourth quarter, Auburn's defense has allowed itself to be worn down by opposing offenses and its own offense. It's tough for a unit to know it has to win the game, and for the Auburn 'D,' watching the Tiger offense perform so poorly must take its toll. And as the offense sputters, the defense is on the field longer, which takes an even bigger toll. I don't think these guys are giving up; they just aren't receiving any help from their offensive teammates.
3b. Vanderbilt's offensive line has been inconsistent at best this year. Who on the Tiger defense is most likely to make a big play against ineffective Commodore blocking?
WB: Corey Lemonier has been hurrying QB's all season. For whatever reason he was non-existent against Ole Miss last week. If he can pick it up, and if Dee Ford comes back from injury, the Commodores can plan on seeing tons of pressure from both ends. Gabe Wright and Jeff Whitaker are usually strong up the middle, but i think the ends will be doing most of the work in the backfield.
CF: If anyone on Auburn's defense is likely to make a play, it would have to be junior defensive end Corey Lemonier. He's a great rush end on passing downs, and his run defense has greatly improved this season. Unfortunately, Auburn's interior linemen haven't been great this year, and Auburn's other good defensive end, Dee Ford, is hurt. If Ford can't play, the offense can totally focus on stopping Lemonier. That happened against Ole Miss, and the only stat he recorded was one quarterback hurry. Lemonier is easily Auburn's best defensive player, but he needs help from his linemates.
4. You'll be playing in front of a sellout crowd in Nashville - the first time in in ages that that Vandy has sold out back-to-back home games. A.) How much of that crowd do you expect to be Auburn fans making the trip, even with the rough season and B.) How do you expect the team to react in front of a slightly more raucous crowd than Vandy is known for?
WB: Prior to the Florida game last week, Vandy's last sellout was in 2008 against Auburn, when the Tigers basically lost by a 1st quarter missed XP. Gameday was in town, Vandy was ranked, and Tuberville was on the way to firing Tony Franklin. It was a frustrating day for us. I was there with about 10-12k Auburn fans. I don't expect that many this time, but Nashville is a fun place, so I do expect a decent Auburn crowd. I'll say 6-8K.
I think playing on the road in front of louder than normal Ole Miss crowd will help the Tigers. We haven't exactly played in front of many other huge away crowds yet this year (MSU, Ole Miss), so I think they'll be used to it. No offense, but I don't feel like the crowd will play too much into it.
CF: I really don't know what to expect when it comes to traveling Auburn fans. Nashville is an easy drive from most Southern places, and it's a great city, so this should be a great turnout. But with the season crumbling around us, I'm not sure if a ton of fans will make the trip. There will probably be a decent contingent, but it won't be nearly as big as if the Tigers were even 3-3 or 2-4. I would be there, but I'll be attending a wedding the wedding of one of my fellow College and Magnolia writers that evening.
I don't really think the crowd will affect the team. I've been to Vandy basketball games, so I know how rowdy and hostile Commodore fans can be, but the crowd won't be anything new to Auburn players. I really don't mean that as a shot at y'all, but many of these guys have played on the road at Georgia, LSU and/or 'Bama. If they can play in those atmospheres, they can play anywhere.
5a. What do Gene Chizik's coaching prospects look like at Auburn if he loses to Vanderbilt?
WB: The "Fire Chizik' numbers grow exponentially with every loss. The outrage after the Ole Miss loss was huge. I spent all day on Twitter trying to calm the masses. It didn't work. Most have written off the season, but they'll still continue to get madder and madder anytime Auburn loses to anyone outside of UGA or Alabama.
If Auburn loses to Vanderbilt in the same fashion they lost to Ole Miss (a late blowout), it's going to be hard for the Auburn administration to stay quiet and not acknowledge what's going on.
CF: Honestly, I don't think it matters. If Auburn loses, he's definitely gone, but even if the Tigers win, I think he's out the door anyway. With a loss, Auburn is more than likely looking at a 3-9 season with an 0-8 conference record. That would be the worst year on the Plains since going 0-10 in 1950. If Auburn wins, the Tigers will probably finish 4-8 and 1-7, which is still unacceptable. Most Auburn fans understood that this year would be about building a foundation to be back in the conference title conversation next season and beyond.
So far, that hasn't happened at all. Instead of moving forward, Auburn has taken a huge step back in 2012. People are beginning to believe that 5-19 Chizik was the real thing, and 2010 Chizik was all about having the best offensive player, offensive line, defensive player and offensive coordinator in the country. Chizik deserves plenty of credit for holding that 2010 team together and keeping it on track amid all the Cam Newton stuff, but everything has gone in the wrong direction since the win over Oregon.
5b. How much of this year's struggles can be tied back to Gus Malzahn's departure. What does this year say about his presence as a coach?
WB: I personally think it's huge. I want Malzahn back right now. I love his offense when he's allowed to run it full bore. He was not allowed to that last year with the struggles on defense. If he was still here, Auburn would not be attempting to move back to the pro-style, and Kiehl Frazier would be playing under the guy who designed the offense he's been playing in since 7th grade.
I know the consensus was that he made Auburn great with his offense, and yes he definitely did, but no, I don't think that takes anything away from Chizik. 2010 was a 100% joint effort across the board. Cam Newton was one piece, a very big piece, but just one piece.
CF: After last season, a little bit of the shine wore off of Gus. When he has the right players in his system, it is nearly unstoppable, but when he doesn't it falls flat. Last year, Auburn ranked eighth in the SEC with 337.8 yards per game and seventh with 25.7 points per game. And frankly, I blame Malzahn for a portion of Frazier's struggles.
Malzahn knew he was leaving at the end of the year, and he sort of mailed it in. He didn't bother to teach the true freshman proper footwork or how to make reads, and those have been big issues for Frazier this season. (That's not opinion; Frazier said it himself.) If Auburn had hired a better replacement, I don't believe we would think about Malzahn at all. But even with the offense in shambles, I don't hear a ton of fans pining for Gus. They're out there, but they aren't as numerous as you may think.
6. Finally, your prediction?
WB: Auburn 24, Vandy 17
CF: Vanderbilt and Auburn are two teams with bad records that have looked quite different. The Commodores have played well this year an easily could be 4-2. Auburn, for the most part, has looked like a 1-5 team and it can be argues that the Tigers are fortunate to not be sitting at 0-6. We're likely going to see a few younger faces starting on defense, and while they make some plays, mistakes are almost a certainty. I think Auburn's defense will do a decent job against the Vanderbilt offense, but I'm afraid Jordan Matthews will be able to make a few big receptions. The secondary will have to play back a bit, and that should open things up for Zac Stacy in the run game and underneath throws for Jordan Rodgers.
On offense, I don't expect much out of Auburn. When the Tigers give Tre Mason his carries, the offense will be productive, but eventually, Scot Loeffler will move away from Mason, and the offense will stall. I think Auburn will be in the game for most of the afternoon, but the Tigers' fourth-quarter woes will strike again, and Vanderbilt will put the game away late. Vanderbilt 27, Auburn 17.