Auburn Tigers (6-6, 3-5):
When I think about Auburn's first season with new head coach Gene Chizik, I have an incredibly hard time getting a feel for how it's going to go. Of course, this shouldn't tell you anything, because last year I had Auburn going 12-2, losing to Georgia in November and Florida in the SEC championship game, and winning the Sugar Bowl. We all know how wrong that turned out to be. But honestly, I could see Auburn winning anywhere from 1 to 12 of its games this year. Let me rephrase that; the only team on the schedule I couldn't fathom Auburn losing to is Furman, and there isn't a team I think we couldn't beat. To narrow it down a little bit, the real likelihood of win total is somewhere in the four to eight range. The SEC is just too brutal for a team with little depth, a brand new coaching staff (including a new-ish offensive philosophy) and no real quarterback to go undefeated.
After watching Auburn's spring game, I feel confident saying we have no real quarterback; Kodi just doesn't have the ability to throw the ball consistently, and Neil Caudle just doesn't have the athleticism to run Malzahn's spread. I hope Caudle sees most of the snaps this season, given his performance in the A-Day game; he throws the ball a little better, and he's not completely devoid of running ability (like, say, Chris Todd or Brandon Cox). He also seemed to control and move the offense better.
On defense, Auburn should be an upper-tier SEC team once again. While the Tuberville regime left Chizik and Co. virtually nothing in terms of offensive talent, the defensive cupboard is pretty full. We don't have a ton of depth, but Ted Roof (as well as head coach Gene Chizik) should be able to continue Auburn's recent history of excellent defense.
As far as the new coaching staff is concerned, it's just too much of a mystery to be able to have any idea about what will happen this season. Chizik was the hot name on the coaching scene after being defensive coordinator for Auburn's 2004 13-0 squad and Texas' 2005 13-0 national champion squad, but his tenure at Iowa State did nothing but diminish his perceived value. Of course, it was Iowa State, where even Bear Bryant would only win eight games a year; how much can we really judge Chizik on his 5-19 record there? That's the million dollar question. The way I see it, Chizik assembled an incredible group of assistant coaches; if he doesn't micromanage and just lets them do their job, we could be a very solid team (if not this year, in the near future). If not, we could be looking at dark times in Auburn's football history. Only time will tell.
Sure wins: Furman
Sure losses: None
Toss-ups: Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, West Virginia, Ball State, @Tennessee, @Arkansas, Kentucky, @LSU, Mississippi, @Georgia, Alabama
Auburn 24 Louisiana Tech 20: Auburn faces a very tough opponent in Chizik's first game. Derek Dooley (son of long-time UGA coach/AD Vince Dooley) has La. Tech playing some pretty decent football. They beat Mississippi State to start last year, and they'll be thirsty for more SEC blood this season. I see Auburn coming out and running the ball pretty well, playing solid defense, and holding on in the end. The kicking game will be vital. Auburn opens 1-0 (0-0).
Auburn 20 Mississippi State 10: A rematch of the game of the 2008 season (the 3-2 battle in Starkville), this game will hopefully be a little more entertaining than last year's version. State is also breaking in a new coach, and they don't have the luxury(?) of installing the spread to a similar offense that they ran the season before (it's hard to type that without laughing). Dan Mullen will experience some growing pains in his first season as a head coach in Starkville. Auburn plays solid D, does nothing spectacular on offense, and gets by with a 10-point win, pushing them to 2-0 (1-0).
West Virginia 31 Auburn 13: This will be the first loss of the Gene Chizik era, as a loaded West Virginia team comes to Jordan-Hare and runs away from the Tigers in the second half (despite being coached by Bill Stewart). Fans will start to question the new version of the spread, and the defense will struggle with West Virginia's speed. Auburn is now 2-1 (1-0).
Auburn 28 Ball State 10: I came close to putting Ball State in the "sure wins" category above because I think they'll fall off a cliff after last year's magical season, but just couldn't do it. We should beat Ball State since they lost their all-everything QB (name escapes me and I'm too lazy to look it up) and head coach. Their performance under their new coach in the bowl game (against Gus Malzahn-coached Tulsa) was pathetic. I expect them to regress badly in 2009. This should be a comfortable victory for Auburn, pushing the Tigers to 3-1 (1-0).
Tennessee 27 Auburn 24: This is one of the games that I'm predicting Auburn to lose that I think we could win very easily. UT is in a very similar situation to Auburn, with a new coaching staff coming in. I'm absolutely not sold on Lane Kiffin, and as someone who follows the Raiders (I stop short of calling myself a fan until Al Davis retires or dies, whichever happens first), I know his limitations as a coach. I'm also not sold on Monte Kiffin as a college defensive coordinator; his players won't have as much time to study film and learn the defense as his pro players did. That being said, Chizik will drop his first big SEC road game, and Auburn drops to 3-2 (1-1).
Arkansas 33 Auburn 20: I'm expecting big things out of the Hogs this season. They improved by bunches between the first game last season and the last, and now have a stud quarterback in Ryan Mallett at the reins. Bobby Petrino is a hell of a coach, despite being a greasy guy. Auburn will make too many mistakes in Fayetteville to come out with a win, and drops to 3-3 (1-2). Auburn fans begin to grow restless.
Auburn 35 Kentucky 17: Auburn rebounds from two tough road losses with a solid thrashing of Kentucky. The offense has its best game of the season (after steadily improving in the first six games). Auburn fans relax a little bit as the Tigers improve to 4-3 (2-2). Kentucky fans still can't wait for John Calipari to coach their basketball team to greatness.
LSU 24 Auburn 10: This may be the game I was closest to putting in the "sure loss" category, but the series has been just too bizarre to do that. (Spoiler alert!) LSU is my pick to win the SEC West this season, so this will be no cakewalk for the real Tigers. Auburn keeps it close for a half, maybe three quarters, and plays inspired defense, but in the end LSU has too much talent for Auburn to snatch a victory. Auburn falls to 4-4 (2-3). A bowl game is in serious jeopardy at this point.
Auburn 17 Mississippi 15: Ole Miss was undoubtedly one of the surprise teams in the nation last season, and one of the top 3 or 4 teams in the SEC. However, if there's one thing Houston Nutt knows, it's how to fail to meet lofty expectations. Jevan Snead is certainly a fantastic quarterback, but the Rebels aren't sneaking up on anyone this season. Auburn's defense plays its best game of the season, creating multiple turnovers, and the offense does just enough to pull a home win out. Auburn improves to 5-4 (3-3).
Auburn 41 Furman 7: Nothing really to say about this game, we're playing a
Georgia 24 Auburn 20: This may be the hardest game for me to predict; Auburn will have a new coaching staff and Georgia will have a new quarterback. I could see either team surprising everyone and winning a bunch of games, and I could also see either team falling on its face and missing a bowl. I gave UGA the advantage because the game is played in Athens (the "road team always wins" theme is dead). Auburn drops to 6-5 (3-4) and Georgia fans hold up four fingers to remind us how many times in a row they've beaten us.
Alabama 20 Auburn 12: Alabama won't be as good as they were last season, but they'll still be a solid team. Auburn is playing catch-up with the Tide right now in terms of talent and recruiting, but we'll be there one day (hopefully soon). Auburn may be the home team, but Alabama is just too good to not come out victorious in this Friday afternoon (spit) affair. Auburn fails to win either leg of Amen Corner for the second straight season, and finishes the regular season at 6-6 (3-5).
I was torn between giving Auburn a 5-7 record or 6-6 record, and I eventually came around and gave the Ole Miss game to Auburn. I could also see Auburn easily beating Tennesee and Georgia (which, if all three happened, would get the Tigers to 8 wins). We also have a shot against West Virginia, Arkansas and Alabama. LSU is the longest shot in the schedule. No matter what the final record looks like this season, I am not judging how successful a campaign it was based on wins and losses, but on how much the team improves over the course of the year. I'm looking to 2010 and 2011 for when Auburn should be ready to compete for the SEC.