Shane: The Tide and Tigers advance

By Shane from Centerpoint
In the preseason pundits pontificated profusely about new Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, claiming that his chances for a successful first season would clearly fall at the feet of Tiger offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. So far, Gus looks like a genius. However, considering the competition Auburn’s faced to date, I’ll hold-off awarding him a trophy until after they play a real team, or two.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s second-year offensive guru Jim McElwain seems to have a clear understanding of how crucial the running game is to being successful in the SEC. In the two opening games his offense has produced 543 yards on the ground! However, the true test will come when Alabama must run the ball effectively against some of the tougher defenses they’ll face – like when they play Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, and LSU consecutively.

The first thing we notice about this 2009 edition of the Auburn Tigers is that they bear no resemblance whatsoever to last year’s squad. Quarterback Chris Todd’s arm is sound once again, and he’s 55% (27 of 49 / 2 td’s / 0 int’s.) thru game-two. Unlike the 2008 version, this year the players seem to execute with continuity and consistency. With some obvious quality at the skill positions, the War Eagles have ample firepower to produce plenty of points this year.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Alabama coach Nick Saban’s first priority on offense this year is to run the football – actually, it’s been his main trait for years. A quick look at his stable of runners and one can see why: Mark Ingram, an Emmitt Smith clone (both about 5’10” 215 #’s), has NFL-prototype written all over him. True freshman Trent Richardson, at 5’11” and 220+, appears to be as talented as he was billed coming out of high school. He looked like the nation’s number-one tailback Saturday night with 118 yards and 2 touchdowns on 15 carries. Power–back Roy Upchurch and speed–back Terry Grant round out Alabama’s formidable ground attack.

So far, one player that has been a complete surprise for the Auburn team is former starting quarterback Kodi Burns. He accepted the coach’s decision to move him to wide receiver and has been very efficient when used in the Tiger’s “wild eagle” attack. Burns is becoming a true team player – leading by example.

On the other side of the state, Alabama wide-out Mike McCoy stepped into all-world receiver Julio Jones’ shoes (due to Jones getting injured), producing 100 yards and a touchdown on 5 receptions. McCoy told me in an interview after the spring game that he was prepared to make a major contribution this year – Saturday night he backed it up.

From a defensive standpoint, it appears that Auburn’s starters are SEC caliber and Chizik has them playing his style, which is fast, swarming and attacking. The defense is small, but quick to the ball. After a couple of years learning under Chizik, Tiger defenses will be hard to penetrate. Still, the jury remains out on this War Eagle stop-unit for the remainder of the 2009 season, mainly because of depth issues.

The Crimson Tide defense today is just like the LSU defenses under Nick Saban in the past – extremely big, strong, quick and fast. He somehow has a talent for stacking future NFL players (in layers along the front-seven) within his defense. Admittedly, there have been too many mental breakdowns by this year’s squad early, but this unit can make up the difference quickly. Having allowed only 65 yards rushing in the first two games says a great deal about the probable fortune for any team that can’t run on Alabama – they’ll probably lose.

To summarize the quality of these two SEC western division foes after only two games apiece is impossible, but some elements of their performances are solid enough indicators that both Alabama and Auburn are fielding good football teams.

Coach Chizik has two more games in the safety of Jordan-Hare stadium; then he’ll be tested for sure by back-to-back road trips to Knoxville and Fayetteville. If he is 6-0 after these contests he and his Tigers will be in the hunt.

On the other hand, Saban has already proven his troops are worthy once with an opening win over a top-ten opponent. Now, he must keep his players aware of the target on their backs, while hitting the road for two in a row against Kentucky and Ole Miss after playing the next two at home in Bryant-Denny.

Now to the million-dollar question: Will Alabama and Auburn continue to progress and continue to win? No one really knows. Truthfully, all we can do is wait for them to line up and play the games.

Football fans in the state of Alabama would be ecstatic to see two undefeated teams meet on Friday of Thanksgiving weekend to decide the western division championship. Most unlikely but, for now, anything is possible???
—Shane writes a weekly column for the Call News and the Capstone Report.