Thursday, September 01, 2005

Football - Georgia Tech / Auburn Preview

Well, I just got back in from Wisconsin and I managed to put together a game preview while on the plane. Here we go.................

Georgia Tech / Auburn Preview

Well, the wait is finally over....... almost. The hours on the countdown clock have become just as watched as the days. It's the team from the plains against the team from the flats. How ironic, considering it's going to be a bumpy ride for one team come Sunday morning. The Jackets and Tigers finish off a 2-game series which started with a dramatic 2003 Tech upset in ATL with a true-freshman at the helm at QB. A historic rivaly briefly revisited that will not likely to occur again for many many years. Tradition is strong here. In fact, the Georgia Tech / Auburn rivalry is not only the 2nd oldest rivalry for Georgia Tech, it is also the 2nd oldest rivalry for Auburn. Only the GT / UGAg series goes back further for Jacket fans.

A season opener always raises questions. And there are questions...... Questions about quarterbacks....... questions about consistency......... questions about offensive line......... questions about depth......... questions about health.........questions about the next generation of players who will step up and place their imprint on the program.......... and many of the questions apply to both teams.......... This will be a major kick-off to the 2005 football season. National television. Primetime ESPN. Saturday night.

So with that, let's take a look at the game.

The Tigers are a team with something to prove. They are out to slam the cynics and show that 2004 was no fluke - that they were deserving of being crowned as national champions........... that they are reloading, not rebuilding. To do so will require players in key positions to step up. You don't lose four 1st round draft picks and come into a season without questions. You don't lose a senior QB and your entire backfield and come in without questions. You don't lose your best defensive player without questions. But make no mistake - the 2004 SEC Champions are good. They have talent. They have speed. They return 6 starters on each side of the ball. But can they put it together like last season? Everyone will have some idea come Saturday night.

At Quarterback, Brandon Cox takes over for Jason Campbell. While garnering fairly positive comments during the spring and preseason, gametime is where it matters. Will Cox get the protection he needs? Will he make good decisions? Will Jon Tenuta's attack-blitzing-frenzy style be too much from Cox to handle? In addition, Cox has battled some arm soreness problems during the preseason. While he has taken most of the 1st team snaps, he has been somewhat held back to get the arm to full strength. Backing up Cox is redshirt freshman Blake Field............Some serious questions at QB here for Auburn fans.

For Georgia Tech fans, we don't have to rehash all the key questions with Reggie Ball. We know what they are. Will decision-making catch up with talent? The bottom-line for me is this - Reggie Ball does not have to make MORE spectacular plays. He just has to reduce the bad ones. Is he ready to make that "Joe Hamilton" step his junior season? Jacket fans have hope and trepidation and once again answers will only start to form Saturday night.

At the tailback for Auburn, the questions continue. Auburn lost a rarity - a pair of 1st round RB picks - the talented tandem Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams. Trying to "replace" that twosome will be a threesome - Trey Smith, Calvin Stewart and Kenny Irons. All these guys are in the 6'0" 200lb range. But Smith had an emergency appendectomy about a month ago. We are led to believe he is ready to go and will be 1st string, but questions remain. Will that RB group step up and stake their claim in the backfield? Can they take the pressure off Cox by moving the chains?

For Georgia Tech, there is not another position on the field with more depth. While there will be depth questions AFTER this season, for 2005, it is not a stretch to say the group goes 5-deep. PJ Daniels is back, healthy and ready to prove his ACC rushing title 2 years ago was no fluke. He is pushed bigtime by Tashard Choice, an Oklahoma transfer who has done everything right since his arrival in the spring. Daniels and Choice are both physical backs while Chris Woods and RaShaun Grant are "dip and dart" guys, as described by Coach Gailey. While Daniels will carry the majority of the snaps, Gailey has admitted that he will alternate backs more often than he has in the past in order to prevent injury and wearing down Daniels. That is not just an in-game decision - it is a season-long strategic decision, as Tech limped into their bowl game with 3 banged up backs.

On the defense, Auburn is fast. Many teams are willing to sacrifice size for speed. Both Georgia Tech and Auburn fall into that category. Auburn's linebacking core is among the lightest in the SEC and maybe the country, but they are fast and have a decent nose for the ball.

This should be a push. Auburn's strongest returning experience is in their WR core, where almost 80% of the passing yards from 2004 return to the line-up. Ben Obomanu, Devin Aromashodu, Anthony Mix and Courtney Taylor are all talented and they are all big (all over 6'1")............But can Cox get them the ball? Tech has one of the strongest defensive backfields in the ACC with Chris Reis and Dawan Landry at the safey spots and Kenny Scott / Dennis Davis at the corners. The loss of Reuben Houston hurts, make no mistake. But the starting front is strong here and the move of Chris Reis from LB to SS really solidifies that group. This really could be an even match-up with MAYBE a slight edge to Georgia Tech because Auburn has a new QB getting the ball to them..............

Here Georgia Tech has an advantage. The starting DB positions have been up in the air right to the last minute for Auburn. Cornerback David Irons will have the task of guarding Calvin Johnson. Irons is a senior, but not super fast and evidently still has some technique issues. He will probably be overmatched, but then who won't going against Calvin Johnson - the ACC rookie-of-the-year, pre-season ACC offensive player of the year and 6'4" 220lb super-freak spiderman sticky handed stud? For Tech, the key will be who will step up as the #2 receiver? Who will be the next alternative for Reggie Ball? Damarius Bilbo, the QB turned WR has earned the spot and also combines a high level of athleticism, but is unproven. Can he become the legit #2 target? Has he REALLY put the QB thing in the past? If not, there are a stable of talented but inexperienced receivers ready for the spot. Of course as always, a wide receiver advantage is never an advantage if their QB does not get the protection needed to find them. With that............

The edge here goes to Auburn. The starting defensive ends for Auburn are studs - Quentin Groves and Stanley McClover. These guys are very likely to be in the running for all-SEC. They are ready to go and they are good. Tech has one of the most athletic lines since Gailey arrived, but it is also one of the most inexperienced. There is one senior starter with all the rest redshirt freshman or sophomores. Even the two deep has only one senior and again freshman and sophs. The O-Line is the Tech red flag and is the key to everything. If they don't protect Ball, then it won't matter where Calvin Johnson is on the field. If they don't open up holes for our backs, there will be a lot of 3rd and long.

I think this one is a push with maybe a VERY slight edge to Auburn. The Auburn line is anchored by Marcus McNeill, a 6'9" 337lb behemoth. This likely 1st round draft pick decided to forgo the NFL and stick around for his senior season. He's probably one of the top 3 tackles in the nation. The Auburn O-Line is tall and big. The shortest starter is 6'3" and they are all over 300lb or close to it. Not only that, they are an experienced group. The starting line is made up of nothing but seniors and juniors.................. For Georgia Tech, depth has become an issue. The starting DL is a strong group with potential All-ACC candidate Eric Henderson ready to roll on one end and Adamm Oliver on the other. The tackle spots are solid with Mansfield Wrotto - the earthmover - and Joe Anaoi, who will be close but less than 100% since surgury. Things get a little shaky past 1st team though.

Auburn feels like the key to their success is striking quickly and early with points on the board. Georgia Tech was first to score in the majority of their games last season. The first to score will have a decided phsychological edge. Watch this closely.

MATCH-UP TO WATCH - Eric Henderson vs Marcus McNeill
Eric Henderson is back after an injury riddled junior campaign. He feels better than he has felt in years. He's ready to knock heads and prove that he AGAIN deserves national recognition at the defensive end position. However, to do so he's going to have to prove it this season against possibly the 3 best tackles IN THE NATION. First up is Auburn's Marcus McNeill. This will be a fun match-up to watch. Pay close attention........

If games are truly won and lost in the trenches then I feel Auburn has the slight advantage. They are experienced and talented on the lines. Tech has strengths, but not enough depth, so Auburn gets the overall edge. At the skill positions, the Jackets have the overall advantage with a battle-hardened junior QB, a full stable of proven backs and one of the best WR's in the nation. Tech has the advantage with the perimeter defense as well..........Auburn has the home field advantage, and with 80,000+ fans, it will be an advantage.

Look for a very close, defensive game. Probably low-scoring. As always, the team that makes the fewest mistakes and wins the turnover battle is VERY likely to win. Tech's defense will keep us in it, but will the offense win it?

I just cannot bring myself to predict a Tech loss, but I peg the odds of winning at about 40%. At the end of the day, Reggie shines once more, the Daniels / Choice combo rushes for about 120 yards, and Jacket nation celebrates with a 17-14 victory. The Jackets grease up highway so they can get back to the ATL quicker and start preparing for the next victim.

One last note. This is not a make-or-break game. Losing this game is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing that cannot be overcome to still acheive a successful season. But winning the game will have a much more positive impact than losing will have a negative one. Here is how the season breaks down in terms of wins / losses for this to be a successful season:

NEED TO WIN (GT likely to be a favorite):
Duke, UNC, UConn, Wake Forest

Auburn, NCST, Clemson, Virginia, UGAg

Miami, VaTech