Auburn will try to avoid a letdown against Vandy
By Acid Reign
After three consecutive hard-nosed, physical SEC battles, the Auburn Tigers will be looking to catch a break on their October 4th trip to Nashville to play the Vanderbilt Commodores. At first glance, it's quite possible that Auburn will be able to coast to an easy, lopsided victory. History in the past two decades suggests otherwise. Three of Auburn's last four trips to play the Commodores on the road have come down to last-minute heroics. From the last-second Jim Von Wyl field goal in 1991 pulling out a 24-22 victory, to the goal-line stand in 1993 for the 14-10 win, to the Damon Duval big one in 2001 staking us to a 24-21 lead we would miraculously hold, we've struggled a lot in Nashville, recently.
On paper, Vanderbilt's situation post-spring looks dire. Folks have come to expect a certain level of consistency and toughness from Bobby Johnson's Vanderbilt teams, and the 'dores may well again play above expectations. However, this squad, with just a 5-7 record a year ago, returns fewer starters than any other SEC team. Vanderbilt returns only 3 starters on offense, including quarterback Chris Nickson. On defense, 6 starters return, but the Commodores were hit hard in the middle. Only 2 of the front seven return. Vanderbilt was ravaged by injuries this spring.
Vanderbilt's secondary may be their strength. The coaches are excited about a plethora of good cover guys, and Vandy likely will be difficult to get receivers open on. Additionally, defensive ends Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone, both juniors, are capable pass-rushers. On the other hand, it may not matter, if folks can pound Vandy with the running game. The tackles and linebackers will be green, with the departure of star linebacker Jonathan Goff. AND, will there be enough depth to hold up? The young Vandy offense may keep the defense on the field for long stretches.
On offense, there are a lot of questions. The entire starting offensive line departs. Bobby Johnson is confident that he's recruited well enough over the past few years to compete, at the point of attack, but injuries have taken a toll, as well. The best Vandy receiver in history, Earl Bennett, is gone, and leaves a huge void in the skill area. While Vandy returns two experienced runners in senior Jeff Jennings and junior Jared Hawkins, neither is noted for speed. More to the point, neither ran for five yards a carry last season, and they run behind a new line this season.
Vanderbilt returns senior kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt and junior punter Bret Upson, but neither was consistent last season. Junior cornerback D.J Moore is capable kick returner, but Vandy's biggest special-teams scoring threat, punt returner Alex Washington, blew out a knee and will be lost for the 2008 season.
Prior to hosting Auburn, Vanderbilt will have played at Miami of Ohio, South Carolina, Rice, and at Ole Miss. While some of those games may seem to be tough, none of those teams posted a winning record in 2007. The Commodores have a bye week before playing Auburn, and should be rested.
Auburn defensive line vs. Vandy offensive line: Vanderbilt did not fare well against Auburn here, last season, and this year they face the likes of SenDerrick Marks and Antonio Coleman with 5 new starters. Facing Ole Miss star Greg Hardy two weeks prior will help, but Auburn has too many talented players up front. Big advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Vandy backs: Auburn has become noted for speedy, hard-hitting linebackers, and this year, we bring at least 6 guys back with starting experience, led by budding superstar Tray Blackmon. Vandy counters with senior Jeff Jennings and junior Jared Hawkins running the ball. Jennings, the likely starter, rushed for 346 yards (3.6 yards per carry) last season. Jared Hawkins rushed for 267 yards (4.4 yards per carry). Hawkins had the best numbers in this year's spring game, but Jennings is seen as more of an all-around back. Vandy backs were totally stymied by the AU defense last season, and likely will be again. Big advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Vandy receivers: Without Earl Bennett, Vandy will look for answers in the passing game. Likely candidates are senior George Smith (32 grabs for 397 yards in 2007), senior Sean Walker (20 grabs for 270), and junior Justin Wheeler (10 grabs for 87). No other returnee had even ten catches. Auburn is young in the corner position beyond Jerraud Powers, but there is a lot of talent between Aaron Savage and Walter McFadden. Also, frequently last season, the Vandy quarterbacks couldn't find an open lake with the football. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Vandy secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn's safeties were a source of concern in the A-Day game, but there is no denying that there is talent and hard-hitting ability there. By the time we have faced 3 potent SEC teams, these guys should be well-seasoned. Vandy will need to find some secondary receivers. There just wasn't enough there this spring to even fill out a depth chart. Veteran quarterbacks return, senior Chris Nickson and junior Mackenzie Adams, but they were not impressive last season, often lobbing up uncatchable balls. In this spring's game, Nickson and Adams were a combined 4 of 14. Oooops. The surprise in Vandy's offensive arsenal may well be sophomore Quarterback Jared Funk. He led two scoring drives late in the scrimmage this spring. Until Nickson and Adams prove they can consistently get the ball to their receivers, it's: Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn has shown a capable trio of punters including Ryan Shoemaker, Patrick Tatum, and Clinton Durst. Sophomore Ryan Shoemaker has been named to some preseason All-SEC teams. Vandy returns junior Bret Upson, who averaged only 39.2, mostly because of several spectacular shanks. Upson downed 22 inside the 20, vs. only 4 touchbacks. Auburn returns punts with veteran Robert Dunn. Vandy's eventual return man is still a mystery, at this time. Vandy averaged only 7.3 yards a return, while giving up 14.7. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn was a miserable kickoff/coverage team for much of last season, but improved as the leaves turned. Vandy returns senior kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, who averaged 62.9 yards per kickoff (7 yard line average), vs. Auburn's Wes Byrum's average of 59.9. Auburn gave up 21.2 yards per return, which we were pretty disappointed in, but Vandy's average return-against was a whopping 24.8. Vandy averaged 22.3 yards per return, vs. Auburn's 19.2. With the return to health of Auburn's Tristan Davis, as well as improved coverage, it's Advantage: Auburn.
Placekicking: Bryant Hahnfeldt was a respectable 13-20 for the Commodores, last season, while Wes Byrum hit 17-23, with several pressure-filled game-winning kicks. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Vandy defensive line: Auburn returns all 5 starters on a line that pretty much had its way with the Commodores, last season. Vandy must find a way to keep from being blown off the ball by Auburn's veteran interior guys like Tyrone Green and Jason Bosely. Outside, the key matchups will be Lee Ziemba and Ryan Pugh against capable Vandy ends Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone. Ziemba and Pugh won those battles for the most part, last season, as true freshmen. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Vandy linebackers: Auburn returns the trio of ball-carriers that ran at will on the Dores, last season, Brad Lester, Ben Tate, and Mario Fannin. Vanderbilt lost Jonathan Goff. Going through the Vandy tackles list, the next five leaders behind Goff in tackles were secondary folks. That's never good! The top returning linebacker is junior Patrick Benoist, who had 32 tackles and 4 sacks. Given how good the Auburn backs are at slashing between the tackles, it's Big Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Vandy corners: Vanderbilt returns two capable, even dangerous corners who'll be playing on Sunday in the future. Junior D. J. Moore was All-SEC last season, and those veteran corners will be supported by returning safety starters, too. Auburn improved mightily in spring drills at the receiver positions, but I don't think Rod Smith, James Swinton and Robert Dunn match up with this unit. Advantage: Vanderbilt.
Auburn secondary receivers and QB vs. Vandy safeties: Strange as it may sound, Vanderbilt is one of the few SEC teams that can match up well, man to man against a 5-receiver package. We'll have enjoyed advantages over previous teams trying to cover Robert Dunn and Tommy Trott inside, but against the Commodores, we'll have a tough time getting open without gimmicks. In addition, Auburn will have to be careful with new quarterbacks Kodi Burns and Chris Todd. Vanderbilt's veteran secondary picked off 16 passes last season, and broke up 52 more. Advantage: Vanderbilt.
Auburn's keys to victory are to run the ball, and stop the run, much like last season. If Auburn is forced to throw the football to get first downs, this game may be very close. Statistically, Auburn comes out ahead in nearly all categories, with the notable exception of the secondary. On game day, though, Auburn will have been through a meat-grinder slate of Southern Miss, MSU, LSU, and Tennessee, while Vandy will have played no teams with a winning 2007 record, as well as an off-date before the game. The game's on the road, for Auburn. Will this translate to Auburn being seasoned while Vandy is overconfident? Or will Auburn have trouble overcoming fatigue?
Prediction: In the end, Vanderbilt is just too inexperienced. Auburn wears the Commodores down in the second half, and cruises to victory: 33-6.