By Acid Reign
November 8th is Homecoming, at Auburn, and this year's tasty dessert for the day is the U. T. Martin Skyhawks. The scheduling of yet another Championship Subdivision team has been the topic of much debate among the Auburn faithful. While it can be argued that the inclusion of The Citadel on Auburn's 2004 schedule cost the Tigers a shot at the BCS title game, it's ancient history. The rules have changed, and big-time teams are scheduling lower-echelon teams in droves. Far more alarming is the fact that this game will the third year in a row that Auburn plays a cupcake, in preparation for the Georgia game. The past two seasons, Auburn toyed around with Arkansas State and Tennessee Tech, putting together lackluster efforts, only to follow that performance with a stinker against Georgia.
I would propose that unlike previous years, we should use this game as a tune up. Run the full offense and defense. The starters should go at least two series into the second half, regardless of how ugly the score gets. Auburn will be getting ready for a tremendous collision the next week, and it's no time to go soft. Georgia will be the biggest, meanest, nastiest team Auburn will face next season. Should we be in a position to possibly play in the BCS title game at the end of the year, a 50+ point beatdown will look a LOT better on the schedule, than a 27-0 struggle.
At first glance, the Skyhawks are a Championship Subdivision team coming in with a 4-7 record from a year ago, and hardly merit a look. The most notable fact revealed in the Auburn blogosphere to this point, is that the Skyhawk uniforms are a near carbon-copy of the uniforms Auburn wears. The only major-college challenge this team will have faced this season prior to this game, is a trip to face the South Florida Bulls for the season-opener. While this football game may well resemble another A-Day game, there is more to U. T. Martin than meets the eye.
Prior to the arrival of current head coach Jason Simpson, U. T. Martin had not been to the I-aa playoffs since 1988, and they had not won a conference road game since 1996. Under Simpson, in his first season, the Skyhawks won the Ohio Valley conference title, and advanced to a first-round playoff loss. Last year, the Skyhawks started the year ranked, but injuries, a slow start, and a bushel of close losses resulted in an 0-6 start. The Skyhawks finished strong, winning four of their last five. The Skyhawk offense came alive, and averaged over 46 points a game during those last five.
The Skyhawks run a fairly modern pro-passing scheme, on offense, with an emphasis on the running game. This year is likely to feature heavy doses of sophomore tailback Trace McDermott, who came on strong at the end of last year. McDermott won the team's "All American Award," for the best results of winter conditioning, this year. McDermott is a slashing, strong tailback in the mold of Kenny Irons, and will be trouble for any defense.
On defense, the Skyhawks run a 4-4 look, with the rover playing essentially a 4th linebacker position. I would expect that the Skyhawks will have to modify that a bit, to match up with the Tony Franklin offense. U. T. Martin is unusually big and strong in the middle of the defensive line, for a Championship Subdivision team, but their ends and linebackers are light. Naturally, at a school this size, depth is an issue. When everyone was healthy last season, this was a pretty salty unit. With an injury or two, the floodgates would open.
U. T. Martin fields solid special teams, and both kicking specialists return. The team has not settled on starting return men, and this may be done by committee, this fall. The difficult thing to assess will be the coverage matchups. The UT Martin coverage units will have to use a lot of starters, to contain Auburn's speedy returners.
(Note: I'm not going to waste the html/bandwidth typing "Advantage, Auburn" repeatedly. Auburn outclasses this team in every area.)
Auburn defensive line vs. U. T. Martin offensive line: Probably the most prominent lineman the Skyhawks have is returning senior guard Kevin Bannon, a 275-pound All-OVC player a year ago. If pressed, the Skyhawks can bring Quinton Groves off the bench at center.(!) Looking at the depth chart, this line is NOT SEC-sized. The average weight of the 5 starters is 255 pounds, and both guys on the right side are 240. That's the side that has to block SenDerrick Marks and Mike Goggans. Ouch.
Auburn linebackers vs.U. T. Martin runners: UT Martin lost their leading rusher to graduation, but they return a trio of capable ones, led by 210 pound sophomore Trace McDermott. None of the tailbacks are large, but they do have a pair of 230-pound fullbacks paving the way, in senior Romiell Dunlap and redshirt freshman Jarvis Perry. The Skyhawks are still looking for a short-yardage option. These are capable runners, but they'll be dealing with fast Auburn linebackers, and probably linemen running loose in the backfield, too.
Auburn corners vs. U. T. Martin receivers: The Skyhawks return 3 capable wide receivers, led by junior Roren Thomas, who led the team last season with 533 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. By an SEC scale, these guys are smallish, and none has blazing speed. Auburn's coverage should be able to stay with them with no problems.
Auburn safeties vs. U. T. Martin secondary receivers and quarterback: Martin returns two veteran junior quarterbacks that they use interchangeably. Cade Thompson is a 6' 2" pocket passer, while Dexter Anoka is a 5' 10" spark plug with good athleticism and scrambling ability. The tight ends are led by senior Linzy Patterson. A 6' 4", 250 pound specimen, Patterson caught 20 balls for 194 yards, most on screens and dump-offs. The coaches would like to flex him out more, this year, as a slot receiver. Auburn's Zack Etheridge and Mike McNeil should both be fine in this matchup.
Punting: UT Martin returns senior Adam Ivey, who averaged 39.9 yards per punt, vs. pre-season All-SEC Ryan Shoemaker, who averaged over 42. The Skyhawks kicked it high, though, and limited opponents to 5.2 yards per return. Auburn coverage averaged 6.5. The Skyhawks have not settled on return men, and may well use a speedy incoming freshman such as Darryl Bourne.
Kickoffs: In U. T. Martin, we finally will face a team that had a lower kickoff yards average than Auburn had last season. The Skyhawks averaged 56.7, to Auburn's 57.9. The Skyhawks held opponents to 20.9 yards per return, to Auburn's 21.2. Consider, though, the teams play against vastly different levels of competition...
Placekicking: Senior Tom Hansen returns for the Skyhawks, last season hitting 11 of 15 field goal attempts, and 42 of 45 extra points. 3 of the 4 field goal misses were beyond 40 yards. Missed extra points are a concern. Wes Byrum of Auburn only had one of those, last season.
Auburn offensive line vs. U. T. Martin defensive line: Senior defensive tackles Ray Williams and Jerrod Grace may be the best players on the U. T. Martin team. Williams made All-OVC despite playing much of the year with his hand in a cast. Ends Craig Worthen and Nate Wilson are both seniors, but they are light, by SEC standards, in the 220-230 pound range. Auburn's lightest end, by comparison, is Antonio Coleman, at 250. The most telling statistic about the Skyhawk line, in 2007? Zero tackles of an opposing running back in the backfield. All year. This line will not fare well with Auburn's line, which is probably the deepest unit on the team.
Auburn backs vs.U. T. Martin linebackers: The Skyhawks take their biggest graduation hit here, in the linebacker corps. All is not lost, though. Sophmore Sam linebacker Josh Bey returns, who had 38 tackles a year ago. Beside Bey, and junior Adrian Pruitt, though, it's all JUCOs and freshmen. Auburn's feature back of the day should do well.
Auburn receivers vs. U. T. Martin corners: Junior Dorsett Pendleton and senior Anthony Ivy will start at corner for the Skyhawks. Ivy has All-OVC potential, and is fast and athletic. Ivy is small, at 5'9" and 175 pounds, but has good technique. The wildcard is junior college transfer Jimmy Jones, who is 6' 2". If Jones can play, it would give the Martin secondary surprisingly good ability and depth to stay with Auburn's plethora of receivers. However, with a dominant Auburn front and running game, it probably won't matter.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. U. T. Martin safeties: Nowhere last season, did the Skyhawks have more problems than at the safety position. If healthy, senior Dante Harrold is capable. He's never gone through a season without missing games, though. The other starter, junior Dontrell Miller, is a smart, capable player, but he's undersized at 5' 8"and 175 pounds. I have trouble imagining him covering Tommy Trott! To add depth, coach Simpson has moved sophomore running back Gerald Guffin to safety. Guffin has legitimate 4.5 speed, and at 190 pounds, can hit. Auburn's attack will be hard on this unit, unless the Tigers pack it in and run the ball 90% of the time.
On paper, there's not a single position where U. T. Martin matches up with Auburn. The team is designed to brutalize and overpower the OVC, but against SEC-sized players, it won't work. This game will be as ugly as Auburn cares to make it.
Prediction: Auburn roars out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, then coasts to a 44-10 victory.