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September 30, 2009

LIVE Auburn chat upcoming

I’ll be answering questions about Auburn football in a LIVE chat Thursday at 1 p.m. ET/noon CT. Here’s the link. We’ve fixed the technical problems that prevented last week’s chat from getting underway. I’ll go for an hour if I keep getting questions. Hope to see you there.

Tiger Walk nixed by Tennessee athletic officials

We just got this update from Auburn sports information about the Tiger Walk outside of Neyland Stadium in Tennessee this Saturday:

“Officials at the University of Tennessee have informed Auburn Athletics that Tiger fans will be allowed to greet the team as they get off the bus, but that the band and cheerleaders may not participate because of safety and crowding concerns in the visiting team drop-off area, which is on a hill in a very tight space.”

In a story by Austin Ward of the Knoxville News Sentinel, a Tennessee spokesman gave an explanation.

“In 2004 when the Tigers played here, we had approximately 5,000 fans show up with the band and the cheerleaders, which was a great atmosphere, but a huge safety issue for the student-athletes, band and cheerleaders and fans because of the tight space.

“If something had happened to a fan in that area, EMT would not have been able to respond because of the crowd size.”

New video: Malzahn impressed by Tennessee D

I’ve got a new video up. It’s got offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, safeties Zac Etheridge and Daren Bates, defensive end Antoine Carter and cornerback Walt McFadden. Enjoy. I’ll be back tonight with an update after practice.

And follow the blog on Twitter if you have a chance. It’s well worth it for instant updates.

Wednesday links (9/30)

Hey all, I’ll be doing my weekly LIVE chat Thursday at 1 p.m. ET/noon CT. We’ve fixed the glitch that prevented last week’s from getting underway, so everything should be good. I’ll get a link up once it’s posted on our Web site. Hope to see you there.

In the meantime, here are a few links as we close out September and look forward to October …

  • Lesson Four: The quarterbacks in Alabama are just fine. Better than fine, actually. … Those Auburn fans who derided Chris Todd 11) last season as an overmatched SEC quarterback who was little more than doomed offensive coordinator Tony Franklin‘s pet have presumably changed their tune. Todd has flourished in Gus Malzahn‘s version of the spread and ranks sixth nationally in pass efficiency, with 11 touchdowns and one interception.
  • Another day, another Tim Tebow update. It’s a good thing Florida has a bye this week or the hysteria would be ridiculous.
  • Speaking of Twitter, it’s becoming a serious issue in football, with coaches trying to restrict what their players tweet and when when they do it. Kevin Sherrington of the Dallas News weighs in on the subject here.

Vols’ defense presents tough challenge for Auburn

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper about Auburn’s offense matching up against a Monte Kiffin-coached Tennessee defense. Here’s how it starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn never has been accused of being underprepared. Auburn’s offensive coordinator studies opposing defenses with a fine eye, looking for any kind of deficiency or weak spot to exploit when Saturday rolls around.

In watching film of Tennessee, led by former NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, weaknesses have been hard to find.

“There have been very few, if any,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to have to earn everything we get.”

It will be a battle of wits when Malzahn’s fast-paced Auburn offense matches up with Kiffin’s give-nothing Tennessee defense in Knoxville this Saturday.

Malzahn’s Tigers rank third nationally in total offense (526.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (45.2 points per game). Kiffin’s Vols rank eighth in total defense (233.0 ypg) and 33rd in scoring defense (18.9 ppg).

“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Auburn running back Ben Tate said. “It’s going to be a real test to see where we’re really at. Tennessee is probably going to be one of the best defenses we face all year — if not the best.”

Read the rest here. And follow the blog on Twitter.

Late practice notes: DE Carter is back following offseason surgery; RG Isom allowed to practice

AUBURN, Ala. — Defensive end Antoine Carter had a tough time waiting to get back on the field the last few months. The junior had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on April 7, with Dr. James Andrews scoping his knee and anchoring things back in place.

“It was tough, but I made it through and I’m here now,’ Carter said. “That just made me more hungry, made me want to come back. Now I’m like a tiger wanting to get out of a cage.”

Carter played in a game for the first time last Saturday against Ball State, working with the second team and getting in on three tackles. His return is a boost to a line that has basically operated with Antonio Coleman, Michael Goggans and freshman Dee Ford at defensive end the first few weeks.

Carter, who still wears a bulky brace, will face a challenge against a physical Tennessee offensive line that is sure to test the strength of that knee.

“I’ll be confident. … I think Ol’ Sparky’s going to hold me down,” Carter said, slapping his knee.

Follow the blog on Twitter. Also read some of these other notes …

  • Right guard Byron Isom might be serving a team-imposed suspension, but that doesn’t mean the junior is not practicing. Chizik said Isom, who was not allowed to play in the Tigers’ game against Ball State last week, has been working with the team during practice. Chizik gave no update as to when Isom would be allowed to play in a game again. “If you guys see him out there, he’s going to do all the things that we said that he needs to do to get out there and play,” Chizik said. Freshman John Sullen started in Isom’s place last week. Junior Bart Eddins and sophomore Jared Cooper could get some time there as well this week.
  • Anthony Gulley and Demond Washington have been returning punts during practice this week, cornerback Walt McFadden said. Running back Onterio McCalebb said he’s been fielding some punts this week as well. “They haven’t named the guy who’s going to be back there yet,” McCalebb said.
  • McCalebb sounds like he’s up to the challenge. “I’ve been wanting to do it since day one,” he said. “But they wouldn’t put me back there because I was doing a whole bunch of other stuff.”
  • Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn doesn’t mind scoring on quick drives like the Tigers did last week, when their first four touchdown drives each lasted less than two minutes. “We just take it whatever way it comes,” he said. “We were able to make some big plays and we had some short drives and we were able to score some points.”
  • That kind of quick scoring has been tough on Auburn’s defense, which has been on the field a whole lot as a result. The Tigers’ opponents have a 32:15 to 27:45 advantage in time of possession this year. “You’d like to do both,” Malzahn said of scoring quick and keeping the defense off the field. “You never want to put your defense in a bind. So we do want to speed up the game. We do want to have a lot of plays. So if it works out with time of possession, that’s good.”
  • Malzahn said Auburn has other options at Wildcat if Kodi Burns is injured and can’t go. He declined to name anybody specific.
  • Auburn has practiced with a silent count during practice to deal with the anticipated crowd noise. “It doesn’t really change anything I do,” center Ryan Pugh said. “We just have to practice for the noise. If we get up early you can take the crowd out of it. If not, we’ll play with the crowd and whole time and I’m sure we’ll manage.”
  • Tennessee’s Lane Kiffin sounds like he’s intrigued by Malzahn’s offense. “There’s so much stuff going on around it,” he said . “I talked to my dad the other night and he said it’s like trying to read a book with someone waving their hand in front of the book — trying to look at it, what’s going on, but you can’t really see it. You can’t really focus because there’s so much misdirection and so much shifting motion.”
  • I wrote my story tomorrow about the matchup between Malzahn’s offense and Monte Kiffin‘s Tennessee defense. Here’s what Pugh said about Monte’s D: “He just does what does. The same stuff he probably did with the Buccaneers. I’m sure it’s just a little more refined, maybe not as complex.”
  • Wide receiver Darvin Adams on going up against Tennessee’s all-world safety Eric Berry: “When it’s a big name or a top player, it definitely does get you excited. It shows what you can do or what you can’t do.
  • Safety Daren Bates respects Berry quite a bit. “I’ve looked at him on YouTube a couple times. He is a hard hitter, which I like. He comes downhill in coverage. He’s a caliber player. I can look up to him as someone I’d like to be like, him and Taylor Mays, the top 2 safeties.”
  • Bates said head coach Gene Chizik told him to settle down after he got a little too hyped following a tackle last week. “I felt like that game was just a stepping stone for this coming weekend and I was just hyped,” he said. “He had to settle me down and told me to celebrate with my teammates next time.”
  • Tennessee likes to run the ball. Auburn know this. “I think we can be physical with them,” Bates said. “We like to be physical. We’ve got physical players on the d-line and linebackers so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. They’re playing into our hands, actually. We’re going to man up with them and play physical with them.”
  • Coleman is a leader because he says quotes like this and backs it up: “If you step out on the field in my 11, you’re going to be ready.”
  • Coleman’s been wearing a cast on one of his hands. He’s not fond of it. “I’m down on the line,” he said. “I’ve got to have my hands. I’ve got to shoot my hands. I’ve got to get off blocks. I’m still adjusting to it. I’m messing with the trainers every day, but it’s for my own safety and I respect that.”
  • Coleman hasn’t been too thrilled with how the defense has played. “It doesn’t sit with me… at all,” he said. “We’re a much better defense than that. To give up 30 points to Ball State? That’s just bad. Like I said before, we can’t do that. We’re a much better defense than that — much better unit than that. We’re making a lot of small mistakes. Guys not fitting like they’re supposed to and leaving guys wide open. You get in the SEC and you can get blown out just like that. We can’t go down to Tennessee with that or any of these other games we’ve got left. It doesn’t sit well with me at all. I don’t like it.”
  • Here’s how he’s dealing with it: “Met in a meeting and I just told them this is not a great thing. Opponents look at us on film and say, ‘Ball State hung 30 on these guys.’ It makes you look vulnerable on defense. Just talking to the guys, it’s a lot of small things. So when a guy is in practice and he misses a fit or misses a tackle, I’m all in his ear. I feel that’s my duty to do that just to make us a better team.”
  • LB Craig Stevens said the stats from the Ball State game are a little deceiving. “We played well,” he said. “I don’t even remember what quarter they started scoring all those points. I think it’s deceiving. We tried to work some young guys in later in the game and later on I think we just pulled off a little bit in the head.”
  • Stevens on not being ranked: “We talked about it the other week. Sooner or later if we keep winning, they’re going to have to show us. We’re used to not getting no love around here. Even when we were No. 2, we weren’t getting no highlights on SportsCenter. We kind of used to it. I know the older guys are used to it. We used it as motivation, like we always do, just to go out there and keep winning because sooner or later we’ll have to get on there. They’ll have to show us some kind of love.”

September 29, 2009

Unbeaten Tigers still not ranked in either poll

Of the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, only three are 4-0 this season and not in either of the Top 25 polls.

You guessed it: Auburn’s one of them.

“As long as we keep winning and as long as we stay undefeated, they’ve got to talk about us sooner or later,” cornerback Walt McFadden said.

The other unranked 4-0 schools are South Florida and Wisconsin. Like those two, Auburn remains in the others receiving votes category in both polls, effectively putting it 27th in the Associated Press poll and 28th in the USA Today/Coaches’ poll.

But voters have been slow to buy into the Tigers’ fast start, probably because of the level of competition (only West Virginia carries any kind of national cache) and location (all four games have been at Jordan-Hare Stadium).

Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, who was a staff member on the undefeated 2004 team that was snubbed for the national championship because of its place in the polls, doesn’t pay much attention to it.

“I don’t control that and I don’t even have a thought on it,” Chizik said. “Week to week we have to win and all that other stuff takes care of itself. I don’t spend a lot of energy on things I have absolutely no control over.”

Nevertheless, Auburn’s players think a win in a hostile environment against a big-name school like Tennessee could push the Tigers into the Top 25.

“Yeah, just because there’s more publicity on this one,” left guard Mike Berry said. “This is the one we actually need to put us in that top 25.”

LIVE blogging Gene Chizik press conference

Auburn head coach Gene Chizik is on the podium for his weekly press conference. Here’s what he’s said:

  • “Going to be an exciting week for us. We’ve got a lot of work to do to be able to travel to Tennessee and win the ballgame.”
  • “We all know how tough it is to play in Tennessee.”
  • “It’ll be new for us because there are so many players who haven’t traveled, period.”
  • Doesn’t know if piping in noise during practice will help with communication Saturday.
  • “We’re not going to change anything. We’re just going to do business as usual.”
  • Tennessee S Eric Berry is good. “I think you’re always cognizant of where he is. He can take a guy out of a game. From a defensive perspective right now, he’s one of the guys that if you put him on somebody and chose to have him take someone out of the game, you’ve got to know that. We’ll always know where he is because he is that good of a player and can dominate a game.
  • Thinks the wide receivers’ success is due largely to Trooper Taylor. “Everybody loves him,” Chizik said.
  • Has Trooper cranked it up? “I think you get to the level where you can’t crank it up any more,” Chizik joked.
  • Tennessee defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is “one of the best in the business.”
  • Everybody will get a look at punt returner. “But we’re not kicking the other guys to the curb, either,” he said.
  • Auburn’s not ranked. “I don’t control that. I don’t even have a thought on it. I don’t spend a lot of energy on things that I have no control over.”
  • Someone brought up Auburn’s 2004 circumstance, when it did matter. “We’ve just got to win week-to-week.”
  • Chizik said he has not changed his coaching approach on special teams, despite Auburn’s struggles.
  • No change in S Mike McNeil‘s status. Chizik didn’t say whether he would travel to Tennessee.
  • Chizik on the importance of coaching: “The guy’s I’ve got here right now I want to make sure can coach my 9-year-old son.”
  • Chizik said Monte Kiffin was very kind to him early in his career when he was at Central Florida and eager to learn more from the nearby Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator.
  • “We’ve had a whole bunch of scenarios that we’ve played through and we’re 4-0. So I’m happy to see that. But we’re still feeling each other out, we’re still learning. There are still a lot of things we’re going to have to get through together.”
  • He reluctantly said QB Chris Todd has been better than expected. “We felt (in August) like Chris could be a very good player in this offense. How good? We didn’t know, because we never saw him in game day. But I think that he’s done some things we expected him to do.”
  • Onterio McCalebb and Kodi Burns, you guessed it, are day-by-day.
  • “I think going to Tennessee to play there is going to be a huge indicator of who were are, not just for this month, but for the rest of the year.”
  • “If you play well and do win the game, it does catapult you over another hurdle.”
  • RG Byron Isom has had no change in his status, but Chizik said the lineman is practicing.

Tuesday links (9/29)

It’s Tuesday, a day full of Auburn information, but I’m not going to bypass the links. Here they are …

  • Dave Hooker of the Knoxville News Sentinel writes a story about Auburn wide receivers coach, a former Tennessee assistant coach. Here’s a tidbit Tigers fans might find interesting about the presumably upwardly mobile coach:
  • “They’ve changed a little bit,” Taylor said of his priorities. “Now I’m at the point to where I want to make sure I’m not moving my kids around in high school so I want to be established at a place for the next four or five years where they can set their roots.”
  • Suspended Alabama linebacker Jerrell Harris could make it back by Week 7 for the Crimson Tide, writes Michael Casagrande of the Decatur Daily. That could be big for a defense that just lost Dont’a Hightower for the year.
  • Georgia’s offensive line was supposed to be a strength this year. Instead, it’s been inconsistent, writes David Hale of the Macon Telegraph.
  • Dan Mullen‘s not a second-guesser, writes Kyle Veazey of the Clarion Ledger. The Bulldogs coach is a first-guesser and wouldn’t have called his goal line plays any differently against LSU. Me? I would have run it straight up the middle four times. But what do I know other than running a highly successful dynasty on NCAA ’10 on the PlayStation 3.
  • Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has banned his players from using Twitter after one of them commented about waiting for a late-arriving Leach at a meeting. Bet if it had been about pirates, Leach wouldn’t have minded.
  • New York Times “On Language” columnist William Safire died at the age of 79 Sunday. He obviously had an effect on journalists across the country for his attention to the English language, which prompted one of the better briefs ever by The Onion.

Road game brings new challenge for Auburn

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper about Auburn going on the road for the first time this year and the different set of circumstances that brings. Here’s how it starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — Of the players on Auburn’s roster, freshman running back Onterio McCalebb might be the only one who has stepped onto the field at Neyland Stadium in a competitive game.

It was last year. He was at Hargrave Military Academy. Tennessee’s JV squad was the opponent. Suffice to say, the stands weren’t standing room only.

“This is going to be a whole different thing playing in front of 110,000,” McCalebb said.

It will be a new challenge for the Tigers (4-0, 1-0 SEC) this Saturday when they travel to Knoxville to face Tennessee (2-2, 0-1) in front of a different shaded sea of orange.

Because of the unbalanced SEC schedule, it’s Auburn first trip to Neyland Stadium since a 34-10 victory in 2004, meaning no current member of the team has played a major college game there.

“It’s a big atmosphere,” said left guard Mike Berry, who, as one of three Tennessee natives on the roster, has made a few trips to the stadium. “One-hundred ten thousand (fans). It gets real loud.”

To read the rest, click here. Also, be sure to follow the blog on Twitter lest you be deemed uncool by your more hip friends.