Before the season began, I laid out my picks for each and every Alabama, Auburn and UAB game, built upon a time-tested foundation of last year's results, the potential of this year's talent, hearsay and Ouija board questioning. How did I do? Let's find out:
The preseason factsheet: Despite Gene Chizik marching into his first season on the Plains with that 5-19 albatross around his neck, there was a palpable buzz surrounding the Auburn program prior to the first week of September. Fans who savaged the spread last season (the Tony Franklin version, at least), were excited to see if all the fuss they'd heard about Gus Malzahn was actually legitimate. That enthusiasm was curbed slightly when Malzahn named Chris Todd his starting quarterback a couple of weeks prior to the season opener.
We knew that Malzahn was a mad scientist, and that Chizik probably wouldn't mettle in his affairs (a la the Tuberville/Franklin debacle), thereby setting the offense up for early success. We knew that the Tigers' schedule was remarkably easy through the first half of the season, and that, unless the team really was at rock bottom, a fast start wasn't out of the question. Todd's selection elicited a rare triple-spit-take from sportswriters across the college football landscape, but Malzahn was supposedly a terrific judge of offensive talent and had to be trusted until proven otherwise. Regardless, Auburn was loaded in the offensive backfield with Ben Tate, Mario Fannin, Eric Smith and newcomer Onterio McCalebb, and that would certainly help to take pressure off of Todd if he faltered early on.
The preseason pick: 4-2 through the mid-point of the season and 6-6 overall. Losses, through week six, at the hands of West Virginia and Arkansas.
The reality: Auburn's spread caught on a lot quicker than we anticipated, in part because of that easy schedule, in part because Chris Todd's arm was in far better shape than it was last season. But Auburn only played one team with a defense ranked in the top 20 (Tennessee, No. 12.) through the first five games. The Tigers' other four opponents - Louisiana Tech (No. 103), Mississippi State (No. 71), West Virginia (No. 34) and Ball State (No. 101) - undoubtedly made a significant contribution to Auburn's gaudy early season offensive statistics. But the Tigers cracked the first time they faced an above-average quarterback with a similarly explosive offense, falling 44-23 at Arkansas. They currently own a 5-1 record.
The future: The key to stopping the Auburn offense: Play physical defense and knock the Malzahn spread out of rhythm early. This is what Arkansas managed to do, despite being ranked near the bottom, statistically speaking, in total defense in the NCAA. The bad news: There are three extraordinarily tough defensive teams remaining on Auburn's schedule: Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama. The good news: The other three games (Georgia, Kentucky and Furman) are all very winnable. So, I'll say Auburn splits the remaining games and finishes with an 8-4 record. As for the bowl...Music City or Peach.
The preseason factsheet: The Tide shocked us all last year, finishing undefeated through the regular season and 12-2 overall, but chances were 2009 would be (at least in some respect) a rebuilding year. That usually goes without saying when you introduce new starters at quarterback, runningback, left tackle, center and free safety. We figured that Alabama's offense would take some time to come around, meaning that the defense would have to step up and win early.
Much like their counterparts on the other side of the state, Alabama was flush with outstanding runningbacks. Even the roster breakdown was the same: A trio of veterans (Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant) and a hotshot freshman (Trent Richarson). We knew that Greg McElroy was essentially the Tide's only true option at quarterback this season. We figured that the mantle for leadership on defense, which had belonged to Rashad Johnson, would likely be passed on to Rolando McClain. We knew that Alabama was generally deep and extraordinarily fast on both sides of the ball. And we knew that the third season's usually the charm for Alabama football coaches.
The preseason pick: 4-2 through the midpoint of the season, 10-2 overall. Losses against Virginia Tech and Ole Miss. (Although, I did include the addendum that if Alabama beat Virginia Tech in the opener, that they would run the table and play for a national title.)
The reality: Alabama is far and away better than I thought, at least through the mid-point of the season, sitting undefeated and ranked second overall in the AP poll. The offense is far more efficient under McElroy's leadership than at any point during last season. Although he studied at the feet of John Parker Wilson, G-Mac seems to have picked up none of JPW's bad habits. In fact, McElroy has thrown only one interception all season, and that came in week one versus Virginia Tech. Mark Ingram is a bonafide star at runningback: 659 yards and seven touchdowns on 111 carries. The defense, although not quite in the realm of that 1992 unit, is playing as well as any other squad in the country to this point. As of now, Alabama is ranked second overall in total defense and first among teams who have played at least six games.
The future: Alabama should, should, win the remainder of their regular season games. Failure to do so would likely result from lack of mental focus week-to-week or a sudden rash of injuries. The only really difficult match-up remaining on the schedule is the home game against LSU, but with the Tigers' offense struggling this season under Gary Crowton, Alabama seems destined to run their streak in that series to two-in-a-row. We all seem to be counting down the days to the SEC Championship game and the rematch of the century thus far between the Tide and the Florida Gators. Any chance Nick Saban lets them slip away two years in a row? Nope. Alabama will run the table and play in Pasadena for the first time in 64 years.
The preseason hype: OK, so there wasn't a ton of hype surrounding the Blazers this season, but the expectation was that UAB would continue to slowly improve, as they have done for the past couple of seasons. The schedule wasn't going to be any easier, with games at Texas A&M and Ole Miss, but with Neil Callaway entering his third season and Conference USA lacking a truly dominant team, UAB figured to be in the thick of the C-USA race.
The preseason factsheet: This much we knew: First, UAB was deeper on both sides of the ball than they had been at any time under Callaway's tenure. It was assumed that the new depth would instantly impact the defensive side of the ball, which consistently suffered breakdowns throughout last season. Second, the offense would revolve around Joe Webb. We all knew he could run, but could he improve his passing game enough to make the Blazers a little more two-dimensional than they were last season?
The preseason pick: 2-3 through week six, 5-7 overall. Losses against Rice, Troy and Southern Miss.
The realty: UAB (which hey, is 2-3! Right on!) has been pretty inconsistent thus far, winning a couple of games they probably shouldn't have won and losing a couple they probably should have. The win over Southern Miss was undeniably huge for Callaway and the program as a whole, coming in front of a nice Thursday night home crowd and a national television audience. Webb has been feast or famine this season, gangbusters against Rice and Southern Miss, and plain bust against SMU, Troy and A&M. But the defense has shown improvement over last season. They hit harder. They create more turnovers. They put Webb and the offense in position to win with much more consistency. The rankings don't show that (112th overall) but the film reflects improvement.
The future: It seems that every time I pick the Blazers they lose and vice-versa. So I might be jinxing things up here. Florida Atlantic, Memphis and Central Florida look like wins right now. East Carolina seems shaky. Marshall and UTEP look decent. Ole Miss is pretty good. Therefore, I'm sticking with my original pick, 5-7 overall. If the win over the Golden Eagles lights a fire underneath this team, six wins is a possibility. In that case...perhaps the New Orleans Bowl will make an offer.