The Sports Network
By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 22nd-ranked Auburn Tigers of the Southeastern Conference kick off the 2010 season with a home game against the Arkansas State Red Wolves of the Sun Belt Conference.
Arkansas State posted just a 4-8 record last season, their worst showing since going 3-8 in 2004. Head coach Steve Roberts, who took the helm in 2002, has yet to lead ASU to a winning record, though the program has notched six wins on four separate occasions and even earned a share of the Sun Belt title in 2005. The offense lost many key weapons from a year ago, yet Roberts seems optimistic heading into this week-one challenge.
"I feel great about our team," said coach Roberts recently. "This is one of the best groups I've had an opportunity to work with, and so we're excited about this team and what's ahead for us in 2010."
As for Auburn, it is nationally ranked to start a season for the seventh time in the last eight years. The Tigers, who are 90-25-2 all-time in season- opening games, have won their last four lidlifters. They are led into battle by second-year head coach Gene Chizik, who led his squad to an 8-5 mark a year ago. The coach has 24 seniors on the roster, which is the largest senior class in the history of the storied program.
"We certainly look back at last year and see a football team that at times played well, at times didn't play well," says Chizik, who seems to have the horses in place to compete in the always talent-packed SEC.
The only previous meeting between these two teams took place in 2006, a 27-0 Auburn victory. Furthermore, the Tigers are 14-0 all-time against current members of the Sun Belt Conference.
As mentioned, the Red Wolves lost many key cogs from the 2009 offense that averaged only 328.8 total ypg and 22.7 ppg. New offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze has implemented a no-huddle, spread attack, and Ryan Aplin has been named as the quarterback to run the system. A full-time starter for the first time, Aplin stepped in for ASU's injured starter a year ago and completed over 65 percent of his tosses while generating more then 1,200 yards of total offense. It will be interesting to see if Aplin appears to be recovered from offseason shoulder surgery. The wideouts are unproven, and the team must also replace a tailback who ran for over 4,000 yards in his career. The best news to report for the offense heading into this battle with Auburn is that 10 offensive linemen who started at least one game in 2009 return.
ASU hopes that Bryan Hall will emerge as a major force beginning with Saturday's game. The lone returning starter up front, Hall was recently named the Sun Belt's preseason Defensive Player of the Year. It marked the third time in the past four years that an ASU player has received that honor. The 6-1, 284-pound tackle earned Second Team All-SBC accolades last season after making 30 stops, including nine for loss. Much like the defensive line, the secondary is rather green. The Red Wolves' linebacking corps will likely be the strength of the defense this season, especially considering that Demario Davis is back after leading the team with 80 tackles last season as a sophomore and is a star in the making.
"Demario obviously had a great year for us last year, and we're looking for more consistency from him this year," Roberts said.
Auburn fans are eager to see the debut of quarterback Cameron Newton, a former Florida Gator who made a stop at a junior college last season. Once a backup to Tim Tebow, Newton is a junior who will be given every opportunity to shine in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's wide-open attack.
"There's question marks in terms of what's he going to do and how is the function of our offense going to be when you're playing in front of 90,000 people," says Chizik of Newton.
The Auburn offensive line returns four starters, and Mario Fannin, a senior, is a multi-talented back who has yet to shine for the Tigers, but he certainly has the talent to do so. A couple of starting wideouts are back in place, including standout Darvin Adams, who recorded 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
In 2009, the Tigers ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 27.5 ppg. They struggled against both the run and the pass, but with eight starters back in the fold, there is certainly good reason for optimism. At the linebacker position, senior Josh Bynes returns after posting 104 tackles last season. Fellow senior Craig Stevens will be an impact player as well, and those two will have to be accounted for on every play by Arkansas State. Up front, Antoine Carter is a man who will be counted on to provide a consistent pass rush as a senior, something he hasn't been able to do so far in his collegiate career. Seniors Zac Etheridge, the leader of the defensive backfield, and Aairon Savage will be expected to make plays against both forms of attack.
There is no reason to expect anything other than a lopsided Auburn victory. Newton will impress in his debut for Chizik's squad, but the level of competition will certainly spike in the coming weeks.