Arkansas St.-Auburn Preview

While Auburn enjoyed a successful first year under coach Gene

Chizik, it would like to finish better this season.

Looking for another quick start, the 22nd-ranked Tigers will try

to extend their perfect record against the Sun Belt conference

Saturday when they face Arkansas State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Hired in December 2008 following the resignation of Tommy

Tuberville, Chizik was not a popular addition to the program after

posting a 5-19 record in the previous two seasons coaching Iowa

State.

The former Auburn defensive coordinator, though, has received a

better reception lately after leading the Tigers to an 8-5 record

last season, capped by a 38-35 overtime victory over Northwestern

in the Outback Bowl. While Auburn made a three-win improvement from

2008, it dropped five of seven after opening 5-0.

“We’ve got to finish,” said senior linebacker Josh Bynes, a

preseason All-SEC selection. “That’s what our coaches are

preaching…. We lost key games and we’ve got to finish on top now

instead of finishing on the bottom of those.”

The return of safeties Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac

Etheridge could help the Tigers accomplish that goal. Savage, a

sixth-year senior, missed the 2008 season with a torn knee ligament

and was sidelined last season due to a torn Achilles’ tendon.

McNeil missed last season with a broken leg, while Etheridge

suffered a cracked vertebrae and torn neck ligaments against

Mississippi on Oct. 31.

“What we’ve all been through, it’s self-explanatory,” Etheridge

said. “All of us have had an injury where it could have been our

last play. I think that’s the motivation in itself, that we go out

there and compete every day. We’re all excited to be back out there

together.”

Daren Bates started every game at safety last season as a

freshman, but he will move to linebacker this season alongside

Bynes and senior Craig Stevens. Bynes and Stevens led Auburn with

104 and 95 tackles, respectively, but the defense yielded a

school-record 4,863 yards in 2009.

Auburn was ranked 68th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards

allowed per game (374.1) and 79th in scoring defense (27.5 per

contest).

With the Tigers’ defense on the field for a SEC-high 945 plays

last season, Bynes and Stevens did not get much rest.

“We’re in a position where we don’t have to do that this year,”

said defensive coordinator and linebacker coach Ted Roof, “but

they’re still going to have to carry the load.”

While the defense looks to improve, transfer quarterback Cameron

Newton replaces Chris Todd to lead an offense that totaled a

school-record 5,613 yards last season.

Newton, who led Blinn (Texas) College to the NJCAA national

championship in 2009, returns to the FBS level after spending 2007

and a portion of 2008 as one of Tim Tebow’s backups at Florida.

“As I’ve told him, as I’ve told everybody else, he’s got to get

on the field now and deliver,” Chizik said.

Newton should not only benefit from one of the nation’s most

experienced offensive lines, led by left tackle Lee Ziemba, he will

have multiple weapons in the backfield and at receiver.

Senior Mario Fannin and sophomore Onterio McCalebb should see

plenty of carries for the Tigers with second-team All-SEC running

back Ben Tate gone, but highly touted freshman Michael Dyer is also

expected to make an impact.

“The thing about Mike is he ran for 8,000 yards in high school

(at Little Rock Christian Academy in Arkansas),” said running

backs coach Curtis Luper. “That’s all he’s ever done, is gain

yards. That’s just all he knows. He’ll do the same thing

here.”

Junior wide receiver Darvin Adams, who was second in the SEC

with 997 yards and 10 TDs last season, will likely be one of

Newton’s favorite targets, along with senior Terrell Zachery.

While Auburn is 14-0 all-time against the Sun Belt, Arkansas

State will try to improve its 1-46-3 record versus current SEC

members.

Coming off a 4-8 season and ranking second-to-last in the

conference in rushing (135.3) and passing yards per game (193.6),

Red Wolves coach Steve Roberts is looking for quarterback Ryan

Aplin to run the team’s new spread offense installed by first-year

offensive coordinator Hugh Freeze.

“They’ve got a new offense that is fast-tempo,” Chizik said.

“It’s very similar to ours in that regard with a new offensive

coordinator, so we’re going out and trying to win.”

Auburn won 27-0 in the only meeting between the schools in

2006.