I am on sabbatical this term. I am spending the month of September at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y, a suburb of Yonkers. So I am cheering Auburn on from a distance, watching games, if it can be called that, either on ESPN’s Game Tracker or on ESPN360.com. Watching games like this is weird. First, because for all its innovations, Game Tracker at best schematizes games, turning drives into a set of blue arrows and touchdowns into textual notes. ESPN360 is better, of course, but it remains spotty and unpredictable, a bit like the difference between reading the first draft of a student paper and reading a polished, final version. ESPN360 is a kind of first draft coverage of a game.
Those problems aside, I can say that the experience of trying to follow Auburn football under sometimes grey Northern skies and surrounded by omnipresent black cassocks has been novel.
I bring up my current setting to ease into the topic I want to consider. In his brilliant and strange book, “Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason,” Immanuel Kant writes: “It is all the same to us, as far as practical use is concerned, whether we locate the tempter [Satan] within us, or also outside us; for guilt touches us not any the less in the latter case than in the former, inasmuch as we would not be tempted by him were we not in secret agreement with him.”
Now, I am not writing about theology, despite bringing up my current setting; but I want to use Kant’s observation as a jumping-off point for a few reflections about Auburn’s season, and particularly about this weekend’s game against West Virginia University.
The team we have cheered on the last two weeks is still obviously flawed. Depth, as we all know, is an issue at almost every position. The team still has too few wide receivers making plays. Quarterback Chris Todd has played well, but reminders of last year’s struggles have been on display now and then. The defense has too many players playing too many minutes, particularly the linebackers. I also think the defense has not yet quite adjusted psychologically to the new offense. In the days of Coach Tubs, the 14 points put up early against Mississippi State would have been a sufficient condition for the offense to hibernate. The defense seems to me to lose concentration a bit after the offense’s success, almost as though they cannot quite play with the life-and-death urgency of Tub’s years, since the offense is likely to keep scoring. The defense has seemed to get a bit careless in the second quarter and only to refocus after a bit of adversity. It must be strange to be an Auburn defender and no longer feel like the game is for your unit to win or lose. Right now, things look reversed: It is Auburn’s offense, and not its defense, that will decide the outcome of games.
But despite the flaws, there is no doubt that this can be a good team, maybe even a better-than-good team. The decisive factor will be how the team handles the tempter, doubt. Auburn’s defensive end Michael Goggans recently remarked that he wants to forget about last season. No doubt everyone on the team and all the fans do, too. But no one can forget something at will. Last season will remain last season; this was a 5-7 team last year. Some other team, and my guess is that it will be the West Virginia Mountaineers, will push this team to the limit and will act as outside tempter, tempting the team to believe that it is really last year’s team, and not a new team, this year’s team. The question is whether Auburn’s players will be in secret agreement with the tempter, or whether they can deny the tempter, put him behind them really and for true.
Auburn’s offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn talked yesterday about confidence. But of course real confidence is not something that a person can know he has just by consulting his feelings. I may feel as confident as possible but find that, when performance is demanded, I have no confidence. To know if you are confident you must survive the trial of performance. And while Auburn’s two first games suggest a growing confidence, I do not think that the close second quarters of the first two games yet constitute a true trial. When the Tigers fall behind late, if they do, that will be the trial.
The trouble with agreement with the tempter is that it is secret agreement. I may introspect all the daylong and find no such agreement, only to realize it exists when I face temptation. What is written on the hearts of Auburn’s players this year? Is it last year’s dark, apocalyptic text, a text of doubt, written at the dictation of the tempter, or have the tables of their hearts been wiped clean of all that, and a new, brightly confident text written by themselves and the coaching staff, taken its place?
I expect to find out Saturday, hunched over a computer screen in my monkish room. I’ll be the one cheering for blue lines, cheering off in the distance!
Dr. Jolley is a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th- Century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He also likes football and was recently profiled by The New York Times. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007. “Leisure with Dignity,” his column for TWER, runs bi-monthly to monthly. Write to him at [email protected]