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Sunday knee-jerk: Great nonexpectations

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Not a Nonscoring Tight End

Entry No. 4,737 in the ongoing Auburn Football “What a Difference a Year Makes” Chronicles: last fall I’m following the UT-Martin game via the AUfficial site’s Gametracker, with its little animated cones and triangles and bouncing footballs, and when the tiny triangle Robert Dunn fumbles into the end zone for a Skyhawk touchdown, ‘m not happy. I swear. I stand up and sit down and stand up. I run my hands through my hair and swear again and generally feel like even though it shouldn’t matter–this is UT-Martin–it just might. It just … might.

Last night, Anthony Gulley positioned himself directly underneath Ball St.’s first punt of the night and, under minimum pressure, calmly muffed it away. A handful of plays later MiQuale Lewis got the corner and scored, putting the visiting Cardinals ahead 7-0. I think I said “Oh well,” but I might not have said anything. I think I took a small sip of my beer.

The Mrs. WBE looked at me. “Auburn’s behind,” she said. “Why aren’t you angrier?”

“Because Auburn’s still going to win the game,” I said, because it was a fact, only slightly less of a fact than the couch we were sitting on or the beer in my hand. Auburn was going to win. A team that had performed over its first three games like Ball St. had was simply not going to defeat a team that had performed over its first three games like Auburn had. There was not going to be any might last night, no matter how many punts Auburn fumbled.

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There’s been several comments in the threads here at WBE. I’ve gotten a few e-mails. I’ve seen plenty of similar sentiments around the orange-and-blue corners of the Internet.

So yes, I think it’s fair to say there’s a “growing consensus” that it’s time for Auburn and Auburn’s fans to start ratcheting up the expectations for this team. When the season started most of us would have been perfectly happy with a return to a bowl game, a winning season, maybe a .500 SEC record if were feeling just a shade greedy … hell, the main thing was just some steps forward after  that abortion of a season in 2008. But after a perfect September, there’s talk we should shift the goalposts–now that a bowl game is all but a formality, a winning season just two victories and a Furman walkover away, that it’s time to start thinking about 8, 9, even 10 wins … time to wonder about paying back the Bayou Bengals, the Rebels, the Dawgs … time to take aim at making the Iron Bowl about something larger than bragging rights.

I can admit it’s hard to watch the rest of Auburn’s schedule and not start daydreaming about New Year’s Day invitations, Coach of the Year nominations, Gameday visits, etc. Tennessee is banged-up and has been mediocre regardless. Arkansas looks a long way away from being this year’s Ole Miss, who looks like last year’s Auburn. LSU survived the same Miss. St. team Auburn ran off the field by virtue of a once-in-a-decade punt return and Tyson Lee’s refusal to stretch out his arms. Georgia can’t stop turning the ball over and gave up 78 combined points to Carolina and Arkansas offenses that can’t be that much better–if they are at all–than the Spread Eagle 2.0. In short: a whole lot of wins that looked very, very unlikely when the season began now look very, very possible, at the least.

More importantly, of course, Auburn has been the sort of team that spends the second half wiping the floor with a decent Miss. St. team, survives a first-quarter West Virginia blitzkrieg, and takes all the might out of games against the likes of Ball St. Not to spoil my own future post, but if you look at the schedule and squint a certain way, yeah, you might be able to see double-digit wins in there.

But I’m not squinting. I’m not expecting. My goalposts, for whatever it’s worth, are staying put. 2009 is a very different season than 2008, but it’s also a very different season from, say, 2006.

Auburn began that year, you’ll recall, perched high atop the polls and widely expected to roll to divisional and possibly conference titles. And they would go on to win 11 games. But they also got obliterated by the Hogs and Dawgs and spent most of the season eking by less-than-spectacular teams in mind-numbing fashion. By the time the season had wrapped up (with a 17-14 win over Nebraska in the Cotton that featured 408 yards from the two teams combined and could give the 2008 Miss. St. and Tennessee wins for pure, undiluted dog-ugliness), I realized I’d watched my team win 11 games and with the exception of the LSU slugfest and the toppling of Florida, had barely enjoyed a minute of it.

Screw that. Screw expectations. I want 7 wins and a bowl and an assurance the program is on the rise again and everything else is the $20 bill you find in a jacket you haven’t worn since March. I don’t want to feel disappointed in Chris Todd–Chris Todd!–when he throws two touchdown passes just because he’s thrown 9 these past two games. I’m going to do my best not to be bothered by Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery dropping the occasional pass when they’d combined to catch a half-dozen passes or so their entire careers before four weeks ago. Jake Ricks and Mike Blanc are good, but I should know they’re not Sen’Derrick Marks and, oh, Sen’Derrick Marks’s clone. Daren Bates is a true freshman, man.

And eventually, they’re going to lose. More than once, most likely. And it’s going to hurt. But it hurts even worse when we start believing they’re too good for that, that we need more from them than just erasing the dark clouds of 2008, giving us a dozen different stories of redemption and surprise, being the most likeable, explosive, charismatic, fun Auburn team to watch since that one that won every game it played. As long as the ride ends in a bowl and gives us a few thrills along the way, I swear, I’m not doing to do anything more (well, not much more) than enjoy it.

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Auburn gave up 30 points last night, more than Ball St. scored on North Texas and New Hampshire combined. Why am I not angrier? Because I’m watching Chris Todd throw to Darvin Adams and Josh Bynes make tackles in the end zone and Onterio McCalebb ticking like a bomb every time he takes one of those option pitches and Daren Bates flying around like he owns the place even though he just got here a few weeks back. Because I’m having a blast. There’s no might about that, either.

Other random observations

— OK, after that bomb to Zachery, I think it’s time to officially retire the worries about Todd’s arm until further notice. Actually, it might be time to retire the worries about any aspect of Chris Todd. Particularly after Caudle’s ugly interception, Todd suddenly looks the most irreplaceable player on the Auburn roster (Not to mention in line for potential All-SEC honors; Greg McElroy and of course the Tebow Child are the only QBs in the league currently on Todd’s level of efficiency. I still can’t believe I’m typing things like these.)

— It’s just funny that teams keep playing Todd on the option with McCalebb ready for the pitch. I guess that “kill the man with the ball” instinct is harder to coach out than it looks.

— I don’t think there’s any question that Auburn was–to quote the Chiznick–“sloppy” in a lot of aspects of last night’s game, even with the first-stringers on the field. That’s kind of unavoidable playing a team that everyone knows doesn’t really have a chance to win the game. But in the end the stat sheet was every bit as kind as you’d hope: Auburn finished at 7.5 yards-per-rush and 10.6 per-pass while holding BSU to 3.3 and 3.8, respectively. Given BSU’s struggles to run the ball in their first three outings, that 3.3 is still a little high, but we’ll just blame it on the backups.

— Weakside linebacker watch: The Toro finished the game without a tackle of any kind. Not even an assist. Adam Herring didn’t play at all for some reason. What is going on here?

— I have to say, I don’t think I would have been all that encouraged in Stan Parrish’s leadership if I’d been a BSU fan watching this game. Between tearing Page a new one, going berserk at the officials for no apparent reason after the safety, and just looking well, old, Parrish just didn’t strike me as the kind of coach that’s going to be able to rally this team to his flag. It’s going to be a long season for those guys.

— If you were wondering why DeAngelo Benton hadn’t been seeing more time, I think you got your question answered. When you haven’t been thrown a pass in three games, it’s probably not a good idea to drop the one you finally get. Just ask Travante Stallworth, whose single reception and slithery moves have him at the front of the frosh WR class for now.

Three stars

Terrell Zachery. Three seasons to work with him, and Greg Knox never found anything useful to do with this kid? Really?

Josh Bynes. The race for best Auburn defender, non-Coleman division, is pretty much finished.

Chris Todd. Now sporting an 11-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio. Is that any good?

Three areas for improvement

Kickoff returns. Auburn finally pulls off a half-decent return, and of course they commit a penalty on it. Coverage was slightly improved statistically, but as short as Hull was leaving his kickoffs, it better have been. Still a ton of hidden yards given up here.

Punt returns. Irony kind of demanded that after a week of “Hey, look, Anthony Gulley is a baseball player, so he won’t screw up!” stories, he’d fumble twice. Still: how hard is it to find one guy who can just catch the ball?

Conversions. Auburn seems to be alternating weeks in which they convert properly on third and fourth down and weeks in which they don’t. This week–4-for-10 on 3rd, 0-for-2 4th–was a “don’t” week.

Your bottom line

Second stringers getting extensive time? Check. No major injuries? Probably Check, pending a report on Clayton. As generally impressive as expected? As long as you noticed the score was 47-17 at one time, Check.

I’ll take it. Nothing Auburn did (or that happened) yesterday gave us any reason to think less of the Tigers’ chances as they head to Knoxville.

Photo by Van Emst.

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