I’m having a hard, hard time wrapping my head around this Auburn football season.
Oct. 3–barely more than three weeks ago–Auburn went on the road and in front of nearly 103,000 Tennessee fans in Knoxville, gashed Monte Kiffin’s vaunted defense to the tune of 459 total yards and nearly 5 yards per rushing attempt, didn’t allow a sack, led 23-6 early in the fourth quarter, and came away with a 26-22 road victory that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
Last Saturday night, Oct. 24, Auburn went on the road to Baton Rouge to face LSU. The Auburn offense gained just 193 total yards and barely more than 40 in the first half, allowed four sacks, rushed for less than 3 yards a carry, and threw for less than 3.5 a passing attempt with their starting quarterback. Auburn trailed 24-0 early in the third quarter and lost 31-10 in a humiliating defeat that was never, ever in doubt.
Particularly looking at what Tennessee has accomplished since Oct. 3, the team that beat them that night was very, very good. The team that lost to LSU Saturday, however, was not very good at all.
Both of those teams, however, were Auburn. Don’t call them Jekyll-and-Hyde, though; that would imply we don’t know which Auburn we’d be getting from week-to-week. Given that we’re now three weeks deep into the second, depressing edition of Auburn 2009, we know now what we’ll be getting. We’ll be getting something not very pretty. We’ll be getting something that’s very likely to lose to Teams That Are Not Furman and will do so in teeth-gnashingly frustrating fashion. So it goes.
It’s not Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a TV casting change, where an actor or actress is outright replaced. The character’s written the same way, the show’s going on ahead like nothing’s changed, but watching it’s just not the same. The show becomes weird, off-putting, unenjoyable. Not Jekyll-and-Hyde, no. Original Auburn, Replacement Auburn.
The switch between the Original and Replacement Auburns has made putting together a coherent, rational reaction to this 2009 season all but impossible. Expectations–even reasonable ones–for Auburn have yo-yoed back and forth so often I don’t whether Auburn’s surpassing them or failing them any more. Consider:
1. The 2008 season ends in 36-0 misery, Chizik is hired. Expectation: a second 5-7 disaster or worse.
2. Chizik hires Dr. Gustav and the rest of the Auburn staff, performs immensely successful salvage job on 2009 recruiting class . Expectation: Big steps forward, 7-5, maybe better.
3. Fall arrives. Todd is named starter after neither Burns nor Caudle take the reins in spring, injuries slam defense, departures gut depth chart. Expectation: Smaller steps forward, maybe 7-5, maybe worse.
4. The season starts. Todd is a revelation. The offense is a terror. The defense leaks but makes more than enough big plays to get the job done. Expectation: 8, 9 wins, New Year’s Day, maybe something even better.
By the standards set by Original Auburn, yeah, this season is going to wrap up as a failure. 7 wins and the Music City Bowl seem like the absolute ceiling these days, with 6-6 the most likely outcome. For the team we watched Oct. 3, finishing the season on a 1-6 slide where the one victory comes over I-AA Furman and games against teams like defensively-challenged Arkansas and offensively-challenged LSU aren’t even competitive doesn’t seem remotely acceptable.
But by the standards of 2008 or the depth-destroying days of fall camp, even 6-6 isn’t so bad. Honestly. Flash back to the Sunday morning after the 2008 Iron Bowl; suddenly, present You appears to tell past You the following pieces of information:
— Chris Todd has re-emerged as the starter, but is playing every bit as poorly–if not even worse–than in 2008
— The offensive line has not solved their penalty problems
— Montez Billings is gone and there’s no immediate help in the freshman class, leaving Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery as the only viable receiving “threats”
— Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens wind up the only returning members of the 2008 two-deep at linebacker, with Pybus out, no help from the incoming freshmen, and Adam Herring spending much of the year as the starting weakside linebacker.
— Sen’Derrick Marks leaves, forcing Auburn to replace both interior DTs
— Mike McNeil misses the season due to injury and is replaced by a true freshman. Aairon Savage also misses the year and by midseason Auburn has three scholarship cornerbacks on the roster.
What record do you project for Auburn with that information? 4-8? 3-9?
So: this 2009 season is a horrible disappointment and should be greeted with anger and mourning for what has been lost. This 2009 season is an impressive accomplishment given the talent on hand that should be greeted with applause and hope for the future. Both of those statements are equally true. This 2009 season is both, at the same time.
What the paradox of Auburn 2009 ultimately means is that the story of this season isn’t going to be finished until 2010. If Auburn takes dramatic steps forward next year and re-enters the upper echelon of the SEC, then Original Auburn will be the real 2009 Auburn, the true example of Gene Chizik and his staff’s capabilities before the lack of bodies and playmakers caught up to them. If Auburn sputters again, Replacement Auburn will be 2009’s genuine article, the accurate representation of the staff’s failures juxtaposed with the Chizik era’s fraudulent, smoke-and-mirrors debut.
The year between now and the 2010 football season is a long, long time to wait to understand the Auburn we’re seeing right now, and it doesn’t do anything to dull the pain of watching a team that looked so promising three weeks ago look so unable to get out of its own way.
But the way I see it, we don’t have any choice. This is the cost of coaching change, of program upheaval, of our team’s season of paradox. We don’t know where we’re headed. We will all just have to be patient.
But if you don’t want “I don’t know” and press me to pick a direction–if you ask me to take a close look at the Original and Replacement Auburns, and decide which is the more honest look at Auburn’s future–I have to go back to something Dr. Jolley wrote last week:
Auburn fans need not to ask, What have you done for me lately? But rather, What have you shown me is possible?
We always knew Gene Chizik could lose to LSU with Chris Todd, a bevy of ineffective receivers, and a paper-thin defense. What we didn’t know was that he could beat a good Tennessee team with those same ingredients. It won’t do Auburn any good against Ole Miss this week, but it’s something.
Other assorted observations
— Welcome, Toro. Stay a while. Please. Because I don’t think Stevens and Bynes have a whole lot left in the tank. (Fun fact: Auburn’s defense has been on the field for the eighth-most plays in the country. Too late for 2010, I know, but in the future, could we adopt the ‘Bama strategy of taking a true bye week midyear and saving the I-AA tomato can for the week before the Iron Bowl if we’re that committed to the extra preparation?)
— Yes, I would like to see Neil Caudle at quarterback. Not because I expect him to set the world on fire, but 1. he really can’t be worse, I don’t think 2. because he can move so much better, the zone read and the option become legitimate threats again. I think the world of Todd’s gumption, his commitment to the program, the respect he’s continued to draw from his teammates, all of that. But this is three weeks straight he’s been the weakest link on an offense that clearly is not performing at the level necessary to win SEC football games, and standing pat now brings to mind ye olde definition re: insanity, i.e. doing the same thing, expecting different results, etc.
Obviously, though, the coaching staff ain’t asking me.
— The offense misses a lot of things, but there’s not much question one of things it misses is McCalebb’s burst. I’d honestly rather see him sit the next two weeks and come back for Georgia. The player we saw against Miss. St., Tennessee, etc. isn’t there right now.
— Man, I’ve been touting the corners and the secondary all year long, but aside from the flashes of pressure that was just a brutal display of pass defense Saturday. So much for the idea that if Auburn kept Charles Scott in check, they’d do all right, right?
— There’s normally a little more to these knee-jerk posts, but I’m done thinking about that game. Bleccch.
Thanks for the post as always Jerry. i hate to say it especially after hearing it from my friends on the other side of the state, and its not an excuse, its just the situation we are in…a rebuilding year. but its not just a rebuilding, its a total reconstruction. i hate that the upperclassmen are having to suffer through this type of situation (especially Tate, AC, Walt, et al.) but like you said above, when we find out later which is the identity of this team, the true AU or the replacements, i think we’ll see it is the true AU that came out swing and took it on the road for its first away game and came up with a big win against a team the crushed a hapless uga and almost upset the future sec champs. (as much as i don’t want to admit it) and the leaders on this team, i will give them the credit of laying the foundation of what are going to be great teams. i have no doubt now the Chizik is going to do some special things with Auburn and i am excited for the future. i have been excited for the present too. this has been exponentially better than last year because i have never felt like we don’t at least have a chance to win every game we have played and will play. after 5 games last year you knew how it was going to end, in a flaming bag of dog crap on the front porch. Just my two, War Eagle.
I’m thinking these posts could be called “fireside chats” just as easily as calling them “knee-jerk.” They always soothe my worried mind. War Eagle!
Funny thing is, this season wouldn’t be a “disappointment” if Chizik and Co. had only squeaked by the first five games. But they had the boys playing at top speed and looked to be world beaters, and therein lies the reason for so many fair-weather fans calling for this or that player’s/coach’s head.
Needless to say, the players are the same guys, just dinged up a bit, illustrating in dramatic fashion the level of play required in this league. You need playmakers one to two levels below the starters, if only to provide some breaks for your top players. Witness the need for Auburn to return Coleman to the same field he WAS WHEELED OFF OF in a cart. if that doesn’t show the limitations of the Tiger’s depth chart, I don’t know what will.
I worried about this after the first two games and said so on this blog. I don’t care for being right, but I agree with Jerry. I would take a loss against Ole Miss to preserve some semblance of chance of taking down Georgia by resting some of our players. As for the Iron Bowl, I’ll never count out Auburn so long as there is one Auburn player still in uniform (Punt Bama Punt).
Bottom line, it’s too soon to be calling for anyone’s head. This conference is too good to expect miracles in the first season (Saban, anyone?), especially when they’ve shown us what they can do when fully rested and uninjured.
War Eagle, let’s keep up the support for the Auburn family.
Wow. Yes. This is a more rational and level headed approach to our current situation than exists elsewhere, and even in other parts of this site. Calling for folks’ head is the definition of knee jerk. I agree with JM -this is more comforting (and more well thought out) than the name implies.
Ok- -back to my self imposed ban on reading all things AU until Sat. I need a break.
This all reminds me of my first wedding anniversary.
As the date of the anniversary approached, my in-laws began to drop hints about the amazing, awesome gift they were getting us. Now, my wife and I were young and poor at this time — she was in grad school, I was making peanuts in my first journalism job — and what we wanted more than anything was a washer and dryer. We HATED that weekly trip to the laundromat.
My in-laws are not especially wealthy or anything, and we had no good reason to expect such an extravagant gift. But they just kept dropping hints. “It’s perfect,” they said. “It’s something you need,” they said. “It’s something you’ll use all the time,” they said. “It’s big! You’ll need to make room for it,” they said. And, eventually, we just convinced ourselves that we really were, against all logic, getting that washer and dryer.
Well, the day came. The gift arrived. And it was a case of toiler paper.
Like, 144 rolls. Yup, big. Useful. Appropriate (the first anniversary is the paper anniversary). Funny, too. And if our hopes hadn’t foolishly grown past all reasonable expectations, we would have appreciated the spirit of the gift. Instead, we couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed, even as we felt a bit guilty about the greed of our high expectations.
This Auburn season is that case of toilet paper. Not a bad gift in the end, and about what we should have expected. But also not the washer and dryer the 5-0 start led us to hope for.
Amorak, that’s just perfect.
So…wait a minute Amorak. Are you saying we should wipe away this season and be happy? Or should we get off our butts and install a new washer an dryer ourselves?
I’m bad at metaphors.
Dan, I’m flattered that of all the Auburn sites out there you could have chosen to pointlessly troll, you’ve chosen ours.
But seriously: get lost.
I’ll be honest, I don’t necessarily see where Auburn’s problems offensively are the result of Todd or anything else along those lines for that matter (sans the pre-snap penalties).
I was never really impressed with Todd even when you guys were lighting up the scoreboards. He was making a lot of throws, with a lot of time, to a lot of wide open receivers, and the running game was working the same way. I kind of dismissed the Malzahn hire as a major unknown at the time, but I’ll give the man credit, I think it’s fair to say that for a few weeks he stumped the hell out of a lot of opposing defenses and defensive coordinators. There were blown defensive assignments galore, and it seemed fairly evident to me that opposing players / coaches didn’t have a great grasp of exactly what they needed to do. The past couple of weeks, though, it’s been far different. Opposing defenses have eaten everything up… runs are getting stuffed and receivers aren’t running free anymore.
I don’t think Auburn has (or had) the talent offensively needed to consistently out-execute higher end SEC opponents, they needed Malzahn’s genius to get the job done. Of course, though, opposing SEC coordinators and players at this level are pretty damn good, so it’s really only a matter of time that you can out-smart teams that way.
Defensively, it’s just a no-win situation. Very little top-end talent, no depth whatsoever, lots of freshmen playing, and an offensive style of attack that will guarantee the defense spends a lot of time on the field. Roof has gotten a lot of criticism for his defense, but honestly I couldn’t rationally blame him for anything. You could hire Bill Belichick as DC for this group and it wouldn’t be good.
As ridiculed as the Chizik hire was, I really cannot say that has been the problem to date. Malzahn’s hire was still huge for the program, and honestly I cannot say anything bad about him over the recent struggles. Most OC’s would have never done what he did to start with, and defensively, again, it’s a no-win situation. At some point, Auburn is just going to have to recruit better players and develop more quality depth.
I like yr replacement-Auburn angel. I had been saying Chris Todd was Luke Duke the first few weeks and now he’s one of those f’ing Cousins.
*angle. Stupid typos.
Ha! Amorak! Thanks for posting that.
Todd cannot read D…Malzahn was doing it for him earlier in the year, using misdirections to get someone one…But other teams have shut that down by using a base D…If this is a timing O, then why is Todd holding the ball for so long?..Ill say again Id rather lose with Caudle the true Auburn man.
Apologies for the dumb typo in my post, too. In the punch line, no less.