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The Sunday knee-jerk: High hurdles

Just as long as you get up.
Just as long as you get up.

The question before the season was: Is Auburn any good?

Unless you’re wearing a set of crimson X-ray specs that allow the wearer to see a future 9- or 10-win West Virginia team and a spirited Tennessee squad as members of the Sun Belt, the 5-0 start answered that question. Yes, Auburn is at least some good.

The next question was: How good are they?

Before we answer that, consider–again–the hurdles Auburn had to clear to win yesterday’s game:

1. The Hogs regressing to their mean. Though that harlot Hope made me think otherwise in the run-up, the Hogs were never going to stay as bad on defense as they had been against Georgia and Alabama. No SEC defense outside of Nashville is ever that bad. Likewise, Ryan Mallett and his receivers were never going to be as shaky as they were in Tuscaloosa. A running back as talented as Michael Smith and a tight end as talented as D.J. Williams weren’t going to bottled up all year.

In short: Arkansas was due for their best performance of the season, and they provided it.

2. Auburn regressing to their mean. We’ve all marveled at the defense’s knack for the big play, the line’s pass protection, Chris Todd’s leadership and accuracy, the entire team’s (save the punt return) ability to avoid the killer mistake. In those first five games, aside from those handful of shaky moments vs. Miss. St. and the first quarter vs. WVU, Auburn has played very well.

Auburn was not going to play very well all season. It’s like Wes Byrum’s miss against Tennessee: we know he can hit 40-plus yard field goals, but we know he won’t hit them all. We knew that Auburn wasn’t going to go 12 games straight–and, in retrospect, probably not even six games straight–without having some sort of substantial letdown.

3. The kickoff. Rob Pate, someone who would know, had these prescient words about the importance of the time of kickoff:

First morning game. Totally different atmosphere and feeling running out to play a football game in the AM vs PM. Even worse on the road. The entire itinerary is turned on its head. Wake up call will come around 5:30. Meetings are abbreviated, and even the pregame meal is altered. Then, in the second half of the game, you’re hungry because you haven’t eaten since 7:00 am (and no one feels like eating much of anything a few hours before you lay your guts on the line in an SEC battle). But you force-feed yourself because if you don’t eat you won’t have the energy to make it through the game. I bet we haven’t practiced in the AM since preseason camp. This will be our largest obstacle this week, even greater than who we’re playing.

I don’t think it’s coincidence Auburn was a horrorshow in the first half and “won” the second 20-17.

4. Being on the road. I don’t think I have to explain this.

5. The motivation difference. Bobby Petrino his own self called this a “must-win” for Arkansas, because that’s what it was. Gene Chizik just could not say the same thing and be honest. I think we all know this matters, and matters a lot.

This list is not meant as a catalog of excuses. It is a list of hurdles, the things Auburn would have had to overcome to earn a victory yesterday. To overcome them all would have required a very good team, possibly even a championship-caliber team.

And so we have our answer to How good are they?: Auburn isn’t quite that good. Auburn isn’t championship caliber.

It’s not exactly a revelation, is it? More like a confirmation, and anyone who’s terribly upset to find this out needs some sort of crash-course reminder on what happened just one season ago. All of Auburn’s realistic preseason goals–and even some unrealistic ones, like playing on New Year’s Day–are as reachable as ever.

So our Tigers didn’t clear their hurdles yesterday. It’s OK. They won’t be that high every week.

Other assorted observations

— I’m tempted to devote an an entire post to this, but since I’ve already given this sickly-looking horse a flogging once, I’ll keep it here and keep it brief: the defense was not that bad. The stats are ugly, I know: 44 points, 495 yards, 6 yards a play, just the one turnover and the one sack. The 95-yard touchdown drive following the Tate fumble was a particular lowlight.

But Auburn’s offense and special teams could not possibly have put them under more pressure. Arkansas started five different drives in Auburn territory. The offense didn’t have a drive lasting longer than 2:42 the entire game, with their first five “possessions” running 1:17, 1:35, 1:57, :45 and :08 off the clock. And make no mistake, Mallet and Co. were on their game–if their quarterback is going to drop passes perfectly into his receiver’s hands the way Mallett did a half-dozen times, you just have to tip your hat to them and move on.

Remember, too, that Arkansas had 14 legitimate possessions in this game–by contrast, Florida and LSU had 7 and 8, respectively. Given the avalanche of circumstances conspiring against them and what we all know is a crippling lack of depth with which to respond to those circumstances, I’m borderline happy with the way the defense played.

— So I had this really funny bit already written where I tried to convince Michael Smith that he needed to declare early for the NFL Draft, because I thought he was a junior, and now I see he’s a senior, and that of kind of just made my day. I wish him the best of luck, but I am also delighted to never see him in a Hog uniform opposite Auburn again.

— We have a Quindarius Carr sighting, while Benton and Blake each still wait for their first reception of the season. Safe to say we all might have been just a little over-the-top in our projections for those two.

— If we ever needed an illustration of exactly how critical that first first down of a drive is for Auburn, we got it yesterday. Personally, I’d have been fine without it.

— There’s a lot more in yesterday’s postgame wrap.

Three Stars

Ben Tate. Currently the nation’s No. 6 rusher, and averaging–how?–6.1 yards a carry.

Craig Stevens. 12 more tackles, nine of them solo, for what I think is the defense’s steadiest–if not flashiest–performer.

Uh … Terell Zachery? Huge play on the reverse, two catches for 25 yards, and of course getting himself open on the shoulda-been first-quarter touchdown bomb that Chris Todd had better have seen in his sleep last night. It’s not a lot, but not many Tigers shone all that brightly yesterday.

Three areas for improvement

Chris Todd. Just too many missed opportunities. Not as much help from his receivers or his line as in previous games, sure, but 4.6 yards-an-attempt is way short of providing the kind of balance Auburn needs to make this thing work. Fumbling the snap on a 4th-and-an-inch QB sneak wasn’t a high point, either.

The non-Coleman portions of the defensive line. Well, Coleman too. Our All-SEC defensive end didn’t have a tackle or even a QB hurry yesterday, which is disappointing no matter how you slice it. But he was also regularly double-teamed and schemed around, and the other members of the defensive line did next-to-nothing to make Arkansas pay for it. Michael Goggans had a half-tackle-for-loss, one QB hurry, and no sacks, bringing him up to all of 2.5 TFLs, 3 QBHs, and 1 sack for the year. Not enough. Jake Ricks collected one tackle and nothing else. Dee Ford continued to look dangerous coming around the edge but then not having much production to show for it (though he’s kind of excused, what with being a true freshman and all). Until someone outside the Mike Blanc/Nick Fairley platoon gives opponents any reason to worry about them up front, Coleman’s going to continue to get stoned.

Kickoff return. I’m not all that upset at Boulware, since everything else is working OK (Fannin’s fumble is hardly his fault) and he has so precious little to work with. But it’s just killing Auburn right now.

Your bottom line

Assuming Todd can get his West Virginia-grade act back together, this is still the same team that got us all hot and bothered those first five weeks. And if the depth problems are only going to get worse as Auburn plugs along, I also only see one game right now (that last one, unfortunately) that doesn’t at least fall under the category of “winnable.” We’ve seen unbeaten Auburn teams get flattened by an underrated bunch of Hogs and get off the mat before, haven’t we?

It’s possible yesterday was some kind of foreboding omen for a lackluster second half of the year–we’ll find out with how Auburn responds against Kentucky–but it’s my suspicion that when all is said and done, it’s going to be a bump in the road on the way to a perfectly satisfying season, and not much else.

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