This is not 2008

He is gone. Let him go.

He is gone. Let him go.

I’ve read it in various forms across the orange-and-blue tinted corners of the Internet, here at TWER and elsewhere, the ultimate sigh of disappointment over Auburn’s struggles of the past three weeks, maybe not always verbatim but certainly in spirit:

This is 2008 all over again.

Especially after Saturday’s bloodbath, I can understand where this sentiment is coming from. Against Kentucky and LSU and for a half against Arkansas the offense has been every bit as frustratingly impotent as Tony Franklin’s failed experiment on the Plains. The defense is giving up yards in the kinds of chunks even the 2008 version rarely did. Wes Byrum’s rejuvenation is the only thing keeping the special teams from outright disaster. It’s true: for the past three weeks, Auburn has performed no better than they performed for much of 2008.

But here’s the question not enough Auburn fans seem to be asking themselves: Why should they be performing any better? Certainly, this is not the same team we saw in 2008–on paper, in fact, there’s several reasons why it ought to be even worse. Consider:

The defense has considerably less talent. This season, Auburn is replacing both of its starting defensive tackles, one of which was an early NFL draft pick. Both returning starting defensive ends are nursing injuries and the top two backups have each missed several games. Three seniors and a junior from last year’s two-deep at linebacker have all departed and a sophomore who saw considerable playing time a year ago will not play a down in 2009 due to injury. In the secondary, the starting free safety will miss the season through injury and the top cornerback has been replaced after also being taken in the third round of the NFL Draft. They have been replaced a by a true freshman and true sophomore. A paucity of quality backups–as of the current injury situation, Auburn is one defensive end shy of having their entire second-string composed of first- and second-year players–means that every member of the starting 11 must play an abnormally high percentage of snaps opposite an offense that drives the total number of snaps into one of the highest totals in the nation.

There is no logical, possible way for this defense to match the standard set by last year’s. None. Cannot be done.

(And for the record, they still haven’t fallen off as much as you might think–last year’s crew did an excellent job of stiffening in the red zone and of shutting down the epically horrible offenses at Miss. St., Tennessee, etc., but they still allowed far more per-play than the 2009 defense did against LSU and West Virginia and just .6 less against Arkansas. All told, Auburn allowed 4.9 yards-per-play in 2008 and so far have allowed 5.1 in 2009. Does that look like some sort of epic collapse to you?)

The passing game that has hamstrung the offense is also working with substantially less talent. In 2008, Auburn had only four wide receivers catch more than 10 passes for the season; not one of those four players returned for 2009. The next-leading wide receiver, Tim Hawthorne, caught eight passes; he missed nearly all of fall camp and the first third of the season via injury.

At quarterback, the Chris Todd of the past three weeks has not shown any improvement over the Chris Todd of 2008 and has in fact been a regression from the Kodi Burns of the second half of last year. Todd’s backups are Burns–who has spent the entire season at wide receiver and designated Wildcat operator–and a redshirt junior who has never started a collegiate game, nor even risen above third-string until this season.

Auburn’s other top receivers are all running backs and tight ends; they have been obvious recipients of extra attention and coverage the previous three weeks.

So you tell me: how is Gus Malzahn supposed to cobble together a passing offense that can function against respectable SEC defenses out of these parts? It remains kind of remarkable he fashioned one that worked against any defense.

This is a transition year on top of a transition year. Last year, Auburn replaced both of its coordinators. One of those coordinators was himself replaced mid-season. Obviously, both coordinators have been replaced again this season.

Meaning that Auburn’s offensive players are now operating under of their fourth coordinator in three seasons and third wildly different offensive system in three seasons. The defense is also operating under its third different coordinator in three years and has undergone a change in scheme this season.

All of that change, however, is occurring at the coordinator level; this year, Auburn has also replaced each of its position coaches. Not only are Auburn’s players learning new schemes from the coordinators, they are also learning new technique from the rest of the staff. And, oh yeah, adjusting to a new set of off-field expectations, practice rhythms, coaching personalities, etc. dictated by the new head coach.

So: aside from at running back and along the offensive line–the only truly experienced areas of the team and the areas that, whaddya know, have more-or-less developed right on schedule when you compare Auburn’s rushing numbers to 2008′s–Auburn is less talented than in 2008, less experienced, less comfortable with their assignments and requirements. Other than the knee-jerk, non-rational “they couldn’t be worse” argument or dumb luck in the turnover department, what foundation other than “better coaching” could Auburn have on which to base their improvement? What other reason is there to expect this Auburn to be betterthan last year’s? There is none.

And yet: Auburn has improved. Yeah, I know, they didn’t look it last Saturday. But even if Auburn loses to Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama as expected (and, of course, avoids humiliation against Furman), 6-6 is better than 5-7. And before you answer that it’s just one game, well, first, what about the first section of this post makes you think that even one game’s worth of improvement is something to be sneezed at? Two other things to consider when judging Auburn’s improvement:

1. The schedule is tougher. Yes, La. Tech will end up a weaker mid-major than Southern Miss was last year. Perhaps West Virginia has also taken a step back, though that’s more than debatable when they’re very likely to finish the year with a better record than last season’s. Everyone else Auburn has played: better. Arkansas is better. LSU is better. 2009 Kentucky is better than 2008 Vanderbilt. Mississippi St. is better. Tennessee is loads, loads better.

And despite that, Auburn has already essentially clinched a better record than last year’s.

2. Auburn’s been better outside of just the record, too. Last year Auburn was one missed Miss. St. field goal and one Tennessee fumble into their own end zone from going 0-8 in the SEC; this year the Tigers crushed Miss. St. and beat Tennessee in their place by what should have been double-digits. Yes, West Virginia outgained Auburn by a wide margin, but last year that margin was even wider.

Even during the current streak, things aren’t really as bad as last year: Auburn was incredibly fortunate to only lose by three to Arkansas in 2008 after being outgained by 223 yards; this year, that margin was substantially less, even in Fayetteville. Painful as gaining 4.3 yards a play and getting outgained by Kentucky by 42 yards might have been, it pales to gaining 3.2 a play and ending up 55 yards short of a Vanderbilt team that would go on to lose to a horrible Miss. St. team and Duke. And while there’s no real spinning the 2009 LSU loss as “better” than the 2008 version, this year’s was on the road, post-Todd-arm-collapse, with LSU coming off of a bye.

On the field, then, I don’t see that there’s much arguing that Auburn should be worse than they were in 2008 but have been better. What’s the contrast like off-the-field, though? Well …

Recruiting is drastically, drastically better. At this time last year Auburn had right around as many commitments at they have this year, and many of those Tuberville-recruited players have gone on to sign with Auburn and have promising freshmen seasons. But 1. a much higher percentage of those players were judged to be average prospects than in this year’s current class 2. many of those players would go on to either decommit or fail to qualify. The difference between Auburns’ approach and success from late 2008 to late 2009 is just about night and day.

As far as we know, the team and staff aren’t pulling in opposite directions. There’s no Franklin-vs.-the-BBQ-boys internal tug-of-war this year, no factions lining up behind two different quarterbacks, no quotes from one of those quarterbacks about how he wasn’t running the offense he wanted to run or whatever it was Burns said after the Vandy game. Instead we have players declaring why they’d never leave the program and swearing up and down that this year is different from last year. You can do otherwise if you like, but I don’t see any reason to not believe them.

So if Auburn’s coaches have their team playing better than 2008′s despite having less talent than 2008′s and have things off-the-field moving in a completely opposite direction than they were heading in 2008 … why is this like 2008 again? And why are we angry at Auburn’s coaches?

Because these last three games have been disappointing. And no question, they have been. Watching the LSU game was like being tied up by a bunch of crazy drugged-out teenagers and being forced to watch them make a bonfire out of my favorite books and t-shirts. Or something.

But why have they been disappointing? Because Auburn’s coaches set us up for that disappointment with their wild success through those first five games. Be honest: let’s say Auburn narrowly escapes Miss. St. instead of blowing through them in the second half. They lose by two touchdowns to West Virginia. They survive the trip to Knoxville on a tipped Crompton pick late in the fourth and a last-second Byrum kick. Are we as Auburn fans nearly so upset by a close loss to Kentucky and the blowout in Baton Rouge as we have been, or do we write them off as the necessary growing pains of a young, brutally thin team? You’ll never convince me we’re so irrational it woudn’t be the latter. The phrase “victim of his own success” gets tossed around a little too often in college football, but this is one instance in which I fully believe Gene Chizik has earned it. Auburn’s coaches are currently under fire because Auburn’s coaches have–for the most part– done a good job.*

It’s not the kind of job, I know, that’s removed all doubt or anything. It’s plenty possible that at this time next year, we’ll look back at the Kentucky game as the first outward symptom of some hidden program-wide disease. But that doesn’t change the fact that the biggest difference between 2008 and 2009 is that we do have hope–a lot of it–that things will get better.

The class of 2010 should be terrific. The offense will lose Tate, but no one else that can’t be easily replaced, and as fantastic as Tate has been, tailback is still the one position Auburn’s never had trouble filling. The defense returns the entire two-deep save Coleman, Ricks, and McFadden. For those of you who believe a great team starts with a great offensive line, Auburn will enter 2010 with one of the most experienced lines in the country. The entire team will have a year already under their belts in Malzahn’s and Roof’s schemes.

At the end of the 2008 season, how much of that did we have to look forward to? Tuberville was due to hire yet another offensive coordinator to fail with the same group of assistants and even less firepower to work with than Franklin had. The defense was in decline. Recruiting was a patch job. I’d have been fine at the time with Tubby staying–he’d earned it–but there was no light at the end of that tunnel.

So for the love of God, you Auburn fans out there who are calling for Roof’s head or writing off Malzahn as an overpromoted high school coach or saying Iowa St. fans had it right about Chizik: give it a rest. Let these men do their jobs and pass judgment when we’ve got enough evidence to do so without sounding like the kind of people who spent 1999 building bunkers in the hills. Things could be worse.

We should know: they were worse just last year.

*Another grenade I’ve seen lobbed at Chizik and Co. from multiple angles–one handy example, though Dr. Z is generally on point–is that Tennessee and Miss. St. are improving while Auburn is not.

First, this kind of overlooks the fact that a big reason Mullen and Kiffin have room for improvement in the first place is because Chizik whipped them both. Second, those teams’ “improvement” is overblown: Miss. St.’s best performance remains the shoulda-been win over LSU, and that happened one week after Auburn torched them. As for Kiffin, he’s done a great job getting Crompton’s head finally screwed on properly, but that’s been the only real difference in the UT of the first several weeks and the last few–their QB wakes up, ours falls apart, and that alone is enough to make Kiffin the better coach, even after he lost to Chizik in Knoxville?

And lastly: we’ve known from at least the midpoint of fall camp that Auburn was going to be outrageously thin and extremely dependent on a Todd shoulder whose ability to endure the season was “questionable” at best. There wasn’t much disagreement, I don’t recall, that Auburn would have to make their hay early in the season–when Malzahn’s offense was at its most surprising and the depth chart still at its most intact, before the nagging injuries and depth woes kicked in and the surprise factor wore off. But now that Miss. St. is competitive against everyone but Auburn and Crompton has learned to walk and chew gum at the same time, now we’ve decided we’re going to demand improvement from a limited-talent team with a dead-armed QB and a defense already worn to the nub? No, not buying, sorry.

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