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Sunday knee-jerk: The beginning of the end of the beginning

Chris Todd, all-time Auburn record holder for single-game completion percentage. Makes perfect sense.
Chris Todd, all-time Auburn record holder for single-game completion percentage. Makes perfect sense.

Your Auburn fan mileage may vary, but the WBE found yesterday’s sparring match with Furman deeply refreshing. Enjoyable. Fun.

Certainly, in terms of drama this was like watching an earlier season on your favorite TV show on DVD. You know before it even starts exactly how it ends. But that doesn’t mean getting from Point A to Point B can’t be one hell of a pleasant drive. Just as I will never, ever get tired of watching Pam’s little origami doves scrolling past the back of Michael’s head in “Office Olympics,” so it didn’t much matter who Chris Todd was throwing against or who Anthony Gulley was running against when the former goes 17-for-are-you-kidding-me-18 for 4 TDs and the latter breaks loose for a 50-yard touchdown run as a true freshman out of tiny Brantley.

So the gurgle of sadness I felt at the final whistle yesterday had nothing to do with the fact that the game had been out of hand since midway through the first quarter, that Auburn’s walk-on saturated backup defense had yielded four second-half touchdowns, even that this game had been scheduled for November 7–given the knowledge that Auburn’s starters desperately needed a half off and the gut-level exhaustion after five consecutive weeks of emotional roller-coasting, a foregone conclusion like Furman was beyond welcome.

No, the sadness came from the sudden realization that this 2009 season is, somehow, already two games away from completion. There are no more Furmans left on the schedule, no more Mississippi St.’s, not even any Tennessees or Ole Miss’s or LSU’s. Auburn will try to break a three-year losing streak against Georgia this Saturday, they will have a week off, and then they will play the Iron Bowl. And the first regular season of Gene Chizik’s Auburn tenure will be complete.

I’m hardly the first blogger to make this observation, but it’s worth repeating: compared to the endless slog of the college football offseason, this sport’s season is unbearably, murderously short. And it feels particularly so this weekend, realizing that this season is almost done. Because this season is something special, something Auburn likely won’t experience again for a long time. A head coach only gets one first season, only one year when the expectations are so fluid, just one year when a home loss to Kentucky isn’t forgotten but maybe is kind of OK and anything more than 0-2 in the Amen Corner maybe isn’t straight gravy but is at least gravyesque. Everything up to and including the Furman game meant one thing to Gene Chizik and Auburn football. Everything afterward will be something else.

Because what’s left of 2009 is Georgia and Alabama, and Auburn 2010 will be a very different team by virtue of being–if you haven’t noticed–pretty much the same team. The flood of backups we saw in yesterday’s second half wasn’t so much a preview of 2010 as 2011 (if it previewed any season) — Chris Todd, Antonio Coleman, Tommy Trott, and Ben Tate aside, it’s the first half that previewed 2010. Auburn will return four of their five offensive line starters on one of the country’s most experienced units. Trott is the only senior of the nine players who caught a pass, and Terrell Zachery wasn’t one of those other eight. Eight of the defense’s starting 11 will be back, including all three linebackers and three members of a secondary that will return Mike McNeil, maybe Zac Etheridge, maybe Aairon Savage. Every one of those players will be in the second year of their respective coordinators’ systems. The torrent of freshman and sophomores on the second string will be sophomores and juniors, and those that move up to the first-string will be replaced by the members of a top-10 recruiting class. Auburn’s only major losses will come at quarterback, tailback, defensive end, and corner, and between Caudle, Fannin, Carter, and Washington, their roster already boasts what appear to be quality candidates at all four positions (to say nothing about incoming freshmen, other members of the roster, etc. And yeah, after yesterday, Caudle seems like a perfectly viable option, doesn’t he?).

So expectations will be different next year, as they should be. Which is all the more reason to treasure this year, every fleeting Saturday of it. Even the one where Auburn plays Furman. Maybe, given how tied in knots our stomachs will be on its final two Saturdays, especially the one where Auburn plays Furman.

Other assorted observations

—  Heading into yesterday’s game, if you asked me “What’s the single biggest way for Auburn to increase your optimism going into the Georgia game?”, I’d have said “Chris Todd continues to look like the Todd of the Ole Miss game rather than the Todd of the three weeks before that.” And boy, that he did. I know it’s just Furman, but still, the man went 17-of-18 and the one he “missed” was as much a drop as anything. If Todd’s going to be that sharp this Saturday, Auburn’s going to win their eighth game of the year.

— I can’t think of a single interesting thing to say about the defense. They had their traditional questionable start on the Paladins’ opening drive, they shut down Furman for the remainder of the half, the backups played the way we knew the backups would play. I do kind of wish the second-string defensive line had been a bit stouter–between Fairley, Lykes, Ford, Goggans, and McKenzie, there’s some talent and experience there that just isn’t in the second-string back seven–but other than that, I don’t see how you can get all that excited or all that disappointed by anything that happened defensively.

— Just as Travante Stallworth starts cementing himself in the ball-carrying rotation and a genuine threat offensively, naturally, he tears up his ankle. Obviously not a huge blow for the team as a whole–assuming McCalebb returns this week–but it’s just tough seeing a likable freshman like Stallworth forced to take a step backward just as it seemed he was taking some big steps forward.

— Speaking of young wideouts, looking at Blake’s and Benton’s games yesterday and knowing that Auburn’s going to have the likes of Antonio Goodwin and possibly Trovon Reed next year–all coached by Trooper Taylor–I’m thinking receiver is going to go from a liability to a strength in a very short period of time.

— Verdict on Demond Washington’s debut at safety: not bad. Hard to tell, really, against Furman, but that close-and-tackle near the goal line was very well done.

— There was more yesterday.

Three Stars

Neil Caudle. 10-of-12 with no picks is one thing, but the fact that Caudle just seemed so comfortable and in-command of the offense was the most reassuring thing about his performance.

Darvin Adams. Would be nice to see him carry this showing over into the season’s last two weeks, but still, he’s working on one of the most productive seasons an Auburn receiver has ever had. That’s saying something.

Ikeem Means. Means has popped up on special teams and blowouts already this season, and now he’s managed to top the team’s tackle chart. Of the many defensive walk-ons who have gotten an airing this season, as a freshman and one of the most active members of the backups, he seems to have the best shot at becoming an actual rotation player down the road.

Your bottom line

Auburn’s 7-3 and has two games remaining. The first: a very good shot at grabbing an eighth win and wrapping up a New Year’s Day bowl appearance while breaking a three-year losing streak against one of our oldest rivals. The second: very, very likely will be a chance to ruin our bitterest rivals’ undefeated season and possibly even national championship run, at home, with zero to lose, in what would be arguably the biggest upset of the 2009 college football season.

Yeah, folks, life is good.

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