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Sunday knee-jerk: Stage 1 complete

GO GO GOD2ILLA*

I’ve tried to come up with some sort of overarching narrative for last night’s win, one of my usual “this is what it means”-type responses that makes it more than just a number in the win column. And after a game like that one, of course, there’s plenty of worthwhile candidates:

Cam Newton accepts the mantle. We saw how ridiculously talented he was against Arkansas St., we saw how willing he was to lower his shoulder and grind out yards against Mississippi St., and we saw how he could rally the team around him (and throw the occasional bomb) against Clemson. But we didn’t see him put all of that together until last night. The box score said he had 176 yards’ worth of rushing on 25 carries, completed 16 of 21 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns, and no turnovers of any kind. The scoreboard said even more: that this is his offense, through and through, and he’s capable of taking it wherever it needs to go. We haven’t reached the ceiling quite yet, but thanks to Newton, we’re just about close enoug hto touch it.

The defense plays rope-a-dope yet again. Two straight weeks the Auburn defense has been shredded in the first half. Yes, the offense’s various struggles (three-and-outs against Clemson, fumbles against Carolina) didn’t help. But their shoddy outside linebacking play, iffy downfield coverage, and failures in secondary run support helped even less. And at the half, Auburn was on pace to allow 34 and 40 points, respectively. The points they actually allowed were 24 and 27. They haven’t allowed any teams to score more than 7 second-half points since Week 1. I’m not even sure how things changed so thoroughly, other than to say that guys like Bynes, and Fairley, and Carter, and those wizened old vets at safety are only going to be held back so long.

The offensive line finds redemption. Speaking of someone who watched every play of the Clemson game a second, a third, a fourth time, in slow-motion, even frame-by-frame, trust me: there was a reason Gene Chizik called those guys out publicly last week, and to hear Lee Ziemba tell it, did even more than that behind the scenes. They were awful. Then last night, they singlehandedly took Carolina from 1st in the SEC rush defense to 8th. They started slow, but by the second half, Auburn was scoring three touchdowns on drives totaling 24 plays–19 of which were runs. And that’s not counting the 16-play drive that ended in Byrum’s shank. Along with Newton and Dyer, they owned the second half.

But for all of that, what I keep coming back to is just the record. Auburn is 4-0. And essentially 5-0, barring unthinkable and probably flatly impossible disaster against Monroe. The way I see it, there’s three stages to this season:

Stage 1: The roadie at State, the home dates against Clemson and Carolina

Stage 2: The rivalry dates with Arkansas and LSU, the road “traps” at Kentucky and Ole Miss

Stage 3: Amen Corner.

Auburn’s goal: make it to Stage 3 with only one loss, beat Georgia, and make this a one-game season for the SEC West. Stage 1 is finished, and there’s still no losses. There’s still a margin for error. Making that goal is so, so much exponentially more likely with all three of these tests behind us.

That’s the story. That’s the narrative. Auburn began 2010 with a certain kind of season in mind; we can talk about how likely it is they have it until we’re navy in the face, but the thing that matters is that they’ve already taken several huge steps towards it. Newton, and the defense, and the line are what excites us, but the win column is why we might end up remembering that excitement for decades. The same way, you know, we remember the excitement of the tenure of the coach we honored Saturday.

Other assorted observations

— It’s a little scary to consider how good Newton might become when you see how far he’s come in just four weeks. Week 1, those zone-read fakes that tore Carolina to pieces were stiff and not particularly convincing. Last night, he took a hop or two in McCalebb’s direction, held the ball for as long as possible, then pulled and tore up the middle just as the ‘Cocks converged. Plus, does anyone think he was ready to go 16-for-21 (with a couple of semi-drops) two weeks ago? The steps forward are already huge; where are they going to take him by the time his Auburn career is finished?

— Auburn punted more times in their first three possessions against Clemson than they did all last night. On top of that, Auburn finally was forced to grind our drives rather than striking on huge plays (Newton’s first touchdown excepted). The result, despite Auburn finally spending much of the night in up-tempo mode: Auburn out-snapped Carolina 78 to 57. That’s what we’re looking for.

— About the only thing you can say about the fumbles is that at least they didn’t cost us a game. Remember that Eric Smith’s fumble could have easily been scooped-and-scored in the other direction, or at least recovered, and instead was just botched out of bounds. Not a break on the scale of Parker’s missed overtime pass, but huge nonetheless.

I suppose this is also the place to express some sympathy for Mario Fannin. I still want him on the field, I still want him to get the occasional touch … but when you’ve handled the ball just 15 times, only taken a hit on maybe a dozen of those touches, and already given away two critical fumbles, you just can’t be the featured tailback. It has to be a crushing blow for him.

— Hey, six different receivers this week, including the SWEDE KILLA. Remember: if we the fans can look at something and say, “Hey, this is a problem,” there’s an excellent chance the coaches know it’s a problem and are planning acoordingly.

— Speaking of coaches’ planning things, Auburn has outscored its opponents 62-31 after halftime. Whatever else you want to say about both Malzahn and Roof, those guys clearly know what they’re doing when it comes to adjustments.

— Good heavens am I glad to see the back of Jeffery, Gurley, and Garcia before he got knocked around. Is there really that much difference between Jeffery and A.J. Green, Jeffery and Julio Jones? Not that I can see. Yeah, it sucked to see Jeffery dominate like that, but it’s kind of nice to know that Auburn can get dominated like that by a future first-rounder and still wind up victorious anyway.

— Watch ’em while you can:

Your bottom line

With State’s beatdown of Georgia in Starkville, it’s safe to assume Auburn’s faced three quality opponents, and they’ve survived all three; a top-10 ranking is entirely deserved at this stage. But that also means whatever even vague notions Auburn had of flying under the radar are finished; Stage 1 is complete, and that means stage 2 is, by definition, going to be dramatically more difficult. But if Cam Newton and the offensive line can keep doing what they did last night, Auburn will be OK.

*Dibs on the t-shirt.

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