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Things The Wishbone thinks it knows

We know they're going to need more hand sanitizer, 'cause they're are tons of people pulling for them. We know that. What else?

Two big (but not huge) games in two weeks.  Two three-point wins.  Consternation and jubilation equally rampant among most members of the Auburn Family.  Lots of, “Yes, we won, buuuut…”  Nine more games directly ahead of us, six of which will determine how this season will be remembered.

We look at the results so far and we find ourselves filled with questions:  Why is the offense so inconsistent?  Can the defense hold up?  How good was Mississippi State?  How good was Clemson?  And, most importantly—just how good is Auburn, really?

Lots of questions, yeah.  But—what about answers?  What, in fact, do we know so far?  Or, at least, what do we think we know?

Here are Five Things the Wishbone Thinks We Know So Far:

1.  The Auburn offense is both better and worse than last year.  But hey, the defense is way better—right?

To quote a certain Mr. Not-Wearing-Aubie’s-Head-Ever:  “Not so fast, my friend.”

When you actually compare Auburn’s stats through the first three games of 2009 with the first three games of this season, some interesting and rather odd factoids become apparent.  One:  We are averaging ten points less per game this year (32 vs. 42 last year).  Two:  Rushing yards are almost the same, but passing yards are down by fifty yards (201 vs. 251 last year).  Three:  We’re averaging 64 plays a game, vs. 81 at this point last year.  (How much did the infamous “slowing it down” in Starkville contribute to that?)  And four:  Our turnover margin was +7 last year at this point; this year it’s -4.  That’s an eleven-turnover swing through just three games!

So, yeah—the offense isn’t quite where it was at this time a year ago.  Interestingly enough, they’re gaining slightly fewer total yards but more yards per play.  Of course, variables have to be included such as who we played, where we played them, and so on.  But the matchups are actually remarkably similar.  Both years Auburn started with a non-conference patsy, followed by Miss. State, and then an out-of-conference BCS –quality  foe.  (Say what you will, but West Virginia was actually ranked when we played them; Clemson was not.)

The defense, on the other hand, is where we expected to find a real discrepancy.  Surely, we thought as we looked at the numbers, this year’s defense is easily besting the numbers of last year’s much-maligned squad.

Well, guess what.  The numbers given up by the 2009 and 2010 Auburn Tigers on defense are virtually identical, right down to the same number of sacks (seven) and the same yards per play allowed (just under five). Last year through this point we had allowed a few more rushing yards, while this year we’ve allowed a few more passing yards.  The end result is an improvement of only ten yards in total defense.  Oh, and we’re one point better, on average, this year.  This is the marked improvement many of us have been thinking we’ve been seeing?  Really?

One conclusion that can be drawn from this is that what we really need is a good drenching downpour before and during the South Carolina game, a la West Virginia last year, hopefully leading to lots of Garcia interceptions and Lattimore fumbles and getting us back into the black in our turnover margin.  That number is probably the single most glaringly negative statistic of all, and Chizik must know it, because he’s started talking “increased turnover creation” with reporters.  That’s a good thing.

2.  Clemson may finish the year with a better overall record than Auburn, and might well win the ACC.

Because they play in a weaker conference to begin with, and because the ACC this year in particular is suffering through a horrific collapse, Clemson looks as likely as anyone to take the title.  They showed us something Saturday night.  They came into Jordan-Hare and stood toe to toe with Auburn and rolled out SEC-caliber offensive and defensive lines, an excellent (and tough) quarterback, two good running backs and one great safety.  And they were well coached.  That is more than enough to win the ACC.  They simply look like a rougher, tougher team—more “Man enough,” as Coach Dye would put it—than they used to.  They increasingly look like a real football team—an SEC team—living in a basketball conference.  We will be interested to see how Clemson does when they play Miami at home in two weeks.  (Heck, when the topic is “Miami gets it handed to them,” we’re always interested.  We still remember 1983.)

3.  Dr. Gustav may be outsmarting himself.

Auburn’s Offensive Coordinator, Gus Malzahn, scripts the first fifteen to twenty plays of each game.  It makes sense to do this because it allows him to pick good plays to start the game but more importantly to see how the other team lines up when he shows those formations , so that can line up that way again and then attack the weakness the other team is showing.  There’s just one problem with this: If the other team is very well-prepared for what you do, then every play and formation is perfectly defended—and that is what Clemson did early in the game.  Auburn did not come off the script and start throwing downfield, and the result was a quarter and a half with no first downs.

Now, give Malzahn credit—he made the adjustments at halftime that he had to make, and the third quarter was a testament to that.  But the bottom line is that Clemson was prepared for what we did in the opening parts of the game and we should expect other teams to come out and play us the same way. The Tigers are going to need to be more unpredictable on offense this week against a well-coached South Carolina defense.

4.  The “Power Rankings” for this point in the season are pretty clear and obvious.  Right?

Here is our quick-and-dirty look at who’s better than whom, right now.  This is not “who will win the SEC” but simply “who’s better than whom.”

The Elite:  Alabama.  And Lord, how it continuously hurts to have to admit that.  But it’s so glaringly obvious.  So we cling to hope.  We try to work out elaborate scenarios whereby an Arkansas team with no running game can rack up points on the Tide, and how an Arkansas team with a weak-but-improving defense can somehow hold the Evil Elephantine Juggernaut to only a paltry few points.  Oh, come on.  We all know the truth—the Tide is going to crush Arkansas again.  But we cling to the hope, to the false illusion, because it makes us happier.  Ugh.

The Very Good:  Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn.  And let’s just say the two halves of The Wishbone don’t exactly see eye to eye on that.  One of us would drop the pulled pork below the McNuggets and drop Auburn down to the next level altogether.  Speaking of which:

The Might Be Good:  LSU, Kentucky, Georgia.  What do we really know about LSU yet?  Or about Kentucky?  We ought to know plenty about Georgia by now—they’ve played (and lost) two league games already.  And yet…there’s a nagging suspicion that they could end the year with a somewhat decent record.  Judging by this ranking, they’ve lost to the second and third best teams in the entire conference.  Not a lot of shame in that—unless you’re a Dawg who was entertaining lofty and clearly unrealistic dreams and expectations of titles in 2010.  In which case, ouch.

The Not Good:  MSU, Tennessee, Vanderbilt.   Ahh, Other Bulldogs… your destiny appeared to hold such grand promise a mere two weeks ago, when the future was rosy and the loss column was empty.  Whither your dreams of relevance now?  Cowbells are not the magical cure for everything you hoped they would be, and after five interceptions in Red Stick, reality has re-imposed itself with a vengeance.  And yet, for all that, somehow, things could be worse.  Which brings us to:

The Wretched:  Ole Miss.  About which, the less said, the better.

5.  We still have a lot of bullets in our gun that we haven’t fired yet.

While the Auburn offense might currently be a riddle wrapped in a mystery encased in an enigma, one fact we can doggedly cling to is that there are still a lot of potential weapons that have scarcely seen the field.  Where to begin?  Alleged phenom-waiting-to-happen Trovon Reed stuck a couple of toes in the water against Clemson but claims his knee is at best 80 percent healthy.  We anxiously await the earth-shattering impact (boom!) of Big Ladarious Phillips at fullback, though the longer we wait, the more likely a redshirt would seem.  Our tight end is a no-show, at least as far as pass-catching goes.  For whatever reasons, Mario Fannin hasn’t worked out as the go-to tailback, and his injury while playing that role has now unfortunately removed him from his far more effective spot as a pass-catcher out of the backfield or H-spot.  With the exception of a couple of big plays, the majority of the receiving corps seems to be in the role of “provide a diversion to help Darvin Adams get open.”  And we’re only now beginning to see some of Mike Dyer’s potential.

So, yeah—lots of bullets left unfired so far.  If Auburn’s offense is like Christmas morning, so far we’ve only unwrapped a couple of packages.  And that is a very encouraging thought, indeed.

So there we go—five things we think we know, or maybe five things we know we think, about the 2010 Auburn Tigers thus far.  Obviously, there are still far more questions than answers hovering around this team.  But there’s also a lot of football left to be played, a lot more answers waiting to be discovered, and a lot more presents waiting to be opened.

And by the way—we originally intended to list ten things we thought we knew… but we discovered halfway through that we only knew half as much as we thought we did.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns available here.

Photos by Zac Henderson.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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