As seems to be my custom, I am poised to miss the first game of the season yet again. This year, the ED can take the blame – I’ve been scheduled to work 15:00-23:00 not just this weekend, but this weekend and the next. Thankfully, Auburn’s second game of the season falls on a Thursday and I may be able to catch most of it… but still. Gamecast is nice – and I’m grateful for it – but it’s kind of galling to miss out on the opening weekend. Even tonight, I’ve got that same ugly shift and will be keeping track of the action from afar, between patients, watching the blue lines battle the other lines on my internet monitor.
But you know what? That’s okay. I feel more relaxed about this year’s Auburn team than I have in ages.
I think it started during the Iron Bowl. Honest, it was the first Iron Bowl I can remember losing and actually feeling okay about. All I could think of at the end of the game was, you turkeys get your licks in while you can ’cause we’re comin’ for you.
Even at the end of our most recent undefeated season, there were still questions. Maybe ’04 was glorious, maybe Jason Campbell wasn’t just a quarterback but a bona-fide captain on the field, the likes of which hadn’t been on the Plains in a long time… but that season was an offensive uncertainty prior to the LSU game and the light bulb that popped on like Las Vegas in his head. That one pass, that critical third-down conversion and a win in the Tiger Bowl – afterward, we were clearly a team to be reckoned with, but before…
Before, who were we, and who knew? And after? After, the questions returned as their answers departed with the NFL draft. It’s almost not worth pointing out how different our situation this year.
For one, we have an established identity on offense from which we need not deviate. The three years prior to Gorgeous Borges, we had three different offensive coordinators and nothing to show for it but confusion. Al gave us a hell of a season in 2004, but with diminishing returns, the last few years of his tenure were marked by a consistent offensive identity that became less and less effective every year. Then we endured the Tony Franklin Catastrophe, and then zombie Nallsminger, in which our offense was coached by a man who really just wanted to run a trucking company, and another guy who wasn’t good enough to outcoach a guy who runs a trucking company. And then… 2009, redemption and the record books for Chris Todd and his humming offensive machine. In 2010, there will be no mid-season scrapping of the offense, no waffling between not just blocking styles but our linemen’s playing weight, no flipping back and forth willy-nilly between the running non-throwing quarterback and the stationary target. The Gus Malzahn offense is not only effective, it’s fleshed-out enough that we don’t have to throw the whole thing out when it doesn’t work. We can – brace yourself – make adjustments within the system, to account for opposing defenses and for differences in our personnel. We can run this thing with our previously noodle-armed carved-of-marble quarterback and we can run it damn fine, thanks.
But even better, this is a year when the man taking the snaps has a talent level that’s iron-clad.
So it could be the quarterbacks: I can’t remember the last time our signal-caller was anything but a Pandora’s box, lid about to pop off and release God knows what onto our season (and it is only recently that the box held much more than enough success to accentuate the frustrations).
But Cam Newton? Consensus approval coming out of high school. Anointed successor to (it must be said) Urban Meyer’s rhino-quarterback offense. Undeniable success taking snaps in the Mississippi JUCO system. Crazy-powerful arm. And now, with spring and summer practices under his belt, he has made huge strides in the precision of his throws and has, like Jerry points out, as much experience in the learn-today-execute-tomorrow Malzahn offense as did Chris Todd one year ago. The pieces are in place. Cam Newton is ready to wade through the buildings to the center of town. And should the unthinkable occur, Barrett Trotter is at least as prepared as his predecessors to run this offensive machine up and down the field, by now well-versed in the Gus game and with the physical gifts to run all its plays effectively.
It could be the fact that the depth chart on both sides of the ball has actual depth for the first time in forever: the lion’s share of this issue has to be laid at Tuberville’s feet, with the way his recruiting classes always looked great at the onset but evaporated before they put cleat to field.
Seems strange looking back. The way I usually like to remember Auburn players is “to be and not to seem,” like I remember Karlos Dansby: latent talents hidden by less-than-prominent schools or underdeveloped high school careers, discovered by careful recruiting and developed into the gridiron monsters they didn’t know they could become. Maybe that’s the story for a number of our recruits, but in looking at the gradual decline of talent over Tubby’s reign, it really couldn’t have been the rule. Even beyond that, Auburn has just been flat unlucky with injuries (McNeill, Savage, Etheridge, and even McCalebb,) with heads not being screwed on straight (Frenchy,) with transfers (Cotton, Robinson,) or with players just being caught between two regimes, the wrong person at the wrong time (Caudle.) I take nothing from the starters, who left every ounce of fight out on the field. But at Auburn, they shouldn’t have to play every snap in an overtime game against Northwestern.
And now, they don’t have to. With one amazingly strong class in the fold and starting to see the field, and with many of those previous unfortunate events having sorted themselves out, we have a genuine first team, second team, and reserves to field beyond that. We can actually let the starting linebackers take a breather. We can field separate cornerback and safeties corps – heck, we can take one of our standout safeties and turn him into an outside linebacker. We can put more scholarship players onto the special teams, take some heat off the returners with more effective blocking, and likewise pressure the other team’s returners.
Or, it could be the fact that Auburn has endured some pretty ugly seasons of late, and has emerged from them, Auburn still. The gradual decrepitude of Tuberville’s time on the Plains, the panic and confusion that ensued when he began gambling off the field more than on, the cronyism and the slate-clearing it necessitated, the crawl back and the load that all the players have shouldered…
T’was work. Hard work.
And through that work and because of it, we have seen what this team is made of and what they can do.
This time last year, there was still an enormous amount of trepidation about what the offense would even look like, if Todd could keep it together, how the defense would hold up, if it would be possible for this dream team of coaches to bootstrap our Auburn tigers back up off the turf, if we even had a team at all. Last year gave us another fall ripe for analysis and poised on the brink in a long line of seasons marked not by the possibilities they held, but by the questions that hung over them. This year, many of our questions have been answered by last year. This year, I’m ready to crack open a beer, sit back, and just flat enjoy some foobaw.
That’s not to say there won’t be analysis – as soon as my laptop gets its hard drive ported and replaced (for the second time) we’ll be getting back to Spread Sheets, and indeed, finishing last year’s. And that’s not to say there won’t be excitement. My wife and I have a new house which has, no kidding, popcorn ceilings, and I am 100 percent sure that the first time Ladarious Phillips plows into some poor MLB he outweighs by a good 50 pounds, I’m gonna be bleeding from the knuckles again. And hell, we don’t know what twists and turns through which this campaign will lead us. There may be disappointment. There may be unfortunate twists of fate that leave us gasping, wondering what could have been.
But we can take it in stride – the one thing that there is far fewer of this year is the big, ugly question that punches us in the gut before the fall even gets underway. The only question I have right now is: whose teeth is Da-Da gonna knock out first? Who’s the first poor sucker he goes Owen Schmitt on? Hang on to your mouth guards.
Whatever comes, I am ready to enjoy it. Every last damn minute. War Damn Eagle and welcome back!
John Magruder is a doctor or something, somewhere up North. He has been going to Auburn games since before he was born. He was in –Legion Field- utero when Bo went over the top. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful. You can chart his growth with his fantastic column, God, Girl, Grill, Gridiron, and write to him at email@example.com.