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Auburn thoughts, scattered n’ smothered

This, folks, is a man.

Sorry, everyone, even 48-plus hours after the game my brain is a little too … stretched these days to come up with a coherent theme for this post. It’s bullet point time. Note that I’m trying hard not to repeat Amorak’s points in his excellent Sunday post, which you should read first. Enjoy:

— No question that Cam Newton is entirely incredible. And no question that every accolade he receives for his leadership, toughness, and execution on The Drive is deserved and then some.

But a drive like that one–almost entirely on the ground, almost entirely a handful of gritty yards at a time, almost entirely with the defense knowing well ahead of time there was no chance the ball was going to be put in the air–doesn’t start with a quarterback, no matter how good he is. It starts with Messrs. Ziemba, Berry, Pugh, Isom, and Mosley. Those guys simply wouldn’t allow Kentucky to get a push. They didn’t open any gaping, easy-20-yards type of holes, either, but they didn’t have to. They only needed to give Cam a crease. Which they did, over, and over, and over again. And they won the damn game.

Those same guys were terrible against Clemson. They know it, their coaches know it, we know it. But in the two SEC games since, Auburn has run for a total of 645 yards. And not against bodybag teams, either; one of those games came on the road in the SEC, the other against a defensive line that just got finished manhandling Alabama. Auburn is now the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC and No. 8 in the country. That Clemson game wasn’t fun, but if that’s what it took to remind this line of the way they ought to be playing–and the dominant way they are playing now–it’ll have been worth it.

— Auburn’s sort of a weird team. The scoreboard suggests they’re the most fortunate team this side of LSU, having now played four games that came down to the final possession and having won all four. We can all think of plays–the Parker pass in overtime, the Miss. St. drop, the fumbles out of bounds against both the ‘Cocks and ‘Cats–that would have singlehandedly turned those games around.

Then again, to look at the box scores, you’d think Auburn shouldn’t have been in that much danger in the first place. Well, against Clemson, sure. But they outgained Mississippi State by 102 yards. South Carolina, they outgained by 108 yards. And now Kentucky, 185 yards. That’s an average margin of 132 yards per SEC game–spread over the course of a season, that’s championship-grade. Even last year’s Tide team barely cracked 100.

Of course, that number is likely to fall as the schedule gets tougher, and it’s not an entirely accurate portrayal of the Kentucky game anyway, since the ‘Cats took over at midfield so often. But the point remains the same: Auburn may be on the fortunate side, but they’ve been playing excellent football regardless. 2007 Mississippi St., 2008 Vanderbilt, 2009 LSU they are not.

— I hate criticizing Ted Roof, because ever since the 2009 Mississippi State game, Roof-bashing has been the unofficial official pastime of Auburn’s message board types and al.com commenters. That’s not the sort of company a blogger wants to keep, particularly since it’s typically borne of brainless WE OUGHTA BE BETTER WE’RE AUBURN reflexiveness than any actual thought. Seriously, what’s more important: that we gave up some yards and points in tofu coverage against Arkansas St., or that we’re second in the SEC in rush defense despite facing both State and Carolina?

That said: Auburn’s defense was awful Saturday. Awful. Worst outing since last year’s LSU game awful. And Roof’s game-planning had a lot to do with that. We can talk about not giving up big plays all we want, but when you’ve given up 34 points in only 10 possessions–and yielded more touchdown drives (4) than you’ve forced punts (3)–that’s bad defense no matter how those 34 points get put up. (For the record, the special teams breakdowns and consistent midfield starting positions didn’t help matters much, but every one of Kentucky’s six scoring drives covered at least 48 yards. There were no kick returns for TD or fumbles on our own 11. Auburn had chances to make stops and didn’t.)

I’m starting to think that Roof’s approach towards a Kentucky-like (or Arkansas St.-like) dink-and-dunk approach is fundamentally broken. The stop-the-run, play-soft-against-the-pass, wait-for-a-big-play-or-offensive-screwup philosophy makes a lot of sense in a lot of situations–like last year, when even playing conservatively couldn’t stop the flood of long touchdowns, or when you’re facing mistake-prone QBs like Miss. St.’s, or a big-play reliant offense like Clemson’s–but against players as difficult to tackle in space as Cobb and Locke and a quarterback as accurate as Hartline, it just doesn’t work. The scoreboard from the other night is all the evidence you need, but that Auburn struggled so badly in similar situations against Northwestern and Arkansas St. makes it even more conclusive. Roof–and Chizik, who knew when he hired Roof that his m.o. was terrific run defense and shaky pass defense–need to do better work against these kinds of teams.

(The good news: no one else on the schedule is that kind of team. Mallett’s better about checking down these days, but the Hogs still throw deep with regularity. LSU, Georgia, and ‘Bama are all pro-style offenses that start with the run. Ole Miss is even more ground-heavy with Masoli at the helm. Roof’s still probably going to look OK by the time the season’s over.)

— So, if you’ve been paying attention to this post so far, you know Auburn is No. 1 in the SEC in rushing and No. 2 in rushing defense. If “run the ball and stop the run” really is the formula for success in the SEC, Auburn’s still in damn good shape going forward.

— A quick note about the punting: I’m OK with unreturnable moonshot 32-yarders against Randall Cobb and, in a couple of weeks, Patrick Peterson. But I’m not OK with finishing the season 91st in the country in net punting. That’s a ton of hidden yards to concede … and another reason Auburn hasn’t been able to put away the teams they’ve been outplaying.

— There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of excitement out there about the tailbacks in the wake of Newton’s reign of terror, but dude, Fannin and Dyer combined to run for 106 yards on just 17 (evenly split) total carries–an average of better than 6 yards a pop. That’s good. If McCalebb hadn’t had a peculiar off-night (9 yards on 5 carries), it would have been even better.

— About Alabama: like everyone else, I watched the Carolina game in a state of mid- to low-level delirium. Jeremy, as always, is right.

But we should also realize that unless the Tide also trips up against LSU or … uh … Mississippi St., it doesn’t change anything for Auburn. Before the Carolina game, we knew Auburn would have to win in Tuscaloosa to get to Atlanta. After, we still know Auburn’s going to have to win in Tuscaloosa to get to Atlanta. No point in pretending it’s not awful nice to have the Tide’s chances of a back-to-back national title downgraded to DEFCON 3, awful nice to see them (along with every other SEC team!) behind Auburn in the polls, but even if Auburn takes care of business at home these next two weeks, it’s still all about the Iron Bowl.

(Unless LSU wins in Baton Rouge. That would be truly phenomenal.)

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