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The Wishbone is Raising (Our Hopes about Getting to) Arizona

After the 2004 LSU game.

The LSU game is behind us now, Tigers fans, and the Ole Miss game lies just ahead.  And in the breath-catching space between the two, we find ourselves in somewhat unexpected and relatively uncharted territory—ranked first in the BCS standings. First.  Not the steady climb to third or even second that most of us probably expected, but freaking first.  We’d like to savor this feeling.  We’d like it to go on forever, of course.  But it won’t, and we can’t.  Before us lie two huge traditional contests, a cupcake, and a trap.  An honest-to-goodness, get-out-of-Cloud-City-Luke it’s a trap!  How do we react to this?  How do we act?  What should we think?  Is this a blessing (we’re not stuck at #3 this time!) or a curse (good gosh, the bullseye’s on us—already!)?

Here now is the Wishbone’s meditation in three parts on Auburn’s metaphorical yesterday (LSU), today (being ranked first in the BCS), and tomorrow (Ole Miss).

Yesterday:  LSU

We won.  We won we won we won.  (Massive exhaling of breath.)  Besides the victory, what can we take from it?

We talked last week about in-game tactics like bringing up the safeties and forcing Cam to pass, but in retrospect it’s hard to figure how we missed seeing exactly what LSU’s overall game plan would be:  Limiting the number of times that Auburn’s offense had the ball.  Cam and company can’t score when they’re sitting on the bench.  For LSU, the best defense was a good offense—and even though they don’t claim anything like a “good” offense, and indeed don’t have the kind of offense (see Arkansas and Kentucky) that does give Auburn trouble, they were able to be effective at executing that strategy for long stretches of the game.

Certainly stellar LSU special teams play went a long way toward furthering that goal.  Even when Auburn did manage to hold the Bengal Tigers to short gains, Helton and his punt-team compatriots dropped us time and again up against our own goal line.  Some of the blame lands on the shoulders of the usually-reliable Quindarius Carr, who appeared to be assuming the ball would sail over his head and into the end zone.  (Gene Chizik, post-game, was quoted as saying, “We can’t operate like that.  That’s a special teams nightmare.”)  But, again, it’s also a credit to LSU’s punters for being able to kick the ball in just such a way that it looked that way to Carr but then landed (often with a nice golf-ball-backspin kind of effect) right where they wanted it, and to the other members of their kicking team for quickly surrounding and downing it.  Only once do we recall the ball getting past them into the end zone.  That’s impressive.

By way of comparison, our own special teams play nearly killed us, and in so many ways.  Looking back at our ongoing commentary on this site’s game day post, we find it riddled with criticisms of that phase of the game—and that only a week after such an exemplary exhibition against Arkansas.  The aforementioned punt return misadventures were part of it, sure, but also there was the horrendous offside call on the only kickoff to actually pass through the LSU end zone (that’s a penalty that seemingly gets called about once every three years, total), resulting in a surrender of over fifteen free yards to LSU.  Our own punting game was vastly underwhelming when compared to theirs.  An uncharacteristic missed field goal from relatively close range by Wes Byrum (who, it must be noted, does deserve congratulations for breaking Jon Vaughn’s all-time scoring record on Saturday—an accomplishment somewhat overshadowed by the other titanic events of the contest) didn’t help matters either.  The one thing the special teams did accomplish was to keep Patrick Peterson under relative control on punt returns, and that deserves a nod.

So LSU planned to take advantage of their superiority in special teams, throw in just enough offense to run the clock and keep Cam and company off the field, play their usual strong defense, and generally limit our opportunities for scoring.  The upshot of this strategy was that Auburn needed to be productive nearly every time they had the ball.  We needed to maximize our opportunities.  It brings to mind the 2006 game at South Carolina, where Auburn possessed the ball for the entirety of the third quarter and SC owned it for almost all of the fourth.  Talk about needing to take advantage of limited opportunities…!

But one phase of this strategy wasn’t really working, and that was obvious almost from the get-go: LSU’s mighty defense couldn’t stop us.  We could only stop ourselves.

And that’s why we were screaming at the TV and pulling our collective hair out every time Auburn would do something foolish or frustrating to prematurely end a drive.  Again, note those words: “Auburn would do something.” Usually Auburn, not LSU, was mostly responsible for Auburn’s drives ending without points.  Fannin’s fumble… an offensive line penalty here or there… a missed field goal… a too-cute play-call on third and short when all we needed was a yard and everyone in the stadium knew what the safest and most correct call would be—and that LSU couldn’t begin to stop it.

We have to pause here to give credit to five great big ol’ reasons why that kind of play is unstoppable, and why the running game in general is so overwhelming against all foes right now.  Big time SEC games are won at the line of scrimmage and that is where Auburn truly won this game on both sides of the ball.  Against most teams, LSU’s defense is in the backfield waiting for the running back or standing in the hole waiting to make the tackle.  Thanks to an amazing job by the Auburn offensive line the holes were there for Newton, Dyer and McCalebb. You don’t rush for that many yards against any defense—much less a great one—unless the offensive line as a unit is taking over the game.  And they did.  Cam Newton gets (and deserves) lots of adulation, but we need to appreciate the fact that a defense filled with future NFL players was getting pushed all over the field on Saturday afternoon—and there was nothing they could do about it.

Which brings us once again to the 260-pound quarterback in the room.  Just as in every game so far this year, when Auburn needed a couple of yards for a first down, there was one tactic that LSU could not stop: letting Cam run straight ahead with the ball.  One thing Auburn does, late in games, that has made third and especially fourth quarters so productive for our offense, is to stop being clever and tricky and just let Cam take the game over.  Now, there’s an argument to be made that it’s (partly) the three previous quarters of trickiness that wore the defenses down to such a degree that Cam can just roll over them in the fourth, and that may be true.  But, thankfully, when the game has been on the line late and Auburn has absolutely needed to score or to at least maintain control of the ball, either Gus has told Cam to take the ball himself and do his thing, or else Cam has taken the ball in his hands and not let Gus outsmart himself.  Either way, it amounts to the same thing: There’s no need to be too cute when you have a gigantic hammer of a quarterback who can bludgeon the defense into first downs.  The Hulk doesn’t waste time with elaborate karate or ju jitsu moves.  He smashes.

Cam smash puny defense.  Puny top-ranked defense.  Puny formerly top-ranked defense.  Raaaarrgghhh!

On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s own much maligned defense held LSU to three first downs—three first downs!—in the second half.  And that was at a time when LSU consistently had great field position, due to the aforementioned special teams efforts/errors. The defense in blue stepped up on Saturday and made things happen.  Sure, they missed some prime chances to do even better. (Where were the safeties on the fleaflicker pass for a touchdown?  How did Josh Bynes become the entire defensive backfield on that play?)  But Nick Fairley took over that side of the ball and wreaked havoc despite consistent double teams.  Jordan Jefferson is going to wake up screaming in bed this week with images of a blue #90 jersey crushing him into the turf.  Jeremiah Masoli has to be somewhat nervous; he’s seen the last several guys in line ahead of him get eaten up by that big blue monster, and now he knows he’s next.

Critiques and criticisms aside, of course, it’s important to remember that Auburn did win the game, defeating the sixth-ranked team in the country in the process—and no one thinks that was the best we could play.  These comments are not intended so much to berate the players for their mistakes in a game where, ultimately, they didn’t turn out to matter, but are intended to provide food for thought going forward, into the last four games of the year—games that suddenly matter much, much more than we ever dreamed they would.  And that brings us to…

Today:  HOLY $#*&!!  WE’RE NUMBER 1!

For the first time since 1985, Auburn is ranked #1 in the most important poll.  It’s hard to believe it’s been that long.  In the years since then, we’ve more than flirted with championships, including our awesome 1988 squad that rightly should have played Notre Dame for the title (but that leads us back to LSU, and we’re done talking about them now), the 1993-94 “streak” squads that rang up twenty straight while on probation, and the mighty 2004 team that finished undefeated but second in the major polls.  None of them ever achieved the lofty ranking of this year’s team, this week.

Twenty-five years ago, Bo Jackson led the newly-minted #1 Tigers into Neyland Stadium in Knoxville only to be embarrassed by Tony “Coke is it!” Robinson and the Vols, 38-20.  Pat Dye called that game a trap in retrospect, and he was right.  The team was not focused and they allowed a future NFL “replacement player” and drug offender to throw for 259 yards and four touchdowns, and to upstage one of the greatest athletes in college football history. Bo was supposed to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week, but in this case the SI Curse struck early, and Bo’s image was replaced by that of Robinson.  Our reign at the top was as brief as it was unsatisfying, and it came to an ignominious end.  Who would have ever dreamed a quarter of a century would go by before we again reached that peak?

Now here we are again, with another mind-bogglingly amazing athlete leading the offense* and another #1 ranking in our pocket.  Three weeks in a row a team has been in this spot and gone on the road in a conference game and lost.  In the case of Alabama and Oklahoma, going into those games, those two teams felt exactly the way Auburn does right now:  “We just beat the toughest team we will face for most of the season on national television and everyone is telling us how great we are.”  And then they went on the road and things didn’t go perfectly, and they found they could not execute like they normally do at home, and the other team was much more focused and prepared for the game.  And they lost.  All of them.

Frighteningly, many Auburn fans are thinking, “Yeah, but that won’t happen to us, because we beat LSU and LSU is so much better than Ole Miss.”  Oh…where to begin?  Oklahoma and Alabama were thinking the same thing.  Weird stuff happens on the road in conference play.  Weird stuff happens when you’re ranked #1.  Put the two together and you have a nightmare.  Houston Nutt knows a win can save his job, so Ole Miss will not hold anything back.  Being #1 would be great on January 10, but right now it means a great big target on your back.

Be that as it may, however, Auburn fans have a singular experience that trumps any talk about peaking too soon in the polls and fearing traps and upsets.  And we call that experience “2004.”  That is all that needs to be said.  It’s hard to imagine any Auburn man or woman would prefer to be further down in the rankings right now, knowing what can happen if you get perpetually stuck behind teams that refuse to lose.

Furthermore, everybody—everybody—thinks we’re going to lose a game before the end of the season.  It’s hard to find unanimity among the college football cognoscenti and intelligentsia, but on this point they all concur: Auburn has danced along the edge of destruction too many times already this year to make it through four more games unscathed.  They all seem sure it will be Alabama, not Auburn, in the SEC Championship Game and in the BCS Championship.  They are, in short, hardly tossing flowers in our path.  They’re practically hurling down the gauntlet at us, challenging us to even try it.  They’re all guessing how many weeks it will be before we inevitably lose.  Nobody believes in us—nobody but ourselves.  We’re gonna have to scratch and claw every dadgum week to prove them all wrong.  That, friends, is a good thing.  In the immortal words of Carl Spackler, we’ve got that going for us.  Which is nice.

So bring on that big, beautiful, frightening, intimidating, gorgeous #1, BCS.  We will grab it and run with it.  And when I say we will run with it, I mean that our 260-pound monster quarterback and his cohorts on the offense will run with it—all the way to the end zone, and to Atlanta, and—if there is any justice in this world—to Glendale, Arizona in January.

Tomorrow:  Admiral Ack-Bear and his Rebel Forces

Question: Is the Ole Miss game a trap game of epic proportions?  Answer: Does a Rebel Black Bear do his business in the woods?  (Actually, we’re not really sure where he does his business; or, to be honest, what a “Rebel Black Bear” is, exactly. Though we think it has something to do with Wookies and the Death Star.)

The fact is that our one game against an offense that matched up well with our defense is over.  Now we’re back to a team with a good quarterback and nothing much to lose.  We foresee lots of uncomfortable moments on Saturday as Ole Miss racks up big yardage throwing the ball.  In case you missed it in between weather delays, Ole Miss outgained Arkansas on Saturday—in Fayetteville.  Jeremiah Masoli accumulated 425 yards of total offense (327 passing, 98 rushing) and accounted for three touchdowns.  So while the Auburn defense was great against LSU, we expect to give up another 375 yards through the air in Oxford.   And the Ole Miss offense has allowed the fewest sacks in the SEC with seven in seven games.

The good news for Auburn?  Han and Leia and the Ewoks must have succeeded, because that energy shield around Endor (or Oxford) actually is down.  Ole Miss is last in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing 32 points per game. They are a middle-of-the-pack defense against the run and at the bottom in pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Expect another contest like we saw at Kentucky (ugh!) where Auburn rolls up and down the field for large portions of the game but just can’t quite put the other team away.

It comes down to this:  If Auburn limits the turnovers, the Tigers will win.  Ole Miss isn’t going to beat Cam’s Army unless said Army helps them do it.  Of course, all season long, the team that has proven most dangerous to Auburn is Auburn.

Time not to be your own worst enemy, Tigers.  Time to put together a complete game, top to bottom.  It’s the best way to escape the Rebel trap—it’s only a trap if you make it one!—and you can also consider it practice for what we’ll need to do the final two weeks of the season.

Get those stars and #1 rankings out of your eyes, gentlemen, and focus on the Ack-Bears.  You’ve had plenty of reasons thus far this season to see why it will take a complete effort to win—and plenty of reasons to see why, this year, anything is possible.  Anything.

This Week’s Wishbone SEC Power Rankings, Lofty Heights Edition

The Elite

Auburn.  And we’re gonna ride this train for as long as it will run.

The Very Good
Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU.  Alabama seems to be in the process of working out their annual mid-season slump issues and getting back into juggernaut mode—though a good dose of 2010 Tennessee will always help with that.  Likewise, this Carolina team appears to be readying itself for its annual late-season swoon—and the Dawgs and Gators say, “Thank you kindly, Gamecocks.”  LSU has a week to try to get Les Miles’s reality-altering flux capacitor working again after Camzilla stomped on it in Doc Brown’s lab.

The Might be Good
Mississippi State, Georgia, Kentucky.  MSU is on the rise, and no reasonable Auburn fan this season could dare criticize another team for just barely squeaking out a win.  Georgia is beginning to look downright scary, which must mean it’s almost time for them to play us, as usual.  It has to be extremely frustrating to be a Kentucky fan this season, because that squad positively drips with promise, and yet they find creative ways to lose, over and over.  And now they travel to MSU for a chance to right the ship—or for the Bulldogs to make it six in a row and get up a good head of steam before facing Alabama soon…

The Not Good
Ole Miss, Florida, Tennessee.  We really, truly hope the Ack-Bears don’t take offense at this ranking and decide to take their vengeance out on Auburn on Saturday.  Focus, men.  Focus.

The Wretched
Vandy.  What else is new?

* When Cam runs, psychologically and perceptually, it just doesn’t seem like Cam is zooming like Bo did– and then you blink and you realize he’s covered 50 yards!  And it looks like he’s taking each of the defenders for a slow (or not-so-slow) dance along the way, giving each of them in Fred Astaire style a brief moment of attention before moving on.  Bo was a missile exploding out of a launch tube and rocketing down the field.  Cam is a Brazilian samba dancer working his dance card in fifty-yard sessions and ten-yard strides.

** The other side of the BCS ranking issue is that, after 2004, we just despise the BCS.  We would hate to see Missouri and/or Michigan State to go undefeated and achieve their best season in fifty years and then have to watch someone else—even Auburn!—play in the BCS title game.  (We wouldn’t hate it enough to want them to go instead of Auburn, of course!  But the system still sucks, and we all know it.)  There should be a playoff.  Even a plus-one is better than what we have now.  Whether Auburn is #1 or not, the system still sucks, and Auburn taking advantage of it for a change, rather than being the victim of it, won’t change that fact.

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 can be found here.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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