Thoughts on This Auburn Team, Right Now:
We all know the truth by now. We don’t exactly speak of it openly, but the fact is there, in plain sight—it’s the 260 pound quarterback in the room. And that truth is this: As long as Cameron Newton remains healthy, Auburn has a chance to win every game on the schedule—and perhaps one or two not currently on the schedule. But if something horrific and unthinkable should befall him (and were you as disturbed and horrified as we were to learn that he separated his shoulder late in his season at Blinn—and by diving into end zone?), we basically become last year’s squad, minus Ben Tate; or the 1999 team, with Barrett Trotter starring in the role of Ben Leard, and Darvin Adams as Ronney Daniels, and a much weaker defense. Ack.
So let’s all just metaphorically gather ‘round and say a prayer to the deity (or lack thereof) of our choice, shall we? Because, Cam—we need ya, pal. In a way that few teams have ever needed that one guy before, we need ya. Even the early-1980s teams that featured game-changing Bo Jackson had a fantastic defense they could rely upon, more often than not. Rarely did those squads have to get into a track meet and essentially outscore someone (the 1984 and 85 Florida State games notwithstanding). In Pat Dye’s world, such a thought was virtually anathema.
Even as Cam’s personal rushing stats have increased, the rest of the rushing game has regressed. Dyer is hobbled—just as we arrive at crunch time, no less. Fannin continues to fumble (and surely can’t count on another howler of a call from the replay booth for the rest of the season). For the most part, and especially against a fast defense, McCalebb is useful for one thing only, aside from last weekend’s superlative kick return: being the decoy on the “jet sweep.” By the coaches’ own admission, you dare not run him up the gut like a “true” running back. He’s an “edge” guy. He doesn’t even catch passes, a la Fannin—at least, not yet. And what about tough-as-nails Eric Smith? Fabulous blocker, sure; but, to our knowledge, he’s carried the ball in a meaningful situation precisely once this season, and got stuffed for no gain.
So Cam is no longer just the X-Factor we’ve been calling him here. He’s now seemingly the entire running game, at least until Dyer gets healthy again.
Talk about putting all your eggs (or footballs, or fortunes) in one basket. Good heavens. Please stay healthy, Cam. Please.
What if they Held a Track Meet and Called it a Football Game?
A track meet? The proper analogy is probably a tennis match. For the better part of three-plus quarters in the defensive coordinators’ Purgatory that was Auburn vs. Arkansas, it looked for all the world like the team that could hold serve and break the other’s serve would win—and ultimately that’s what happened. (Both teams’ defenses were essentially the net—the ball sailed over and past it, and even through it, with ease.) The famous Arkansas fumble and return for a touchdown was the “service breaker” that put Auburn ahead by more than a single score, and from there Arkansas was forced into (or Petrino chose to go with) trying for booming “aces” on his serves, rather than sticking with “serve and volley.” And in doing so, he double-faulted. Twice. Game, set, match.
And who among us who watched tennis during the great McEnroe/Borg/Connors era can think of that sport without thinking of the controversial calls by the referees (and the subsequent outcries by spectators and fans) that seemed to define the time? Which brings us, very reluctantly but necessarily, to the officials and their multiple “ruling on the field is upheld” moments from Saturday.
Fannin fumbled. Yes, we all know he fumbled. We were not even surprised that it happened, to be honest. It was Fannin, after all. We love him as a blocker and a receiver out of the backfield, but when he’s handed the ball and told to dive into the scrum… well, the throat gets a tad constricted and we start having trouble breathing and we break out in hives. So, yeah, Hawgs fans—you got hosed on that one. No argument here.
Which just about made up for the phantom holding call on Auburn’s first drive and phantom pass interference call on Arkansas’ second drive.
So, yeah, that’s that. As for the rest of the non-overturns: Forget it. You guys know as well as we do that there has to be “indisputable visual evidence” in order to overturn the call on the field. That’s the rule. Asking the refs to overturn a call you don’t like, when none of the camera angles actually shows what you want to see or backs up what you believe, is bogus. You may be perfectly sure in your heart that something happened a certain way, but if the replay doesn’t actually show it, there is no “indisputable visual evidence.” Blame CBS for their choices of camera placement, if you want, but don’t blame the refs for actually following the rules. End of story.
The BCS and Related BS
Speaking of the BCS, we of the Wishbone have differing views that have festered into an open clash this week. We present for you here our open disagreement, for you the esteemed reader to absorb and to judge:
John: There are many kinds of Auburn fans. This week there are two distinct types of Auburn fans – those that want to look ahead and think about what might be and those that do not. Van is a great example of the “looking ahead” Auburn fan – he sat down Sunday morning and started browsing SEC Championship Game tickets online. Then, after the BCS rankings came out, he started checking out BCS title game tickets. [It’s true. —Van] He is already very worried that Auburn might get “2004ed” again. (We are trademarking the term “2004ed” right now—and hoping we never, ever have to use it in reference to Auburn.)
I am the other kind of Auburn fan right now. I don’t want to look ahead at all. Partly because we are playing a Top Ten team this week—a team that crushed us last season—but also because after what happened in 2004 I just want to live in the moment and enjoy my team. I enjoyed that great roller coaster ride of a game on Saturday, but I did not immediately start scoreboard-watching the other Top Ten teams.
I also want to point out that for those of us who prefer defense-oriented teams over offense-oriented ones, this year’s Auburn team is fun but sometimes painful to watch. It is like a great ice cream sundae after a topping you don’t like has been added. I love defense. 2004? Great defense. 1988? My favorite Auburn defense ever. There’s no play I enjoy seeing more than a great quarterback sack. And so watching this year’s defense get carved up, week after week, is very hard to stomach. I am not complaining and I am delighted that we have Malzahn and Cam and this offense and we are winning… but, for a defense-minded fan, it is still not easy.
Van: It’s true. I’ll admit it. I am looking ahead and thinking ahead. I wasn’t doing so egregiously until maybe after the South Carolina game—a game I was certain beforehand that we would lose. Then came Arkansas, another matchup (not to mention a certain “Hex”) I felt spelled certain doom for us. Somehow, we won both games—and at almost the same time, a certain formerly imposing team from across the state started looking remarkably human and vulnerable.
So now I’m almost, almost, buying into the whole “team of destiny” hype. Me, an Auburn Man—the same guy who berated John endlessly in 2004 with the grim prophecy, “John, Southern Cal and Oklahoma are not going to lose, because we are Auburn and that is what happens to us.” That guy, that ultra-realistic guy, is buying into the hype. Good Lord. It has come to this.
But I just can’t help it. After the “should have beens” like 1983 and 2004, and the “if not fors” like 1993, and the “so stinkin’ closes” like 1988 and 2006, I’m not just hungry for a championship…I’m not just starving for one… I’m freaking RAVENOUS for one. The only year I actually bought into the hype before the season even started was 2003, and we all remember how that worked out. (Look for my column on that very topic coming up in the offseason.) So I try very hard to keep my expectations under control and to a minimum. But, on the other hand, when seasons like this one suddenly bloom into reality, I say let’s enjoy it while we can. I’m pretty confident I don’t have any cosmic super ability to affect the outcome of the remaining games, no matter what John may think, so all of my looking ahead and shopping for bowl tickets and generally reveling in this brief shining moment can’t possibly have any negative repercussions for the team. Right? Right??
John: I also don’t want to look ahead because we are playing LSU and crazy Les Miles this week and they are plenty good enough to beat Auburn on Saturday. So don’t stress about Oregon and Oklahoma and Boise State and the Harris Poll – worry about Drake Nevis and Stevan Ridley and Terrance Tolliver (how long has that guy been around?) and mostly about Patrick Peterson, who is the single best player Auburn will see this season. Focus on those things and the rest will take care of itself.
Van: Fair enough. I’ll turn off eBay. For now. But if we beat LSU, I’m going to be back on there, surfing the ticket listings and hotel rooms for Glendale, Arizona again, as frantically as Les Miles trying to get a trick play off with two seconds left and the clock running.
Aaaand see how we did that? Segue to Les Miles! Time to talk the crazy.
If We Lose to This Guy, We’ll Never Hear the End of It
We will spare you the usual rehashing of the exceptionally bizarre string of games that makes up the Auburn-LSU rivalry. Blah blah earthquakes, blah blah PAT re-kicks, blah blah missed field goals, etc. Heck, this year Miles by himself has been a one-man oddity. What else is there left to say about him? Somehow he seems the perfect fit for a series that has included “The Interception Game” and “The Barn Burner” and the “Cigar Game.” Who better to coach one side in a series defined by its moments of insanity than a coach who is certifiably insane himself?
In point of fact, however, for all its weird incidents and Bermuda Triangle-like moments, this game usually comes down to two very tough, physical teams banging away on one another. Also, interestingly, in some years when you’d expect a close contest, we’ve instead seen shocking blowouts, such as 1999, 2002, 2003, and 2009. Is another of these in store on Saturday? Or are we destined to see something along the lines of Les ordering a fake field goal using nine men, from his own two yard line, with one second to go?
With Arkansas, we saw strength against weakness on both sides, and the result was probable carpal tunnel syndrome for the scoreboard operator. This week, we will see strength against strength (when Auburn has the ball) and weakness against weakness (when LSU has the ball). What does this mean?
Almost certainly it will mean a (much) lower-scoring game. How could it not? In fact, it could look a lot like the Mississippi State game, with points at a premium and more last-second heroics. (Perhaps we’ll also learn which is mightier in the fourth quarter: Cam the X-Factor, or the Mad Hatter and his Cosmic Counter-Intuitiveness.)
With strength nullifying strength, we have to look for other advantages to exploit. How about special teams?
Against the Hawgs, Auburn put on their best special teams performance in many years. Unfortunately, they will have to be really great again on Saturday, because LSU’s plan is going to be play good defense, run the ball and steal the game with a few big kick returns from Patrick Peterson. The man is averaging 21 yards per punt return! Against North Carolina he totaled 257 return yards on kicks and punts. To stop him—or at least limit him—Auburn will need the same the kind of excellent gang tackling that we saw last weekend. Contain Peterson and the game is more than half-won.
LSU wants to run the ball, play things close the vest, have their defense shut us down (probably by bringing the linebackers and safeties up and daring Cam to just try to run up the middle), and then try and steal it in the fourth quarter. In this game last year, the first couple of series on offense were key for Auburn. Bad things happened on that side of the ball and the game spiraled away from us. This Auburn team has done an amazing job of responding to adversity, coming from behind and playing with poise in tough situations. But I don’t think anyone wants to see Auburn in that kind of situation late in the game against LSU—and not just because Miles possesses the freak ability to warp the space-time continuum and the quantum probability fields in the final seconds of a contest. Given LSU’s weakness in the passing game, the best thing for Auburn this week is to jump on them with both feet and stay ahead. We need to use our offense to keep putting pressure on their offense—make them have to take chances. Make them have to do the sorts of things Arkansas felt it had to do late, leading to the Josh Bynes interceptions.
Indeed, the first few series are key again this year, and the questions we’ll be looking for answers to during the opening quarter include, “Can Cam successfully run the fabled jet sweep against a defense this fast?” “Can OnnieMac get around the end, or does he lose three yards every time Cam lets him try it?” And “Will LSU’s secondary be able to take away the passing option?” The holes our O-Line blasted in the Hawg defense will surely be a lot smaller this week. Our success at imposing our will in the run game on them will dictate most of the rest of the game.
If the (good) Tigers can establish some things against the LSU defense early and move the ball, we should all be feeling good a little over three hours later. If we can do that and also prevent the outcome of the game from coming down to some crazy-@$$ Les Miles decision, we’ll feel all the better.
This Week’s Wishbone SEC Power Rankings, Eyes-Bugging-Out Edition
We apologize for omitting the Power Rankings last week. The whole “Hex” deal chewed up a lot of space. As you’re about to see, things have changed a bit since last we considered this ranking:
Auburn. Number four (!!) in the first BCS rankings. What a difference a couple of weeks make, huh? When last we discussed this category, Alabama was the runaway sole occupant. Things, to understate the situation drastically, have changed.
The Very Good
Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina, Kentucky. Any of these teams could still end up in the SEC Championship Game (heck, so could Georgia or Florida). Kentucky makes this category by virtue of beating Carolina and barely losing to Auburn the week before. How on earth did they lose (and so badly!) to Florida? If that game were played this week, the question is not “would Kentucky be favored?” but “by how much?”
The Might Be Good
Georgia. A team with (mostly) good coaches and (mostly) good talent just had to turn things around at some point. And they (mostly) seem to have done so. The rest of their games—even a home date with Auburn—don’t seem (mostly) impossible. Could the Dawgs have a second-half-of-the-season rally waiting?
The Not Good
Miss State, Florida, Ole Miss, Tennessee. Yes, it does seem bizarre to have a team that’s 5-2 and ranked in the Top 25 in this category, while Kentucky is a full two categories higher. But let’s face it: beating Florida is no longer the world-shocking accomplishment it was not too long ago. And hanging ten points on them—and failing to complete anything beyond one shovel pass in the entire second half—doesn’t make you a “good” team. But the Bulldogs do seem poised to move upward, even as the Gators tumble.
Vanderbilt. This category is also calling out to Tennessee, serenading them ever so softly and gently. The outcome of their almost-overlooked clash with Alabama this weekend will decide if the Dores get some company or not. We’re sure they’d appreciate it.
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.