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The Wishbone takes a deep breath (and ponders the Les Miles app)

Like last week, we’re letting this week’s edition of The Wishbone also serve as the closest thing you’ll get to a WBE-styled recap of the ULM game. Like we said… still tasty.

Cam Newton is ripping the collective face off of Auburn fans. IT FEELS GOOD.

“It’s the deep breath before the plunge.”

–Gandalf, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

And so the Cam-not-running aberration known as “the Louisiana-Monroe game” is behind us now.  For that matter, believe it or not, nearly half the season is behind us.  Once again, we stand at 5-0.  Once again, we await with breathless anticipation the three-game mid-season endurance contest that will surely define the year for us: Kentucky-Arkansas-LSU.

Using the terms of GOL TV’s great analyst, Ray Hudson, the remainder of the schedule will begin asking Auburn a series of very probing questions over the following weeks, and the answers the Tigers are able to provide will go a long way toward determining the way we feel when we look back at this season in the years to come.

But that is for tomorrow.  For today, as we bask in the afterglow of the stress-free weekend-that-was, the Wishbone finds itself free to ponder deeper and broader cosmic questions.

* Where Does This Year’s Team Stand Relative to Last Year (and Beyond)?

Fans and the media always talk about “bend but don’t break” defenses but you rarely see as clear an example of the phenomenon as the 2010 Auburn defense.  The Tigers have given up only two pass plays over fifty yards this season, but are only 89th in the nation in pass defense at 280 yards per game.  How can this be?  Short passes.  A lot of short passes.

Tell us something we don’t know, though, right?  How about this:  Even given the disturbing state of the short-range pass coverage, Auburn’s defense is ranked a lofty twelfth in the nation (and second in the SEC!) in rushing defense.  The Tigers are allowing an average of only 86 measly yards per game on the ground, or a paltry 2.64 yards per carry.  By way of contrast, Auburn allowed 153 rushing yards per game through this point in 2009, placing the Tigers 89th in the nation and near the bottom of the SEC.

Okay, so Auburn’s defense can stop the run and doesn’t give up big passing plays.  So teams are taking what works for them: the short passing game.  Lamentable as it may be that our proud defense is lax at any one thing, the silver lining here is that the Tigers are forcing teams to drive down the field in five-yard chunks—tough to do without a penalty or a dropped pass, or without Nick Fairley blowing up a play or two (or a quarterback or two) and ending the drive.

At this point in 2009, the Tigers led the SEC in only two categories: turnover margin and sacks allowed.   (And by the end of the season, they had fallen deep into the middle of the national pack in both areas.)  This season, Auburn leads the SEC in four categories (the same number as Alabama)—rushing offense, total offense, passing efficiency and tackles for loss.  What’s more, the passing efficiency number is tops nationally.  We can move the ball.  We can run it (with multiple backs finding success) and we can throw it (even deep, if we need to).

And we have that X-factor that can kick in when things appear hopeless: CamZilla.  When was the last time Auburn had an X-factor at quarterback that could pull out a flamboyant and dramatic run or deep pass when we absolutely had to have it?  Jason Campbell in 2004, we’d argue—when all else failed, ol’ Number 17 could uncork a bomb to Ace (Aromashodu) or Deuce (Obomanu) or one of the others and pull our collective bacon out of the fire.  That brace of wideouts we so took for granted, that left us after 2005 (taking Brandon Cox’s passing numbers with them), has at last been replaced by a new monster squad that keeps showing flashes of immense potential and phenomenal brilliance.

In sum, while the Tigers may be allowing the short pass to yield a few more yards than most of us would like, the “bend but don’t break” defense is forcing the opposition to earn every one of those yards and, what is more, not allowing them to do it the old-fashioned, will-asserting, manly way—on the ground.  Meanwhile, the offense can run the ball (like a steamroller!) and even pass it with tremendous efficiency.  Yes, as the old maxim says we should do, we are running and we are stopping the run.  And we’re no slouches at passing it, either.  And that, my friends, traditionally leads to good things.  Very good things.

* Crazy Like a Fox?  Or Crazy Like a Rabid Fox?

Les Miles is fortunate that college football coaching does not require a license.  If it did, said license would surely have been suspended by now.  Or outright revoked.

There have been clever and tricky coaches for as long as there have been coaches in general—for as long as football has existed.  For every “show them you’re man enough and grind it out” guy, there’s another who would rather show you how smart he is—or how dumb you are, for falling for it.  We’re talking the tricksters, the gamblers, the dice-rollers extraordinaire.  College football has always been filled with this sort of person; an array of head coaches who seem to relish the “gotcha” moment more than an actual victory.  And yet, at their core, nearly every coach has at least some basic understanding of the fundamentals of the sport—a sense of when to do what, and when not to do what.

Yes, there are gamblers and risk-takers.  And then there’s that other category, a category reserved for the tiny minority who is the beyond-gambler, the beyond-risk taker.  Here we’re talking the coach who is simply flat-out, bat-$#*t crazy.

And that brings us to Les Miles.

In attempting to describe to a casual college football fan just how crazy Les Miles truly is, one of your intrepid Wishbone duo actually had to resort to drawing a graph.  We have recreated it here, in all its nutty glory:  The Scale of College Football Coaching Craziness ™.  This scale ranges from the “Ultra-Conservative” to basically “Conservative,” to “Getting Tricky,” to outright “Gamblers,” to “Les Miles.”

Ultra Conservative—Conservative—Tricky—Gamblers—Les Miles

Now, for illustrative purposes, let us place a few well-known coaches onto this spectrum:

The Ultra-Conservative

An ideal series of downs for the Ultra-Conservative features three runs, mostly up the middle, generating the requisite “clouds of dust,” and with no trick plays ever—heavens, we’d rather forfeit than resort to that!—and almost no passing.  For the Ultra-Conservative, the ideal player is the fullback, and the preferred term for his players is “hard-nosed.”  Examples of this species include old-school types such as Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and Jackie Sherrill.

The Conservative

One of the favored quotes of this species is, “Only three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.”  Don’t take too many risks. Run the ball and play defense.  If it’s late in the game and you’re trailing and it’s fourth down, go ahead and punt—you know your defense will give you the ball back in time for one more shot at a score.  Examples include Pat Dye, Mack Brown, Nick Saban, and even our beloved former Coach Tubs, who found himself acquiring a “Gambler” reputation but in his heart was always a Conservative.

Getting Tricky

The Tricky Boys are willing to fully embrace a riskier offense, and trick plays are fine as part of that scheme.  Even so, there’s still a very sound, fundamental approach at work just beneath that flashy surface.  Often they resort to the trickiness in order to compensate for a perceived drop-off in talent between their players and the opposition; ironically, they then win games, get better jobs at schools with better players on hand, and consequently end up resorting to the trickiness less and less.  Coaches who like to Get Tricky include Urban Meyer and new Notre Dame boss Chip Kelly, and Bobby Bowden had his moments utilizing this philosophy over the years, as well.  Tuberville started out here, but you could just see the relief on his face once he built up the Auburn talent level to the point that he felt he could embrace his inner Conservative.

The Gambler

The Gambler is a gambler for one of two reasons: because he feels that he has to be, or because he just gets off on it.  The first variety of Gambler probably coaches at a mid-major program, or else at a low-end program in a bigger conference.  He looks around and sees the talent deficit he’s saddled with and he says, “Boys, we can make up this here difference by out-thinking and out-surprising the (likely Conservative) coach and players of that there big-time program we’re playing this week!”  Sometimes it even works.  The second variety of Gambler is just a tick or two above Les Miles Land.  He possibly suffers from some undiagnosed mental imbalance that leads him to want to not only win, but win all complicated-ly and fancy-like.  He talks about concepts such as “basketball on grass” and “surgery with a chainsaw.”  In either case, he will call any play at any time in the game.  Onside kick to start the game?  Flea-flicker?  Statue of Liberty?  Fake punt?  Go for it on fourth down on your own side of the field, early in the game?  No problem!  Let’s do it all!  Twice each!  Coaches who have exhibited some form of this behavior include Chris Peterson, Rich Rodriguez, Hal Mumme, and Mike Leach.

The Les Miles

Les Miles (let’s be honest—the name “Mad Hatter” no longer seems quite crazy enough for him) has transcended all of the above categories and has become a category unto himself.  The Les Miles coach is endlessly inventive in his jaw-dropping, mind-numbing counter-intuitive-ness: Go for it on fourth down multiple times late in a big-time conference game, when you have one of the best defenses in the country?  Why not!  Call a pass play when you’re down just a point or two and there’s probably only time for one play left and you’re easily within field goal range?  What the heck!  And the Pièce de résistance:  You’re down four points and on the opponent’s goal line, with no timeouts and the clock ticking below fifteen seconds—so you send in the substitutes!  It confuses the defense and draws a “too many men on the field” penalty, thus allowing you to overcome the implosion of your offense that you somehow just knew was about to happen.

Fortunately for the Les Miles coach, the sheer craziness of this coaching style in some inexplicable way actually appears to warp the space-time continuum and cause the very laws of nature and of probability to skew dramatically awry.  How else to explain the way so many Les Miles-ish decisions actually work?

(To be fair, though—do they really and truly “work?”  In this particular example, the panicked LSU subs so discombobulated Tennessee that their defense ended up with not just twelve but thirteen men on the field during the aforementioned offensive screw-up.  The whole affair was so risky, so chaotic, and so mind-numbingly stupid that it actually caused the other team to mess up, probably from the sheer shock of it all.  But note to all the Les Miles coaches out there—and if there’s a God in Heaven, there aren’t that many of them—being so inept that the other team is sucked into a penalty because of your ineptness is not the same thing as having a “brilliant plan” actually succeed.)

But, hey—living your life the Les Miles way has its advantages, we suppose.  There’s danger, excitement, and the disbelieving stares of those close to you.  (In this case, some 92,000 close to him.)  If you would like to live life on the edge and try this approach for yourself, all you have to do is visit the iTunes store and download the “Miles Method” app!

So many jokes, so many jokes… As the battery runs low, does it panic and begin erasing your music files?  But we think the app speaks for itself.  (We just would not believe anything it actually says.)

This Week’s Wishbone SEC Power Rankings, Express Edition

The Elite

Alabama.  Ye gods.  We think Amorak Huey said it best this week: We want them to think they’re invincible when we play them… but they might actually be.

The Very Good

Auburn, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU.  With a more sane coach, would LSU have won the Tennessee game in a bigger way… or would they have lost it, because they didn’t do the “Meltdown on Fourth Down?”

The Might Be Good

Florida, Kentucky.  The question for Florida is how quickly they can recover from that emasculation in Tuscaloosa.  Those other guys in blue there, we’ll find out how good they are in a few days.

The Not Good

Georgia, Ole Miss, Miss. State, Tennessee.  But, hey, congrats to the Rebels for moving up to “Not Good” this week.

The Wretched

Vanderbilt.  Welcome home, Dores.  This category was missing you.

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.

Graphic via.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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