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Gravy, Destiny, and Hotlanta

Year of the Tiger.

So here we stand, midway between the Iron Bowl and the SEC Championship Game.  A proper respect for the historical weight of the events we have just witnessed, as well as those we may be about to witness, requires of us a thoughtful and analytical overview.

Forget that!!  All we really want to do is jump up and down and run around in circles and scream.

We won that game.  We won it.  No, really.  Even now, days later, that fact is only beginning to seep down through our skulls and into the depths of our orange-and-blue brains and actually register as fact.  It seems so impossible, so preposterous.  Yet it’s true.  From 24-0 to 28-27.  We won.

What more can be said about the events of November 26, 2010?  And what can we conjure up that will tell us how things will play out on this coming Saturday?  And finally, how did we get from the depths of 2008’s misery to where we are now, with two gleaming brass rings in sight (and an Iron one already in our pocket)?  The Wishbone is here to address those questions.

Part I:  The Meltdown in T-Town

It is an overused word in our society, but that win was truly epic.  It really was one of the most dramatic, amazing comeback wins in SEC history—and that is even before you consider the stakes that were on the line for Auburn and the rivalry nature of the game.  It was a contest that will go down in history, for a number of different reasons.

The defense was awful in the first quarter and was chewed up and abused by Alabama, but they held it together and did not quit.  We can’t say enough about that.  It was typified by the now-celebrated play by Carter, chasing down Ingram and poking the ball loose—that miraculous ball that rolled as if it were round, as if Les Miles had designed it that way, all the way down the sideline and out the back of the end zone.

Then there was Nick Fairley, shaking off the worst officiating judgment call in SEC history and making plays again and again.  And T’Sharvan Bell knocking away passes and then getting the big sack on McElroy late in the game, displaying amazing effort.

Speaking of the Auburn defense:  this might be insane, but the suspensions helped us.  Blanc and Goggans were fresh after halftime and helped to slow the Alabama offense.  They didn’t make a ton of individual plays but they were involved and were going against guys who were tired.

Alabama famously came out fired up and emotional to start the game, but they blew way too much of their energy in the first quarter.  They were like a marathon runner who sprints full-bore out of the gate and then can’t finish the race.  It made for a truly frightening effect at first—they were a basketball team that was seeing every shot they made go in, from everywhere on the court.  But they were spending too much energy dancing and celebrating, and that took a lot out of them—probably  more emotionally than physically, in fact.  So they eased off the throttle… and then it was too late.

Two things that have been true all season really shone through in the game for Auburn: Leadership and in-game coaching adjustments.

To be down 24-0 in the most hostile atmosphere that any college team will face this season, and given the way things were going, most college teams would have thrown in the towel.  They would have wilted under the pressure and the vitriol.  They would have said, “It’s just not our day.”  But this Auburn team has a core of strong leaders.  The seniors have been through so much, and they held this team together and led by example. They kept a positive attitude and tried to come back one play at a time.

Gus Malzahn has been coaching his system for so long, not only does he know it backward and forward, he knows what other coaches and teams are likely to do to try to stop it.  Once he sees what you’re doing, he knows your weaknesses and how to adjust in order to exploit them.

A simple example:  Early in the game, Alabama was using the defensive ends to keep containment while clogging up the middle.  This was effective at both stopping Cam’s and Dyer’s usual runs up the middle and also stopping McCalebb’s sweeps to the outside.  Malzahn countered this by having Cam fake the handoff to McCalebb and then clearly show he still had the ball behind center; this caused the DE to release McCalebb and attack Cam.  Cam then neatly threw the ball over the DE’s head to McCalebb.  After two or three of these plays went for around ten yards each, Alabama had to change its approach.

On defense, Roof has taken a lot of grief this year, but during the games he has been one of the best two or three coordinators in the league.  In every game, Auburn has improved after halftime. The Auburn defense dominated Alabama after the half on Friday, to the tune of allowing barely sixty yards of offense.  Roof has brought more and more pressure as the season has gone along, and it clearly has made an impact. It wears opposing offenses (and quarterbacks!) down over the course of time.  The return of Bell and improved play by Eltoro Freeman hasn’t hurt, either.

(Van needs to note one thing more, which a quick perusal of the comments thread from the Iron Bowl Game Day Post on this site will confirm:  “Before the game, I put on my traditional Dameyune Craig #16 blue Auburn jersey.  However—and this was the critical, awful mistake—I selfishly wanted to save my orange t-shirts to wear during the week, in celebration of the victory I was so confident we would achieve.  Every week previous to the Iron Bowl, I had worn an orange t-shirt under my jersey.  This time, I went with a white one.  We all know how the first half went.  At halftime I frantically dashed into the bedroom and switched out an orange t-shirt under the jersey.  And we all know how the second half went.  So—I apologize for the first half, and as for the second… You’re welcome!!”)

Part II: A Coronation in Atlanta??

In the eighteen previous SEC Championship Games, there have been only five rematches of two teams that previously faced one another during the season.  The team that won the first time is 4-1, with the only revenge-getter being LSU in 2001.  (Auburn participated in two of those rematches, experiencing it both ways—we lost to Florida twice in 2000 and beat Tennessee twice in 2004.)

I'm telling you the visor is coming oooofffff!!!!!

When Steve Spurrier took Florida to its (and his) first appearance in the SEC Championship Game in 1992, they faced an undefeated team from the West.  Despite playing a good game, Spurrier’s side lost.  He has no magical, mystical lock on the Dome.  He’s human, he’s mortal.  A darned good coach, yeah, but mortal.

Yes, South Carolina finished the season strong.  But let’s be honest: playing well against this year’s Florida squad (in a game of monumental consequence for the Gamecocks), and then trashing Troy and Clemson is not the same as finishing strong against Georgia and at Alabama.  Don’t be overly fooled by Carolina’s recent run.

There is little doubt that both teams will play better on Saturday than they did in the September matchup.  We cannot count on Carolina to turn the ball over four more times.  Hopefully, Auburn won’t kill two drives with costly fumbles again.

Speaking of which:  Auburn had the ball twelve times in the previous matchup with the Gamecocks.  Let’s break those possessions down.  Seven times, the Tigers scored a touchdown or attempted a field goal.  Of the other five possessions, they fumbled twice, punted twice and let the clock run out at the end of the game.  So South Carolina actually stopped Auburn a less-than-stellar two drives out of twelve.  This kind of statistic is what we call promising.

South Carolina’s pass defense has been a weakness all year.  In the earlier matchup Auburn was not yet clicking in the passing game.  We should expect more big plays from the Tigers in that area on Saturday.

Of course, Carolina’s passing game is pretty darned good, too.  They give up the sacks, but when Garcia is able to get the ball off, he has some great targets.  We all know Alshon Jeffrey is a stud.  We know he will get his 175 yards and two touchdowns, just as Green and Jones and the others have against us this year (mostly early in the games).  The Tiger defense just has to stop everyone else—particularly our old buddy, Marcus Lattimore, who surely has to be aching for a chance to make up for his paltry performance last time.  We’ve seen over and over that the Auburn defense can rise to such challenges, shutting down a great back and limiting the passing game of the opponent.  They need to do it all over again this weekend.

It won’t be a shutout.  If there’s one thing we know beyond question, it’s that.  Auburn hasn’t really come close to shutting anyone out this season.  This is not the 1988 or 2004 teams, winning in part by crushing the opponent’s offense and preventing them from ever crossing midfield.  This year’s team challenges you to a tennis match and rarely has its serve  broken, and gets just enough defense (and more as the game goes on) to break your serve at least a time or two.  Carolina will score.  Auburn will score more.

We’ve heard whispers of McCalebb being banged up a little.  We did see Emory Blake in the sweep spot against Bama late.  Losing a key component of the offense—and one not easily replaced, and one that takes a whole segment of the playbook with him—would be tough to swallow.  Let’s all keep Onnie Mac’s legs in our thoughts and prayers this week, just in case.

Likewise, they’re saying Garcia’s got a chicken wing in a sling.  We don’t believe it.  He’ll be fine.  Bank on it.  And bring it on.

Part III: “Gravy” vs. “Destiny”– Two Distinct Views on What it All Means

Your two humble Wishbone writers see this season, and Auburn’s appearance in the SEC Championship Game, in contrasting ways.  The two ways are very different, yet they are both distinctly “Auburn.”  Van takes solo voice now, in order to present John’s eminently rational and logical points, and then to lay out his own vision of where we are, and what we need to do:

John, who is far more level-headed and calm and cool and generally far more rational than I am, makes the following points.

“To me, everything now is gravy.  We have done what I wanted to accomplish—we beat our big rivals this year.  Whatever else happens is just fun. After 2004 I am forcing myself to live in the moment and enjoy this team and these games.

“The worst case scenario is we go to the Orange Bowl and play Florida State or Virginia Tech and finish in the top five nationally.  That ain’t bad.

“And Tony Barnhart thinks that even if we lose to South Carolina on Saturday, we could go to Glendale anyway.”

Thus spoke my great and good friend, John.  And, you know, nothing he says here is wrong.  His view of our season is absolutely correct, within itself.  We have accomplished everything we could have dreamed of accomplishing—heck, even more!  Who dared hope that we would not only defeat the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, but do it in such a way as to send them spiraling down into the depths of slack-jawed and incredulous misery?  Who imagined we’d be sitting at 12-0, and with a quarterback who represents (extracurricular matters notwithstanding) possibly the biggest shoe-in for the Heisman Trophy in history?

No, nothing John says there is incorrect.  And yet I could not disagree with him more.

Here is why.

Auburn pursuing a national title this season is not a pleasant afterthought.  It is not the cherry on top of an already delightful sundae.  It is most certainly not a cute little add-on to an already successful season.  While taking nothing whatsoever away from what our amazing and courageous and resolute team has already managed to accomplish, the national championship is absolutely and unequivocally critical this season.

It is nothing short of the endpoint of a long and arduous and most holy crusade—a crusade that has covered not just one year or even one decade but over a half-century of futility and frustration.

This is why, come Hell or high water, I will be there in Glendale if the Tigers play for a national championship on January 10. I’ve traveled too far, seen too much, and been disappointed—bitterly, bitterly disappointed—far too many times, to do otherwise.

Like some epic quest to throw an evil ring into a fiery mountain, I must see this through, no matter what.  A trip to Glendale for Auburn this year would not simply represent the culmination of a single season’s work.  It’s not just about 2010—not by a long shot.  Seeing Auburn win it all on college football’s ultimate stage in January would be the crowning achievement of a very long journey—in truth, a lifetime’s journey.

Why is this man smiling? Because he's avoided playing Auburn in the Sugar Bowl.

In my four-plus decades on this earth, and as an Auburn man, I feel as if I’ve seen it all—and seen my team denied the ultimate prize in every way imaginable.  I lived through shocking outrage in 1983 when Miami jumped us (from two spots further back!); through the Ambush in Knoxville just after we reached AP #1 in 1985; through the Earthquake in Baton Rouge in 1988 that denied us an inevitable matchup in the Sugar Bowl with Notre Dame for the title (and don’t you know Lou Holtz was relieved to be facing West by golly Virginia instead?); through a preseason #1 in some magazines in 1990 that evaporated into the breeze so quickly; through an undefeated season out of nowhere in 1993, that led exactly nowhere because of probation; through a 21-points-down-early comeback that fell just short against Alabama in 1994, ending the chance for back-to-back undefeated seasons; through stratospheric pre-season expectations in 2003 (the Four Horsemen of the AuPocalypse!) that fell so quickly to earth at Grant Field, among other crime scenes; and of course the granddaddy of all Auburn disappointments, stuck in third place all season long and knowing—just knowing, week after week, because we are Auburn and because that’s what happens to us, every time—that neither team ahead of us would lose.

With notable exceptions, in order to win a national championship, a program must do one of two things:  It must either be extremely fortunate in one given season, coming out of nowhere and then fading back again (as with the titles won by Georgia Tech, Colorado, BYU, and so on), or it must reach a sort of consistent “top ten” level and remain there for at least two or three years running, so that when the perfect moment presents itself, the program can surge through and grasp the trophy (as with titles won by Florida State, Nebraska, and Texas, among others, each of whom hovered for several years around the top of the polls before finally claiming a first modern-era title).

Sadly, Auburn has never quite been either of those sorts of programs.  We’ve been too “up and down” to consistently be waiting there to pounce, FSU or Nebraska-style.  And we’ve been too unlucky on those occasions (see above) when we could have come out of nowhere to grab a title.  As they say on “Hee Haw,” if it weren’t for bad luck, we’d have no luck at all, when it comes to national championships.

That is why this year is so critically important.  This team, unlike every Auburn title contender squad before it in the modern era, has seemed impervious to that traditional Auburn bad luck.  They didn’t fold up under the pressure at Tuscaloosa.  There aren’t two teams permanently lodged ahead of them in the BCS rankings.  They have but to beat South Carolina on Saturday and they are going to play for it all.

This is Auburn’s year.  This is the year we banish the echoes of 2004 and 1983 and all those other disappointments.  This is the year that our accomplishments, our hardware (or silverware, as the English call their trophies) finally match the historical level of our program.  Alabama people will badmouth us from here till kingdom come, but we know the truth:  Auburn is a national top-20 program, and deserves a modern national championship to go along with that celebrated one from 1957.  As ESPN’s college football guidebook stated a couple of years back, no other major program has gone longer without a national title, or is more due for one.  It’s time.  It’s way past time.

This is it.  This is the team.  This is our year.  The weight of the past five decades of Auburn history rides easily on the broad and confident shoulders of Cam Newton and his mighty team.

Let’s get it done.

One note of interest: From Pat Dye’s arrival late in 1980 through the graduating class of 2007, every player who spent four years in an Auburn uniform was able to claim an SEC Championship, an undefeated season, a Western Division title and appearance in the SEC Championship Game, or some combination thereof.

That streak ended when the 2008 squad failed to reach any of those goals.  The failure in 2008 meant that an entire graduating class—players who had been on the roster from 2005-2008—were the first since the 1979-1982 class to leave Auburn with none of those laurels.  The same held true for the next year’s crop—those who played from 2006-2009.  (Redshirt years notwithstanding.)

With Auburn back in the SEC Championship Game this year, that negative trend has been stopped at two years (or two graduating classes).  The number of graduating classes who did not reach any of those achievements has been limited to the freshman classes of 2005 and 2006—particularly sad considering Auburn only narrowly missed appearing in the SEC Title Game in both of those years.

That was one two-year streak we’re very happy to see the tail end of.

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.

Iron Bowl photo via.

About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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