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Year’s End

“I’m exhausted.” My dad didn’t sound exhausted. If anything, his voice over the cell phone rang with surprise at the words coming out of his mouth. “I don’t even feel like watching the bowls. This season has worn me out.”

This, coming from a man who rarely passes an Autumn Saturday without some football – any football, Auburn Tigers or no. Whom I can still recall telling me excitedly about some lanky guys by the name of Aromashadu and Obomanu that Auburn had just signed, eagerly waving a paper copy of the Auburn football report. Who (despite living in Virginia longer than any place other than his boyhood Montgomery home) to this day is astonished at the lack of gameday colors in central VA. We were sent on the inevitable Thanksgiving trip for groceries, the weekend of the Virginia Tech – UVA game, and he was flat disgusted by the time we got back in the car. “Why are all these grown men not wearing team colors? This place oughta be covered in blue and orange and maroon and there’s nobody excited at all. Where are the dudes with radios?”

And yet, now, at the time when the matchups are most novel and the teams are all playing for pride and for glory six days out of seven… now, nothing. Because this season, the Auburn Tigers have wrung us out nearly every single week. Nearly every single tilt has seen the Plainsmen take it on the chin for a quarter or two, only to explode into life, obliterating all deficits, marching unstoppably downfield, clinching the game with stupefying and improbable interceptions, rising despite their wounds and burying swords to the hilt in their adversaries.

It’s just too much. We’ve hit the bottom of the well. We’ve drained the thing dry. There ain’t enough water left in the earth to wet the lichenified likes of the undercard bowls into palatability. UT-UNC, Army-SMU, Tulsa-Whoever – too bad. I sat in the waiting room at the endodontist’s awaiting a root canal and I could barely bring myself to watch the Armed Forces bowl. I’m parched. I will never forget this season.

——

Earlier this season, I compared Auburn’s 2010 team to the famed Secretariat of 1973 and got a frisson of a jinx. After all, however apparent it was that our whirlwind come-from-behind surge was no mere fluke, however deeply the players and the coaches and the fans knew that this team was special… one doesn’t invoke the spirit of the great thoroughbred lightly. I thought to myself, having written these words it is likely that I will be forced to eat them. But I was wrong. This team has got a heart four sizes too large. The Iron Bowl was our Preakness, not just an opportunity to replicate the incredible feat versus the gamecocks but astonishingly, our moment to outstrip even that monumental feat of courage.

Courage. If there is one value which to this team must be ascribed, it is courage. And not just the courage that propelled them from impending defeat into convincing victory, time and again. Not just the courage to burst forth and every second run faster than the second before. The courage to sacrifice a personal dream for the good of one’s teammates. The courage to step onto a field which very nearly ended your life, barely a year before. All of these and more – these are they whose spirits are not afraid.

Just as Secretariat charged from the gates on June 9, 1973, met the rail and never stopped accelerating, the Tigers took to the gridiron in Atlanta and crushed the gamecocks, start-to-finish. In nineteen years of inter-divisional contests, no other SEC champion – east or west – has hung so many points on their opponent or finished with a higher margin of victory. War Damn Eagle. This was it, the moment when we stared a skilled adversary in the eye and trampled them into the dirt. This was our ’73 Belmont. War. Damn. Eagle.

—–

Restate my assumptions: One, Mathematics is the language of nature. Two, Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. Three: If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature. Evidence: The cycling of disease epidemics; the wax and wane of caribou populations; sun spot cycles; the rise and fall of the Nile. So what about the stock market?

Maximillian Cohen, from “Pi”

…so what about college football?

Spread Sheets has been on hiatus while I did two things – gave a presentation on pediatric stroke to the faculty, residents and students in pediatrics, and began my rotation in the neonatal ICU. For that delay, I apologize. But… in my spare time, while working overnight shifts in the NICU, I managed to finish gathering the data and at least making game progress lines for all the rest of Auburn’s games. I built a season-long chart for the SEC West, too. And, for Oregon.

12:50, press return :

There is no legend because each team’s line is presented in that team’s colors (if this does not come out clear, let me know and I’ll whip something up.) One thing to notice – and ugh, how could one ignore it – is Bama’s (unfortunate) statistical dominance, right up until the Iron Bowl and the SEC championship game. With those two games behind us, Auburn pulls to within thirty yards of the Tide.

Yes, you read that correct – by my very metric, Auburn’s end-of-year numbers are thirty adjusted yards lower than Alabama’s. How, you may ask, is it possible that BCS team numero uno is lagging behind a three-loss division also-ran, whom they beat? How galling. But, we have to point out that the former half of Auburn’s season does not share trajectories with the back end. We played Mississippi state real, real close. By my method – focusing on whole-team performance – we should have lost to Clemson. It wasn’t until the latter end of the South Carolina game that the inflection point came and we really hit full gallop. Bama laid some serious world-killin’ wood on their early-season opponents which built up an enormous GPL lead, but it was not a lead they could sustain. So it’s a bit like the Iron Bowl itself – the Tide jumped out to an early lead, but were unable to keep pace with the resurgent Tigers.

Naturally, too, you notice that Auburn and Alabama are head and shoulders above the rest of the SEC West pack. My final rankings, based purely on GPL, go as such :

  1. Auburn
  2. Alabama
  3. Arkansas
  4. LSU
  5. MSU
  6. Ole Miss

Yes, I rank Auburn ahead of Alabama even though technically Alabama has the higher GPL. This is reasonable given that A. the difference between the teams is a wholly insignificant 0.8%, and B. head to head, baby, head to freakin’ head. Had these teams never played each other, we could not reasonably distinguish between them by mere GPL, but since they have… ’round the bowl, down the hole, roll Tide roll.

We can also compare Auburn’s season to Oregon’s :

Here, the difference is even more clearly in the front end of the season. Just as there is a dramatic uptick in the Tigers’ curve in the back half of the South Carolina game, Oregon too has an inflection point. It isn’t dramatic, but it’s there. These points seem to represent the points at which the two teams truly hit their never-look-back stride. Oregon’s appears early in the second quarter versus Tennessee, whom they go on to beat the tar out of. And yet, even though Auburn took a little longer to get up to speed, their line eventually parallels the Ducks’ line – meaning, the two teams are gaining / defending yards at roughly the same rate. In fact, if we were to compare Auburn’s and Oregon’s seasons, but only the portions that come after each team gets on its game, we get the following chart :

…in which the Tigers and Ducks are practically neck and neck. Our clash with the Ducks looks to be a ferocious matchup. Speed versus speed. Hypermodern rushing attack #1 versus hypermodern rushing attack #2. Heisman trophy winner versus Heisman trophy runner-up. Best uniforms in college football versus (as was so perfectly described) uniforms that look like the Jamaican flag melted over a steel girder.

——

Didn’t even have time to write a true “Digging Up the Hatchet” this year, but trust me, mine is always shinin’.

And I did watch the Iron Bowl. One of my chief residents is an Auburn fan herself, and had scheduled me so I would be off work during the game. In order to make that happen, though, I had to be post-call. So, I went into work Thanksgiving day at 07:00, worked the entire day and the entire night until 07:00 the 26th, went home, showered, got in the car with my wife, slept most of the way up to Richmond, and arrived in time for lunch and pregame. And then, the wild delirium of the 2010 Iron Bowl, in which Auburn sunk to its very lowest low before dishing out the most jaw-dropping three quarters of annihilation all year.

Despite that I was working on about four hours of shut eye, I can clearly recall that horrible moment when, up by 21, Bama was driving for the fourth and undoutably-icing touchdown. My grandfather piped up, “If they get a touchdown here, the game’s over.” We all voiced our resigned agreement – a twenty-eight point first-half deficit would put even the 2010 Auburn Tigers in the dirt. It seemed that the Tide would play both roles in our Alabama tragedy : the underdoggin’ giant killer steal-your-MNC-from-you role that Auburn has played the past couple years, and the arrogant overlord role that Alabama presumes to have occupied for most of our history.

The stage was set for catastrophe, for our dream’s requiem… and then : a stop, a field goal, and a mere twenty-four point deficit to overcome.

Any other year we would still have been consigned to a disappointing, Capital-One-Bowl-again fate. Any other year, it would have been tempting to find other things to do. To let the Iron Bowl pass, kept safe at arms’ length on GameTracker. Any other year, twenty-one points down would have held no less hope than twenty-four. But this year, this year against Bama in our northern home, this year was different. Instead of representing reprieve from an inevitable beat down, the field goal gave us the first indications that our defense was starting to find its oats, that the offense would rise up before long, and both would answer. The room got quiet as the kick sailed between the uprights… but just as the Bama offense would soon go silent. Cam started throwing accurately. The backs started picking up ground. The Tide went three quarters without a touchdown, and we reached the end zone in every quarter thereafter. Something like this.

After the game’s conclusion, we ate Thanksgiving dinner as a family. My sister, my father, both voiced their thanks for the victory and the end to Bama’s run of Iron Bowl wins. My grandfather, all he said was he was happy that we were happy. Driving seven hundred miles to spend four hours with five Auburn fans, watching the crimson and white get pulverized on their home turf, as my father and I leap and roar with every hammerblow the Tigers land, and then sitting down to eat with the victors? Boy if that ain’t the strength of family, I don’t know what is.

Maybe he’s an Auburn man after all.

——

My wife and I decided the other night to get me a sportcoat, as a local store was having a rather improbable sale : the commercial on TV read “Buy One Get Two Free.” She turned to me and said, “Want to go?” On the set, ESPN was about to click back onto the Terrapin beatdown of hapless ECU. Hardly thought once of the poor pirates’ fate : “Let’s go.” And so we loaded ourselves up and headed out to the strip mall, and I found myself in front of a row of sportcoats. I could’ve used one for a good while now, if only so I don’t have to wear my camping / leaf-raking / bike-riding jacket to church. (Certainly my darling bride will appreciate that.)

The majority of them were simple navy blazers of some kind or another, one of which I already own. I started looking through the less conventional / boring jackets, the plaids and tweeds and herringbones. And the houndstooths.

This is where things get a little less rational for me. One the one hand, a houndstooth is indeed a handsome pattern, particularly once one has thumbed past the commonplace ash-grey-and-black to the black-and-gold, the gold-and-brown. And furthermore I know that, despite the saturation of Bammerdom with the aforementioned default houndstooth, Paul Bryant didn’t always keep a houndstooth hat and in fact, wore a plaid or plain number. That the Shug and the Bear respected and befriended one another. That if I like something enough, it’s worth enduring both the less-than-half-in-jest derision of my blue-and-orange-clad family members and the more-than-half-smug approval of my remaining kin.

These and more ran through my head as I stood before a couple of sturdy and subtle houndstooth coats. Rationally speaking, I could at least have tried one on. I turned away – just as I hesitated even to pick up a deep red sweater.

What if a houndstooth sport coat looks right dapper on yours truly? It wouldn’t change my heritage, a muddled blend of the Loveliest Village and Tuscaloosa since generations back. Wouldn’t change my blooded love of the orange and blue, wouldn’t make me less of a Tiger fan, wouldn’t put a quaver in my voice when I cried War Eagle. But it would be a concession, however small, and one for which I would go to bat whenever I put it on my shoulders. The same sort of concession my mother made when she began dating my father in earnest – she got rid of a whole lot of red clothing, and then became an Auburn student herself. For her, giving up crimson gained her a devoted husband. For me, what would be placed in the balance, should I wear that houndstooth coat?

It wasn’t worth just the looking good, or even finding out. I left it on the rack.

About John

John Magruder has been going to Auburn games since before he was born, and when Bo went over the top, he was at Legion Field. Some mothers play Mozart to their developing progeny. John was raised on the roars of the Tiger faithful.

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