Like many fans, I was cautiously optimistic about this year’s team—not SEC-contender optimistic, but still optimistic. The first two weeks (yes, including the Utah State game) left me thinking that it was possible that Auburn could manage to grow up enough on defense to be competitive even through the brutal away-game schedule. Then came Clemson. What I saw, after mulling it over, was a reminder of how much of football happens in player’s psychology and not just in their physiology.
Don’t forget that the game began with Auburn looking a little like last year, although the moving parts are different and the way they move is different. The offense looked unpredictable and dangerous; the defense managed a couple of third down stops. (Yes, really; I know it is now hard to believe.) Auburn’s young players believed, I think, that Clemson was down, maybe for the count. But Clemson found a way to get going, got a score. And the slide from then on just kept accelerating, particularly on defense. I suspect that what happened primarily was that Auburn’s young players vastly underestimated how much commitment was going to be required to leave Death Valley alive.
Anyone who has played the game knows that playing in a hostile environment is more than just a technical challenge—a challenge for hearing calls, orienting to a different sort of sideline, running on an unfamiliar turf. Playing in a hostile environment is a psychological challenge. No one in the stands is willing you to succeed. Everyone in the stands is willing you to fail. That makes willing your own success doubly hard, because anytime you stop willing your success, you are overwhelmed by all the wills willing your failure. To succeed, you have to be committed to your success, unshakably committed. A moment of looking around, of gauging the situation, of allowing your will to ebb, allows all the hostility to enter your head, to roll around there, to dishearten you. After that, willing your success is like having to push a stone uphill. Each time you slow down, or, even worse, stop, the rock rolls back toward you, gaining speed, and becomes even harder to push.
Auburn met the rock on Saturday. Down 21-7, Clemson oddly had all the momentum. They played like they were ahead; and that was prophetic, because they soon were and never trailed again. Auburn lost the game inside the helmet. After that, what they did was largely useless bustle, an attempt to stop what had become a foregone conclusion. The poor blocking, the gruesomely ugly tackling—did I say our tackling was bad?—were the result of the disconnect between the player’s heads and their bodies. They wanted to will to succeed. But the problem is, as a wise man once said, although you can do what you will, you cannot will what you will. Auburn wanted to will success, but they couldn’t. And that meant that they were, in a way, just going through the motions.
By that I do not mean that they weren’t trying hard, that they mailed it in. No. They were trying, if anything they were trying too hard. But they couldn’t do what they were trying to do because they couldn’t whole-heartedly will it. Clemson, and especially the hostile environment, had separated the players’ head from their bodies. On defense, especially, they literally ran around like chickens after the farmer’s axe.
It was a mess. But it was also something that young players almost all have to go through. On a team with so few veterans and so many young players it really may have been unavoidable. What we can hope is that it will now be clear to the players what sort of commitment is required to win on the road, and maybe they will be better able to make that commitment and not waver.
All of us have had such moments in our lives. All of us have wavered. Let’s remember that when we decide to jaw dissatisfaction on message boards or on the radio.
Yeah, that stank. Maybe it will turn out, though, to fertilize future success.
Dr. Jolley is a philosophy professor at Auburn University. He works in the theory of judgment, the history of 20th-century philosophy, metaphilosophy and philosophical psychology. He was recently profiled by The New York Times. He also likes football. His book “The Concept ‘Horse’ Paradox and Wittgensteinian Conceptual Investigations” was published in 2007. His column Leisure with Dignity runs bi-monthly to monthly to whenever. Write to him at [email protected].
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