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The Wishbone: Mac & Cheese with Cousin Cracky


With a big, bold, exciting win over allegedly up-and-coming Mississippi State in our collective rear-view mirrors, and our current “Streak” standing at 17-0 (only three wins shy of Terry Bowden’s 1993-94 record), we move on to game three of the 2011 season.  This weekend, the Tigers from the Yellowhammer State march over to the Yellow Sauce State, to face our Tiger cousins from Clemson in a rematch of last year’s nerve-shredding overtime thriller.

Very Special Teams

How on Earth can the Tigers find themselves sitting at 2-0, given that their defense is ranked near the very bottom of Division I-A (or whatever the kids are calling it these days)?  And yet, as they prepare to travel to Clemson, South Carolina, to take on the squad that gave them such fits last year, that’s exactly where the Auburn Tigers are—undefeated and coming off a very big 41-34 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

It simply defies logic.  It seems less like reality and more like a feverish dream suffered by some deranged, drug-addled tiger mascot of another program.

But it’s true, and one reason is because Auburn’s special teams have been spectacular.  Anyone watching the games can appreciate the great returns by Tre Mason and the booming kickoffs by Cody Parkey, because those moments really jump out at you.  But how much of a difference is it really making, overall?

In the Mississippi State game, thanks to Parkey’s kickoffs and to sparkling coverage on those occasions when the ball didn’t zoom out the back of the end zone, the Bulldogs’ average starting position on kickoffs was the 21 yard line.  Auburn’s average starting position on kickoffs was the 32 yard line.   That’s an 11-yard net difference in Auburn’s favor, purely from kickoffs.  Auburn’s kickoff return average for both games was 31 yards, while opponents are averaging only 18 yards.  Here we see the benefit of both Parkey’s leg and our excellent coverage units.

So every time there is a kickoff to either team, the play amounts to at least an 11-yard advantage to Auburn.  And that adds up; the Tigers have been out-gained in the first two games by an average of 117 yards, 489 to 372. But when you add in all the special teams yardage, Auburn comes out ahead of its first two opponents, 623 to 574.  That is how much of a difference special teams are making.

Earning their Jack

Much was made during the offseason about the huge raises given to all of the Auburn coaches.  We have to say: between their performance in recruiting over the past three years, and the amount of coaching they accomplished in the week between game one and game two, they earned every nickel.   Despite yielding vast tracts of yardage to MSU—at times it resembled Tsar Alexander’s army driven back beyond the walls of Moscow by Napoleon’s Grand Armee—the Tiger defense nonetheless performed dramatically better against the Bulldogs than it did in the Utah State game.  Every part of the team improved and some individual players really stepped up.

Coaching is one of the main reasons Auburn has won so many close games and comeback games during the current Streak.  The Tigers maximize their chances.  It’s probably safe to say that if Auburn had been on the 1-yard line with ten seconds left and no time outs, we would have thrown it at least once and then run it.

Meanwhile, regarding the offense, we ask:  How many Auburn fans are worried about the quarterback position at this point?  For a player starting his first two games, ol’ Hairy Trotter has been outstanding.  He’s making plays, keeping calm, and running (kind of, anyway) when nothing is available.  And he has picked up great experience in leading the team on last minute drives, coming through in must-score situations, and when under pressure to get a first down.   That game experience will help him much more down the road than if Auburn had won by thirty points in each of these two games.  We now know, or at least have a pretty good idea, that when the game is on the line, Trotter will be at least okay, and maybe even better than that.  How many other SEC teams can say that right now?  Georgia, MSU, Tennessee, and maybe ol’ Grandpa QB’ing at South Carolina, but that’s about it.  Now Trotter has his first opportunity to go on the road and lead the offense in a hostile environment, in another big test and with the chance to gain more solid experience before trips to Carolina and Arkansas.

This experience is vitally necessary, because the defense is not going to become a world-beater overnight.  Improvement is improvement, sure, but they have a long way to go to even be close to as good as last year’s squad, at least in some areas.  And so, for the Clemson game and in the weeks to come, the pressure is going to be on the Auburn offense to keep the pedal to the metal, to continue to be efficient, and to score more than thirty points in every game. And the special teams are going to have to keep on keeping on for Auburn to have a chance to win against any of the good teams we will be facing, particularly in the month of October.  (What’s that, T.S.? April is the cruelest month? Umm, clearly you were not an Auburn Tiger.)  What it all means is, hold on to your hats, because the exciting games are a long way from over!

Playing Cousin Cracky

Their big struggles against Troy and Wofford the past two weeks seem to indicate that either the Clemson Tigers are sandbagging brilliantly or else they are just not that good.  We won’t know the truth, of course, until they take the field on Saturday morning and line up against our guys.  But, seeing as how the same was pretty much true prior to our game with them last year, we suspect that they will bring plenty to the table and will give Auburn all we could ask for, yet again.  But—how has that worked out in the recent past?  No—scratch “recent.”  How about “the past” at all?

Ol’ Cousin Cracky the Clemson Tiger will definitely want to dig into his stash of “meds” when he hears this statistic:  Clemson last won a football game against Auburn on November 24, 1951.  That’s a loooong time ago, folks.  That’s back before Ricky ever loved Lucy.  That’s seven years before the Bahr was coaching in Tuscaloosa, even!  That’s the entire presidencies of Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and even a few months of Harry Truman!  The Cold War had barely even gotten going and the Korean War was in its earliest months the last time Clemson beat us.  Holy cow.

Of course, all of that goes out the window on Saturday.  This game will be played by young men whose parents were too young to fight in Korea, and who barely even remember the Clinton presidency.  Everything old is new again.  The three most recent Auburn-Clemson games all have been extremely close affairs, with Auburn prevailing in the Peach Bowl after the 1997 season (thanks mostly to Dameyune Craig and an opportunistic defense) and the renamed Chick-Fil-A Bowl in the same Georgia Dome after the 2007 season (highlighted by OC Tony Franklin’s unveiling of his spread offense, swapping back and forth between Brandon Cox and Kodi Burns at QB).  And then of course there was last year.

The game last year was not indicative of the seasons to come, from either team, but it did mark a major turning point for the home-standing Tigers.  Though Clemson pushed us around pretty good in our own stadium, and maybe even deserved to win, Auburn fought back and pulled it out when it counted.  The navy-blue Tigers would get considerably better after that game—the coaches figured out how to more effectively use Cam Newton at quarterback, and the defense in particular found ways to really clamp down on teams in the second halves of games later on.  But Clemson’s effective use of screens and draws neutralized much of the strength of the Tigers defense and caused the game ultimately to go to overtime and nearly to become a loss for Auburn.

The orangey-purpley Tigers, meanwhile, never seemed to recover from the loss.  Quarterback Kyle Parker was injured and never really seemed like himself the rest of the year.  They now look back on that game with what is surely a high degree of anger and regret, and they have famously CIRCLED IT on their schedule.  (What team we played last year hasn’t circled our game on this year’s calendar, though?)

The 2011 Clemson squad is in some ways very similar to Auburn. Clemson hired Chad Morris, Gus Malzahn’s successor at Tulsa, as its offensive coordinator, and so the formations and plays (and maybe the pacing) will probably seem quite familiar to Auburn fans.  (If this means the game looks a lot like A-Day, so be it; and if it means a lot fewer of those %$#& slip-screens and bubble-screens, then all the better.)

Statistically the teams are also similar: both are poor in run defense, while both boast strong, balanced offenses.  While the results of two games against weaker schools may not tell us anything of great significance, we do know that Clemson has allowed seven quarterback sacks already this year.

Clemson has become an island of exile for coaches from Alabama who got tired of working for Mr. Composure.  (Do you blame them for heading over there?)  Those guys know Auburn and they will have their team well-prepared and fired up to play.  They know that a win over the defending national champs, not to mention some revenge for last year, OH AND ALSO THE BREAKING OF A NEARLY SIXTY-YEAR STREAK OF FUTILITY could keep their fans satisfied for a long time.  And they know they had Auburn on the hook last year and let us get away.  So don’t be lulled into sleep by that Wofford score; Clemson is waiting in ambush, and you can bet they really, truly want to win this one.

“Don’t like this kind of behavior? I think they have a job opening at Clemson for you.”

Other Odds & Ends:

In the modern era (which we of the Wishbone consider to have begun in 1981), Auburn is 143-2 when scoring 30+ points. (Stats via AUFAMILY.com). Interestingly enough, the two losses both came at home in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare, and were within about a year of each other.  First was the 1995 Florida game (38-49 in the rain; an otherwise close affair, but for Danny Wuerffel throwing for four TDs in the second quarter).  Then came the 1996 Georgia game—the SEC’s first overtime game—in which the Bulldogs scored miraculously at the end to force a tie, and then prevailed, 56-49, after multiple OTs.

In every other game in the past thirty years in which Auburn has scored thirty points or more, they have won.  That is amazing.  And it’s important this year in particular, because we fear the Tigers are going to need to score at least thirty a bunch of times this year to keep the Streak going.

Speaking of streaks, anyone notice that Cam Newton lost a meaningful (ie non-pre-season) football game for the first time in quite a while on Sunday?  And in the very same stadium that he last played a serious game in—the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale.  Carolina’s defeat at the hands (claws?) of the Cardinals marked Cam’s first loss since his Blinn College squad fell to Navarro in 2009.  We take this to mean that Navarro College > Alabama & Oregon.  Heh.

We just this minute watched the imminently predictable low-scoring win by LSU over Miss State.  Dang, but the Bayou Bengals have a defense that knows how to do some damage.  There are a couple of titanic matchups coming in the SEC West a bit later in the year—and you know who we’re talking about.  And Chris Relf: You tried, yeah, but let’s be honest…  Cam you ain’t, pal.

One last note: aside from Auburn-Clemson and Florida-Tennessee, along with the Thursday night tilt, the SEC in general faces a horde of directional-school-quality opponents this weekend.  In the spirit of ESPN’s dorky “themed” football weekends, Van has thus dubbed this weekend “Cupcake Weekend,” and has directed his wife to bake a lovely spread of cupcakes in commemoration.  Should be fabulous.

Power Rankings

The Elite:

Alabama  (Of course, last year you hammered Penn State early on, too, only to let that 47-year-old Gamecock QB slice and dice you in Columbia.  Still not sure exactly what to make of you guys.)

LSU  (You don’t make a lot of mistakes, you hammer away, and you slowly stifle the life out of your opponent.  You aren’t flashy but you’re extremely intimidating.)

The Very Good:

Arkansas  (We don’t know a lot about these guys yet—they seem to start each season with the kind of “Jaywalkers’ Row” of opponents that Tennessee usually ends their season with.)

South Carolina  (It remains to be seen how much a win over Georgia and soon-to-be ESPN analyst Mark Richt should count in your favor.)

The Good:

Auburn  (Seventeen and counting.  Coming for you, Cousin Cracky.)

Miss State  (Admiral blACKBeAR has a statement:  “Thank heavens for Ole Miss.”)

Georgia  (Just think, Mark—it won’t be long till you’re drawing your paycheck for tossing out clever comebacks to Lou Holtz and Mark May.  Yee-haw.  But at least your Dawgs returned to their normal, classy unis this week.  Thanks for that, at least.)

Florida  (Looks like Boom has you moving in the right direction, maybe.  We’ll know more after we see you face–

Tennessee  (–on Saturday.  And this is a team more than overdue for a big win.  Who knows?  UT isn’t Georgia, so they’re not entirely snakebit against Florida.  It could happen.)

The Mediocre to Amazingly Bad:

Ole Miss  (I’m sorry—who?  “Besides,” Van adds, “you beat my wife’s alma mater on Saturday, so I have nothing to say to or about you.”)

Vanderbilt  (We are being told on a regular basis lately that Vandy is looking good and recruiting well.  It seems somehow suspicious.  This is, after all, Vandy we’re talking about.  We’ll believe it when we see them beat someone noteworthy on the field.)

Kentucky  (Randall Cobb was clearly the most valuable player in college football history because this team is horrible.)

Related: Listen to the 1962 “Beat Clemson” pep rally. LISTEN TO 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.

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