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The Wishbone: Road Kill Redux

We hope Sully's Bulldogs have a little less bite than Richt's. Love you, Pat.

There are some weeks when it’s not all that fun to be writing a weekly column on Auburn football.  This is one of those weeks.  We admit it—we were spoiled last season, in our inaugural campaign, as the Tigers won every game (and usually in some sort of spectacular, astounding fashion) and made this task into a joy and a pleasure.

This season?  Not so much.

Four losses, none of them nail-biters.  In two of the games, Auburn looked good for a while but then collapsed.  In the other two, they never looked good at all.

Out of Luck

But onward we go, with only two games remaining before our bowl.  And of course this week Auburn matches up against Stanford! Another top 15 team? We scheduled a PAC-12 powerhouse for Homecoming?  Ah well—we know Jacobs and Chizik know best.

Stanford has a powerful running game and the best quarterback in college football in Andrew Luck.  This will create problems for Auburn’s defense in the wake of…

Wait.

Hang on a minute.

Samford?

Not Stanford but Samford?

As in, Terry Bowden’s old school, not Chelsea Clinton’s and Condi Rice’s?

Pat Sullivan coaching?  No Andrew Luck?

OK.  The threat Level has gone down a little.  Maybe we can get to seven wins after all.

Dawg Day Afternoon

Last Saturday was a very, very long afternoon for Auburn fans.  It was so long that some of us began to wax philosophical and wonder if that was the worst half of Auburn football we had ever seen.  How did it compare to other terrible halves or complete games we had seen?

For your reading (dis)pleasure, Van and John present:   The Five Worst Road Games in Modern Auburn History.

And we do this not to make the misery worse, but simply to remind ourselves that it’s not the end of the world and we have seen bad times before, and things always turn around and get better—usually much better—pretty quickly.

What makes a football game truly bad?

1) Expectations.  (If you did not expect Auburn to be competitive it is tough to be disappointed.)

2)  Importance of the game.

3)  Nature of the mistakes.  (Is one guy bad or is everyone bad? Coaching miscues?)

From least bad to most bad, here we go:

5.  Auburn – Syracuse 2001.  The Tigers had waited fourteen years for a chance to exact some revenge on Syracuse for their boorish behavior after the 1987 Sugar Bowl.  The game was played eleven days after 9-11 and the country was still traumatized.  Auburn was undefeated, though the LSU game had been postponed till the end of the season.  Freshman Jason Campbell looked good early and ran for a TD.  Then Syracuse pulled away and won, 31-14.

4.  Auburn – Arkansas 2001.  (Or 1999, really.)  Auburn had recovered from the Syracuse loss to reel off four big wins in a row, including a monumental triumph over Florida.  Then the Tigers ventured into Reynolds-Razorback Stadium and the wheels came off.  After suffering a 42-17 beat down, the Tigers would only win one more game the rest of the way, finishing 7-5 overall and 1-4 in their last five.

3.  Auburn – LSU 2003.  (Or 2009.  Or 2011.)  In all of these games, the Tigers ventured into Baton Rouge and were promptly thrashed.  The 2003 game saw Auburn coming in with a five-game winning streak after a slow start, only to get crushed, 31-7, in a game that would be known as “Black Saturday.”  The 2009 game saw Auburn score three more points than in 2003, but once again yield 31.  This year’s team, of course, scored ten again but gave up 45 (!!).

2.  Auburn – Alabama 2008.  Auburn was not expected to win… but we had won SEVEN IN A ROW over the Tide… and we were blown out of the stadium, 36-0—our first-ever loss in Tuscaloosa in three centuries.  Ugh.

1.  Auburn – Florida 1990.  The Tigers went to Gainesville at 6-0-1 and highly-ranked, their only blemish a last-minute draw with Tennessee earlier in the year.  Steve Spurrier, in his first season with the Gators, taught Pat Dye a lesson in airing out the football; after an early, 7-7 tie, the Gators reeled off 41 unanswered points and sent Auburn limping home at the wrong end of a 48-7 mangling.  This game marked the moment that the SEC’s dominant coach stopped being Pat Dye and started being Steve Spurrier.

Now we may add to that illustrious roster of ineptitude the debacle known as Auburn – Georgia 2011.

The first half of last Saturday’s game certainly merits consideration for this list.   Pass coverage, pass defense, blocking, ball security—it all was a disaster in the first half.   When Auburn could not take advantage of UGA’s weakness on special teams it was clear that things were not going to go well.

Thoughts from the smoking crater left behind in Athens after the Tigers imploded and were trampled:

1.  While the initial landslide of criticism has been aimed at the defense, we are going to start with the offense.  It is clear that Auburn believes it can only move the ball and score points against good defenses if it tricks them.  Gus Malzahn and the other Auburn coaches do not believe the Tigers can line up and run the ball against good defenses.  Or use a mix of regular runs and play action.   Against LSU and Georgia the play-calling (during the times when the games were in doubt) has been a constant stream of misdirection, trick plays and the like, designed to move the defense one way and then go the other.  The 2010 Auburn offense pushed defenses out of the way and ran at them; the 2011 Auburn offense hopes to fool good defenses and then run into the empty area.  This is clearly not a long-term winning solution. We have faith that Malzahn is doing what he thinks will work. That being said, Malzahn clearly believes that (for a variety of reasons) his offense cannot move the ball without the use of trickery in 2011.

The hope has to be that the offensive linemen who are red-shirting this year can come in and help the line be more physical next year.  And of course that Keihl Frazier will dramatically improve as a quarterback during the off-season.

2.  On to the defense—and the complete dumpster fire on Saturday afternoon.   Aaron Murray is the best quarterback in the SEC right now, but the Auburn secondary and lack of pass rush made him look like the best quarterback in SEC history.  This game featured the single worst pass coverage we have seen at Auburn.  The defensive ends, who seemed to be coming on a few weeks ago, were never near Murray (though at one point they were close enough to mail him a post card).   The defensive line was manhandled in a similar fashion to our other 2011 games.  Tackling in general was poor.

3.  Leadership is the ability to take charge when things are not going well and get people moving in the right direction.   This 2011 squad seems to let bad things spiral out of control until the game is out of reach.   No one steps up, no one takes charge.  Bo Jackson has reportedly said they don’t much like to hit or be hit.  That certainly represents a big change from last year, depending on which players he was referring to.  So…

What now?

Coaching changes?   Rumors are swirling that Malzahn is a candidate for head coach of North Carolina.   The five or six fans who hadn’t called for Ted Roof’s head previously were calling for it after Saturday.  Auburn’s coaching staff has been very stable since Gene Chizik took over in 2009, losing only Tracy Rocker from that original group.  Will things change this off-season?  Has Gus been asked to slow down the offense to protect the defense? And does he want to go somewhere where no one can tell him that?  How much responsibility for the failures on defense rests with Roof, how much on his assistants and how much on Chizik?

Finally, one other important question: Just how good is this 2011 Auburn team?  We started the year in full-bore panic mode, after the Utah State near-disaster.  Then came a point a few weeks ago that we talked ourselves into thinking this might be a Top 20 team and the fourth best team in the SEC.  No longer.  In an effort to answer this question we went to “Football Outsiders” website and looked at their college football ranking metrics.  These rankings use statistical formulas calculating how well teams do on each play or on each drive (both on offense and on defense). It takes out ‘garbage time’ yards and points.  What we found was sobering.

After the UGA game, Auburn was 62nd in the Overall College Football Rankings—near teams such as Central Florida, Utah State, and SMU, and below teams such as Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.  Auburn’s offense ranks 51st in the nation, while the defense is 79th and the special teams are 11th.  (Thank you special teams! Where would Auburn be without great special teams this year?  3-7?)

These numbers reinforce what our eyes tell us about this team:  Auburn is a decent team and has played well in some close games and will go to a bowl this year.  But there is a big gap between Auburn’s performance and the performance of the top-tier SEC teams, and these coaches and players have a lot of work ahead to close that gap before next season.

Auburn’s defense noticeably improved after the first three games.  The season-wide statistics did not show it, but if you watched and looked at the statistics on a game-by-game basis you could see it.  Last weekend that improvement disappeared and the defense took a big step backwards.

And some of the problems that were exposed look to be problems that could dog this team for a couple of years or more.  Not to end on a sour note, but those looking to experience a revelation in the team’s performance in 2012 might want to start tempering their expectations a little bit.

The Wishbone Power Rankings

We give you the 2011 SEC, Ladies and Gentlemen:  Two elite teams, one very good team, one good team, five mediocre teams and two awful teams.

The Elite

LSU.  Bye week (otherwise known as Ole Miss) this week.  Honestly, George McGovern had a better shot against the Electoral College than Ole Miss has against LSU.

Alabama. Survived the post-LSU trap last week; fiddled around for a while and then put the hammer down.

The Very Good

Arkansas.  Still alive in the periphery of the National Championship conversation.  But don’t look ahead to LSU!

Georgia.   Auburn has lost five of the last six games against the Dawgs.  This is getting very, very ugly.  Something must be done, and soon.

The Good

South Carolina.  Hey, everyone knew a team from South Carolina would have a great season in 2011… oops.

The Mediocre

Vanderbilt.  Yes, Vandy is first among equals in the mediocre group.

Auburn.   Glad we don’t have to face mighty Vandy this year.  We don’t want to contemplate the horror of a multi-game losing streak to the Dores.

Florida.  Dreaming of the 1990s.

Tennessee.  Also dreaming of the 1990s.

Mississippi State.  Dreaming of last year.

The Wretched

Ole Miss.  Houston Nutt says “Oh, UK thinks they are worse than us? What if I suspended our starting quarterback and running back? What then?”  Not a man to take a challenge lightly, is Houston Nutt.

Kentucky:  Basketball season has started.  (And last year’s Entire Offense and the Most Valuable Player in SEC History, i.e. Randall Cobb, ran a punt back for a touchdown in the NFL last week.)

IT’S PAT SULLIVAN HEISMAN 40TH ANNIVERSARY COMING BACK TO JORDAN-HARE WEEK HERE AT TWER: Read Kenny Smith’s sit-down interview with Super Sully, listen to “The Sullivan to Beasley Express” and “The Legend of Pat Sullivan,” and look at what Auburn students gave ol’ Ed Marinaro, that year’s Heisman runner-up.

More Sully:  His Heisman promotional brochure / Rare candids from his Heisman banquet / Pat Sullivan billboards going up in Birmingham.

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.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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