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The Wishbone: Groundhog Day

OK, Auburn fans, rise and shine, and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cooooold out there today.

Auburn fans are locked into a perpetual “Groundhog Day” this season.   Every week starts out with optimism that it might be different this time.  And then the same things happen again. And again.  And again.  And again.

What is really happening here?   How historically bad is it?  Can we beat Vandy?  Could we even beat Kentucky right now?  This week your intrepid Wishbone columnists attempt to answer these important questions.

And news about a fun new idea we are going to try…..

The Groundhog Day Pattern

There is a real pattern to Auburn games this year.   Even if you don’t dive into the statistics and play by play data, it is easy to feel.   The other team cruises down the field for a score before our defense settles down.  The Auburn offense plays well in the first half, moving the ball up and down the field but repeatedly making mistakes that short-circuit potential scoring drives.  The defense settles down after initially looking lost and plays well for a while.  (Not “shut down the other team well” but “not awful in a 2011 Auburn defense way” kind of well.)

The special teams are good but not great as we have come to expect the last few years.  In the second half the offense forgets who Tre Mason is and offensive production drops off dramatically.  The defense, having kept the game close for three quarters, falls apart as the other team surges to a dominating fourth quarter.  Penalties, turnovers, missed assignments and poor execution doom this team.  Auburn loses again.

That same scenario happens in every game.  The only time it happened differently was against Louisiana Monroe, as Auburn managed to win in overtime.

That’s the recurring scenario, but—from whence did it come?  Did we make it all up based on “gut feeling” after watching the games?  Not quite.

The Auburn Offense: A Drive Killing Machine

We sat down and charted every Auburn offensive possession and looked for the following things:

– Did Auburn have a penalty on this possession?
– Did Auburn have a play that resulted in negative yards on this possession?
– Did Auburn have a turnover on this possession?
– Did this possession result in a score?

Here is what we found.  Auburn has had the ball 89 times this year so far.  We are only counting 86 of those drives because the other three were either right before halftime or at the end of a game (so on those three drives Auburn did not try to move the ball).

Out of 86 drives Auburn has only put together 16 drives with no bad plays.  (This means no penalties, loss of yardage plays or turnovers.)  That is 18.6%.  So that means that on 70 drives, or 81.4% of the time, Auburn committed a negative play when it had the ball.  And most of those 18.6% of “clean” drives were short three-and-outs where we ran three plays and then punted!  So it wasn’t so much that the offense performed flawlessly as they simply didn’t have time to screw it up.

Six of Auburn’s 16 “clean” drives—more than a third of all the “clean drives” this season so far—came against Louisiana-Monroe.  Auburn had none against LSU.  The Tigers went an entire game without a series that did not contain a penalty, a play that lost yards or a turnover – and that was probably the best game of the season.

We aren’t done yet.  32% of the time Auburn has the ball it has committed more than one of those negative plays on a drive.  One-third of the time Auburn sets itself back multiple times on the same drive.

On those rare occasions when Auburn puts together a drive without a negative play, it scores 43% of the time it has the ball.  (So even then it’s less than half the time.  No wonder the Tigers are at the bottom of the national scoring rankings.)

But because the Auburn offense has so many negative plays the team only scores 20% of the time they touch the football—and most of those scores were field goals or touchdowns off of short yardage.

The bottom line: It is hard to be productive on offense in the SEC because the defenses are so good and because it is very hard to play on the road.  But it is impossible to be successful on offense in the SEC when you shoot yourself in the foot as often as Auburn does.  And this data doesn’t capture the hundreds of other failures in execution – plays where just one better block would have resulted in a long gain or a touchdown, or a receiver was open but didn’t get the pass, or didn’t catch it when he did.  (Does this sound familiar?  It should.  Remember during the struggles of 2003, when the coaches were repeatedly saying, “We’re so close!  We’re just one block away, most plays!”)

Special Teams:  Not as Good as the Numbers

Auburn’s special teams look pretty good on paper.  The website “Football Outsiders” has several advanced metrics for college football teams and one of those ranks teams on special teams performance.  (If you are not a statistics person, it gets pretty technical—but the bottom line is it quantifies special teams performance by looking at every play and its outcome.)  Auburn is ranked fifth in the nation in the 2012 FEI Rankings for Special Teams.

But those numbers don’t include a few things.   The failure to field punts in the Arkansas game led to at least fifty yards of lost field position during the course of the game (if not more.) The muffed punt against LSU was a turning point.  And some of our opponents have been unlucky in the kicking game, missing field goals and punting poorly. And last week the big off-sides penalty on the Ole Miss punt late in the game that was a big turning point.

Commodore Vanderbilt says:  “Those rapscallions from Auburn are coming to town this weekend.  We must crush them as I crushed my business competitors in the good old days.  Release the hounds!”

(Fun Commodore Vanderbilt Factoid: At one point, he controlled 10 percent of all US currency in circulation.  By coincidence, this is the same amount Alabama currently pays Nick Saban.)

Auburn once again plays in the early time slot this weekend. (And since we are in this position, our favorite rule is the one limiting the number of times SEC teams can be forced into the early game slots – whew.  Auburn has hit its maximum with this game—already.)

How Can Auburn Win a Game at Vanderbilt?

Auburn faces the extremely unsavory possibility of converting a one-off loss against Vanderbilt in 2008 into an honest-to-goodness losing streak to the Dores this year.  You may recall how the 2008 game went: Auburn scored early but missed an extra point, then was held scoreless the rest of the way.  Vanderbilt scored twice, made both extra points, and won, 14-13, for their first victory over Auburn since the early 1950s.
Here’s the really weird thing, though:  The overall series between the two schools currently stands at 20-20-1. That means the winner on Saturday pulls into the all-time lead.

And here’s the really even weirder thing:  The first decade that Auburn ever had a winning record against Vanderbilt for that decade was the 1970s!  Every decade before that, either Vandy won more of their head-to-head matchups or they tied.

And here’s the really even weirdest thing (though it makes sense given the information above):  Auburn took the lead in the all-time series against Vanderbilt—for the very first time in history—with the win in 2007.  You read that right—2007 was the first year Auburn could boast an all-time winning record against Vanderbilt in football.  Sheesh!  And yet we of the Wishbone—no spring chickens, us, either—had never seen Vandy beat Auburn in our lifetimes, until last time.  It simply took that many years to catch up, once Auburn started dominating the series.

So—what do the Tigers need to do to get back on top and hold the “streak” to just one game?

1.    Vanderbilt’s defense is excellent against the pass and poor against the run. Teams are averaging five yards per carry against them. Florida rushed for 326 yards against them last week in Nashville.  Most of those yards came by way of quarterback Jeff Driskel.   Every running quarterback has seen success against Vandy.  Could this be the time to go to even more Jonathan Wallace and keep his running threat on the field all the time?

2.    Vandy isn’t great in turnover margin either. (They aren’t WORST IN THE NATION bad like Auburn, but they aren’t good either.) This game could easily come down to which team makes fewer mistakes.  And no, that is not reassuring.

3.    This isn’t the same pathetic Vanderbilt football that SEC fans have been used to since before the days of the Mercury program.  Current coach James Franklin is doing an excellent job recruiting (by Vanderbilt standards) and has this team prepared and playing hard every week. As long as he is there Vanderbilt is not going back to the bottom of the SEC and will not be an easy win for everyone else.  Vandy knows that Auburn is vulnerable and they will play hard.  (Having said that, a noon crowd in Nashville may make for the least intimidating atmosphere in the conference.)

4.    Vandy allows a lot of sacks to good teams.  It is time for Auburn’s defensive ends (curiously absent last week in Oxford) to make their presence felt.

Wishbone Power Rankings:

The Elite:
Alabama.  (Missouri is just lucky that thunderstorm came.)

The Very Good:
LSU  (A big win for Les at home against the Mighty Nuggets last week.)
Florida  (The SEC East Championship Game is Saturday as Spurrier visits the Swamp…)
South Carolina  (So close to making that jump to the upper echelons—and then they became the latest team to fall victim to the Les Miles Whammerjammer Hex!)
Miss State  (A solid win over UT in Starkvegas last weekend.  They are on a collision course with bama.   This is like saying a squirrel is on a collision course with an 18-wheeler.)

The Good:
Texas A&M  (The most fun-to-watch team in the SEC and it is not close.  Remember when we told you they’d be pretty good?)

The Not Good:
Ole Miss  (Time to admit it – Hugh Freeze is better than we thought he was.  It wasn’t all Michael Oher getting him here.  Or Leigh Anne Tuohy.)
Missouri  (Hello?  Big 12 office?  Do you have any openings that—hello?  Hello?? Dang, they hung up on us….)

The Wretched:
Kentucky (Maybe Mike Slive could set something up where Auburn and Kentucky face one another the day before the SEC Championship Game, to settle who is the worst.)


Related: The Tragedy of Offensive Coordinator Scot I.

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 are waiting for you 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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