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The Wishbone: Hope Is Reborn

The Dark Aubie Rises...
The Dark Aubie Rises…

The 2012 Auburn football season smothered the hope out of Auburn fans.  Hope that had been sky high in 2010 was brought back down to earth and crushed by the worst season in school history.   And yet, early October has seen a rebirth of hope in Auburn—a hope greater even than we dared expect only a few short weeks ago.

Is this team going to win the national championship this season?  Nope.  But they are so much better that the hope of competing and winning big SEC games has returned.   The monsoon in Baton Rouge (and Jeremy Hill) didn’t show what this team is capable of doing.  But Gus Malzhan’s offense against a team that is terrible on defense?  BRING IT ON.

First, an open letter to Texas A&M fans:

Dear Texas A&M fans,

Hi! How are you folks enjoying the SEC? Fun, ain’t it? Good job last season, and congrats on the whole Johnny (Insert favorite putdown nickname here) Controversy. A Heisman Trophy winner and a national scandal in just your first year or so in the league? You guys are fitting into the SEC just fine!

Now, on to business:

Please do not assume that last year’s game against Auburn has any bearing on reality for this year or any game between these two teams in the future.  Last year your Aggies crushed the worst Auburn team in the history of the program.  Congratulations!  I hope that your team spends the week watching highlights of that game and thinking this one will be just as easy.  Go ahead – look at that shiny drive chart with all those touchdowns. Nothing to worry about here!  We believe you will be a little surprised at how different this version of the Auburn football team performs on the field against the Aggies.   But please – continue to focus on your game in Baton Rouge next month.  Again, nothing to worry about here.

Sincerely,

Auburn fans

 

The Auburn Defenses Rises…

It has been a long while since the Auburn defense was truly excellent.   In what probably seems like a distant myth to some of the current students, Auburn was once one of the best defensive teams in the country year in and year out.  In 2007 Auburn’s defense was first in the SEC in scoring defense and 2nd in total defense.  Since then the defense has gotten worse every year, with the exception of the run defense during the 2010 season.  While Auburn is still giving up lots of passing yards to other teams, that is not always translating into points.    It is clear that the defense is beginning to turn this thing around, but it is a long way back to a championship level on that side of the ball.

The following table shows Auburn’s national ranking in the major defensive categories by year.  This is a straight comparison to the other 120 or so teams in college football.  (Since offenses have gotten so much  better over the last few years, every team’s defensive statistics are worse than they were 5-10 years ago.  That is why a relative comparison is more useful here.)

Year

Rushing defense

Pass efficiency defense

Passing defense

Total Defense

Scoring Defense

2007

29

7

6

6

6

2008

54

31

21

29

14

2009

78

31

57

68

79

2010

9

76

108

60

53

2011

94

86

51

81

78

2012

97

47

99

79

66

2013

50

28

88

67

21

A lot of the focus this week will be on the improved Auburn offense against a poor Texas A&M defense, but the new and improved Auburn defense has a chance to show what it can do against the best offense in the SEC.

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Thoughts on the Texas A&M game:

– One of the real keys to this game is the first 5-7 minutes of football.   Last year’s Texas A&M team raced out to big leads on opponents and then the defense could focus on rushing the passer and ignoring the run.  It also forced the opponent to take more chances, knowing that they were behind an offense as potent as A&M’s.  Auburn cannot afford to dig itself into a hole like it did in Baton Rouge. So the Tigers need to weather the storm of the first few minutes in a very hostile environment.  For Auburn to have a chance to win, the game needs to be close late in the first quarter.  If it is, Auburn will be in excellent shape.

– The Texas A&M defense is sooooooooooooooooo bad.  How bad is it?  In three SEC games the Aggie defense is allowing 40 points per game and 7.38 yards per play.   (Put your eyes back in their sockets now.)  Arkansas (whose rushing offense is not as good as Auburn’s) averaged 6.7 yards per carry against A&M.  (Again—please put your eyes back in their sockets. This is getting kind of gross.)  A&M’s rushing defense is worse than Arkansas State’s – and Auburn ran for over 300 yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry in that game.  So—as if it even needs stating at this point—we fully expect Auburn to run the ball with, shall we say, some degree of success in this game.   Auburn will continue to use the basic read-option as it did against Ole Miss but will use the sweep and end around much more against A&M then they have recently.

– Below is an actual schematic illustration that represents the stopping power of the Aggie defense:

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– How could a bad defense get worse? After returning only five starters and losing starting defensive tackle Kirby Ennis to an injury since the season began, the Aggie defense can’t afford to lose any productive players.  But the team’s best defensive player, free safety Deshazor Everett, left the Ole Miss game with an injury last Saturday night.  If he does not play against Auburn this removes the Aggies’ best tackler in the secondary—and a player who is very good at covering opposing slot receivers.  This could open up even more big plays for the Auburn offense.  Keep an eye on news related to Everett.

– Last year’s Texas A&M team had an excellent pass rush that disrupted teams trying to come back against them.  This year’s team just isn’t as effective.   They miss Demontre Moore (gone to the NFL) the most.   The current Aggies defense averages 3.0 tackles for a loss per SEC game and only .33 sacks per game in SEC play.  The Auburn offensive line has been playing well and the Auburn quarterbacks should not be overly pressured in this game.

– Auburn has a big edge in special teams in this game.   Texas A&M is poor at covering kickoffs and Tre Mason should be able to have great success.  Auburn’s kicker is also more experienced and reliable than the Aggie kicker if it comes down to that.

– Mike Evans is Texas A&M’s best receiver and is much taller than any Auburn defensive back.  This will be a problem.  Ole Miss held him to 46 yards but everyone else on the team brought in 300 yards receiving so it didn’t matter.  (Apparently Ole Miss’s approach was to cover Evans with the entire defensive secondary and leave everyone else uncovered.)  But we will be watching whoever guards Evans and the results, because this matchup scares us.

– Auburn has not committed many penalties this season but the Aggies have.  We need this trend to continue.

– While the Ole Miss offense is similar to Auburn’s, it lacks the larger running backs and the inside power that is a central part of the Gus Malzhan offense.  So Texas A&M hasn’t seen anything quite like Auburn’s offense.  Meanwhile, Auburn has played Washington State, a team that runs an ‘Air Raid offense’ scheme similar to Texas A&M’s.  The offseason time spend preparing for this type of offense should help the Auburn defense this week.

 

Keys to a Potential Auburn Victory

– Do not lose the turnover battle.  Manziel and company are too good on offense to give them extra possessions or good field position.  This has been a problem for Auburn in 2013.  So far the team has overcome it against opponents who weren’t as good as Texas A&M, but that won’t work in this game.

– As improved as the Auburn defense is, it is hard to see this game being anything but a shootout (because the A&M offense is so good and their defense is so bad).  So this isn’t about field position.  It is about possessions and touchdowns.   Auburn will probably need to steal a possession or two away from A&M in this game to win.  Whether they come from a turnover or a special teams play (fake punt or onsides kick), we feel that this needs to be part of the plan going on the road against such an explosive offense.   Auburn needs to score more than 40 points to win.  (Will the refs deny us the onside kick again this time??)

– To rush or not to rush?  If the defensive linemen get in the backfield it can disrupt the timing of the offense.   But Johnny Manziel is at his best when he has to move in the pocket to throw or when he makes a defender miss and heads upfield.  On the other hand, if the defense doesn’t get enough pressure, Manziel is so accurate that he will be pick the defense apart and drive down the field.  So the choice has to be to put pressure on him but try not to let him get outside of the pocket.  If Auburn can get pressure inside from Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams that would make a huge difference.

– When Auburn has the chance to make a big play it needs to work.   In every game this season there have been explosive plays that Auburn has failed to carry out – whether it was a poorly thrown pass, a dropped ball, one missed block or something else.  To win this game Auburn needs to succeed on those plays.

 

Gus-AU-Meter: Week 6 Total

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We don’t like to look ahead………… but sometimes looking ahead is fun.

Think about how much better this team has gotten already during this season.   Now give these coaches another year with these players and add another excellent recruiting class.   The only senior on the offensive side of the two deep depth chart is Jay Prosch.  On the defensive side the seniors include Dee Ford, Chris Davis, Nosa Egua and Jake Holland.   While those players will be missed, the future potential of Montravious Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel make the losses on the defensive line bearable.   New players can help at positions of need (hello, young linebackers! Early playing time available!).

Nick Marshall will have a full spring practice under his belt after going through this season.  He will be more comfortable in the offense and have better chemistry with the receivers.   Or perhaps Jeremy Johnson will beat him out for the starting job next year. (The downside of the Johnson scenario, of course, is that Auburn would be starting its eighth different quarterback in the opening game of a season.)

This team is going to be much better next season.  And the SEC will be losing an enormous amount of experience at starting quarterback after this year (Manziel, Murray, McCarron, Mettenberger, James Franklin of Mizzou, Tyler Russell, Conner Shaw).  If Auburn continues to improve at this rate they can contend for the SEC title as early as—brace yourself—next season.

Who was thinking that back in August?

Coming Soon:
What do John and Van think about the new uniforms that have popped up around college football this season?  What looks good and what would look tacky on a USFL team?  (If you have specific uniforms or helmets you want them to comment on please send suggestions to [email protected] or @auwishbone on Twitter.)

(Van notes: Hey! Lay off the mighty USFL. Now, the XFL—there was a league with some bad outfits. But the USFL? Neon Orlando and AU/bBama mashup Birmingham? A team with a galaxy on its helmet? A freakin’ GALAXY?!  C’mon!!)

The Wishbone Power Rankings  (completely re-thought this week)

The Elite:

Alabama  (sigh…)

The Very Good:

LSU (enough offense and enough defense to get past Florida)

Florida  (another team depleted by injuries and now they get Mizzou)

Texas A&M  (Will that terrible defense come back to bite them this week?)

South Carolina  (Spurrier: “I do feel badly for Arkansas. That’s no fun getting your butt beat at home, homecoming and all that.”  He is the best.)

(Van notes: “Arkansas looked so bad, Kansas wants them to change their name to ArNotKansas.”)

UGA  (With all the injuries they may drop another level)

The Good:

Auburn (Van noted on the podcast this week that Auburn and Mizzou are the only two teams in the entire conference about whom he thinks better now than he did at the start of the year. The others are either worse or about the same than expected. Wow.)

Missouri  (A game against Florida is not what this team needs in the first start for the backup quarterback.)

Ole Miss  (The reward for playing Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M in a row is…. LSU. Ugh.)

The Not-so-good:

Tennessee  (Still about what we expected them to be.  Sort of.)

Vanderbilt (Can they take advantage of a weakened UGA team? And is it the schedule hurting them this year, or have they dropped off that much since last year?)

MSU  (They have… um… uhmm… Forget it. We’ve thought about them for fifteen whole seconds and we’re already bored and falling asleep.)

Arkansas (Have lost four in a row and now get to travel to Tuscaloosa.  If only the hurry-up no huddle offense had been outlawed before the season started. “Hey, Beavis..!”)

The Wretched:

Kentucky  (But, hey–they would be at least a seven point favorite over last year’s Kentucky team……)

Listen to the boys plumb their feelings on the Ole Miss game even more on The Wishbone Podcast, the latest episode is here.

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 The Wishbone’s Decades of Dominance: Auburn Football in the Modern Era.

Related: Wall Street Journal says Auburn football worth millions more than Alabama football.

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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