For 60 divine minutes, we had an answer. (90, if you count the first half in Starkville.) The question, of course, had hung in the Auburn air since at least the 2010 Arkansas barnburner, and maybe since Chris Todd was slinging darts in the rain against West Virginia: How good could a Gus Malzahn team be if he developed a top-tier, Tuberville-caliber defense to pair with a peak-performance offense of his own?
Against Arkansas this past October, we found out. Kamryn Pettway and the offensive line ground the Hog defense to dust; Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and the rest of Kevin Steele’s defense permitted the Hog offense less than nothing. The final tally of rushing yardage was Auburn 544, Arkansas 25. The final scoreboard read Auburn 56, Arkansas 3. Not even Cam’s national champions, not even the 2013 team in its white-hottest moments registered anything like the kind of scorched-earth obliteration of a bowl-bound SEC rival the 2016 team registered against the Razorbacks.
Which is why, when I took my seat in Jordan-Hare’s north end zone bleachers two weeks later for the Vanderbilt game, I fervently believed Auburn had a puncher’s chance to defeat Alabama, win the SEC, and possibly — it wasn’t totally crazy — get another national title shot. The defense hadn’t been as superb against Ole Miss, but Chad Kelly had made Alabama look silly for stretches, too, and they’d been due for an off-game, and the rushing game had been murderous anyway, and the freshman wideouts were coming along, and Steele would be more comfortable against pro-style offenses anyway, and, and, and, and. The ceiling was that high. This team had shown us. There was no reason it couldn’t keep on showing us.
Then, I don’t remember if it was just before kickoff or just after, my phone told me Sean White wasn’t starting.
I do remember watching John Franklin III take the field and thinking Uh-oh. And at no point for the remaining two months of the season was the status of Auburn football anything other than Uh-oh. That ceiling we’d waited six, seven years for our Tigers to touch? When poor White dropped back in the Sugar Bowl and uncorked the duckiest duck that’s ever ducked, man, that ceiling felt as far away as the moon.
It’s not a scientific assessment, but I’d judge Auburn fans as a whole to be more unhappy at the close of the 2016 season than 2015’s, an assessment that if accurate doesn’t make a damn lick of logical sense. Instead of going 2-6 in the SEC and finishing last in the West, Auburn went 5-3 and finished second. Instead of going 6-6 overall and playing the Birmingham Bowl, Auburn went 8-4 and played the Sugar. Instead of finishing 35th in S&P+ and 29th in Sagarin, Auburn finished 13th and 14th, respectively. And Auburn accomplished that improvement while breaking in its third defensive coordinator in three seasons, adding an eventual playoff finalist to the nonleague schedule and suffering the aforementioned crippling injury to its starting quarterback. By any rational measure, the future looks far brighter than it did a year ago.
So why do I feel like Auburn’s glass is half-empty, even when it’s clearly half-full? Why do I empathize with the criticism avalanche aimed at Malzahn even when I disagree with the overwhelming bulk of it? Why did a season that was so much better than the one before it leave us feeling collectively just as bad, if not worse?
The simplest answer is that the one thing we could expect 2016 to provide us was clarity. Was Gus the coach that in the space of one season brought a 3-9 team to within seconds of a national championship? Or the coach who without the security blanket of a JUCO superstar under center was incapable of even breaking .500? By year’s end, we’d know … except that, whoops, it turns out Gus can be both those coaches not only in the span of a single season, but over the span of a single month. (Auburn fans, you thought you got emotional whiplash going from 2010’s triumphs to 2012’s misery? For our team’s next trick, it’ll go from the Arkansas win to the Georgia loss in all of four weeks.) If you believed coming into this season Gus was the long-term answer, you got plenty of evidence to back you up. If you believed Auburn was better off moving on, you got plenty of evidence to back you up. 2016’s high points were high enough that the team unquestionably moved forward. But the low points were low enough that — much as it hurts to admit — there’s legitimate reasons to doubt how far forward it can keep moving under Gus’s leadership, too.
They’re not all legitimate, of course. There’s things it makes sense to be angry about. There’s things it doesn’t. In the interest of unpacking exactly how we came to be collectively unsatisfied by what should have been a satisfying season, here’s my list of those things, piece-by-piece.
I AM MAD ABOUT: LOSING THE GODFORSAKEN GEORGIA GAME. The Iron Bowl is the game I most want to win. But given the unfortunate state of Crimson Tide affairs these days, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry is the game I least want to lose. And that went double entering this year’s edition, what with the Dawgs a mediocre mess that narrowly escaped Nicholls State, lost to Vandy, couldn’t even compete with Ole Miss or Florida, still ranks 58 places lower than Auburn in S&P, etc. And that went quadruple, octuple, hexadecouple when the defense went into Athens and stuffed the Dawg offense in a sack.
I can’t make myself care about how injured White may or may not have been. Can’t about what he may or may not have told the coaches. Can’t about why or why not Franklin or Johnson never saw the field. If all you need from your offense to win the Georgia game is to score more than a net of zero points, for the love of everything holy find a way to score more than a net of zero points. Backup quarterbacks. All-Wildcat offense. Triple-reverse flea flickers. Just please, please, please don’t waste that defensive performance, in this game of all games.
I believe that if Gus’s team cobbles together enough offense not to, no one really much minds losing to Alabama or Oklahoma. But waste it they did. And I’m still angrier about it than any loss since Tony Franklin hit his nadir against Vanderbilt.
I AM NOT MAD ABOUT: GUS GOING 1-3 AGAINST ALABAMA. Quit saying “Malzahn is 2-6 vs. Georgia and Alabama, and almost lost in 2013, too.” The Tide’s rank entering the four Iron Bowls Gus has coached: 1, 1, 2, and 1, and that No. 2 team won the national title. Gus won the greatest game in college football history in 2013, rolled up 630 yards in Bryant-Denny in 2014, and stayed kinda-sorta competitive in 2015 and 2016 despite starting Jeremy Johnson in both. Gus’s track record against Georgia is a major issue. His against the Tide just isn’t.
I AM NOT MAD ABOUT: “NOT BEATING ANYBODY.” Among the anti-Gus brigade, the most frequent method of dismissing Auburn’s post-Texas A&M, pre-White injury run seems to be dismissing the level of competition faced during said run. There’s a number of problems with that approach, first and foremost that ignoring a statistically dominant win over LSU — which is LSU, and which also wound up the SEC’s second- or third-best team, and a good deal better than that according to some — is the opposite of fair. Second, as has been noted already, it’s not as if 53-point home wins or 24-point road wins in SEC play have been commonplace even for the very best teams in Auburn’s recent history. Lastly, those margins-of-victory matter. No, they don’t change the win-loss record, and yes, LSU aside, the teams faced between A&M and Georgia weren’t the cream of the SEC’s less-than-bumper 2016 crop. But pretending a 56-3 win over Arkansas doesn’t tell us anything more about how good Auburn is than a 16-3 win over Arkansas hasn’t been in fashion since before Phil Steele first started tracking close-game records and yardage margins. In the early days of 2017, it’s straight-up willful ignorance.
How much credit to give Gus for a single month is (ahem) debatable, but don’t pretend that for that single month Auburn was anything less than a force.
I AM NOT MAD ABOUT: LOSING THE SUGAR BOWL WHEN SEAN WHITE BREAKS HIS ARM ON THE FIRST SERIES OF THE GAME. The moment White threw that “pass” — you know the one I’m talking about — the only question was how many points by which Oklahoma would win, and if Musberger could talk himself out of a job before the fourth quarter.
I AM MAD ABOUT: NOT HAVING A VIABLE BACKUP PLAN IN THE EVENT OF A SEAN WHITE INJURY. An incomplete list of people and/or creatures and/or objects that expressed concern over White’s durability this past offseason:
- Auburn fans
- Detroit Pistons fans
- The ghost of Harriet Tubman
- Atlas moth caterpillars
- An asteroid circling the sun at a distance of 600 million miles from Earth
“White showed enough last year that Auburn might be OK with him as their starter,” a sapient paper clip told me last August, “but health-wise, I gotta see him last the year before I believe it. JF3 had better be ready.”
I’m assuming that, being football coaches and thus a good deal more knowledgable than most sapient paper clips, Auburn’s staff shared the same concerns. But in the end, did it make any difference if they did? Their efforts to address them amounted to “sign Franklin,” a decision that proved so successful Franklin 1. remained on the bench even as White’s arm transmogrified into pudding before our eyes in Athens 2. watched Johnson get the nod in the Iron Bowl, a move even the non-sapient paper clips could tell you gave Auburn the odds of winning I have of assembling my own Volkswagen.
Maybe that’s because Franklin proved incapable of running the offense. Maybe that’s because Auburn’s staff was incapable of teaching the offense*. Either way: Gus went into this past offseason knowing an injury to White had ruined a promising end to the season. And he still failed to prevent an injury to White from ruining an even-more-promising end to this season.
*The “Gus can’t develop quarterbacks” line you’ll hear trotted out in relation to this — or to express skepticism that Jarrett Stidham will alter Auburn’s fortunes at the position — is bunk. Tulsa’s quarterbacks got better under Malzahn. Chris Todd got better. Title game weirdness aside, Cam got better. Once-and-future defensive back Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards at Alabama. White’s gotten better every healthy game he’s started, to the point he was the most efficient passer in the SEC when he got hurt. If Gus couldn’t develop Johnson or Franklin into workable starting options, the evidence-to-date suggests that’s more a Johnson or Franklin issue than a Gus one.
I AM NOT MAD ABOUT: LOSING THE CLEMSON GAME. Those guys are pretty good, it turns out. Can’t wait to play them again in Clemson next year!
I AM MAD ABOUT: THE WAY IN WHICH THE CLEMSON GAME WAS LOST. Perhaps I should have let go of my anger over Gus’s Carousel of “Progress” by now. I haven’t. Not because it’s that much of an opportunity lost, really — if Auburn wins that game*, a 9-3 mark with a win over the eventual ACC champs vaults them all the way into … the Sugar Bowl — but because the remainder of the season made trotting out Franklin and Johnson alongside White as three-headed quarterbacking equals look stupid beyond all previously accepted measures of stupid. Could the gulf between White and his backups really be that obvious on the playing field and that obscure on the practice field? Is it too much to ask that if every fan knows this is Sean White’s offense to operate by Week 3, that Auburn’s offensive braintrust know the same before Week 1?
The charitable view is that Malzahn entered this season desperate, and desperate people sometimes do dumb things they wouldn’t otherwise do. The uncharitable view is that if the carousel itself was a one-time mistake, the A&M, Georgia and Oklahoma performances proved the resulting offensive implosion more feature than bug. And ultimately, that’s what makes me maddest of all. Let’s be clear:
I AM NOT MAD ABOUT: WHERE THIS PROGRAM STANDS GOING INTO 2017. Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown are set to become the new Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis share as much All-SEC cornerback potential as they do a last name. If losing Alex Kozan and the dreadfully underrated Robert Leff will hurt, returning Austin Golson, Braden Smith and Darius James — oh, and Herb Hand — will heal. The freshman wide receiving crew won’t be the freshman wide receiving crew any more. Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson will continue to only make the other that much better. Kevin Steele knows what he’s doing, it turns out.
Then there’s Jarrett Stidham, likely the highest-ceilinged Auburn quarterback prospect since Cam, whose arrival means Gus now has — it’s worth repeating — the SEC’s highest-rated quarterback at midseason as his fallback option. Woody Barrett may not keep quiet, either. Auburn’s biggest problem for two years running has been its depth at quarterback. Its depth at quarterback now appears to be one of its biggest strengths. This alone should be cause for unalloyed optimism, even before discussing the positives from the paragraph preceding this one.
That even I can’t summon too much of that logically justified optimism speaks to how much of a toll the past two seasons have taken on our collective faith in Gus’s offensive acumen. Maybe there’s sound reasons for what we saw against Clemson, A&M, and Georgia, sound reasons to believe we won’t see the same things again at the worst possible times. But I can’t shake the feeling that the Gus of the Chizik era would have had his offensive identity on firmer footing before breaking out the Chandler Cox wildcat gadgetry, would have wizarded up something to salvage that trip to Athens, certainly would not have punted on fourth-and-damn-inches with a reeling defense in the second half of the Sugar Bowl. If the past two seasons haven’t felt anything like the Malzahn salad days in the win column, they’ve felt even less like it in terms of creativity, of chutzpah, of the damn-the-huddle-up-torpedoes mentality Gus brought with him from Tulsa. There wasn’t any shortage of spread gurus even in 2009, but as recently as 2014, all the evidence suggested Gus was cut from a unique — and uniquely talented — cloth, even among his HUNH peers. Far too often in 2016, it felt like Auburn was just another middle-of-the-road SEC team, like Gus has become Dan Mullen with better players.
There’s far worse things to be, of course. Mullen took Mississippi State to No. 1 and the Orange Bowl two seasons ago. If Gus giving up a portion of his old bravado was somehow necessary to put together the kind of defense we saw in 2016, it’s probably worth it. No one, myself included, gives a crap about how fast Auburn snaps the ball or how often it goes on fourth-and-short when it’s beating Arkansas 56-3.
I’m not mad Gus will get the chance to prove that performance is what the future of his Auburn tenure will look like. I’m happy 2016 gave us reasons to believe it will. I’m glad to enter 2017 with hope. But 2016 was supposed to take us past belief, past hope, to the point where we know — for better or worse — where Auburn stands with its head coach. I’m mad that it didn’t. And until that point is reached, it’s going to be hard to look back at this season and feel any other way.
Photo credit: @OUDailySports