You knew it when Spirit flew. It wasn’t a statement about the season or this new era of football on the Plains. It was really just about one evening.
The raptor swooped and soared, dipped and dove, teased a flight over the lip of the stadium and then sliced through the uprights like a 49-yard field goal.
From there you could safely guess the evening was going to be OK. And, right now, such little steps are precisely what are necessary for Auburn fans.
Many of us were in various stages of disbelief when Gene Chizik was hired. Do you remember where you were when you heard the news and scratched your head? If you’re now a Chizik fan, do you remember the thing he said that convinced you that, just maybe, this could be the right man at the right time?
Both feelings, worried disbelief and cheerful optimism, were represented on campus Saturday night. Two hours before kickoff the place was steeped in an off-season of turmoil and marinating in the desperate desire for things turned around. Fans will be rewarded and suffer in that desire.
After Tiger Walk, the campus seemed serene and peaceful. The players were getting ready, the students were filing into Jordan-Hare, the tailgating continued and there seemed few troubles. There were football fears and uncertainties, to be sure, but the hope of belief can quell questions of doubt. For many, those doubts began to be removed before the coin toss, simply by studying the demeanor of the players during warm-ups.
This team might be thin, undermanned in scholarships and loaded with freshmen in key positions, but they carried with them a joy and enthusiasm that transcended the chalk lines of the field. The team stretched and rallied around Kodi Burns. After more warm-ups they rallied again. The crowd cheered Chris Todd in a sincere and, maybe, apologetic way.
Because redemption was due for a lot of people under those old lights and the stadium, though well under capacity, stirred the spirits of young men.
For a warm Saturday in September, the alumni side was very animated. Todd and Burns celebrated a score … together … suggesting that this team has actually been given the opportunity to be one. Coaches were fired up, players were having fun and the fans only booed the refs, which is as it should be.
There will be plenty of talk of X’s and O’s. We’ll all toss around longest-play and first-freshman-back-since-Bo trivia like proud mamas and poppas. We are going to spend the next few days fawning over the stats, including the most obvious one: Auburn’s 556 yards of offense. That is the most yardage since the 2005 Kentucky game. A little math will tell you that the Tigers averaged just over 7 yards per play against the Bulldogs. You have to go back to that same Kentucky game to find a better figure.
My friend Jay Coulter put this offensive performance next to last year’s Iron Bowl effort and found a lot to like in the comparison of total yards, 556 to 170, but there is a better metric.
Compare that 556 to all of the opening game numbers between 1996 and 2008, instead:
371 vs. UAB ’96
324 vs. Virginia ’97
179 vs. Virginia ’98
288 vs. App State ’99
433 vs. Wyoming ’00
385 vs. Ball State ’01
281 vs. USC ’02
164 vs. USC ’03
380 vs. LaMonroe ’04
392 vs. GaTech ’05
484 vs. Washington St ’06
291 vs. Kansas St ’07
406 vs. LaMonroe ’08
So while the offense didn’t run perfectly, and Louisiana Tech’s wasn’t the most dominating defense that Tate and McCalebb will run against, in this light 556 yards is all the more impressive and hopefully just a tease of more to come.
Because somewhere McCalebb will break one, ignite a booster and release his custom AU parachute to slow himself as he nears Loachapoka. At some point Mario Fannin will have a tangible moment demonstrating his many gifts and prove his fans correct.
But there is also little escaping the idea that the offense will someday stumble. Somewhere a blitz will be missed and Todd will have to run for his life. He will be chased down.
Meanwhile the defense will tenderize the field with the dreams of an opposing quarterback and later blow a horrible coverage. In some games they will hold and in some games the ball will take the wrong bounce.
But despite their successes and their setbacks, this team may grow to earn the fans’ approval all the same. When you recall the past few seasons, that is refreshing.
Some people closer to the team than casual fans have even suggested that this might be one of those squads that we will come to love based on their heart and effort, more so than the wins and losses.
Auburn people sometimes prefer it that way.
Naming the players on Pat Dye’s first team — because of how they carried themselves and what, in retrospect, they came to represent — is a point of pride. Remembering the players and accomplishments from the 2004 Tigers gives the same source of pride, despite their greater on-field success. People that have worn orange and blue through each of those eras can sometimes be hesitant to name favorites.
Two interesting things happened off the field in relation to the football program this week. The university hung beautiful new banners outside the stadium. Inside, the loudest cheers toward the big screen were for the contemporary players in the promotional video rather than the beautiful retro video.
It isn’t that Punt, Bama, Punt is no longer worthwhile, or that Shug Jordan is any less beloved. The crowd simply recognized the importance of the energy displayed on that same screen by contemporary players in hard-to-find clips of success from last season. One of the things last year’s team proved is that a foundation of good morale is critical to the program’s success. This year’s team seems to be building from good material.
Restoring the team to familiar success in the win column starts with restoring that energy, which was on display in the team’s first public outing. No matter what winds up in the loss column, they will be admired for their effort, if they carry the same joy and conviction throughout the 2009 campaign. You’ll see them soar into that familiar old cathedral, through a blaring band, past fluttering championship flags and in front of an adoring student body. If that heart and enthusiasm is there it will be just like Spirit sailing through the uprights — good.
Kenny Smith has been online since he went to Auburn. Now he teaches journalism and online media for a living. You can find him online at www.kennysmith.org, and on Twitter @kennysmith.