I’m having a hard, hard time wrapping my head around this Auburn football season.
Oct. 3–barely more than three weeks ago–Auburn went on the road and in front of nearly 103,000 Tennessee fans in Knoxville, gashed Monte Kiffin’s vaunted defense to the tune of 459 total yards and nearly 5 yards per rushing attempt, didn’t allow a sack, led 23-6 early in the fourth quarter, and came away with a 26-22 road victory that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
Last Saturday night, Oct. 24, Auburn went on the road to Baton Rouge to face LSU. The Auburn offense gained just 193 total yards and barely more than 40 in the first half, allowed four sacks, rushed for less than 3 yards a carry, and threw for less than 3.5 a passing attempt with their starting quarterback. Auburn trailed 24-0 early in the third quarter and lost 31-10 in a humiliating defeat that was never, ever in doubt.
Particularly looking at what Tennessee has accomplished since Oct. 3, the team that beat them that night was very, very good. The team that lost to LSU Saturday, however, was not very good at all.
Both of those teams, however, were Auburn. Don’t call them Jekyll-and-Hyde, though; that would imply we don’t know which Auburn we’d be getting from week-to-week. Given that we’re now three weeks deep into the second, depressing edition of Auburn 2009, we know now what we’ll be getting. We’ll be getting something not very pretty. We’ll be getting something that’s very likely to lose to Teams That Are Not Furman and will do so in teeth-gnashingly frustrating fashion. So it goes.
It’s not Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a TV casting change, where an actor or actress is outright replaced. The character’s written the same way, the show’s going on ahead like nothing’s changed, but watching it’s just not the same. The show becomes weird, off-putting, unenjoyable. Not Jekyll-and-Hyde, no. Original Auburn, Replacement Auburn.
The switch between the Original and Replacement Auburns has made putting together a coherent, rational reaction to this 2009 season all but impossible. Expectations–even reasonable ones–for Auburn have yo-yoed back and forth so often I don’t whether Auburn’s surpassing them or failing them any more. Consider:
1. The 2008 season ends in 36-0 misery, Chizik is hired. Expectation: a second 5-7 disaster or worse.
2. Chizik hires Dr. Gustav and the rest of the Auburn staff, performs immensely successful salvage job on 2009 recruiting class . Expectation: Big steps forward, 7-5, maybe better.
3. Fall arrives. Todd is named starter after neither Burns nor Caudle take the reins in spring, injuries slam defense, departures gut depth chart. Expectation: Smaller steps forward, maybe 7-5, maybe worse.
4. The season starts. Todd is a revelation. The offense is a terror. The defense leaks but makes more than enough big plays to get the job done. Expectation: 8, 9 wins, New Year’s Day, maybe something even better.
By the standards set by Original Auburn, yeah, this season is going to wrap up as a failure. 7 wins and the Music City Bowl seem like the absolute ceiling these days, with 6-6 the most likely outcome. For the team we watched Oct. 3, finishing the season on a 1-6 slide where the one victory comes over I-AA Furman and games against teams like defensively-challenged Arkansas and offensively-challenged LSU aren’t even competitive doesn’t seem remotely acceptable.
But by the standards of 2008 or the depth-destroying days of fall camp, even 6-6 isn’t so bad. Honestly. Flash back to the Sunday morning after the 2008 Iron Bowl; suddenly, present You appears to tell past You the following pieces of information:
— Chris Todd has re-emerged as the starter, but is playing every bit as poorly–if not even worse–than in 2008
— The offensive line has not solved their penalty problems
— Montez Billings is gone and there’s no immediate help in the freshman class, leaving Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery as the only viable receiving “threats”
— Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens wind up the only returning members of the 2008 two-deep at linebacker, with Pybus out, no help from the incoming freshmen, and Adam Herring spending much of the year as the starting weakside linebacker.
— Sen’Derrick Marks leaves, forcing Auburn to replace both interior DTs
— Mike McNeil misses the season due to injury and is replaced by a true freshman. Aairon Savage also misses the year and by midseason Auburn has three scholarship cornerbacks on the roster.
What record do you project for Auburn with that information? 4-8? 3-9?
So: this 2009 season is a horrible disappointment and should be greeted with anger and mourning for what has been lost. This 2009 season is an impressive accomplishment given the talent on hand that should be greeted with applause and hope for the future. Both of those statements are equally true. This 2009 season is both, at the same time.
What the paradox of Auburn 2009 ultimately means is that the story of this season isn’t going to be finished until 2010. If Auburn takes dramatic steps forward next year and re-enters the upper echelon of the SEC, then Original Auburn will be the real 2009 Auburn, the true example of Gene Chizik and his staff’s capabilities before the lack of bodies and playmakers caught up to them. If Auburn sputters again, Replacement Auburn will be 2009’s genuine article, the accurate representation of the staff’s failures juxtaposed with the Chizik era’s fraudulent, smoke-and-mirrors debut.
The year between now and the 2010 football season is a long, long time to wait to understand the Auburn we’re seeing right now, and it doesn’t do anything to dull the pain of watching a team that looked so promising three weeks ago look so unable to get out of its own way.
But the way I see it, we don’t have any choice. This is the cost of coaching change, of program upheaval, of our team’s season of paradox. We don’t know where we’re headed. We will all just have to be patient.
But if you don’t want “I don’t know” and press me to pick a direction–if you ask me to take a close look at the Original and Replacement Auburns, and decide which is the more honest look at Auburn’s future–I have to go back to something Dr. Jolley wrote last week:
Auburn fans need not to ask, What have you done for me lately? But rather, What have you shown me is possible?
We always knew Gene Chizik could lose to LSU with Chris Todd, a bevy of ineffective receivers, and a paper-thin defense. What we didn’t know was that he could beat a good Tennessee team with those same ingredients. It won’t do Auburn any good against Ole Miss this week, but it’s something.
Other assorted observations
— Welcome, Toro. Stay a while. Please. Because I don’t think Stevens and Bynes have a whole lot left in the tank. (Fun fact: Auburn’s defense has been on the field for the eighth-most plays in the country. Too late for 2010, I know, but in the future, could we adopt the ‘Bama strategy of taking a true bye week midyear and saving the I-AA tomato can for the week before the Iron Bowl if we’re that committed to the extra preparation?)
— Yes, I would like to see Neil Caudle at quarterback. Not because I expect him to set the world on fire, but 1. he really can’t be worse, I don’t think 2. because he can move so much better, the zone read and the option become legitimate threats again. I think the world of Todd’s gumption, his commitment to the program, the respect he’s continued to draw from his teammates, all of that. But this is three weeks straight he’s been the weakest link on an offense that clearly is not performing at the level necessary to win SEC football games, and standing pat now brings to mind ye olde definition re: insanity, i.e. doing the same thing, expecting different results, etc.
Obviously, though, the coaching staff ain’t asking me.
— The offense misses a lot of things, but there’s not much question one of things it misses is McCalebb’s burst. I’d honestly rather see him sit the next two weeks and come back for Georgia. The player we saw against Miss. St., Tennessee, etc. isn’t there right now.
— Man, I’ve been touting the corners and the secondary all year long, but aside from the flashes of pressure that was just a brutal display of pass defense Saturday. So much for the idea that if Auburn kept Charles Scott in check, they’d do all right, right?
— There’s normally a little more to these knee-jerk posts, but I’m done thinking about that game. Bleccch.