Sometime between paying the scalper more than I should have for my seat and spreading my Auburn logo poncho across it in the soaked Legion Field bleachers, it hit me: the great thing about Auburn playing the Birmingham Bowl is how awful it is Auburn’s playing the Birmingham Bowl.
The weather was miserable. The season had been miserable. The offseason to that point — thanks, Boom; thanks, Bama; thanks, Charles Kelly — had been miserable*. And of course, for a massive chunk of Auburn’s fanbase, the venue assignment was maybe most miserable of all. To paraphrase the sentiment I saw expressed by no shortage of Tiger fans in the days leading up to the game: the only thing worse than playing a team still just three seasons removed from Conference USA also-ran-dom in Legion bleeping Field (in the rain!) would be losing to a team still just three seasons removed from Conference USA also-ran-dom in Legion bleeping Field (in the rain!).
But see, that’s the thing: where you find that level of misery, you also find stakes. At 6-6, no, Auburn didn’t have much to gain by winning. But at 6-6 — and seemingly on a trajectory best described as “wounded pheasant” — yes, it still had something to lose by losing. 2015 crossed all kinds of Rubicons for despair I never, ever expected the Gus Malzahn era to cross. But even after the past four months, “reward the fans who showed up in a downpour by cementing a losing season with a loss to Memphis in the godforsaken Birmingham Bowl, in that godforsaken stadium” felt like a line in the sand Auburn should really, really not step over. If, as a program, it couldn’t stand up and say enough was finally enough after a season like that one, how would it convince us it could between January and next August?
Being an idiot, I’d both (a) worn a hoodie rather than something waterproof, because I planned on wearing the poncho (b) not brought anything to sit on other than the poncho I’d planned on wearing. After feeling the hoodie get progressively damper over several poncho-seated pregame minutes, I decided to put the poncho back on, pull the “hem” as low as I could, and carefully sit on the edge of the bleachers,successfully keeping both my pants and head dry. How I botched it I still don’t know, but botch it I did — the back of my khakis were soaked approximately .27 seconds after sitting back down.
So, here came Auburn onto the field, as I sat in my overpriced seat, in my wet pants, in my moistened sweatshirt. I’d hoped for a long, long time that my first Auburn game in person since Glendale would be … happier. (If you missed it, I’ve been working Saturdays.) But despite the circumstances — because of the circumstances — I knew as Daniel Carlson lined up the kickoff I was about to watch a game whose outcome I’d care about, deeply. And it’s a bowl. They don’t always give you even that much.
Carlson thumped the ball towards the Memphis end zone. I yelled “Eagle, hey!” as loudly as I possibly could.
Auburn won, of course. This is me calling me from last September to deliver the news:
JERRY FROM JUST AFTER THE MISSISSIPPI STATE GAME: Hello?
CURRENT JERRY: Hey, it’s you. From the future. Got some good bowl-related news on the Auburn front.
JFJATLMSG: Bowl-related? As in we made one?
CJ: Yep. Played Memphis, scored–
JFJATLMSG: No. I call B.S. This is not a bowl team in the SEC.
CJ: Trust me. Survived Kentucky, and Texas A&M fell in a hole.
JFJATLMSG: Texas A&M? That just waxed the same Mississippi State team we couldn’t handle at home? I’m hanging up.
CJ: Wait! Honest, we play Memphis in Birmingham …
JFJATLMSG: … uh huh …
CJ: … and win after the D keeps Paxton Lynch’s offense out of the end zone for the entire game, even though Will Muschamp left to become South Carolina’s head coach a month back. Oh, and Jeremy Johnson made a bunch of huge plays down the stretch to ice it.
JFJATLMSG: Yeah, I can totally see that happening. Mmmhmm. Very realistic. You can’t see it, but I’m rolling my eyes, with, like, Aubrey Plaza-level eye-rolling intensity.
CJ: It’s all right, I remember rolling them that hard. I can’t blame you. Me, I mean.
JFJATLMSG: Listen, just don’t call our number again, pal. [click]
But seriously, folks, “best defensive performance since reducing freshman Brandon Harris and Co. to a simpering heap in Jordan-Hare, and possibly longer, given that Lynch represents just a bit stiffer competition than freshman Brandon Harris” was not what I was expecting. I’m not over the moon over hiring Kevin “Blades … Of …” Steele** — there are defensive coordinating wells to go to other than “veteran SEC DCs,” Gus, as Les Miles just demonstrated for you — but if Lance Thompson can oversee a performance like that, here’s a dollar that says Steele can, too.
That’s not to minimize the job performed by Thompson, who frankly could have been excused for half-assing his way through Birmingham Bowl prep under a head coach who’d made it clear he wasn’t about to offer him a promotion. He transparently did not, and deserves the kudos. But that performance wasn’t about the Columbia-bound dude on the sidelines; it was about the Auburn-residing dudes on the field. To wit:
Carlton Davis. Carl Lawson is an orcbeast who will leave entire cities strewn in his rubble-filled wake if he remains healthy next season. But if it pleases the court, your honor, we would argue before the jury that the best player on Auburn’s defense over the second half of its season — the most instrumental figure in gluing together the smashed bits of kindling left behind by Leonard Fournette that somehow formed a successful defense down the stretch — was a true freshman cornerback already closer to “lockdown” status than any Tiger corner of the post-Tuberville era***. Maybe because Davis is still that true freshman, Lynch didn’t shy away from throwing in his direction. 37 attempts and zero touchdowns later, I’d like to think he regretted that approach.
Devaroe Lawrence. Hey, Devaroe, that thing you did against Memphis, where you refused to let them block you and swallowed their interior running game whole in the second half? Do that some more in 2016, please and thank you.
Carl Lawson. If Auburn wastes Lawson’s decision to return with another five-loss season, five more consecutive five-loss seasons might be enough karmic punishment. Might be. Anyways, he destroyed Memphis, just like we knew he would.
You’ll note each of the above players — from where I sat, Auburn’s three best defenders on the day — each return in 2016. There’s going to be some hemming and hawing over the number of starters lost, and Lord knows you don’t keep an offense as well-coached and well-quarterbacked as Memphis’s in that kind of straitjacket with just a handful of guys. Blake Countess will be missed. Kris Frost will be missed. Cass McKinzy. Justin Garrett. Jonathan Jones.
But watching Davis fly around … watching Lawson do Lawson things … watching another half-dozen not-seniors put Memphis in a damn 60-minute sleeper hold … Muschamp or Muschamp, watching it felt like not just progress but sustainable progress. We’ve been hoodwinked by bowl performances before (miss you 2007 Chick-Fil-A Bowl, xoxo), and for all I know Steele’s arrival and general Malzahnian defensive malaise will cause this improvement to vanish in a puff of offseason smoke, too. But for those 60 minutes, I felt … what’s the word … been a while since I’ve used it one this season, tip of my tongue … optimistic? Optimistic! I felt optimistic about Auburn’s 2016 defense! However fleeting the sensation may be, something that rare was worth the sodden pants.
The backup quarterback is the most popular player on every football team, goes the old adage. Here’s why it’s an old adage: because as Sean White took the field to start the third quarter, there were more than a few grumbles that Jeremy Johnson — the same Jeremy Johnson that threw for a combined 3.5 yards-per-attempt against Georgia and Alabama, minus that one divinely-granted thunderbolt vs. the Tide — needed some snaps. On the one hand, it was kind of nice to hear some real-life support for a player who’d been an online punching bag for months. On the other … Johnson spent precisely one game against competition-with-a-pulse looking like a viable QB, and about six looking sadly unsalvageable.
But that one game happened to come against Texas A&M’s ever-generous rush defense, and the first half argued that if Auburn could have that much success running 10-on-11 vs. Memphis, replacing White with Johnson and running 11-on-11 could yield the same results last seen vs. the Aggies. Wasn’t like White was ripping them apart through the air anyway, right? (If the first great paradox of the Birmingham Bowl was that Auburn landed in a game so irrelevant it felt like a borderline must-win, the second was my halftime anger the Tigers’ defense had played that exquisitely. Wasting a good defensive performance with a bad offensive performance is one thing. Wasting the total shutdown of an offense that had torn Ole Miss to ribbons with a 30-minute offensive showing for which the term “puke-inducing” is too kind is another.)
In the end it took a little bit of both White and Johnson, the former (with a massive assist from Marcus Davis’s punt returns) getting Auburn into the red zone, the latter solving the first-half issues once the Tigers had gotten there. Didn’t hurt that Jovon Robinson did to Memphis what we’d expect Jovon Robinson do to Memphis, either. For once, the catcalls out of the bleachers kinda had it right.
But that optimism I mentioned regarding the defense? Nope, can’t summon it for the quarterback position. In Birmingham, as it had been everywhere else: Sean White couldn’t (or isn’t trusted to) run, Jeremy Johnson couldn’t (or isn’t trusted to) throw. Unless Gus is even more “mad doctor” than expected and the two are combined this offseason in a horrific experiment gone horribly right, neither one is going to make Auburn’s 2016 offense resemble the 2013 or 2014 editions.
To be fair, White’s performance in Fayetteville (7.9 YPA, no picks in 32 attempts) continues to whisper that another year of seasoning and better health could make him a workable solution. Unfortunately, teams with Auburn’s 2016 schedule and recent defensive track record — optimism or no optimism — need a hell of a lot better than “workable.”
But I wasn’t thinking about that watching Johnson celebrate his touchdowns like he’d won a game that was not the Birmingham Bowl, God bless that kid forever. I wasn’t thinking about that watching Auburn whoop it up on the Legion Field turf after the final whistle. I wasn’t thinking about that while snarfing my $5 postgame clearance polish sausage on the bumper of my car waiting for the BSC parking lots to empty out. I was thinking
1. concessions food following a victory is a gotdanged glorious culinary experience
2. for all the horrors visited upon this team and those who love it this season, it still refused to cross over that “lose in Legion Field in the rain to Memphis” line. It refused in the most emphatic terms possible.
And that’s something. Whether that’s a “24 hours of deserved happiness” something or a “the cornerstone of a phoenix-like recovery in 2016” something, I don’t know. Gus Malzahn’s the only one who does.
True story: on the drive home, a window in the rainclouds opened perfectly under the afternoon sun, one of those rare, half-wondrous occasions when you see actual rays of sunlight actually bathing the road ahead of you. It probably wasn’t a metaphor for anything. Probably.
*Save for on the recruiting front, where Auburn could still haul in a top-10 class both in the raw rankings and per-recruit average, because 1. Gus didn’t hire Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner for nothin’ 2. things really could always get worse.
**If you played this for the NES, you just heard in your head the same thing I’ve heard in mine every time since the hire was announced, thanks to a friend who suggested this as a nickname. Curses are no fun if they’re not shared, you know.
***This feels like exaggeration, but … Auburn’s best corner between Neiko Thorpe and Davis was Chris Davis, right? Blessed be Chris’s holy name, but says here Carlton’s already a better cover corner.
Of course, remembering what happened to what seems like half-a-dozen promising Tuberville defensive backs over the last few years of his tenure — wherever you are, D’Antoine Hood, we’ll always have 2008 — Davis will probably lose a hand to a rabid hedgehog attack this offseason.