We should talk about our expectations for this Auburn football season. We should also talk about our desires for this Auburn football season. We should recognize those aren’t the same thing.
Or at least, they won’t be for many of us. Some of you of the “second place is the first loser” persuasion who feel inclined to fire Gus Malzahn at season’s end for anything less than an SEC Championship may be reading; you’re excused. Godspeed.
For those of you still here: have we encountered a stranger season in which to set those aforementioned expectations? Auburn has slayed two “top-20 opponent away from Jordan-Hare” dragons already, disposed of Kent State will all due ease, and despite some offensive hiccups covered a 17-point spread against a dangerous otherwise-undefeated American team. Auburn’s No. 10 according to SP+, 9th per Sagarin.
I can’t think of any other year in which we could feed that set of Week 4 data into our collective record-guessing matrix and come up with “hopefully 9-3, possibly 8-4.” But here we are: depending on how the Tigers fare against Mississippi State — hardly a pushover themselves! — Auburn will likely be an underdog four times in its final eight games.
Pulling off one of those four upsets seems likely enough; the Gators are still the same outfit that wheezed past Miami and Kentucky, and the Dawgs made hard work (at home) of a Notre Dame team that’s a notch below the Tigers both athletically (and in the computer rankings). But two? When one of the those four chances comes in Baton Rouge? When one comes against the co-national title favorites? The most likely outcome from here seems a split against the Cocktail Partiers, and 9-3.
Given the schedule, given the freshman at quarterback, and given that nothing in that “3” is too embarrassing, that’s a good year. Not great, no. But good. A satisfactory year. A year that meets reasonable expectations.
But of course that’s not the year we want. The year we want starts at 13-0 and goes from there. What we want is 2010. Failing that, 2013, and failing that, 2017. Until we know we can’t have those things, it’s good to want them. (Just as long as we also know not to throw our toys out of the crib when there’s good reasons we didn’t get them.)
A handful of well-meaning Twitter folks thought my Oregon reaction and thoughts on the Tulane performance could have been more positive, but those responses weren’t about meeting expectations. They were about what I want, about whether this Auburn team can do things like snap the Red Stick streak or whip the dawg crap out of ’em or even reverse a Rammer Jammer. Since the moment Auburn came back against the Ducks, the question hasn’t been whether the Tigers could beat the Mississippi schools and get to 8 wins. The question is whether they could do more. Letting Oregon pressure your freshman quarterback every other play, averaging under 5 yards a play against Tulane, and generally failing to develop a go-to offensive weapon argued they could not.
But the defense always argued they could. And then the offensive line paved Kent State not the way we’d expect it to, but the way we’d want it to. And then, this:
The chances this team can repeat the accomplishments of 2010 or 2013 are slimmer than slimmerson. (Though it’s worth remembering that almost nobody believed those teams’ accomplishments were possible after four games, either.) But that drive — physical, methodical, precise, crowd-squelching, inevitable — would look just as appropriate on the mantle of Cam Newton’s or Nick Marshall’s teams as it will for Bo Nix’s. Wanogho-Harrell-Kim-Horton-Driscoll hasn’t yet earned comparisons to the lines of Ziemba, Isom, Pugh, Robinson or Dismukes, but for 12 fourth-quarter plays in College Station, we could imagine squinting hard enough at season’s end to offer them anyway.
The dramatic thing to say would be “that drive changed everything.” It didn’t. Auburn still isn’t likely to win 10 games, or beat LSU, or win a West title. But that drive stands as the moment this season those things have felt most possible, the moment that told us maybe, just maybe, we can get what we want. Look up: Auburn’s ceiling is rising above us.
Other scattered thoughts:
— Most of the “Auburn’s passing game will get better as the season progresses” assumption rests on Nix getting the reps, but it’s also worth remembering that all four of Auburn’s best receiving targets — Williams, Schwartz, Hastings are Stove — are in various stages of injury recovery. Watching Schwartz hit ludicrous speed, Williams do Williams things, and Hastings leave yet another safety in his hilarious wake all in the same game was a nice reminder that there’s a lot of boats still to be lifted in the rising tide of Auburn’s passing unit.
— Because Brown/Davidson/Coe/Bryant wasn’t enough for opponents to worry about, your current Auburn team sack leader is … Tyrone Truesdell, naturally.
— Hey, remember when Auburn put on scuba fins and oversized clown gloves every time it entered the red zone against Oregon? Saturday: three trips inside the 20, three touchdowns. It won them the game.
Personally, I’d up the healthy dose of Joey Gatewood we saw — one that would have been even healthier if not for apparent Matthew Hill-related issues — up to the maximum limit recommended by the FDA. But to paraphrase a song of my childhood, I don’t care how you get there, Auburn. Just get there, if you can.
Screencap via @AuburnFootball