Another week, another frustrating win for Auburn. It's funny; if you look back at Auburn's salad days in the 80's and 90's, these kinds of games were a lot more common than we seem to remember. Perspectives have changed, though, and not only because of AU's most recent success (although that certainly plays a part; there were only two games in the entire 2004 season that could be reasonably described as "close," and the Tigers whipped the nine teams they beat in '05). Most obviously, the travesty known as the BCS is playing a part. When idiocies like "style points" are suddenly a goal, even obscure individual plays get analyzed for how they'll fly with the voters. Winning by six when you're a two-touchdown-plus favorite is now a venal sin.
Less apparent is the enduring legacy of Steve Spurrier's 12-year reign of terror in Gainesville. Even though he never had a season without at least one loss, Visor Boy tended to just kill opponents, week in and week out. The standard of excellence in the SEC was raised in the 1990's: it wasn't enough to win most or all of your games--you had to win them by 30 or 40. That perception weighs heavily on Auburn and the rest of the SEC today--just look at how Florida and Tennessee are being criticized for not beating their respective biggest conference rivals, Georgia and Alabama, by a big enough margin. You didn't hear talk like that in, say, 1988, but it's common today.
At any rate, Auburn certainly didn't earn any "style points" in last Saturday's Ole Miss game. The Tigers played a solid but not great game on offense, rolling up a lot of yards but not scoring an excess of points. With the exception of a dry spell in the third quarter, the passing game looked better than it's looked all year, and the Tigers ran well against a defense that kept approximately 15 guys in the tackle box for most of the game. Unfortunately, the Auburn defense was not good, again. Missed assignments, blown coverage, and worst of all, just plain bad tackling kept a weak UM offense around for way too long. What was worse, two turnovers and an endless run of stupid penalties on both sides of the ball kept the mascot-free Rebels in business for most of the day. This one looked more like a season-opener than what it was, the ninth game of the year.
I'm as nonplussed as anybody about the up-and-down performance of the defense. With the understanding that this just isn't one of those great teams that's going to go out and whip people every week (or even most weeks), they've shown enough flashes of real-real-goodness to make one wonder, "What the hell? Why can't they do that all the time?"
Montgomery Advertiser columnist Josh Moon had an interesting take on the question last week (I should have linked it back then--the column has since rolled into the pay side of their archives). Paraphrasing, Moon speculated that AU's speed-first defensive philosophy works great in big games when the players are running on turbocharged adrenaline, but in the "small games," the same players aren't playing at full speed because they just aren't "up" enough, and the overall defense suffers as a result. I wasn't sure what to make of Moon's theory back then, but Auburn's defensive performance to date certainly gives it some credence. After hearing all summer about their bad performance in previous openers, the Tigers were on fire to stuff Washington State in the opener, and did so. Ditto for the cataclysmic LSU game, and after a now-famous pep talk, the last two quarters against Florida.
On the other hand, the defense has been lackadaisical at best against the unheralded opposition. That got them killed against Arkansas, and embarrassed more than a few times against others. Certainly Ole Miss qualifies as a "small game"--while UM fans see the word "Auburn" and instantly start ranting about Tuberville's perfidy and crowing over a dropped ball from Ben Obomanu three years back, every Auburn fan and probably most of the players see "Ole Miss" on a schedule line and think simply, "That's a win."
And what the heck, it was. But it wasn't pretty, and that has the waters roiling in Auburndom today.