Mojo is a magical, fragile thing. It's when you've pleased the god of football, and he decides to shine his glorious bounty upon your team. If you anger him, he takes it away.
Well. Quite a night, wasn't it?
In the stands at Florida Field, I think it's safe to say that the most heard phrase of the first half (well, at least the most-heard printable phrase) on both sides was, "Where did that come from?"
Here's what I thought last week, but couldn't really bring myself to write because I wasn't sure I believed it myself: Auburn got its mojo back. It didn't happen against Florida. It happened in the second quarter against New Mexico State, and it was like a switch had suddenly been flipped from "sucky" to "competent." All at once, the Tiger offense came to life, and the entire team started playing like a contender instead of a flop.
I thought that, but I didn't want to say it. I mean, what the hell, the Tigers had just lost to the West's bottom-feeder and "hey, aren't they a club team?" on consecutive weeks. Beating New Mexico State didn't prove anything.
Except that it did, to the Auburn players themselves. Not unlike when the offensive dam finally broke against Vanderbilt in 2003, or when Auburn came off a bad game against Texas to demolish Tennessee on the road in 1983, when the lights finally came on, the AU machine revved up in a big hurry, and didn't even slow down when it ran into a puffed-up pack of Gators on a steamy night in Gainesville.
You can't say enough about Brandon Cox, who has shaken off the horrors of the early '07 season to reclaim the kind of play he has always been capable of (see the numbers from his healthy 2005 campaign if you don't believe me). The only player in recent history I can think of whose fortunes have turned around so much would be Ben Leard. Cox is back in his game, managing the offense, moving the chains, making the plays he can make instead of trying to force the issue.
He's helped immensely by the young offensive linemen who've taken up the challenge the upperclassmen couldn't fulfill, and maybe even moreso by the emergence of Rod Smith as a desperately-needed go-to receiver. Finally, finally, Auburn has found a receiver who can make those clutch catches on third down. Great work, Rod, now go pass it on. The re-emergence of Auburn's passing game gave the running backs much more room to work with in the Florida game, and the combination of the two has already given Al Borges the opportunity to diversify his schemes. Getting Brad Lester back next week will only help, but hats off to Ben Tate and Mario Fannin for carrying the load in Lester's absence.
Most importantly of all, especially in a big game on the road, Auburn only had one turnover, and the Tigers were far enough ahead to outlive that mistake (although I agree with several Florida fans I heard after the game remarking that Auburn was about to put the game away when that fumble occurred). Interceptions or breakdowns in the kicking game would have been flat deadly, as they were in the two losses, but an Auburn that can control the football is a team that can win a whole lot of games, because the Auburn defense is really, really good. For the second straight year, they're way too good for Florida to handle, and that hasn't been a matter of luck.
Here's the thing about Urban Meyer's offense: it really only works against bad defenses. Florida didn't kick and scratch its way to the SEC title last year by blowing people out, they did it with a hellacious defense and a good-enough offense. The only time during '06 when UF did anything remarkable offensively against SEC competition was in the championship game, and that was in a wild, turnover-filled track meet against an Arkansas program in the middle of a full-on implosion. Against Auburn Saturday night, the new UF defense wasn't good enough, and the offense couldn't pick up the slack.
Meyer's scheme works great against slow, under-talented, hesitant defenses; that's why he was so successful in the Mountain West and the MAC. The defenses there are absolutely talent-starved, and he ate them alive. As everybody saw back in January, a slow and tentative Ohio State didn't have a prayer against Florida's speed, but unfortunately for the Sleestak Nation, Florida doesn't get to play Ohio States during the conference season. The exception this year is obviously Tennessee, but the evidence to date is that the Vols' defense is about as tough as a layer of cotton candy.
Since that (entirely enjoyable) shellacking of the overrated Buckeyes, we've heard incessantly about how Meyer would be able to run "his real offense" now that drop-back passer Chris Leak has been replaced by Tim Tebow, or "Superman" as some of the dumber mediots had been calling him prior to Saturday. Every time I heard that, I said, "Yeah, and they're going to get worse as a result." As I wrote a couple of weeks back, there's a reason why the successful SEC teams quit playing the option a generation ago. You can fancy it up by calling it "the spread," and I wouldn't try to deny that Tebow is a terrific talent and a great runner, but when you push aside the ornamentation, Meyer is selling option football, and the option has very definite limitations.
Warning bells should have been ringing after Ole Miss forced Florida into a very limited attack the previous week, and it's clear now that Auburn's Will Muschamp heard them loud and clear. On Saturday night, it was very obvious that Meyer still doesn’t have an answer for quality SEC defenses. The Gator attack was limited to Tebow running and Percy Harvin catching, and that was it. With no credible running backs to draw away pressure from Tebow, Auburn was able to completely stifle the vaunted "Urban Warfare" in the first half.
Quite frankly, Meyer's game plan was stupid. If you're going to attack this Auburn team, you do it through the air, not on the ground. Harvin is an outstanding receiver, and if I had a closet full of that tacky Florida neon blue, I'd be up in arms at how Meyer kept running Tebow over and over again, especially in the first half. Stubbornly sticking to an option attack--especially when it was obvious that Tebow himself was the only real option--took Florida out of the game offensively for the first half-hour, and gave Auburn all the time and breathing room the awakening Tigers needed. By the time a thin AU defense started to wear down in the second half, it was too little, too late.
I think everything that needs to be said about Meyer's bush-league tactics at the end of the game has already been out there. The whispered time out call was silly and stupid, but it was all the Urban Myth had left. After watching Wes Byrum play over the first three games, there was no doubt in my mind that he would hit the second attempt, and as it happened, the actual game winner was a better kick than the one that didn't count.
Speaking of head coaches, is there any serious argument now as to the identity of the best big-game coach in college football today? Tommy Tuberville is now 15-10 against teams in the AP top ten, including winning nine of the last 10, and an astonishing 5-0 against teams in the top five. Gripe if you want about his tendency to be an average coach in average games (I'm sure I will myself--and let's not forget the all-important second half of Hank Hill's football wisdom, above), but there's nobody you'd rather have on the sidelines for the monster games than Tuberville. There just isn't anybody out there who's better at getting the most from his team when the spotlight is brightest.
Around the middle of Saturday afternoon, I was watching various games with friends from Gainesville. We'd seen most of USF's win over West Virginia the night before, and when Mississippi State took a (brief, as it happened) second-half lead over South Carolina and Kansas State was whipping Texas in Austin, I remarked to a friend who teaches at UF that people were going to have to re-evaluate Auburn after all these games.
"People will re-evaluate Auburn if they beat Florida," he said flatly, and although he didn't expect it to happen (heck, neither did I), he was right. It's a new season now.