Sunday, October 07, 2007

Letdown, Shmetdown

There's not a whole lot to say about Auburn's 35-7 beatdown of Vanderbilt, or at least there wouldn't have been much to say about it if not for AU's early-season woes. Auburn handled Vandy the way to SEC's top teams are supposed to handle Vandy. The thing is, Auburn of 2007 wasn't supposed to be one of the SEC's top teams, at least not after dropping two home games to lightly-regarded opponents. ESPN shouting head Woody Paige actually equated AU to VU less than three weeks ago, and to be perfectly frank, it didn't look at the time like there was a lot in Paige's dismissal to argue about. Plenty has changed since then.

To state the exceptionally obvious, Auburn has a phenomenally better football team in early October than it did in mid-September. The Tigers' first-quarter performance against Vanderbilt demonstrated arguably the team's most flawless execution since the game against Arkansas in 2004. Missing four starters on defense? No problem--led in no small part by linebacker Chris Evans, Auburn swamped the Commodores' well-regarded passing attack and limited Vandy to 66 first half yards.

On offense, Brandon Cox showed no signs of reverting to early-season form, going 11 for 13 with a touchdown in the first half. His only blemish was a moderately-dumb interception after the game was in the bag (and long after Cox should have been pulled anyway). Brad Lester's return to the field certainly didn't hurt any, as Cox and Al Borges finally have something like a full backfield available, but for me the real story of this offense's resurrection is up front. You just can't say enough about an offensive line composed mostly of true freshman that's playing this well. I've taken a lot of shots at line coach Hugh Nall over the years, but I have to take my hat off to him right now. He's got those kids playing like they have no business playing at this stage in their careers (although if I were being mean, I'd ask why a bunch of guys he's coached for three months are so far ahead of the guys he's coached for three or four years). It's an amazing thing to see those eighteen-year-olds pushing around SEC defenses.

There's only so much you can get out of bludgeoning an outmanned opponent, but in my mind the very best thing about the Vandy game was that Auburn showed no signs of the dreaded "big win letdown" or "early kickoff flu." The entire team was sharp from the kickoff, and didn't let up until the game was long-since decided and the sides were riddled with second- and third-teamers. That's a big deal for a team as young as Auburn. A whole lot of people were speculating before the game that the Tigers would take a step backwards amidst all the adulation of the Florida win. It's a huge credit to the coaching staff that they could keep this team's heads on straight for a game against the SEC's synonym for "losers."

Where we go from here--especially in a season as insane as this one--is of course above my pay grade (and yours, too). Arkansas has been a trouble game for Auburn for about as long as the Razorbacks have been in the SEC, and the game after that one, also on the road, will be a bit challenging in its own right. I can't help thinking that all the injuries are going to catch up with Auburn eventually. Most notably, we don't know yet how badly center Jason Bosley's knee was hurt on Saturday. Losing any offensive lineman right now is bad, losing the line's center and upperclassman leader is really bad. In addition, Auburn's kick coverage is still terrible, especially on kickoffs.

But. Even for all of that, this team is, beyond all expectations (mine emphatically included) good and getting better every week. If they can keep that up, if they can continue to improve week after week, there's a whole lot Auburn can accomplish in 2007.

Who'd'a thunk it?

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