It's no fun being on the losing side of a classic. Don't believe me? Ask an LSU fan what he thinks about last year's game. In many ways it feels worse to lose by a hair's-breadth than it does to get blown out before halftime--and to be perfectly frank, I would have been a lot less surprised by that outcome than I was by Saturday night's result.
That doesn't do anything to diminish the stature of yet another amazing game and finish in this remarkable rivalry. What a series this has been over the last four seasons! After a stretch of flip-flopping blowouts from 1998 to 2003, the Auburn-LSU rivalry has produced four straight knock-down-drag-out games that were all in question until the last snap. That's an astonishing run, one made more remarkable by the high level of play on both sides.
What did I like? Montez Billings stepping up to join Rod Smith as a viable option at receiver. The tremendous improvement on third-down conversions. Brandon Cox, mocked mercilessly by LSU fans last week, playing from start to finish, passing for one short of 200 yards and two touchdowns without an interception, and once again leading his team down the field to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. Given another 90 seconds, there's little reason to think he couldn't have done it yet again. Defensively, taking away two turnovers and stuffing the Bengals for most of the first half was huge.
But, of course, it wasn't enough.
Once again, Auburn was able to take control of a road game and dominate the first half, but also once again, AU was not able to maintain that control after halftime. Whether it was due to the fan-decried "Tubershell" of conservative play-calling with a lead or simply LSU stepping up its game in the third quarter (I think it was the latter), Auburn stopped moving the ball until after the Bengals had taken the lead midway though the final period.
What I didn't like is fairly obvious: Auburn's running game lost steam and the pass defense all but fell apart in the third quarter. I didn't like the pooch kickoffs, and I really didn't understand pooch-kicking after Auburn's last score. Yes, AU's kick coverage has been awful this year and LSU has a great return game, but I don't think that validates giving them the ball on the 40 for that last drive.
Auburn has a lot to be proud of from Saturday night, but let's have no talk about "moral victories." The program is well beyond that level by now. Yes, it was heartening to see all those AU freshmen and sophomores on the road going toe-to-toe with LSU's juniors and seniors. Certainly there's optimism to be taken for the future, but also lessons for players and coaches alike about maintaining intensity and playing for a full four quarters--something Auburn still hasn't done yet against a quality opponent.
Lessons to learn, games still to be played. Auburn is now all but eliminated from SEC title contention (I'm willing to entertain the possibility that LSU could lose another game, but not two more), but the Tigers earned a fair amount of respect from Saturday's showing, and should be favored for the rest of the season. Now it'll be up to this very young team and its very few seniors to pick up the pieces and make the most of the opportunities remaining.
They've come a long way already, and I'm guessing they're done with falling short from here on out. We'll see.