Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Got A Deal On Detailing?

Over at the Joe Cribbs Car Wash, Jerry takes issue with the "unflavored yogurt" portion of my last post. I should hasten to note right up front that the JCCW is easily my favorite Auburn fan blog, and if not for Phillip Marshall, it'd be my favorite Auburn blog, period.

That understood, I stand by my opinion. Sure, Auburn beat the tar out of New Mexico State offensively in the second half, but, um... they're New Mexico State. Even this year's playmaker-challenged Tiger offense had more than enough talent to wear out and bury a defense that weak, and they could easily afford to keep pounding the ball until the Aggies gave out. Against a better opponent, well, Jerry himself says it well:
Play-action was pretty much as creative as Borges got on first down, and I think he will have to do more to keep the likes of, well, hmm, let me strain to come up with an example, Florida on their toes. And running a full 66 percent of the time on 1st-and-10 is probably still a little high, even for a team that was ahead the entire second half.

Just so.

Look, my complaint isn't really about first-down play calling (although I'm not crazy about it; as I said earlier, if you can stop Auburn short on first down, you're quite literally way ahead of the game), and certainly not about the NMSU game. It's about the entire offensive philosophy that we've seen pretty much since the second game of 2006. Last year that was usually good enough, as the offense could hold on to the ball and move the chains long enough to win. Even setting aside all the turnovers, this year AU has way too many three-and-outs to get away with that kind of football. It ain't ball control when you rarely have the ball--you can look it up.

Even if the offense weren't struggling, Auburn has too many other issues to play "we'll beat everybody 13-10." Crucial breakdowns in the return game have made things even worse; if the Tigers just don't give up a 50-yard return against USF or get buried deep late in the the fourth quarter against MSU, they're most likely 4-0 right now. A really, really ugly 4-0, but still.

All that understood, the idea that this 2007 team can turn things around just by playing unflavored yogurt on offense and relying on the defense to keep things close is simply nuts. That defense is staying on the field way too long, and the kick coverage still stinks. If I can see that Auburn's running an extremely limited playbook that doesn't fool anybody, you can bet the house that an actual defensive coordinator can, too. And that's what I've seen these last four games.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Baby Love

It'd be a safe bet that the most commonly-voiced phrase in Auburn Saturday night was "baby steps." I heard it all over the stands and I've seen it written numerous times since the New Mexico State game, and why not? After a two-game rolling debacle, the Tigers were clearly starting over, and they were doing so with a bunch of babies. No less than four true freshmen started on offense against NMSU, and that's not even counting the kickers, much less all those redshirt freshmen and sophomores elsewhere in the two-deep.

And hey, they won. By a mile.

Nobody should try to take too much away from this game. New Mexico State is not good. In the first half, Auburn's secondary play was terrible, and AU didn't manage a true first down for the entire first quarter. That understood, a win is a win, and anybody who's seen the first four games of this season has to admit that the Tigers made some real progress on Saturday night. I frankly didn't believe that Auburn could score 55 points against air; that's at least one conviction I'm happy to be shed of.

I'll be the first to admit that I can't figure out what the Auburn staff is trying to do offensively. I liked what Kody Burns did against Mississippi State, but I don't understand why you call six straight running plays for a pair of three-and-outs to start the game. Did those plays help to set up Burns' long touchdown throw to Rod Smith on the third possession? Sure, probably. But they also failed to move the chains, and contributed to keeping the defense on the field for most of the first half (ironically, the one-play touchdown drive probably hurt the defense as much as it helped, thanks to putting them right back out after a miniscule break). By halftime, an AU defense that had been chasing around Hal Mumme's receivers all night was winded, and it showed. When NMSU turned their own one-play touchdown drive to take a 20-14 lead, it looked for all the world like another upset was teed up and ready to go.

And then, of course, Brandon Cox stepped in and turned the game around. How's that for a sentence you didn't think you'd read again?

For an instant, it looked like more of the depressing same. Cox bobbled his first snap, the defense recovered, and the next time you blinked, Auburn was down by another touchdown. But after that, Cox played for the most part like the "old Brandon," or more appropriately, like he'd been expected to play this season. He made good checks, hit the right throws, got rid of the ball when he was in trouble, and just generally had a very nice game, one that would have been even better if Robert Dunn could catch footballs that hit him in the hands. It wasn't a perfect effort; there were still too many passes going to receivers in multiple coverage, but let's face it: Auburn's receivers are always in heavy coverage this year.

The running game got better as the game went on, no doubt partly due to playing a not-great defensive team, but also thanks to all those kids on the offensive front getting more comfortable carrying the load. It's taking a while, but developing a mix between Tate's power and Mario Fannin's speed seems to be coming along. That and getting more of a vertical passing game (see again the Burns touchdown and what should have been another one from Cox to Dunn) should help get all those defenders out of the tackle box as the season goes on. Most important of all, Auburn didn't turn the ball over again after Cox's fumble. If they can keep that up, things are almost automatically going to get better. Again, baby steps.


While I can understand difficulties due to personnel, I do not understand what's going on with Auburn's offense in terms of game planning and play calling.

Thus far the offense hasn't even been vanilla, it's more like unflavored yogurt. It's not just ineffectual a lot of the time, it's also predictable and even boring to watch. There's no misdirection, no deception, not even a hint of unpredictability. If I see Ben Tate run off tackle for a yard on first down again I think I'm going to scream (okay, I confess: it already makes me scream). It reminds me of the worst days of the Nallsminger disaster, and the sheer un-Borges-ness of Auburn's tactics makes me wonder just who is making the important decisions this year. If the answer is "Borges," then Al needs to get his mojo back. If the answer is "somebody else," that somebody needs to go tend to his knitting, because what he's doing so far ain't working, and it ain't going to work. Don't quote me numbers from Saturday, either; like I said at the outset, NMSU is not only not good, they're worse than 11 of 12 teams on the schedule.

Defensively, Auburn is so beat up and thin right now it's hard to make a judgment. The pass rush and coverage was just awful in the first half, as previously noted. NMSU exploited Auburn's inexperience at (healthy) linebacker in particular, getting all kinds of completions in the short and medium field. Things got markedly better after halftime. The Aggies were stifled for the rest of the game, and better yet, the defense finally starting forcing turnovers again. Jon Wilhite's second interception was a better catch than just about any of AU's receivers have managed this year. Baby steps, baby steps, even for a senior.

I'm not ready to make any predictions or grand statements on the state of the team today, not after one win, even an impressive win, over a weak sister. There's still too far to go, and too many issues still remaining, but hey, winning is better. Regardless of the opponent, Auburn needed a win, and needed a "good" win even more. The very best thing that came out of Saturday was a clear feeling of confidence on the field. It started flowing after Cox's touchdown to take the lead for good, and by the fourth quarter, for the first time in weeks, you could see an Auburn team that not only knew what it was doing, it knew again how to win.

Confidence is a funny thing in football. Auburn was not a confident team in 2004 until Jason Campbell connected with Courtney Taylor in the waning seconds against LSU. After that moment, the Tigers walked into every contest confident of their abilities, and scarcely had anything like a close game for the remainder of the season. Conversely, when the early confidence Stan White and Auburn earned by coming back against Tennessee and Florida State in 1990 was shattered on one awful night in Gainesville, it took over two years for White and his team to recover.

I don't want to suggest that Auburn is walking into a similar situation this week, but let's be honest here: beating Florida this Saturday would classify as not just unlikely, but really, really exceptionally unlikely. The next game will be a test not just of how well (or badly) this team can play football, but also how well (or badly) they can manage their emotions in the aftermath, no matter the outcome.

It's a tall order. Baby steps against NMSU were welcome, but these babies still have a very long way to go.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Let's face it, nobody wants to get Croomed.
--FTB, August 8, 2007

While there's very little "good" that can be taken out of losing to what 24 hours ago was considered the SEC's worst team, Auburn fans now have at least the comfort of certainty: this isn't going to be a good year. No need to fret over the conference standings, much less the BCS. While this is hardly an ideal point of reference, it does have a clarifying effect. Now we can concentrate on simple survival.

I could go into another dissection of the game itself, but what's the point? Everyone who watched knows what happened, and why. You're not going to beat much of anybody when you commit five turnovers, especially when three of them go for points. You're not going to win games when your defense stays on the field for two-thirds of the first half. Not even South Florida, Not even Mississippi State.

I'm quite happy to give State credit for the win. For all the abuse he's received (much of it deserved), Sylvester Croom has succeeded in at least one crucial respect: he's taught his team not to give up. The first two or three squads he coached would have packed it in after getting crushed in the opener, but Croom found a way to get his guys ready to play again, and they deserved the win on Saturday. They played tough, they were well-prepared, and big Anthony Dixon is a heck of a good running back. The draw play on third-and-long late in State's game-winning drive was as perfect a play call as you're ever going to see.

As for Auburn... look, a blind man could see on Saturday that this is a team with a lousy offense. There are sparks here and there, but every time over the last two games I thought the ship was righting itself, somebody pointed a cannon at the deck and opened fire. Did anybody really think that last drive was going to be successful?

Before talking about the quarterbacks, let's talk about the guys they're throwing to. There's no point in being anything other than blunt here: Auburn has a bunch of receivers who can't get open, and when they do get open, they can't catch balls that hit them in the hands. That goes double for the tight ends, who've all gone backwards since they arrived on campus. Receivers coach Greg Knox and tight ends coach Steve Ensminger have collectively done a lousy job of developing these players. Period, dot. I'm still trying to figure out what Ensminger's actual job is. 2003 proved he isn't a competent play-caller or quarterback coach. Since being demoted he's managed to take at least one guy who had great hands as a true freshman (Tommy Trott) and turn him into a one-man incompletion machine.

Tommy Tuberville and his staff do deserve some credit for doing something about the painfully-obvious fact that Brandon Cox is having a terrible senior year, and particularly over the last two games is doing more harm than good. I don't like writing that, and I have no doubt the staff didn't like realizing it, but at least they did accept the rotten reality and moved to get another signal-caller ready last week. They ignored my advice in doing so (a decidedly low hurdle, I hasten to add) and ramped up true freshman Kodi Burns, who all things considered played well in his first outing as a Tiger. Yes, Burns turned the ball over twice, the second time letting State back in the game, but those are the breaks when you play a true freshman.

That said, while Burns brought a tangible spark to the offense, a spark isn't enough. Sure, it's fun to watch Burns and the running backs bolt through option plays, but there's a reason why no successful SEC team has run the option in nearly a quarter-century: it doesn't win games any more. Al Borges and Auburn have got to have more than that up their sleeves if there's to be any hope of salvaging something out of this season.

I'd like to sit here and tell you how and why 2007 can be turned around into something other than a twelve-week debacle, but finding bright spots is pretty tough right now. The worst negative trademark of Tuberville staffs is complacency, and I suspect we're seeing the results of yet another round right now. With the exception of the last-minute addition of a limited "Burns Offense," we haven't seen any indications that the staff knows how to correct its offensive woes. It shouldn't have taken three games (certainly not against these three opponents) for the staff to understand that they have an immovable object on that side of the ball. What's worse, Auburn is plagued with injuries, at least suggesting that the conditioning program may have fallen off.

Where we go from here is anybody's guess. Right now only the Tennessee Tech game should be considered a probable win. I've already seen people calling for Tuberville's head, but even given the crash landing the team suffered on Saturday, I have to suggest that these people get a life--and I say that as one of the loudest voices who said he needed to go in 2003. Tuberville made his point in the aftermath of that year, and at the very least he's earned the right to survive one bad season, even if that forbearance is not due to all of his assistants.

Now we're at rock bottom, and now's when coaching can make a difference. Now we'll see how good they really are.

Or not.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Going South

Ask a dozen Auburn fans what they think about Brandon Cox and you'll get a dozen different answers--or at least you would have prior to Saturday night. Those who remember Cox's sophomore year will tell you that he's a accurate passer who, given protection, can rip a defense to shreds. And they're right. The defenses of Georgia, Alabama and LSU were all abused by a Cox-led offense that season.

Others, who recall last year, will tell you that despite Cox's limited physical skills compared to some other quarterbacks, he's a warrior on the field who will soldier on despite injuries that would bench most players. And they're right. No player at any position had any business going on the field in the condition Cox played in for most of 2006, but he did it anyhow, and earned eleven wins along the way.

Still more will say that Cox can't throw a consistent deep ball, that he's too immobile in the pocket, and that he's making inexplicable throws for a guy who's effectively a sixth-year senior. They'll tell you--particularly after last Saturday--that he's gone backwards in 2007, and that his play is hurting the team.

And unfortunately, they're right, too.

Nothing hurts worse than losing one you had in the palm of your hand. After a shaky start, Auburn took control of the South Florida game in the second quarter, and to all eyes was cruising to a bumpy but still acceptable win until about 11PM, when the wheels started to come off. While an absolutely stunning defensive effort kept South Florida from scoring a single point off of Auburn's five turnovers, those turnovers also prevented the Tigers from adding the extra scores that likely would have put the game away. Two of those turnovers were fumbles by Mario Fannin, a redshirt freshman seeing his first serious minutes of college play. Nobody likes to see a freshman turn the ball over, but nobody should be particularly surprised by it, either.

The other side of that coin, of course, is that nobody expects a senior quarterback to fumble on a sneak and throw two bad interceptions in the same game. What's worse, that pick total could easily have risen much higher.

I don't think all of Auburn's problems can be or should be deposited on Brandon Cox's doorstep. Even given all the angst over Cox's poor play, he'd have led AU to another late victory if the kick return game hadn't completely broken down after the Tigers' final go-ahead field goal. Auburn was spoiled over the last few years in having Matt Clark's kickoffs fly out the back of the end zone on virtually every kick. The Tigers' special team coverage got slack, and the combination of that plus the '07 rule change and losing Clark all caught up with AU at the worst possible time as Saturday turned to Sunday.

It's also fair to note that Cox looked a whole lot better when he was being protected by Ben Grubbs and Marcus McNeil, and throwing to Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor and Anthony Mix, to say nothing of handing off to Kenny Irons. It's painfully obvious that Auburn just didn't do a good job of recruiting and/or developing the players who've replaced all those famous names. Two games in and not only does AU still lack even one go-to receiver, there aren't any obvious candidates for the job making their presence known. A deep tight end corps was supposed to help support the wideouts, but one third of that corps seems to have forgotten how to catch.

Things are somewhat better on the running back front, where Fannin's speed and tough running gave Auburn a great spark in the second quarter; getting Tristan Davis back in the next week or two will also help, but there's no getting around that fact that this is a largely moribund offense. Put Auburn in second and long and you are most likely going to get the ball back sometime within the next three snaps. All those great players helped make Al Borges call some brilliant games for a couple of years, but now it's time for Borges to really earn his money. Thus far in 2007, we haven't seen a lot of the creativity and unpredictability that we came to expect from a Borges offense. If his offensive plan is too complicated (or too conservative) for the current players, then the plan has to change. The players won't.

It would be grossly unfair to stop here without recognizing the astonishing play of the Auburn defense late Saturday night. As seems to be the norm for a Will Muschamp squad, they gave up a score on the opening drive, but then just played lights-out for the duration. I don't think I've ever seen or even heard of a quality offensive team failing to score on that many trips inside an opponent's red zone. I've certainly never heard of five turnovers resulting in zero points. Anybody who can fault the defense for giving up the last score in overtime was not paying attention; those guys had been on the field doing yeoman's work for virtually the entire second half. Anything less and there never would have been an overtime, because Auburn would have been losing by three or four scores. You also can't say enough about true freshman placekicker Wes Byrum, who came through on one long, high-pressure field goal after another in a bravura performance.

The greatest shame and frustration of the USF game is that those efforts went for naught.

Auburn can't go out and get new players two games into the season. Despite all his problems, it's likely that Cox is the only real option at quarterback. If Blake Field could outplay Cox, he'd be playing by now. Anybody who thinks the Tigers should rip the redshirt off of a true freshman and throw him in at quarterback is frankly nuts, and the suggesting of putting Neal Caudle in at this point is only slightly less nuts. New receivers are in the pipeline, but it's going to be a while before the very young guys are ready. Auburn doesn't have the luxury of that extra time.

I suspect there isn't any amount of coaching that can make this a great offense, but it needs to become at least a respectable one in a very big hurry. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall likes to brag to recruits that he's the highest-paid position coach in the SEC. Al Borges is also one of the highest-paid assistants in the country. It's time for the two of them, to say nothing of their boss, who himself is a rather high earner, to get it together.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Gameday That Doesn't Suck

I've stopped watching "ESPN Gameday" entirely this season. The show was always on the light-and-fluffy side of football analysis, and over the last three or four years it's just devolved into a morass of schtick, host posturing, vapid hype for teams with ABC contracts and outright homerism from the likes of Kirk Herbstreet and Lou Holtz.

Fortunately for all of us, there remains a department of the Worldwide Leader that hasn't surrendered to the crapitalization of college football on television, probably because that department isn't on television. I refer here and once again offer an unabashed plug to ESPN's College Football Insider podcasts, which are available for free at ESPN's website and from iTunes. The podcasts, hosted by the likes of Ivan Maisel and Todd McShay, and featuring regular guests like Beano Cook and Jim Donnan, are everything Gameday should be but isn't: Funny, detailed, entertaining, and chock-full of actual meaty information about the games of the week past and the week to come.

I've gotten into the habit of pushing an entire week's worth onto my iPod for driving around town, or while I'm on the road going to games on Saturday. I just finished listening to this week's Maisel-Cook show while mowing the backyard this morning, and it was better than anything Fowler, Herbstreet, or Corso have managed to bleat out, well, ever.

So turn off the tube, fire up your Pod of choice, and listen in. Trust me, it's much better than waiting around to see which mascot head a failed loser coach is going to put on.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Memo To ESPN

Since I was at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night (very late into Saturday night, as it happened, but still not as late as the lovely 9PM Eastern kickoff awaiting fans for the next game), I didn't see any of ESPN's game coverage until sometime Sunday. On the plus side, somebody at the Worldwide Leader managed to reverse their rectal/cranium disorder for one evening and assigned Ron Franklin, the best play-by-play man in the business right now to cover the game. Well done, but you're still idiots for condemning Franklin to the purgatory of mid-afternoon Big 12 games for the rest of the year.

That said, I was among the fortunate 87,000 or so fans who were not subjected to ESPN breaking away from the Auburn-Kansas State game midway through the third quarter. The network in its brilliance decided to switch over to a meaningless Major League Boredom game in Boston in order to cover the ultimate in dull sporting events, a no-hitter.

Hey, all you nimrods up in Bristol, here's a news flash: The millions of people who were tuned in to see an SEC vs. Big 12 football game Did Not Care What Happened In Pro Baseball That Night. They were there to watch college football, and they damn sure weren't adding to your ratings to see a bunch of spoiled, steroid-addled millionaires fail to hit a little white ball. ESPN has at least four networks on the air, and two of them were probably showing idiotic poker game reruns or "Stroker Ace."

So the next time you feel the urge to cut into an important college football game in order to broadcast an MLB snooze-a-thon, why not just put an alert on the screen, and broadcast the baseball garbage on ESPN Classic or ESPN News? Because I guarantee you, SEC football fans did not care what the hell was happening on Boston. If we wanted to be put to sleep by a lame "sport" like pro baseball, we'd sell out Braves games instead of SEC stadia (and in case you haven't been paying attention, we don't sell out Braves games, even for the playoffs).

Don't you EVER do that again.

Glory, Glory To Old Appy

While driving home from Auburn in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I was tuned in to ESPN Radio's overnight talk show. One of the participants proceeded to rail on Appalacian State radio announcers David Jackson and Steve Brown for their reactions to the Mountaineers' monumental upset of Michigan on Saturday. In case you're one of the three people who haven't heard Jackson and Brown's call of the final blocked kick, just click below:

That is what college football is all about.

That is a moment of unrivaled glory and heart-bursting elation the likes of which few of us will ever experience. To go into that place and do what tough little Appy did is not just unprecedented and cause for headlines; it's an affirmation of why we all follow this crazy game in the first place.

If you can listen to that call and not be absolutely transported by the uninhibited, once-in-a-lifetime joy of those thirty seconds, you are either an exceptionally bitter Michigan fan or a damn fool. It is the sound of college football at its very finest. It is the sound of the human spirit living in a rare and wonderful moment, and it is a sound not one of us will ever forget.

To you, the unidentified ESPN Radio snob, I can only say: get a life. Or better yet, a soul.

Oh, K (State)

The mood in the immediate aftermath of Auburn's season-opening win over Kansas State was an odd mix of euphoria and gloom. You can't walk out of a last-minute comeback over a good opponent without being "up" from the moment. Then after the adrenaline wears off, you start thinking about all the many unpleasant minutes before the comeback, and wondering what's going to happen next.

I don't know how good Auburn is going to be this year, but I was ferociously impressed with Kansas State. They're young, and they lost a little of their composure right at the end there, but that is a fundamentally well-schooled football team. Auburn's defenders could learn an awful lot about tackling from the Wildcats, and we're going to be hearing the name of quarterback Josh Freeman for many years to come. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm quite relieved Freeman's eligibility will be long-since exhausted by the time Auburn goes to Arrowhead Stadium for the follow-on game in 2014.

As I feared, the Auburn offense hasn't progressed much since the Cotton Bowl. As in most of 2006, the offensive line wasn't able to open holes for the running backs with eight or nine defenders in the tackle box, and the the receivers couldn't break out of man coverage fast enough to bail out a constantly under assault Brandon Cox. Cox, who once again had to man up and take a severe beating, didn't help himself any by often holding the ball too long and throwing two terrible interceptions.

It's well worth giving credit to Al Borges for changing his attack for the game-winning drive, and to Cox and his teammates for executing that drive so well, but c'mon, guys, why did you wait 56 minutes to change things up? It was painfully obvious by the second quarter that Auburn just wasn't getting anything going on offense. The game plan was as vanilla as Dairy Queen and as predictable as an old soap opera. As I've said many times in the past, when I can predict the next play, there's a problem.

What's worse, some of Borges' decisions just didn't make any sense. I love Carl Stewart. He's arguably the best pure fullback Auburn has had since Fred Beasley, but he's, er, a fullback. For all his many gifts, Stewart just doesn't have the speed to carry the ball on a toss sweep. Put him out there to kill a linebacker or cornerback and break loose a ball carrier, but don't ask him to turn the corner. That's a waste of your resources.

Defensively, the game was also a mixed bag. Kansas State only had one touchdown drive on the night, but they moved the ball far more consistently than the Tigers. Yes, Quentin Groves was able to put on his patented whiplash-inducing mojo on Freeman by the end of the game, but that was thanks in no small part to Kansas State's thin-ish offensive line just running out of gas (and to K-State's coaches not helping Freeman out with any blockers in the backfield). Freeman had all the time he needed for most of the first forty-five minutes, and Auburn did a pretty lousy job of picking up the short slants and receivers coming out of the backfield on Saturday. If the Wildcats had had anything resembling a running game, I think they'd be right behind Appalacian State in this week's upset hall of fame right now.

Clearly, Auburn has a lot of work to do, and it doesn't help things any that a tailback corps which was anticipated to be five-deep just six weeks ago is now down to two guys, and only one of them--Ben Tate--is apparently trusted enough by the coaches to actually carry the ball. Between Brad Lester's suspension, Tristan Davis' broken toe, would-be incoming freshman Enrique Davis' bad grades and Mario Fannin's inexperience, what should have a major team strength is now a very serious concern. On the brigher side, linebacker Tray Blackmon, who left the game after turning an ankle right before halftime, is expected back for South Florida. Hopefully Blackmon and his teammates will get some remedial work in basic tackling this week. Saturday night indicated that they can all use some review time.

Outside of that four-minute flurry, Auburn just wasn't impressive Saturday night, but let's be fair here: those four minutes still meant a lot. Kansas State coach Ron Prince nailed it after the game when he observed, ""Our kids, I'm really proud of them. They gave it everything they got but Auburn demonstrated why they're a great team because they got a fourth quarter pass rush and they put together a championship drive in the fourth quarter. Those are things we aspire to."

With all due respect to Coach Prince--and I think he's due an awful lot right now--Auburn is not a great team, but Auburn does know how to win, even if it means winning ugly, and that's worth a lot. Whether it's enough as we roll into this thresher of a season, I don't know, but we're going to find out in a real big hurry.