Sunday, September 28, 2008

Freshly Squeezed

Ho hum, just another game. Just another hand-wringing, nail-gnawing, hair-pulling three hours plus of frustrating immovability followed by... another W on the schedule.

I'm getting too old for this crap.

Auburn put on a defensive showcase, again, and again, it was just barely enough. Sophomore Josh Bynes, substituting for an injured Tray Blackmon, was the breakout player numerically with an eye-popping eleven tackes (six of those solo), but the entire defense deserves player-of-the-game honors. Tennessee's much ballyhooed offensive talent couldn't do a thing when the game was on the line, and couldn't do much the rest of the day. The Vols had seven possessions in the second half, and all but one of them started no more than four yards from midfield. They scored exactly once, and in that case were assisted by an interception.

Never have so few made so many clutch stops with so little help. And oh, yeah, the defense scored a touchdown for the third time in five games. In a word, "Wow."

I've resigned myself at this point to seeing Auburn get career days out of every opponent's punter. Tennessee's Chad Cunningham is bringing up the conference's rear statistically, but he played lights-out all afternoon. Between Cunningham's punting and Auburn's offensive immovability, the Tigers spent almost every minute of the second half in the shadow of their own goalposts.

I have never, ever seen a team spend that much of a game backed up and still win. The work this defense is doing is nothing short of astonishing.


This team doesn't have an offense. It has a bunch of players who block and run and catch and throw, and some coaches who call formations and plays, but when all those pieces are put together, they don't add up to an actual offense.

It's not an accident that Auburn's lone scoring drive featured a lot of things we hadn't seen before. That made sense, as most of the plays and formations we had seen before don't seem to work all that well. Tennessee was caught off-balance, and the playmakers that AU does have started to make plays. And what do you know--the Tigers marched right down the field and scored. My question is, hey, Tony Franklin: where'd all stuff that go to afterwards? Were you afraid to use any of it again, because, you know, it worked? That gives me flashbacks to Terry Bowden, and not in a good way.

"Hey, wait," you may be saying. "Hang on a second here, you just finished praising Auburn's defense to the skies for shutting Tennessee down for most of the game. Why aren't you doing the same for Tennessee's defense?"

Because, let's be honest here: Tennessee is not a good defensive team. You can quote me "best secondary in the conference" all you want, but the numbers say that the Vols have not been good on defense for at least two years now. Tennessee is so far down, even Instapundit is making fun of them--and he works there! This is the same unit that got shredded by a UCLA squad that itself couldn't get a point against BYU. John Chavis is the least-competent defensive coordinator in the SEC, and he still managed to figure out Franklin's "system." With very rare exceptions, Franklin seemed unable to do anything to break the Tigers out of their rut; his situational play-calling was nothing short of awful. If you doubt me, just count all the no-blocking draw plays on third and very long.

So, in short: I don't get it. Is Franklin so married to his "system" that he can't bring himself to work with what he's got? Is he so bound to running a "script" that he literally can't call the right plays in key situations? Heck if I know, but you don't need to be any kind of an expert to note that when an offense only gets one first down in thirty minutes of play, that offense has serious problems. Kudos to Kodi Burns and Montez Billings for making that first down--thanks to Phil Fulmer's pissing away of UT's timeouts, it won the game for Auburn--but what the hell? ONE first down? In a HALF?

It's enough to make your hair turn gray, and although I'm on the cusp of forty, I'm still in no mood to start trying out Grecian Formula.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

How's this for a quick rundown of last night's game:

Once again, Auburn was able to take control of a 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.

The preceeding was lifted directly from my column on last year's Auburn-LSU tilt. I removed exactly one word ("road," as in "road game"), but otherwise it fits the 2008 edition just fine.

I've heard of deja vu, but this is ridiculous.

Obviously, not everything was quite the same, but enough was to make an orange-and-blue Tiger feel like tearing some hair out, starting with the kicking game. Tommy Tuberville turned out to be dead on when he predicted last week that special teams would be the difference in the game. Whether Ryan Shoemaker was being told to corner-punt (if he was, why, particularly after Trindon Holliday was benched for fumbling?) or just shanking everything he hit in the second half, bad field position put a tiring Auburn defense in terrible situations. Was Chad Jones really a threat to make a big return? I tend to doubt it--but we're never going to know based on that game.

It was a frustrating second half, but you have to give credit to LSU's depth for being the difference in the game. They were able to hold off a slackening Auburn pass rush and run past the thin AU secondary when it counted. When Paul Rhodes inexplicably stopped blitzing freshman QB Jarrett Lee, the defensive line didn't have enough gas left to get after him on their own. LSU's fleet of receivers did the rest, with no small help from Charles Scott, who looks to be a sensational running back.

On the other side of the ball, Auburn's penchant for not platooning offensive linemen caught up with the Tigers in a big and bad way. LSU's two-deep defensive line stayed fresh enough to account for two monumental sacks, one to knock Auburn out of field goal range in the third quarter, and then again to kill the would-be comeback drive, knocking AU back to an impossible-to-make-up second and 25.

Obviously, things weren't all bad. Auburn really did dominate defensively in the first half, and the Chris Todd-led offense finally showed signs of life. Receivers were getting open, and generally making catches (although Tommy Trott continues to do a good impression of a stone-handed defensive back). Robert Dunn probably had the best day of his career in terms of clutch grabs. The running game was less effective; why Tony Franklin continued to call Ben Tate runs into the heart of the LSU defensive line with no lead blocker is beyond me. There were plenty of times when the offense had LSU on its heels, particularly when Auburn would run a play, immediately get back to the line, and quickly run another play repeatedly. The "Meercat" option of stopping to look back at the sidelines didn't work anywhere near as well, and clearly caused problems in both communication and execution.

And finally, somebody figured out that lining up in the "I" near the goal line makes sense. That somebody has my sincere gratitude.

Before anybody asks, no, I don't know why Kodi Burns didn't play (again). It could be due to that leg injury from the first game; Burns was held out against Mississippi State largely because the cut broke open again during his brief set of snaps against Southern Miss. By most accounts, that was a very nasty cut, and even a highly-conditioned athlete can't make his flesh heal any faster than normal humans (it's my understanding that the NCAA is already moving to ban a new design of facemask visor that caused the cut in the first place). Maybe that was it; maybe the coaches didn't want to break up Todd's play. Given how LSU was crowding the line and leaving the deep ball open, I have to think they simply chose to stay with the "pass first" guy.

Where-to from here is obviously an open question. Saturday's game against Tennessee is a genuine must-win for both teams; you have to think Auburn has the advantage given how inept the Vols have looked this season, but Phat Phil always seems to pull one big surprise win (and usually on the road) out from under his stack of McRibs. Auburn is clearly improving on offense, but "the system" has still got a lot of bugs.

Auburn had better get out the Raid in a big hurry. Saturday's loss removed any margin for error in the SEC West race. LSU could conceivably lose on the road to Florida and at home to Georgia (I think they'll win the rest rather comfortably), but the flipside is, one more conference loss is tantamount to elimination for the eastern Tigers.

Friday, September 19, 2008


First up, thanks to Lein Shory for going in an fixing Blogger's mistakes and my blogroll all at the same time. The links to Tony Barnhart's blog and The Wizard of Odds will now send you to the correct sites. As usual, Lein deserves all the credit for the look and layout of FTB.

In other news, some two years after the fact, the NCAA has confirmed that Pete Thamel's much-ballyhooed and deeply-dishonest NY Times story about Auburn athletes was a load of sensationalist bunk:

An NCAA investigation into Auburn University found no instances of academic fraud and has determined the school will not be penalized following a probe into sociology and directed reading courses that student-athletes took in 2005 and 2006.

I'm anxiously awaiting another NYT front-pager on this one.

Well, actually, I'm not waiting for that at all; being Big Media means never having to admit you were full of crap. But if I were Carnell Williams, I'd seriously consider suing Thamel for libel, and James Gundlach for slander.

The does article go on to note that the NCAA determined, "the school committed secondary violations involving student-athletes who took those courses after they had exhausted their eligibility." How this makes any sense (or is of any interest to the NCAA) I have no idea. I guess in the NCAA's eyes, Williams should have just dropped out instead of trying to keep pursuing a degree between the 2005 Sugar Bowl and April 2005 NFL Draft.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Tiger Bowl V

Big one coming up this weekend. Big game, big consequences, big questions to be answered. But that's no surprise; it's Auburn-LSU, and that's serious business.

Of late, the Tiger Bowl is easily the best series in the SEC. Don't give me this Florida-Tennessee or Georgia-Florida or even Auburn-Alabama business. Not one of those has been as competitive, meaningful, or riveting as the Tiger Bowl over the last four years.

After swapping blowouts in the early years of the decade, the two tribes of Tigers have consistently offered up brutal, nail-biting contests in every recent tilt. Not only have the last four games been split evenly and decided by less than a touchdown each, all four went down to the last play, and both teams (and certainly both fan bases) are convinced that they should have won the two games they lost.

Take a look at the rundown:

In 2004, a defensive battle came down to Auburn's final drive. Jason Campbell came into his own by completing a clutch fourth-down pass, and then hit Courteny Taylor for the game-winning touchdown. Campbell lit up every remaining team on AU's schedule, and went on to be the SEC's Player of the Year. Auburn went undefeated, and was never again in serious danger of losing that season.

In 2005, a wild back-and-forth battle ended in a 17-17 deadlock after LSU's Chris Jackson hit a 44-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter. Neither team made it to the end zone in overtime, but Auburn's John Vaughn unbelievably missed his fifth field goal of the night when given a chance to answer. The Bengals went on to the SEC Championship Game, losing to Georgia.

2006 featured a defensive slugfest the likes of which I've never seen before or since. The sheer ferocity of the impacts on the field, play after play, still rings out today. Auburn eked out a 7-3 victory, but if you ask me, AU quarterback Brandon Cox never fully recovered from the pounding he absorbed that day. Both teams went on to win marquee bowl games.

Last year's game was another crazy scene, with the heavy-underdog Auburn Tigers roaring out to a 17-7 halftime lead. LSU responded with four unanswered scores, only to see Cox bring Auburn back to lead 20-17 with 3:21 remaining. It all came down to the improbable Flynn-to-Byrd touchdown with two seconds left, saving Les Miles from a likely sideline lynching, as well as the Bengals' hopes for... well, you know:

What's coming up in 2008? Heck if I know. It's one of those odd years when large chunks both fan bases, obsessed with lackluster quarterback play, are going in suspecting they're going to lose (although true to form, and not without reason, given last Saturday's offensive follies, the pessimism is heavier on the Auburn side).

I think I can safely say that these are easily the two best defensive fronts in the SEC. Neither team is going to have an easy time running the ball, and all four of the starting and backup quarterbacks are likely to be spending most of Sunday in the training room. Both teams have explosive kick returners. If you're looking for edges, LSU's receivers are really going to be a challenge for Auburn's secondary--but whether LSU's quarterbacks have enough time to do anything about it is another question. I'd give Auburn the coaching advantage; Tommy Tuberville vs. Les Miles in a big game is a mismatch--unless, of course, The Hat gets lucky. Again.

And this is a big game, for both teams and for the SEC as a whole. There will be few, if any that get any bigger this year.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Batter Up!

Final score, 3-2. Well, haven't seen that in a while. Like, er, ever.

Let's start with the defense. It'd be well-nigh criminal not to.

With the understanding that Mississippi State is not a good offensive team--even when compared to Auburn--the level of defensive domination parceled out by the Tigers Saturday night is still staggering. Not only was State held to 116 total yards, the Other Bulldogs did not convert on a single third down (in 14 tries) or fourth down (three tries, one of them from less than a yard away). MSU had a grand total of five earned first downs in the entire game, and despite ESPN moron Bob Davie's repeated quoting of Sly Croom's desire to "break Auburn's will" with the running game, only one of those five came on the ground. 2008 marks the third time in four games that Croom's team hasn't scored an offensive point on Auburn. Barring a dumb mistake on the part of an AU offensive lineman (more on that later), State wouldn't have scored at all.

Tray Blackmon was a ravening beast against State's (pretty darn good) running backs. His snuffing out of MSU's close-to-last gasp on a short fourth-and-one was a textbook combination of timing, ferocity and strength. Jerraud Powers continues to bring All-American-caliber play at cornerback, and Auburn may well have found the answer at the other corner in Walter McFadden. Both did stellar work against State's tall wideouts, and along with another suffocating performance from the defensive line, they stomped on any semblance of a passing threat. McFadden's Powers-esque interception late in the fourth quarter most likely salvaged the win.

It was as dominant a team performance against SEC competition as I've seen in quite a while. There can't be much question now as to whether Paul Rhodes was a good hire at defensive coordinator. He's got this team playing sound, smart, disciplined fundamental football--something that would have won this game for Auburn a year ago, despite all the offense's miscues.

Speaking of which...

Now clearly, when one field goal accounts for all your points, you did not have a great or even good day on offense. Still, looking at the other numbers (admittedly, the ones that don't count), Auburn's offense was actually... okay. The Tigers netted 315 yards of offense against a very good defensive team, including running for 161 and passing for 154--they were even balanced. The average per completion was a perfectly good 11 yards (even if the rushing average was a just-getting-by 3.6 yards). Chris Todd's completion percentage was a pedestrian 54%, but he didn't throw an interception, he made some nice reads at the line, and after a two-year-plus hiatus, Auburn is finally throwing the ball down the field, and with some success.

So what was the problem? Besides the awful 0-fer on third down conversions in the first half, it came down to mistakes. Penalties and fumbles. In one of the worst performances by an Auburn team that I've seen in many years, the Tigers were hit for twelve penalties netting just under a hundred yards, and most of those were courtesy of the offensive line. I can't even count the number of drives that either started at first-and-fifteen or ended with third-and-twenty because of holding calls or false starts. Undisciplined, stupid mental errors. Some of them could have been prevented by using this archaic thing known as a "huddle" when communication was obviously a problem, but the really damaging mistakes, including the fumbles and giving up a stupid safety by holding, were thanks to plain old not playing fundamental football.

Oh, and if you think I'm letting Tony Franklin off the hook here, I'm not. Franklin is calling plays for players he doesn't have, and that's a recipe for disaster. Some of his situational play calling, particularly conceding drives with a run up the middle on third and long, were nigh-on inexplicable. While things are seemingly improving for a few individuals (most notably Montez Billings), receivers are not consistently getting open, and there are still too many dropped balls. When you don't have great talent at wideout, what you do have had damn well better be well-coached. Right now Auburn has neither of the above. Even worse, and more particularly to Franklin's discredit, hate to say "I told you so," but I told you so. Going into the shotgun from inside the five in the SEC is as crazy as a soup sandwich, and this time it cost Auburn enough points to put the game away.

Note to Franklin: it doesn't matter whether or not "the system," i.e. no-huddle and shotgun, worked at short-and-goal against Sun Belt teams. In the SEC, it doesn't work. It's not going to work. It's stupid to keep trying something that doesn't work. So stop doing it. You've got a bunch of big, tough hosses on this team who know how to punch the ball in from short range. Let them.

I'd be churlish if I didn't give Mississippi State's fine defense a world of credit here. The Other Bulldogs have been solid up front for a couple of years now (everybody forgets that they had LSU shut out for most of the first half in 2007, only to collapse under the weight of about a thousand interceptions), and they played a whale of a game Saturday with absolutely no help from their offensive teammates. Linebacker Dominic Douglas and tackle Jessie Bowman in particular were terrifyingly effective, and what can you say about punter Blake McAdams other than, "Wow."

Finally, regarding the uproar in Auburndom that's been going on since about the second quarter of the State game: A fanbase that's genetically inclined to pessimism is rumbling towards a pitchforks-and-torches revolt over the offense's ongoing struggles. Somebody has bought already (although there's no page there yet). On the one hand, getting upset is entirely understandable (and appropriate) over an offense that can't seem to get out of its own way after being talked up all off-season as the greatest thing since single-barrel bourbon. On the other hand...

Get a grip, folks. Is this a good offense? Nope. Does it--and Franklin--have serious problems? Yep. Do those two things warrant this level of panic after three games? That's an entirely different question.

Call me a "sunshine pumper" if you must, but I'm inclined to think not. There are tools enough to do well, if they're ever employed correctly. Either way, it's going to take some time to sort out.

Unfortunately, Auburn will play a defensive team very likely better than State's come Saturday. I'm not sold on LSU having a dynastic, greatest-defense-in-the-country thing going--any team that gave up 50 to Arkansas and 43 to Kentucky and what the hell, 24 to Auburn last year could not legitimately be called "great"--but I'm certainly satisfied that they'll be very damn good. Auburn will have to show more improvement than anybody has any business expecting to get many (any?) points against the Bengals.

So, here we are, three games in and dominant on one side, sputtering on the other. One suggestion aimed Auburn-way: Coaches often need coaching themselves. It'd be a good thing for the head coach to carve out a little private time with his offensive assistants for conversations regarding the fundamentals. Not just of football, but also of life--and employment--in the SEC.


Monday, September 08, 2008

This Week's Sign Of The Apocalypse

Vanderbilt has sole possession of first place in the SEC East, and has the best record in the conference.

Yes, that's because Vandy is the only team in the league to beat any other team in the league this young season, but still...

Blogger Follies

Here's the part you don't care about: Blogger, aka Google, which runs the servers and software on which FTB is hosted these days, recently changed the way user blogs are set up. In many ways the changes were a massive improvement; I'm now able to manipulate stuff on the page like graphics and the blogroll myself, without having to bother Lein Shory, the guy who does all the actual work for the site's design.

However, BloggerGoogle has also over-automated the piece of software that runs the blogroll (over on the right side) to the point of buffoonery. For reasons I don't even pretend to understand, the blogroll mini-application just will not let me put in direct links to either Tony Barnhart's blog (it reverts to the homepage of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) or Jay Christensen's new-and-improved Wizard of Odds blog (Blogger reverts to Jay's old, Blogger-hosted site).

So, until either BloggerGoogle fixes this, or alternately until Lein or I figure out how to get around it, here are the correct links:

Tony Barnhart (Mr. College Football)

The Wizard Of Odds

And like Frank and Ed used to say, we thank you for your support...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Southern Comfort

In the Master Of The Obvious segment, a lot went right for Auburn Saturday. Chris Todd racked up more passing yards in the first quarter than all three AU quarterbacks could manage the week before, and he did it against a better team. Todd eventually went 21 of 31 for a solid 248 yards against a squad that held its last opponent to under 150 yards through the air. With the day's emphasis on kickstarting the passing game, the running backs were something of an afterthought, but as long as they held on to the football, Messieurs Lester, Tate and Davis were still moving the chains quite well. The Tiger defense completely locked down a USM ground attack that broke 400 yards a week before, and had a shutout in its grasp before turnovers let the Golden Eagles back in the game.

Those turnovers--four of them, all ugly--left at least 14 Auburn points on the field, and make that 21 when you add in the meaningless-to-the-play penalty that called back what would have been Robert Dunn's second punt return for a touchdown in as many games. Three discarded touchdowns are expensive mistakes, no matter who you're playing.

USM and their new coach, Larry Fedora, deserve a ton of credit for hanging in there. There isn't any quit in the Golden Eagles, and Fedora showed a mountain of confidence in his team when he went for it on two long fourth downs--and his guys made both of them. The Tiger defense treated quarterback Austin Davis the way Rocky Balboa treats a side of beef for most of the game, but Davis kept popping back up and eventually had a very solid second half.

Defensively, holding a team that scored 55 points the week before to thirteen, and shutting that team down completely for the better part of three quarters was excellent, but with the exception of Jerraud Powers, who put on an absolute clinic Saturday from start to finish, the "D" didn't follow through. Whether due to the stifling heat, fatigue, loss of focus in what looked like a blowout, or plan old getting outplayed, Auburn's pass defense collapsed midway through the second half. The Tigers brought USM's rightly-vaunted running back Damion Fletcher to a near-complete stop, but the Eagles' Shawn Nelson and star-in-waiting Deandre Brown shredded the non-Powers portion of the secondary in the fourth quarter.

Southern Miss converted only one third down the entire game--but then again, they did convert on three of four fourth downs, and two of those were for double-digit yardage. That's an answer to the question, "What's worse than giving up a third and long?", and it's flatly unacceptable.

Here's what I liked the best about Saturday: the Auburn offense not only answered an impressive 90-yard USM scoring drive in the fourth quarter, they did so in a sudden, blinding downpour. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that brief rain was so heavy that I could barely read numbers on jerseys for most of that possession. I've seen an awful lot of teams that would have quickly gone three and out, followed by a bad punt, in that kind of weather.

Here's what I liked least about Saturday (besides the turnovers, but I liked this a lot less because it was intentional):

The ball is less than a yard from the goal line. Why in the name of Bo would you get in the shotgun and intentionally snap it five yards farther away? As the late Jonnie Cochran (okay, the South Park version of Jonnie Cochran) would have said, "This does not make sense." It's the one thing I hate the most about "the spread." Gave me flashbacks to what Missouri did against Oklahoma in last year's Big 12 Championship, and not in a good way.

Auburn got away with it against Southern Miss (Tate scored on the next play--barely), but they wouldn't have against LSU or Georgia, and probably wouldn't have against Mississippi State, Ole Miss or Alabama. Franklin swore up and down during the offseason that his offense does have a traditional "I" set for short yardage situations; I humbly suggest that he start using said formation in said situations, and soon.

So, two games in, and we've got significant improvement, but this is still not a team that's ready to play against the best in the SEC. Kodi Burns hardly played Saturday, and besides a nice touchdown run (again from the shotgun near the goal line, and again, barely), he didn't play well compared to Todd. Todd himself did a nice job of managing the offense, but he also floated too many passes and was not effective with the long ball. This was not helped by a receiving corps that still can't get separation down the field, much less by a running back position that managed a fumble from each of the top three players on the depth chart. Pass protection is still a problem, and I suspect it was made worse by the injury-forced move of Jason Bosley from center to tackle.

I don't mean to be overly-negative here; a team that can overcome four turnovers and still beat a good opponent by two touchdowns is obviously doing a lot of big things right... but also obviously is still doing to many little things wrong. The offense did look a lot better, and against a better opponent. It's going to have to get better still, and that includes eliminating the dumb mistakes, if the Tigers plan to live up to their billing this season. And some better pass coverage would help, too.