Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Bloomin' Early

AuburnSports.com is reporting that Auburn has accepted a bid to play in the 2010 Outback Bowl in Tampa. The opponent will be either Wisconsin or Northwestern; which one is to be determined after the Badgers play Hawaii this Saturday.

Have to say that I'm quite surprised, although pleasantly so. Getting a New Year's Day bowl in his first year is a pretty darn nice feather in Gene Chizik's cap. And yes, Jay Jacobs deserves a big attaboy for his part in landing the bid. The only bad part is that awful kickoff time--ten in the ay-em.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Not There Yet

When asked over the past two weeks how Auburn might be able to beat Alabama, I replied, "Get a lead early and hold on late." In this case, it's not very comforting to have been right. Auburn was able to do the first, and in spectacular fashion, but as most of us feared, not the second.

Even so, there can be little doubt that this was the best possible effort from the 2009 Auburn defense. I'm still stunned that Auburn was able to completely shut down Mark Ingram while playing the same three linebackers for the entire football game. I completely expected Alabama to man up and wear down the defense with the run in the second half, but that contingency never even threatened to materialize. The Antonio Coleman-led front four utterly shut down the rightly-vaunted Tide running attack, and linebackers Craig Stevens, Josh Bynes and Jonathan Evans all played the games of their lives. The only shame I can find is that Auburn just didn't have anybody to spell them with. I'm not about to get mad at a secondary full of freshman for giving up yardage on the game-winning drive--especially when they had to do so against a team playing rules-optional football.

There was some grousing last week over Pat Dye's observation that Tommy Tuberville's recruiting over his last three years was weak. I can see how you could argue that Dye shouldn't be running down one of his successors in public, but it's very hard to argue that what Dye said wasn't accurate. Fifteen Auburn defenders registered tackles on Friday, compared to 24 for Alabama. Those extra nine guys (and the lack thereof on the Tiger side) made a huge difference in the second half. Lack of depth is not an excuse--you play the Iron Bowl with the players you have--but an excuse is not the same thing as a reason. Thanks in no small part to the previous staff's fall-off in recruiting, Auburn just didn't have enough players this time around, and it cost the Tigers what would have been a monumental win.

There was a moment, midway through the third quarter, when the sense of opportunity was palpable. With a touchdown's lead, Auburn's defense stuffed alleged Heisman frontrunner Ingram on four straight plays to reclaim possession, and you could feel the electricity surging through the stadium all the way down to your marrow. Every instinct shouted that a Tiger touchdown here would put the game away--and those instincts turned out to be correct. But instead, Auburn went three-and-out, and aided by (wait for it) a needless penalty, Alabama then managed a short drive and a field goal to recover a modicum of momentum.

While giving due credit to Alabama's excellent front seven--which does a great deal to mask a pretty pedestrian secondary outside of Javier Arenas--it's hard not to suspect that Gus Malzahn "went Tuberville" after getting that quick lead. Nick Saban's defense has always been susceptible to motion and misdirection. Utah famously ate it alive last year with misdirection and tempo, and all Al Borges had to do to discombobulate it in 2007 was move his tight ends around before the snap. Malzahn took advantage of those tendencies, and exploited the weak UAT secondary--big time--in all of Auburn's scoring drives.

So why, after blazing down the field for two scores, as well as after the second-half bomb to Darvin Adams, did Auburn go into a shell and insist on running Ben Tate into the tackles all those times? Alabama blitzes as well as anybody in the country, and Auburn hasn't handled the blitz well all season--so why insist on having Chris Todd try to throw from the pocket in predictable situations with little or no motion? And where'd the tempo game go? Beyond the Tigers' one long touchdown drive, it scarcely appeared for the rest of the game.

Some of the answer is surely that Alabama played better defense late than they did early, but I suspect those two floated Todd passes in the general direction of Tommy Trott on AU's third possession are the main answer. I'm no mind-reader, but it sure looked like Malzahn decided at that point that he was going to play close to the vest and avoid turnovers from then on out. Getting back to the numbers game, I'm sure it also made a big difference that Auburn essentially only has two wide receivers, making it easier on the defense to cover Terrell Zackery and Adams tight and ignore everybody else most of the time.

* * *

It took a while for the game to sink in. There's no doubt it was a great football game, one of the better AU/UAT scraps in recent history, but losing a great game can feel a lot worse than just getting stomped. It's worse when the outcome is a surprise, as in 2001 (or 2002 for the Tide fans), and worse still when you had it in your hands, but still lost.

The fact is that the shellacking of 2008 meant a great deal more to Alabama fans and the in-state media (please forgive the redundancy) than it did to Auburn fans. That outcome had been telegraphed for a good two months before the game ever kicked off, and nobody was particularly surprised when Auburn came out on the bad end of a lopsided score. Don't get me wrong, it still sucked (plenty), but the general reaction in Auburndom was more of a wincing shrug than an offended scream. When you know for weeks in advance that you have no particular hope of winning, losing doesn't have as much of a bite. In terms of pain and/or outrage, 2008 didn't even register on the same scale as say, 1985 or 2001. The 2009 game didn't hit those low marks, and certainly not in terms of the play on the field, but it's still one that nobody's going to forget anytime soon.

While I am immensely proud of how well these guys played on Friday, I'm not remotely inclined to declare a "moral victory." While I do believe such things exist, I think they're a bit like Halley's Comet, something that might occur once in a lifetime as opposed to every few years (and certainly not, as the press seemed to assert during Mike Shula's tenure at UAT, every few ball games). The last one I'd hang my hat on at Auburn would be the 1982 Georgia game, and AU would have to fall very far for a very long time before anybody could talk about recovering from a programmatic slump akin to 1975-81. Nothing like that has happened here; AU had a bad year in 2008, followed by a decent rebuilding season in 2009. That's not the stuff of "moral victories," it just means you've got more work to do to get back to where you've been.

It is a small comfort that the 2009 game served, at least for a short time, to smack down the overweening arrogance of the crimson polyester set that had been growing like bacteria in a sewer (although not as attractively) since September of last year. Based on what little I heard from the in-state call-in shows and from friends and family with the misfortune to be living in Alabama during 2008-09, the UAT fan yahoo and media concensus (again, pardon the redundancy) was that Alabama could roll in and whip Auburn by an even greater margin than '08 with just their third team. The rather different reality was enough to short circuit the classless "rammer jammer" cheer (I guess "we just escaped by the skin of our teeth!" doesn't have very much punch), although I doubt it'll matter as much to the can't-spell-college morons populating the Tide bandwagon these days.

But beyond the sidewalk alumni, I suspect this game did put a considerable dent in the smug confidence among the UAT booster set that every season from now on was going to be a replay of 1979. When Auburn collapsed amidst an Alabama surge last year and then hired a lightly-regarded head coach in Gene Chizik, that bunch thought the days of easy wins, cheap media adulation and complete disregard for the rules were back for good.

Having eked out a win, no doubt many of those bozos have already convinced themselves that, "it was just a rivalry game on the road," or other such rationalization… but what they can't say (at least not honestly) is that they expect for Auburn to be nothing more than a bump in their road for decades to come. That particular delusion has been put to rest; like it or not, they know today that the Auburn team that took their best squad in a generation right down to the wire is also the worst Auburn team they'll get to play against for the forseeable future.

That said, it's obviously not an ideal outcome. It's not even close to one. I'd rather have the win.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Wages of Inconsistency

It's been a very long time since a football game made me as angry as this one did. It shouldn't have; there have been plenty of losses far less explicable over the past five years--Vanderbilt last season, Georgia again in 2006, and practically any game this decade against Arkansas--but this one, for the time being, took the furious cake.

The loss wasn't an utter debacle; Auburn completely dominated the first quarter, and (rather obviously, given Demond Washington's 99-yard return), the special teams had by far their best game of the year. But in a game played by the two most penalty-prone teams in the conference, and against the SEC's most prolific granter of turnovers, AU wound up on the bad side of both counts, giving up 60 penalty yards--often at the worst possible moments--and committing two awful interceptions. Georgia, which had averaged more than two giveaways a game going in, didn't turn the ball over once. This kind of turnabout has become entirely too familiar in the recent losing streak to the Bulldogs: every time they play Auburn lately, Georgia manages to stop doing the bad things they've been doing a lot of, and start doing good things they haven't done well at all.

Then again, Georgia, even while playing well, couldn't do it all themselves. They got entirely too much help from Auburn. After ten games, it was no particular surprise that a one-deep-at-best Auburn defense gave up a lot of yards and points in the second half. The Tigers are playing two true freshmen and a sophomore in the secondary, and after Eltoro Freeman went out with a concussion, the defense had, at best, two SEC-caliber players left at linebacker.

But nobody expected this defense to play lights-out for 60 minutes. What was a lot more troubling was the offense's lapse into foot-shooting and predictability when it needed to keep pouring on the points. That, of course, didn't happen. The running game never got in a groove, and pass protection broke down badly in the second half.

The third quarter simply killed Auburn. The Tigers had only two posessions, yielding a three-and-out and a field goal. By contrast, Georgia held the ball for nearly twelve minutes and tacked on 10 points, with another touchdown coming less than a minute into the final period. After an interception gave UGA an easy drive for their final score, Washingon's kick return heroics and a mammoth but ultimately fruitless fourteen-play AU drive weren't enough. And once again, no really critical Auburn play--even one coming after consecutive time outs--can be considered complete without a false start from three-year starter Lee Ziemba, who still can't manage to stay in position until the ball is snapped.

I can understand Ted Roof wanting to protect a couple of freshman safeties, and it's worth noting that Auburn pretty much controlled A.J. Green, limiting the supposed best player on the field to three catches and 19 yards. But Auburn's pass rush died off somewhere in the second period, and given plenty of time and an effective running game, particularly in the second half, Joe Cox was able to get the ball to Green's teammates often enough to play catch-up and then some.

Why was this game so frustrating? Sure, part of it was losing again to a team that Auburn had been consistently beating two-out-of-three over the last generation or so. Part of it was handing a lifeline--again--to a faltering major rival. But I think what really got to me was seeing this team play so damn well and so damn badly all in the same game.

By the end of last year, there was no expectation of good play from Auburn. The team fell apart in early October, and by November was essentially un-coached. Losing was neither a surprise nor particularly painful. The loss to Georgia in 2008 was almost comforting, in that the Tigers turned in arguably their best effort of that dismal season.

This time around, though, we've seen this team play at a very high level--as well as a very low one, on a couple of occasions, but whatever else it's been, 2009 has definitely not been what Jerry used to call a "season of DEATH." And that, I think, is what made this one so hard to take. It's not the losing so much as knowing that the team is capable of being so much better, to the point of seeing exceptionally high quality play on the field, in this very game, but then also seeing a team that's still unable to maintain any consistency for sixty minutes.

And paying the price for it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Time Out

Sorry for the radio silence so far this week; I was on the road most of Sunday and Monday, and real life that piled up over the weekend is still interfering with a Georgia recap at the moment. I should have something up by sometime Wednesday.

If you're so inclined, you can click on over to willcollier.com to see what I was up to the last couple of days, including live-from-my-iPhone video of Monday's Space Shuttle launch.

Monday, November 09, 2009


The best thing about Homecoming, 2009: for the first Auburn game in what feels like an eternity, it didn't rain. Blue skies, bright sun, a stadium full of children and a game that was over before it started.

For all the heat Jay Jacobs takes for goofy scheduling (much of it deserved), this one was exquisitely well-timed. Light work against Furman after nine straight weeks of football was just what Auburn needed. The starters did everything they wanted to and then took the second half off, giving everybody this side of the waterboys a chance to get some snaps in a real game.

From a coaching standpoint, it was very nice to see such crisp execution (give or take the defense on Furman's opening field goal drive) and businesslike play against a ferociously outmanned opponent. You can grumble about the Paladins' fourth-quarter scores if you want to, but understand, that was basically against the scout team defense, and guys who might never see an actual game again in their careers. If Gene Chizik had pulled an Urban Meyer and left his starters in for the second half, he'd probably have been able to threaten John Heisman's scoring record.

The worst thing, of course, was losing Travante Stallworth, most likely for the rest of the season, to an ankle injury. Next-to-worst was the continuing horror that is Auburn's punt return game, which gave Furman a gift-wrapped score when Phillip Pierre-Louis fumbled the ball away on the six yard line early in the third quarter. That's awful against anybody, and it'll be fatal against either of the two remaining opponents.

Freshman Anthony Gulley, on the other hand, is what you might call a "good problem." Gulley played just about every position except the interior line and kicker on Saturday, including time at cornerback, receiver, and oh yeah, running back, where he scored two touchdowns and wound up being Auburn's leading rusher for the game. Given the parlous state of depth in the secondary, I'm guessing we'll see him at corner (if anywhere) for the remainder of the season, but he's obviously a kid with a very bright future.

There's really very little else to be said about Homecoming--although one could, if they liked, note the outstanding day from both Auburn quarterbacks, who combined for an eye-popping 27 of 30 and 373 passing yards--but it's well worth comparing this game to last year's 37-20 swan song against Tennessee Martin.

Auburn didn't pull ahead in that one until the middle of the third quarter, and didn't put the game away until early in the fourth--and even with that, the lowly Skyhawks got deep into Auburn territory three times in the second half. There wasn't a lot of scout team participation in that game, and anybody who left with a good feeling was probably still in pre-school.

The comparison is as stark as it is instructive. As Jerry notes, the Furman game was as relaxing for an Auburn fan as a cozy February afternoon in a comfy chair next to a roaring fireplace. The UTM game 360-odd years ago, er, wasn't. Things are a just a tad different this year, and entirely for the better.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Signs Of Life

When the Ole Miss game started, it was hard not to be swept up in a depressing wave of déjà vu. All the pieces were lined up: early kickoff, a bad three-game losing streak, and playing against a coach who'd made a career out of bedeviling Auburn. The defense promptly did a good impression of a worn-down speed bump, giving up a 96-yard touchdown drive, the offense's response was stopped by--wait for it--a badly-timed penalty, and petered out with a field goal. Not too much later, Chris Todd badly overthrew a wide-open Terrell Zachery on a deep route, the third such miss in four games.

If you'd walked in optimistic--and I confess, I did not--it must have been pretty tough to keep your chin up at that point. When Zac Etheridge was strapped to a back board and rolled out of the stadium with a very scary injury--one that must have been nauseatingly familiar to the Ole Miss fans in particular--it looked like matters had gone from bad to absolutely abysmal.

The best thing that happened afterwards, of course, was the news that Etheridge has regained motion in all of his extremities, and is expected to make a full recovery, although he'll probably have to give up football. The last is terrible for somebody who loves the game as much as Etheridge, but it still beats the hell out of an injury that could have crippled him for the rest of his life.

The next-best treat this Halloween was seeing Etheridge's teammates get up off the deck and start playing like a real football team again. Ted Roof has deserved some of the criticism he's received over the past month. His secondary continues to play with too-soft cushions, for instance, but let's give him some credit today: after that ugly first drive, he was able to adjust to bring more pressure on Jevan Snead, making that first touchdown drive the Rebels' last for the day. Holding any SEC team to one drive and one big play was something I really didn't think Auburn was capable of this year. I cordially despise "bend, don't break" as a defensive philosophy, but I suspect it's all Roof is able to do with the current team. When it works, and it did work Saturday, he deserves the recognition.

One funny thing that struck me was the general pointlessness of running trick plays against these two defenses. Houston Nutt's playbook has more goofy doo-doo plays than anybody's this side of Lubbock, Texas, and Gus Malzahn isn't far behind him. You run trick plays generally because you think you can surprise the other guy's defense and get a big gain or a score, but in this case, the other defense has seen this stuff in every day of practice, making them pretty hard to fool. That didn't stop either coach from pulling out most of his stops on Saturday, but with the exceptions of about two plays (both of them from Auburn), almost none of the doo-doo worked.

What did work for Auburn was the at-long-last return of Todd and the deep passing game. After that early misfire, Todd apparently settled down, and got a ton of help from Zachery, who managed to pull in a couple of astonishing catches in close coverage. The big second quarter reception that set up AU's first touchdown looked like it broke the dam; after that Todd was comfortable putting the ball down the field, and Zachery and Darvin Adams continued to pull it down with one acrobatic reception after another. That finally freed up Gus Malzahn's offense to "do what it does," namely get the defense out of position with misdirection and then go at them faster than they can recover. When the Ole Miss safeties had to step back to defend the long ball, it was Ben Tate time (with some welcome help from Mario Fannin), and Tate, now the #13 rusher in the nation, was more than happy to provide still more punishment in his stellar senior season.

After the first couple of series, I don't think anybody on the planet expected Auburn to rattle off 31 unanswered points. Midway through perhaps the longest and certainly the weirdest third quarter in recorded history, AU was up 31-7, and I think if the Tigers had stopped the Rebs on their next possession or two, the game would have been over right there. Unfortunately for my blood pressure, Auburn proceeded to give up a kickoff return for a touchdown and then a McCluster bolt for another score, but the defense woke up again, grabbed the first two-point runback in Jordan-Hare I can recall since the '96 LSU game (that one went for the other team), and shut down Ole Miss for the duration. Not letting the Rebels get back in the game, even after the slightly-flukey instant two touchdowns, speaks pretty well of all those young guys on the defense.

While any win after three straight losses is a good one, and an upset win over a conference opponent is better still, this was a very long way from a complete victory. It was a win Auburn had to have to rescue this season, but one that still clearly showed long-term problems, not least being the still-dreadful kick coverage and return game. I think we can say now that the offense has found its bearings again, but it's still entirely too inconsistent, and has to get back to making sustained scoring drives. Auburn can't rely on the big play to bail them out every week. The scoreless fourth quarter was a comedy of errors for both AU and UM on offense, and the Tigers wouldn't have survived it against a better team--although I was very heartened to see AU pound out a couple of first downs to seal the game; it's been a long time since they were able to do that.

The thing is though, Ole Miss isn't all that good. Snead is one of those guys with a big arm but no head to match. A few good games and a ton of media adulation apparently went straight to the aforementioned head, and now the kid thinks he's Dan Marino. He's not; like many highly-touted QB's with limited experience, if you can get him in pressure situations it's just a matter of time until he throws the ball to your defense. Dexter McCluster is just an outstanding running back, but besides him and maybe Shay Hodge, the Rebels don't have a lot on offense. The defense is better, no doubt thanks to Ed Orgeron's leftovers, but Houston Nutt's televangelist clown act has apparently already run its course in Oxford. It'll be highly entertaining to watch the reactions of the most delusional fan base in the SEC (at least when results vs. expectations are taken into account) if their formerly-number-four Rebels finish the season with a 1-4 collapse.

But enough about that bunch. The doldrums of October are behind us, and Auburn is back on the winning side, and two very winnable games away from a long-needed open date. Homecoming should provide an opportunity to rest just about everybody who's been worn down to date, and play everybody who hasn't. After that, Gene Chizik will have his opportunity to live up to September's bright promise… or not.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Full Circle

There's a palpable air of disgust among Auburn fans since the team's most recent debacle, this time a never-close-for-a-moment blowout in Baton Rouge. One bad loss--Arkansas--could be shrugged off as a blip. A second--Kentucky--might be rationalized as a young team struggling to reestablish its identity. But three in a row, with the last coming in spectacularly inept fashion, that can't be acknowledged as anything less than a very ugly trend.

From the rash of mental errors on the field to the ubiquitous and ridiculous sight of former ticket office manager (and Jay Jacobs' BFF) Tim Jackson lurking around on the sidelines, an Auburn machine that ran with scarcely a hitch through September has thrown every conceivable rod in October. You didn't have to be a mind reader to hear the thoughts of the dispirited faces of the AU players and fans in Tiger Stadium. They sang out loud and clear: "Here we go again."

For opponents, the recipe for beating Auburn--soundly--is right back to where it was a year ago: stuff the run, get a lead, and cruise. That's all you need to do, because Auburn can't hurt you down the field, and their defense is too thin to stop you.

Chris Todd was either injured against Tennessee (and I strongly suspect that to be the case), or he's simply lost his mojo. Either way, Todd can no longer make the throws he was nailing for the first four and a half games, and by now everybody Auburn plays knows it. With the long threat gone, defenses can just stuff the run early and tee off on Todd late. All the misdirection in the world doesn't do you any good when the defense knows you're limited to the first 20 yards past the line of scrimmage. The safeties can just stay home and the defensive line can pin its ears back and go after you. Under those conditions, the magic of early 2009 has precipitously faded right back to the immobility of 2008. And of course it doesn't help any that the offensive line has gone right back to jumping offsides at the worst possible moments, or that Auburn still doesn't have a punt returner who can be trusted not to fumble a fair catch.

Auburn's defense hasn't had anything resembling a pass rush since late in the West Virginia game, and whether due to lack of players or just poor strategy, defensive coordinator Ted Roof is looking worse and worse as the opposing scores keep running up. And I think it's safe to say that the early season rumormongering about Gus Malzahn leaving in December to take a head coaching job aren't going to be heard again so long as his offense is averaging in the single-digits, as it has over the last two weeks (if you take out the meaningless garbage-time touchdown late Saturday night, it's a shining five point average).

I'd like to come up with something positive here, but the best thing I can say is that LSU wasn't able to run the ball all that much against Auburn. Of course, LSU hasn't been running the ball against much of anybody this year, and since they were able to throw pretty much at will against Auburn, they really didn't have to run if they didn't want to, so the point is rather moot.

Try as I might, I can't see how you don't look at this team and think that the wheels have come off. As to what that says about the young Gene Chizik era, the best thing I can say is that first years are rarely indicative of future performance (here's the canonical example). Recruiting and attrition have been so horrendous recently, Auburn might as well have been on probation for the past three years; the Tigers are playing with at least fifteen fewer scholarships than their opponents, and one glance at the defense tells you that in terms of SEC talent, things are even worse than that.

But even a team with limited numbers can play with discipline, and keep fighting on every play. Auburn's not doing either one right now, and that's a damning indictment of a coaching staff that certainly appears to have lost their team, and their way.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bad To Worse

It's a sportswriting trope--and a truism--that there's nothing new under the sun (or the lights). Sports and the teams that play them have cycles, and if you watch long enough, you'll see the same things happen again and again to very different people.

Almost exactly eleven years ago, Auburn fandom watched in shock as Terry Bowden up and split halfway through a disastrous season. At that time, the fan base itself was split, divided between those who'd had enough of Bowden's antics and those who thought he'd been unfairly pushed out by the "power brokers." But roughly a year after that, the number of Terry's defenders dropped away precipitously as it became painfully clear just how bare the cupboard had become in the latter years of his tenure. The then-new Tuberville staff wasn't free of blame for the mid-season losing streak of 1999 (playing not to lose cost them close games against both Mississippis, for instance), but it was clear from early October that they were dealing from a very limited deck.

Watching Auburn's defense trying in vain to bottle up Kentucky's running game on Saturday night was probably enough to remove any lingering nostalgia for the Tommy Tuberville era among Auburn fans. While Gene Chizik and Ted Roof will and should share some of the blame for the current mess on the field, neither can do anything about the two or three years of lackadaisical recruiting that brought us to this point. It's hard to locate even half a dozen starters who'd make the two-deep on any SEC defense this side of Nashville, and I'm sorry to say that Tuberville's legendary laziness is largely to blame.

The problems aren't limited to simple talent deficiencies. All those defenders leaving their feet or vainly grasping at passing ankles goes right back to not having practiced adequately. Lack of numbers and fear of injuries on defense led Chizik to ban full-speed tackling during the week. Unfortunately for Auburn, the numbers aren't going to get any better from here on out, and it's still up to Chizik and Roof to find some workable answers. Yes, they're limited in what they can do, but what they've been doing so far isn't enough.

Of course, the defense wouldn't be so much of a concern if the offense hadn't come 360 degrees back around to its flailing level of a year ago. Back in August, you would never have convinced me that Auburn could average scoring 40-plus points over five games--and after those five games, you'd have had a hard time convincing anybody that the Tigers could be held to seven offensive points... against Kentucky. But all of that still happened.

The reasons why aren't that hard to hash out. Gus Malzahn's offense is quarterback-centric, and Chris Todd is on his second consecutive bad outing. But what's far worse is that apparently five games worth of film was all that was needed for two very middling defensive teams to out-scheme the Mad Scientist. During the first half, when Todd would step up and fake a snap count, then look to the sidelines for the check play, Kentucky's defensive backfield would almost always shift... and far more often than not, they shifted to the right places to stop that play.

I did a little checking around on Sunday to make sure I wasn't seeing things, but the consensus was pretty clear: Malzahn is showing his cards. He's playing to consistent tendencies, and his opposition has figured that out. When both Arkansas and Kentucky are blowing up your plays left and right, that's as clear a sign as you can get that you've tipped your hand. Malzahn's offense is highly dependent upon misdirection and confusing the defense, but I'm here to tell you: they weren't confused these last two weeks. It doesn't say anything good that nobody realized that after the Arkansas game--or worse, they did realize it, but didn't do anything about it.

Maybe worse than the lack of performance, Auburn showed a distressing lack of composure and discipline for the first time this year. Just when the offense finally looked like it could put together a decent second-half drive, five consecutive penalties effectively ended the game. That's something nobody can blame on Tommy Tuberville. Whether the penalty on the goofy third-down trick play was correctly called or not, it's up to the coaches to warn the referee ahead of time when you're going to pull something like that. If you don't, you're running the risk of confusing the officials, and confused officials penalize first and apologize later (if that).

Add all that up and you've got a very bad combination. After a boffo start, Auburn is now way off its moorings, and there are some very nasty storms rolling up on the horizon.

For almost all of the last staff's tenure, one of Tuberville's better traits was his ability to coach up his assistants when matters got particularly dire (although one of his worst traits was the converse; when things were going well, Tubs didn't bother). Now that responsibility falls to Chizik. It's up to him to push Malzahn's schemes away from where his opposite numbers can predict what's coming, and to get Roof and the defense on track regarding basic fundamentals. If he can't do either (and very likely if he can't do both), it's hard to see how he's going to do better than break even in his first season as head coach.

Monday, October 12, 2009

But I Don't Like Spam

When the game time for Arkansas was announced late last weekend, I had a mind to put up a short post linking to previous early-kickoff debacles against the Razorbacks. I never had the time to go chase down the links (last week was exceptionally busy in the real world), but it would have looked something like this:
So the Arkansas game will be kicking off at 11AM. What could possibly go wrong?
... and, of course, this Saturday's game wound up being yet another can of rancid Spam for breakfast.

I could try and be cool here and rant about how I don't get how this keeps happening, but the truth is really pretty plain: Auburn just doesn't take playing lightly-regarded Arkansas teams seriously, and as you can see by perusing the above links (to which I could have added 1992 and 1995, even though the latter wasn't a day game), the results of that casual disdain are usually pretty ugly.

Arkansas 2009 was fundamentally no different from those embarrassments of years past. Auburn sauntered in to an early-kickoff game against an SEC opponent (in this case, on the road to boot), played uninspired, lackadaisical ball, and got killed.

Give all the credit where it's deserved: Arkansas had its act together on Saturday. They had a great game plan and they executed it well. Ryan Mallett, bereft of the pressure that had hounded him in a couple of bad outings, played like the NFL prospect he's so highly touted to be, and his receivers caught everything in their time zones. Better still for the Hogs, their defense completely stifled Auburn in the first half, and the successful passing game along with the big lead let the running game get on track for really the first time this season. It was as complete a win as you're likely to see.

Auburn, on the other hand, seemed to be looking for ways to screw up, and the Tigers generally found what they were looking for. Neither line played worth a damn; Chris Todd rarely had time to throw, and in the first half none of the backs had holes to run through. The defense took a huge step backwards in general. There was no pass rush to speak of, tackling was lousy again after showing marked improvement against Tennessee, and the secondary drew more pass intereference calls than I care to remember (some of them were even deserved).

Watching Auburn play Saturday was like a live demonstration of Murphy's Law: every dumb thing that could happen, did. Critical fumbles, stupid penalties, blown assignments. The two most productive players on the offense, Todd and Ben Tate, both blew plays that could have put the Tigers back in the game: Todd overthrew a nobody-near-him Terrell Zackery in the first half, and Tate fumbled inside the five in the third quarter.

The game was a gigantic misfire for the new coaching staff. No team as young and thin as Auburn has any business taking an SEC opponent lightly, and it was up to the coaches to get the team ready to play with intensity. Suffice to say, that didn't happen.

That's not to bury Gene Chizik and his staff just half-a-dozen games into their tenure. There isn't a coach in the world who hasn't had the same problem; Auburn's previous regime was rather infamous for it. The real question is whether the staff and the team will be able to learn from the loss, and have the ability to not repeat the same mistakes again.

I've heard more than a bit of grousing directed at defensive coordinator Ted Roof. While Roof certainly doesn't deserve a pass for what turned out to be a very poor game plan, it ought to be recalled that the guy really doesn't have a lot to work with this year. Auburn is way short of a solid two-deep on defense, and in terms of legitimate SEC players, the numbers are probably even worse than that. Roof had been doing a pretty fair job of working with mirrors to date; some of those mirrors are now just glittering shards on the fake turf of Razorback Stadium. It's going to be a serious challenge for Roof and his boss to patch things up for the rest of the season.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

What He Said

Orson Spencer Swindle Hall Mellencamp on Bobby Bowden:
Please remember that in the case of the Bowden family, the coach equals the program, something entirely separate from the school, and not really something tied to the school in any substantive way, like in the form of a library or some other non-footballin’ related thing like that.
Exactly so. The Bowdens are about the Bowdens, and everyone and everything else are, at best, secondary

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Full Moon Fever

Towards the end of the 1993 season, a Sports Illustrated writer lamented that year's SEC Championship Game being another Alabama-Florida snooze-fest, and noted that he'd have preferred to see Auburn play Tennessee, for reasons that included, as he put it (or at least as best I can paraphrase from memory), 'two fanbases with an inveterate disrespect for each other.'

I've never been a big SI fan, but in that particular the mag was exactly right. Neither Auburn nor Tennessee folks think much of one another; having spent the better part of fifty years ruining each others' seasons back in the days when the Tigers and Vols were annual early-season opponents will do that to you, and the intervening years since the 1992 conference split haven't changed opinions much. The offseason additions of two new head coaches who've been held in general contempt by rival fans since they days they were hired also helped contribute to the general disdain.

Speaking of intervening years, it's been almost exactly five of them since Auburn last traveled to Knoxville, undefeated but unheralded, and proceeded to run the Vol masses right out of their own stadium.

The more things change...

There were quite a few times on Saturday night when it looked like the 2009 Tigers were about to crank up a similar blowout, but the ball never quite bounced that way. Instead, the Tennessee home crowd and ESPN audience were treated to a remarkably Tubervillian Auburn win: a few big drives accompanied by a lot of offensive miscues, wrapped around a generally solid but occasionally sloppy defensive performance, and a final score that looks closer than the actual game ever was.

The media meme going into the '09 Tigers' first road trip was, "We'll learn a lot about Auburn in this game." What I learned on Saturday night was that this Auburn team is a hell of a lot more physical than it appeared during the first four games. Tennessee has a lot of the same problems today that Auburn had a year ago in terms of the offensive skill players not matching the scheme, but there's nothing wrong with the Vols' offensive or defensive fronts. Even while misfiring too many times in the red zone, Auburn was still able to gash Tennessee for 459 yards of balanced offense without giving up a sack, and while rumbling for 128 of those yards, Ben Tate brought back some very fond memories:

...the more they stay the same.
Photo: Todd Van Ernst

While it's easy (and rather enjoyable) to make fun of little Laney Kiffen and his apparent need for regular diaper changes, the same can't be said for his father Monte, an accomplished veteran who's stepped in to manage Tennessee's defense. As a coach friend of mine noted, the elder Kiffen's respect for Gus Malzahn's offense was clear from the early going. Kiffen played things very safe, sticking with a standard 4-3 alignment for almost the entire game, and committing to keeping big plays to an absolute minimum. While he largely succeeded in the latter, Kiffen still wasn't able to keep Malzahn's speed attack from wearing his guys down. By the time Auburn was driving for the put-away touchdown and coffin-nail field goal in the fourth quarter, the Vol defense looked like it had just finished a triathalon after four or five sleepless nights. Auburn was also able to dial up an answer on virtually every Tennessee blitz (even if the execution wasn't always there) and that all by itself says a lot about Malzahn's abilities as a play caller--just in case outgaining Florida's offense vs. the Vols by 136 yards didn't say enough.

Auburn's defensive performance was exceptionally solid--except when it wasn't. In general the tackling was phenomenally better than we'd seen in the early games, and the Tigers thoroughly stifled Tennessee's admittedly non-explosive offense for a good 55 minutes of the game. Unfortunately though, AU just doesn't have the defensive depth to dominate from start to finish, and it showed at the ends of both halves. Fatigue gave the Vols a hope-saving score just before halftime, and contributed mightily to allowing 16 fourth-quarter points--although even fatigue can't excuse giving up the garbage touchdown as time expired (oh, and Laney: I really doubt you'll ever coach against AU again, but on that off-chance, we'll remember your ridiculous signal to go for two. Punk). The defense deserves great credit for Tennessee never being in position to win the game, but Auburn still needs to bring along some more guys to help out the starters. There are plenty of better offenses than Tennessee's still on the schedule--although not, I suspect, many better defenses.

Lo and behold, the special teams actually showed occasional signs of being good, most notably springing Onterrio McCalebb loose on Tennessee's last kickoff to help slam the door. If the Tiger kickoff team can just pick up their play in coverage, they'll be doing their teammates (and my blood pressure) a world of good.

It was obviously not a perfect night, but a win on the road in the SEC is not required to be perfect. Although confidence is not a trait that Auburn has been conspicuously lacking in this young season, there aren't many confidence-builders better than going into a hundred-thousand-plus hostile stadium and eventually running all those hollering hillbillies off. Auburn had a lot to be proud of, and almost as much to learn from Saturday night. From here, it looks like Gene Chizik's troops are well-positioned to put both of those outcomes to good use.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

All-Gustav Thursday

Auburn's 2009 success on offense has not gone unnoticed (well, except for the toad beat writers populating the AP poll and the SIDs voting in the "coaches" poll, of course). Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn gets the in-depth treatment from Smart Football guru Chris Brown, writing at Dr. Saturday, as well as an, um, somewhat less intellectual take from Clay Travis. Both are impressed, as are Stewart Mandel of SI and Chris Low of ESPN.

In non-Gus news, if this account of blowing off a meeting with Peyton Manning is accurate, Jonathan Crompton may go down as one of history's bigger... hmm, family website. Well, it start with a "d" and ends with "bag, " and has an "oosh" sound in the middle.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Balls To The Wall

One of Pat Dye's favorite coaching observations is that it's not possible to get a team fired up for every single game in a long season. You just can't make that many kids focus intensely on all their opponents, and if you try, you run the risk of burning them out before the year is over. So you're going to have to accept the reality of not being one hundred percent sharp for every game, and do your best to insure that you're still good enough to beat the teams you aren't pawing at the ground to play.

If you were to combine the DNA of the dozen most successful coaches of all time, add in a dash of George S. Patton and a smidgen of starving wolverine, you still probably couldn't come up with a guy who could get a team fired up about playing an 0-3 Ball State. Like it or not, right or wrong, this was a checkbook win, and Auburn treated it that way for roughly two bookended quarters on yet another rainy Saturday night.

Of course, fired up or not, take away the thus-far perfect placekicking, and Auburn's special teams are still abysmally bad, and their ugly head popped up early against the Cardinals. Yet another fumbled punt led quickly to a 7-0 score against the home team, and I'm here to tell you, Auburn is going to have some games very shortly here where they won't be able to afford that kind of a screw-up. The Tigers are also consistently giving up 30-40 yards on kickoffs and 15-25 yards on punts, and that's almost as bad as turning the ball over. Sure, a month ago nobody would have predicted that AU's Achilles heel would be the kicking game, but there it is, and it needs fixing. Badly.

The kicking game also brought us the first really bad in-game decision of Gene Chizik's tenure, namely the boneheaded decision to go for a fake punt midway through the third quarter. Let's not gloss over here. It was a dumb and unnecessary call that darn near got a major cog in the offense, Onterio McCalebb, injured. McCalebb didn't return to the game, but he was walking around normally on the sidelines shortly after being examined by the team doctors.

Bad move, bad call. Don't do it again, and get busy fixing the regular, non-trickery stuff the special teams are doing so badly right now.

Give the other two legs of the stool the credit: after they shook off the cobwebs (or more accurately, I suspect, after some rapid attitude adjustments on the sidelines), both the offense and defense came roaring back to dominate Ball State. From about the five-minute mark in the first quarter through the third, Auburn did pretty much whatever they wanted to do. The starting defense absolutely smothered BSU from that point on; if you were looking for a textbook description of a defense intimidating an offense, just watch that short "drive" that led to Auburn's safety in the second quarter.

It didn't take long to start losing count of all the big scoring plays, as virtually everybody on the offense broke a long one or caught a touchdown pass. Chris Todd, written off by the world just about a year ago, continues to do the right things well and avoid almost all of the wrong things; I would say that this was Todd's best game to date, but really, he's been playing rock-solid ball since the first snap against Louisiana Tech.

What Todd really needs now is a reliable #3 receiver. Darvin Adams and Terrell "My Name Should Be Ed" Zackery have solidified their positions at this point, and either can be the go-to guy (and that doesn't even count the running backs, all of which are catching the ball well), but it would sure be nice if somebody else would step up to join them at wideout.

It was easy to get frustrated starting in the third quarter, when Auburn, leading 40-10, gave up a dumb score after the fake punt, then started wholesale substitutions. BSU was able to take advantage of both on offense. Ball State never really stopped Auburn's offense (minus the interception that showed painfully why Neal Caudle will not be a starter without a couple of serious injuries), but they were able to take advantage of the turnovers, and dinked and dunked the second- and third-team defense out of a good 13 points in the late going.

Granted, the outcome was never in doubt, and AU still won by three touchdowns and change, but it's still not comforting to see an outmanned MAC team get that many points. It was a reminder of two unfortunate realities in this year when so much good fortune has (finally) shined on the Tigers. There just isn't much quality depth on the Auburn defense (or the offensive line, as became clear rather early when a true freshman had to step in for the suspended Byron Isom), and that's unfortunately thanks to the previous coaching staff having done a pretty crummy job in recruiting over their last two years.

Those aren't fixable problems in 2009. All Gene Chizik and company can do in the meantime is to keep doing what they've been doing, and hope the first team can stay healthy. A rash of injuries in the wrong places could still doom what's been shaping up as a sublime year.

But in the meantime, Auburn remains gaudily undefeated (and gallingly unranked, but that just goes to show that there are few people as prone to following the herd as sportswriters), and ready to take on a Southeastern Conference run that suddenly looks a lot less daunting than it did just ten days ago.

Taking all that into account, seeing the third team give up garbage-time points doesn't seem like a very big deal.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Wow. Just Wow.

If you don't check Every Day Should Be Saturday on a regular basis, there's something seriously wrong with you.

(Or alternately, the sight of Spurrier in his Sleestak days giving five to Danny Wuerffel just makes you want to puke. I can dig it, but really, read the blog anyway.)

In any case, Orson Spencer Swindle Hall Mellencamp is just killing these days. Take the most recent post, guest-starring the Old Testament God from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, as an example. Dude is on a roll that makes Vegas pit bosses cringe from thousands of miles away.

Thoughts on Thursday's Result

1. First and most obviously, Ole Miss ever having been in the top 20, much less Number 4, is a huge and well-deserved black eye to the entire poll system. Susceptibility to preseason hype isn't the only flaw in the polls, but it's a honking big one.

2. If you have a credible offense, you have to be salivating at the sight of Georgia on your schedule. Any team that could give up 37 points to South Carolina's pedestrian attack simply does not have a defense.

3. Ole Miss will lose a minimum of four games this year (only their joke of an out of conference schedule, and a re-lousy-ed Vanderbilt keeps the tally from being worse), and will struggle to finish higher than fifth in the West.

4. South Carolina would do well to ignore the media meme about last night being a "signature win." Those were two very mediocre teams doing their best to hand a game over to the other guy. Steve Spurrier's got a lot of work left to do if he plans to make any serious noise this year.

5. I thought I would live out my days without ever seeing a Spurrier team run the option. I still can't quite believe Carolina did just that against the Rebels.

UPDATE: CBS's Gregg Doyel absolutely unloads on the mediot hype that pushed a very mediocre Ole Miss into the top five. A sample:
See, it wasn't just Ole Miss that was exposed Thursday night in a 16-10 loss to South Carolina. Nope. It was also the pollsters and the experts and the NFL scouts. It was the media. It was anyone and everyone who had voted for Ole Miss in the top five or had said Ole Miss junior quarterback Jevan Snead was a Heisman candidate or a first-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. It was a lot of people who should know better, and as a public service, I'm about to name some of them. That could be embarrassing to a few of these people and publications, but it will serve a purpose. It will teach a lesson or two.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lester Pulls A Kinsley

Speaking to Shreveport Times writer (and as it happens, AP poll voter) Glenn Guilbeau, Les Miles commited what political writers have come to call a "Kinsley Gaffe":

LSU coach Les Miles made a faux pas at his news conference Monday when asked if his team is deserving of the No. 7 ranking in both the Associated Press media poll and the USA Today coaches' poll, in which he votes.

"I can't tell you who the best teams in the country are, because frankly I don't get to see them every week," he said. "I don't know who's hot and who's not. I could no more rank ..."

At that point, Miles realized he was about to say he was not qualified in any way to rank the top 25 teams in the nation, even though he supposedly does that every week. Quickly, he tried to reverse his field.

"I vote. I know that. I know I vote. I know I vote. And I'm excited to vote. I do a great job," he said with his voice rising and his audience laughing.

"But I have to be very honest, I vote based on record and things that are not significant," he said. "I vote on what appears to be the best and most logical choice. That's all. But when you get to the back end of the season, you will be more pointed, and your rankings will certainly make a difference. And so I have no idea what the seventh ranked team in the country's supposed to play like."

Gulibeau noted afterwards the open secret that a college's Sports Information Director is almost always the actual voter in the "coaches' poll."

Miles gets a 50-point credit for honesty here, even if unintentional, but we subtract 25 points for the backtracking, laughter or no laughter--even though, as this story further demonstrates, all of the polls really are a joke.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


In other local news, the College Football Hall of Fame is apparently moving from the site of some obscure religious college in the middle of nowhere (South Bend, Indiana) to midtown Atlanta.

This emphatically does not suck.

Jeff Schultz on Urban Cryer

Since the departure of Tony Barnhart, Jeff Schultz is basically the only readable sportswriter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (although "losing" Terence Moore was clearly addition by subtraction for that paper). Schultz weighs in today on Florida's head coach (we like to refer to him at FTB as "0-For-Auburn Urban") and his penchant for whining:
But what did Meyer say Monday when he met with the media? Here’s excerpts on the subject of his own conservative play-calling: “When I saw [Tennessee] start handing the ball off, I didn’t feel like they were going after the win. The way we lose a game there is throw an interception. Why put yourself in that position? We’re not trying to impress the pollsters. We’re trying to win the game.”

So, basically Meyer: 1) Ripped Tennessee’s game plan, which actually gave Tennessee the best chance to win; 2) Claimed he’s not trying to impress pollsters, this from someone whose team since 2007 has had point totals of 62, 56, 56, 51, 63, 49, 56, 70, 49, 59, 59,49, 51 and 59.

Meyer looks like a tool. How about just say, “The other team played great and it turns out the other coach is not a moron.” Instead, he alibied that several of his players had the flu.

To Kiffin’s credit, he didn’t fire back much, at least not beyond this crack: “I guess we’ll wait, and after [the next game], if we’re not excited about a performance, we’ll tell you everybody was sick.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Morning Links

Couple of good links to share today, starting with Kevin Scarbinsky, aka the only readable sports columnist in Alabama (give or take Cecil Hurt, but until Cecil puts down the Kool-Aid, I'm content to watch from afar). Kevin makes a more-than-cogent point here, and one you won't read much of anywhere else outside the Auburn blogosphere:

Speaking of fun, that’s what Auburn football has become again. Taylor has been a big part of the attitude adjustment. Unlike certain long-time members of the previous staff, no one could accuse him of putting in time until he’s vested in the state retirement system.

Suffice to say, Kevin wasn't talking about Don Dunn. *cough*Ensminger*cough*

And on the national front, here's a big plug for the Sporting News' weekly feature "This Week In Schadenfreude," which compiles some of the funniest instant reactions from blogs and message boards of the previous Saturday's losing teams. Literally every other blogger in the country is kicking himself for not thinking of this one first; it is an absolute riot every week. A sample, from a fan of Auburn's next opponent:

Remember when Ball State was going to play Boise State in a battle of undefeateds? And then they lost and everyone forgot about it? Yeah, they keep losing. Lots. Over the Pylon has a commemorative Stan Parrish birthday haiku:

poop feces dung s---
cow-patty diarrhea
brown-snake crap turd log

That's about right for a team that just lost to North Texas, New Hampshire, and Army. Enjoy this weekend's Auburn game.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Thunderbolts And Lightning (Very Very Frightening)

I was going to try and describe the scene in Auburn just before the scheduled kickoff time on Saturday, but then I realized that Neil Peart had already done it for me:

The clouds prepare for battle
In the dark and brooding silence
Bruised and sullen storm clouds
Have the light of day obscured
Looming low and ominous
In twilight premature
Thunderheads are rumbling
In a distant overture...

--"Jacob's Ladder," Rush

My extended family and I almost made it to the stadium gates before the bottom fell out. Almost. We were about halfway through the big scholarship lot on the west side when the deluge started. Instead of trying to run the rest of the way with two senior citizens and a four-year-old in tow, we ducked under a tailgate tent (actually just a canvas "roof" on stilts) and rode the storm out, and so I missed seeing the raucous reaction of the AU student section to their impromptu (and extended) shower, For this I am truly regretful.

Of course, after the storm passed and the game finally started, most of the hometown crowd wondered for a while whether they hadn't been better off in the rain. Both West Virginia and Auburn appeared to have picked up where they had left off last October in Morgantown last; the Mountaineers leapt out to a 14-0 lead thanks to big plays from their hyperdrive-fast offensive skill players, and Auburn's offense couldn't get out of its own way for a couple of possessions.

It's funny looking back at just how much football was packed into a mere four quarters on Saturday night. Maybe I have a bad internal clock or something, but that first half alone seemed like it lasted about eight hours. The initial WVU burst actually took less than five minutes off the clock; by the ten-minute mark the Tigers had righted themselves and started to methodically claw their way back. From that moment to the near-midnight final buzzer, Auburn outscored the visitors by 41-16.

When it's time to put this season in perspective, I think the manner of this win will be more significant than the score. Most good football teams can do one or two things very well, but have a hard time recovering when their opposition can counter those primary skills. A year ago, once the Mountaneers figured out how to stymie Auburn's patchwork offense, they were freed to go off to the races against a demoralized Tiger defense.

In 2009, having watched the films and noted the national statistics, WVU committed to stopping the run and attacking AU's defense where it is still thin and relatively inexperienced. For that first five minutes (and sporadically for the remainder of the game) the strategy worked quite well, but it wasn't enough. This time around, Auburn was able to adapt and find advantages outside of their prior comfort zones, and that was what made all the difference.

Last year all a defense really had to do was stack the line to stop Auburn; no combination of AU quarterbacks or receivers were a serious threat to beat you through the air. In 2009, as the Mountaneers learned, that ain't the case, and the Tigers' production is no longer limited to one or two guys. Chris Todd to Darvin Adams is rightfully getting a lot of ink this week, but look a little deeper and you'll also find those nice wheel routes to Eric Smith and Mario Fannin coming out of the backfield. Fannin's monstrous, untouched 82-yard romp in the third quarter was the real play of the game. It signaled that West Virginia's defense was gassed, and shortly afterwards WVU's offensive coaches pushed the panic button, abandoning the run for the duration.

WVU got one more scoring drive after Fannin's touchdown, managing a field goal to claim a brief 30-27 lead, but that was it. Noel Devine and Jarrett Brown are marvelous football players, but in the second half they both clearly were affected by the poundings they'd absorbed from a Tiger defense that just wouldn't be worn down. That defense, allegedly vulnerable to the pass but revitalized this year by finally getting help from their offensive teammates, responded to WVU's change in tactics with a flurry of interceptions that put the game away.

So here's what I really took away from the West Virginia game--other than some really wet clothes, that is: Auburn is good, but more importantly Auburn is showing that it can be better than good. As noted above, you can beat a good team if you attack the right spots, but when you successfully attack those spots only to see the other guys adjust to you and start hitting you where you didn't expect it... then you're in trouble, because you've just found yourself playing something beyond a merely good football team.

Auburn is going to have to be better than merely good to continue the recovery run they're on right now. After a brief breather this Saturday, the Tigers are facing a brutal five-week all-SEC October stretch that includes three away games. They're going to need every bit of confidence and experience they've built up in this opening month to make it through successfully (to say nothing of some luck in the no-injuries department), but so far, if you're not feeling optimistic about Auburn's future, you either have a closet full of red polyester or you simply haven't been paying attention.

* * *

You may have asked yourself sometime Sunday afternoon, "Self, why the hell is Auburn still unranked in the polls?" The answer--and the situation--encapsulate everything that's wrong with Division 1-A's (spare me the dumb new PR acronym) disgraceful lack of a legitimate championship system. Auburn isn't ranked yet largely because the AP poll is mostly populated by local beat writers, who barely have time to cover their own assigned team on a given Saturday (and the same applies to the various Sports Information Directors who actually fill out the ballots in the "coaches" poll).

Those voters catch up at the end of the day by watching highlights on ESPN--but ESPN barely mentions unranked teams, and rarely airs highlights of their games. Since Auburn and West Virginia were both unranked in the preseason--and so weren't ranked in the following two weeks' polls--there were no highlights afterwards, essentially communicating to the AP voters that no game of note actually took place. No preseason ranking (never mind that the previous year's finish, by the written but ignored rules of the polls, should have no bearing) means no highlights, no highlights meant no new ranking. Just another example of how arbitrary and stupid the poll system is and always has been.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lane Kiffin Shoots Up

While flipping channels last night, I ran across Lane Kiffin's postgame show. Figuring it would be good for a laugh, I tuned in for a few minutes. My jaw absolutely hit the floor when I heard this statement from Kiffin early in the playback. I had to run back the DVR to be sure I hadn't misunderstood, but there it is:

The exact quote from Kiffin is, "The center had not been able to snap the ball [for] a couple of days leading into the game, and so we shot him up before the game so he was able to play."

I don't recall ever hearing a college coach--certainly not a head coach--talking about giving a kid injections to get him into a game before. That's certainly not to say it doesn't happen, but I've never heard anybody come out and announce it in public like that. Besides the shot, it doesn't say much good about Kiffin that he doesn't know the name of his starting center (it's Cody Sullins, at least as far as I can tell from the video and box score).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Recommended Reading

Sure, it's just week three, but Mark at The Auburner is already in mid-season form:
Kodi Burns better win some sort of national award for the nation's top wide receiver. Since I'm an Auburn fan, I have no idea what such an award is called... but Kodi Burns should get it since I doubt there's ever been a wide receiver to score five touchdowns despite only catching one ball.
Read the whole thing. When you're done, check out this absolutely brutal dissection of Jim Tressel, the midwest's preeminent example of dinosaur football, by Chris Brown of Smart Football.

Zinger Of The Day

David Ching, in the Athens Banner-Herald, on Georgia:
After watching Georgia alternate between dazzling productivity and depressing failures in Saturday's 41-37 win over South Carolina, this team apparently has more personalities than Herschel Walker.

Here's an, er, unsatisfied Bulldog fan in Ching's comments with another choice quote:
I could line Helen Keller up against Martinez's defense and score. Wait a minute; You say she's blind and dead? Doesn't matter, she'll score anyway. How can that man even take a paycheck?

49 > 3

What difference can a coaching chance make? How's this: Against Mississippi State, it was worth 39 more offensive points, 15 more first downs, 274 more total yards, and a whole bunch of Auburn fans and players feeling a whole lot better about life in general.

Even given that it's only two games into the 2009 season, and those two games were against a WAC team (if a good one) and the SEC West's likely cellar dweller, the difference between this year and the annus horibilis of 2008 are already stark.

Pretty much all the same batch of players (give or take Onterrio McCalebb and Chris Todd's shoulder, which are not inconsiderable factors) who labored through gloom, despair and agony to shuffle off the field seven times last year are now a vibrant, confident and increasingly capable team.

After two weeks of blasting past the 550-yard mark in total offense, it might just be time to reconsider a lot of prior assessments regarding this team and its coaches. It's likely appropriate for those who derided Gus Malzhan as running a "high school offense" (including, er, me) to rethink that analysis, and it's definitely time to put to bed the much-repeated claim (again, including by myself) that AU lacks playmakers on offense. With the one-two punch of Ben Tate and McCalebb gouging out huge tracts of land and Todd guiding a precise air attack, Malzhan's troops look absolutely nothing like the stuck-in-stop offense of the Franklin/Nallsminger II debacle. The offensive line has been revitalized to the point where even their opponents can't stop talking about them.

You think going from three to 49 was impressive? Try going from 104th to fourth--that's the difference in Auburn's national ranking in total offense from last November to today: one hundred teams worth of better. If there's a similar magnitude turnaround in recent history, I'm not aware of it.

For all the success Tommy Tuberville had during his decade in Auburn, one of the most accurate criticisms of his coaching was that he lacked a killer instinct. I can only recall off-hand two games in which Tuberville let his offensive coordinator keep the pedal to the metal for the duration (ironically, both were against Mississippi State, or more accurately, against Jackie Sherrill, in 2002 and 2003). As noted Sunday by Kevin Scarbinsky in an unusually tough-on-Tubs column, much more common sight was Auburn getting a lead and then going into the much-derided "Tubershell" for the duration.

Tuberville's habit of playing not to lose grated on many, not least including one G. Chizik; according to many reports, the former defensive coordinator was not remotely happy to see his offensive counterparts ordered to shut things down in the second half, most notably against Georgia in 2002 and in the 2005 Sugar Bowl. For good or for ill, those days appear to be over in Auburn. In both of the first two games, the Tigers have gone full-bore two minute drill at the end of the second quarter (scoring both times), and continued to pour on the offense in the second half.

Not everything is perfect, of course, and It's still far too early to declare Auburn as returned to elite status, much less to proclaim that the Gene Chizik Era is a new Tiger golden age. The defense is still way too thin, and minus that nifty fake punt, the kicking game was nothing short of lousy against State (and let's give some credit where it's due: MSU has outstanding special teams, to say nothing of two great players in Anthony Dixon and Leon Berry; they just don't have much else).

But you can't so much as glance at this team and not see how much better it is compared to a year ago, and I'm not just talking about how they're playing between the sidelines. I'm talking about how they're acting and how they're clearly feeling.

Confidence is more contagious than the swine flu, and right now Gene Chizik has an epidemic on his hands.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

You Can Take Corn Dogs Out Of Red Stick, But...

A relative in Seattle who was invited to the LSU-Washington game last weekend took the following snapshot of road-tripping Bengal fans representing the SEC some team that wears purple out on the Left Coast:

I got a particular kick out of the guy third from the left who appears to be texting with one hand and... well, you can figure out the rest.

Stay classy, you crazy Corn Dogs purple-wearing booze-hounds.

UPDATE: In the comments, Ryan points out (correctly) that at least one of the guys in the photo above is wearing a Washington cap and jersey.

Hell, I thought all they wore out there was flannel shirts, but the point is taken: Washington, you officially also have drunk rubes for fans.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Chavis, Not So Regal

From Ivan Maisel's "Three-Point Stance" column yesterday:

No. 11 LSU scored a defensive touchdown and forced another turnover inside its own 4-yard-line. But the Tigers couldn’t put away Washington because they couldn’t get off the field. Husky quarterback Jake Locker completed 8-of-11 passes for 137 yards on third downs alone. He also ran for 40 yards on five third-down carries. The Tigers may be adjusting to new defensive coordinator John Chavis, and he to them.

I remain a Maisel fan, but I completely don't get the pundit deference bestowed upon Chavis since he was hired by LSU. My first reaction when I heard about that move was, "Les Miles is an idiot."

The game has long since passed Chavis by, and he was rarely better than terrible in his last five-or-so years at Tennessee. You could make a very solid argument that Phil Fulmer would still be wearing traffic-cone orange on the Vol sidelines today if he'd kicked his pal John to the curb after, say, the 2003 season, and hired a competent replacement.

This week's game at Washington (more on that later, by which I mean, "pictures of drunk LSU fans that you don't want to miss") was a further indication of just how bad a hire Chavis was. I seriously don't expect the hapless Huskies to light the world on fire this year, and if LSU couldn't stop even them, it might be another long year in Corn Dog Country.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Oh No, William And Mary Won't Do

I never liked Al Groh. He and Charlie The Hutt epitomize the arrogant NFL coach who thinks he can just waltz into college football and win ten or eleven a year without even trying hard.

Not so much, and no way Groh survives this score, which is easily the biggest shocker of opening week: William & Mary 26, Virginia 14.

Starting Strong

While a comfortable win, complete with some genuine offensive fireworks, was a more than welcome sight to sore Auburn eyes, I think I was most relieved--and impressed--by things I didn't see Saturday night.

In the immediate aftermath of Gene Chizik's hiring, a number of articles and blog posts popped up out of Ames, Iowa complaining about the kind of things that made Doug Barfield's inauspicious tenure in Auburn the anti-legend it is today: poor game planning, chaos on the sidelines, indecision at key moments, and a general state of haphazard-ness that allegedly permeated the Cyclone program. Happily, there were no signs of any such foul-ups in Chizik's Auburn debut. When a team with an entirely brand-new staff, including their third brand-new offense in as many years, has exactly one off-sides penalty and no delay of game penalties in their first outing, that speaks quite well of the level of preparation and organization on the part of the coaching staff. Not everything was perfect, but Auburn didn't look like a team with a new coach on Saturday; they just looked like a team playing their first game.

On offense, this was quite obviously the best Auburn has looked in a long, long time, perhaps going all the way back to the 2005 season. There were no traces of Tony Franklin's chaotic first half of 2008, much less the entirely inept second half allegedly "coached" by Steve Ensminger. As my dad noted afterwards, I'm not sure the 2008 Tigers could have amassed 550 yards against Auburn High School. It would be going too far (way too far) to call Gus Malzhan's first Auburn offense a well-oiled touchdown machine at this early date, but look at things this way: if the Tigers had possessed a merely mediocre offense last season, as opposed to the catastrophically awful one that actually showed up, they'd have won at least another two games (and possibly two or three more than that), and played in a bowl.

If Auburn can simply keep improving on what they did this week, they'll be considerably better than just mediocre on offense in 2009. Literally everything was better. I freely admit that I was not thrilled at the idea of Chris Todd getting the start at quarterback (although I didn't exactly have any better options to offer), but Todd played a fine game Saturday. I only saw one poor passing decision, and he just nailed that uncoverable corner fade that Danny Wuerffel won about a million games with for a nice fourth-quarter score. The offensive line, returning to a down stance, was able to play power ball up front, and as a result the running game was immensely better--proving once again that such things are possible with that exotic commodity known as "blocking" (and the hot rod wheels on Onterrio McCalebb didn't hurt any, either). While the receivers didn't make anybody forget their counterparts at Florida or Texas, they also didn't much resemble the concrete-handed bunch we'd see in Jordan-Hare over the last few years.

Regarding Kodi Burns' alleged move to wide receiver, after watching this first game, I think I'm safe in saying that said position switch was much more real on paper than in reality. It's clear to me that Auburn has a 1-A quarterback, Todd--and a 1-B quarterback, Burns. If Malzhan can make the combination work--and it worked pretty darn well on Saturday--he's going to have an awful lot of options for this offense, and a lot of opportunities to be quite sneaky in key situations.

Tech has a pretty good offensive team, and it was heartening to see Auburn shut them down for most of the game. The Bulldogs would not have scored their initial touchdown without the Tigers giving them 30 yards in gift penalty yardage (plus another 15-yarder on that bogus interference call courtesy of referee Steve Shaw's typically-inept squad), and they rarely threatened to score afterwards. I really liked what I saw from Jake Ricks up front, and while La Tech's Derek Dooley quite sensibly called a game designed to pick on Auburn's thin linebackers, the patchwork corps was still able to crush Tech's running game and control the passing of QB Russ Jenkins; I was particularly impressed with Josh Bynes. And as far as the special teams are concerned, hey, what's wrong with having over 100 yards in field goals?

Louisiana Tech is obviously not a SEC team; if they were invited to join the conference, it would constitute a monumental success for them to finish higher than twelfth out of thirteen... but they're not Florida International or Charleston Southern, either. La Tech returned most of an offense that won eight games including a bowl last year, and they're clearly a well-coached squad. Beating them soundly won't mean much to Auburn's reputation nationally, but it should make quite a difference in the way this team regards itself, and in the way Auburn fandom regards the team and their coaches.

There's still an awful long way to go in this season, and the real tests haven't even started yet, but if my inbox is any indication, that adjustment among Auburn fans is already happening. Those who were watching Saturday were impressed, and they're starting to feel some confidence again after a long dry spell. Maybe that's the best thing that happened on that humid night of September 5, 2009: for the first time since the last hour of 2007, Auburn football was fun again.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Morning Report

A quick post while I'm waiting for breakfast... I'll have something up about yesterday's win later; for now I'm in recovery mode. Just as my wife and I got back home last night, around one in the morning, my cell phone rang. It was my dad, telling me that he'd just had a wreck on his own way home. He and my mom are fine, if a little worse for being stuck in the middle of nowhere for most of the night.

As much fun as night games can be, the reality of tens of thousands of tired people driving through the night afterwards is a reality that neither ESPN--which popularized prime-time college football--nor the universities and conferences have been willing to acknowledge. To the networks, fans at games are by definition not tuned in, and a non-factor. The schools long ago sold off their kickoff time rights to television, and also ignore the ticket holders--better known as their best customers.

I have no illusions about this situation changing, especially after this year's umpty-million TV deals, but the older I get, the more convinced I am that the late Shug Jordan was right in every particular when he said college football was meant to be played, "On campus, on grass, and in the afternoon."

Saturday, September 05, 2009


An annual tradition here at FTB, and elsewhere. From 2000, Geoffrey Norman:
We were supposed to be talking politics but we couldn't help ourselves. It was hot. It is always hot in the black belt of Alabama in the middle of August, and it feels like it will be hot for all eternity. So we talked about sports for some relief.

"You know," the man said wearily, "I just can't wait until they kick it off again. I mean, I feel like if I can just make it for another two or three weeks, then they'll be playing football again and then everything will be okay."

Hallelujah, Amen.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


From the Auburn Eagle, check out this great story from my buddy Eagle5 about former Tiger (and fellow Enterprise grad) Thomas Bailey. Very nice job.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Is This Thing On?

Hey, is it football season yet?

Okay, okay, I apologize for the near-utter lack of posts as we roll up to the season. Real life has (quite rudely) intruded mightily upon blogging for most of this summer, and making things worse, at least where Auburn is concerned, there are far more questions than answers out there for the time being. In all the times I've been asked how I think the Tigers are going to do this year, I haven't been able to come up with anything more eloquent than a shrug, and for good reason: there are way too many unknowns in 2009. With an entirely new coaching staff and a whole lot of new faces on the field (to say nothing of all the similar shakeups at many of the '09 opponents), I can safely say that I don't have the foggiest idea what the final record is going to look like--but then again, neither does anybody else.

My track record is no better than anybody else's when it comes to predictions (although it's also no worse than the collective "wisdom" of the SEC sportswriters who picked AU to win the West last year), but this recent graphical breakdown of the Tiger starting lineup by Charles Goldberg at the Birmingham News is a nice starter for commentary:

(Note: a friend emailed me the above graphic, but I can't for the life of me find it on al.com's site. Anybody who knows the correct link, please add a comment or send me an email, and I'll be happy to add it to this post.)

To start off with the defense, I'm afraid Goldberg is probably being, if anything, generous to AU's effectively one-deep linebacking corps. Without casting aspersions on the three guys who are starting, after a spate of spring and August injuries, there's almost literally nobody behind them--and even the starters, notably Eltoro Freeman, aren't completely healthy. If I were an opposing offensive coordinator, I'd plan to run right up the gut the whole game and wear those LBs out. On the other hand, I think he's way underrating the defensive line, which has enough depth and developed talent to be very good again this year; the only question mark is at left end, where Michael Goggins has apparently been bounced in favor of JUCO newcomer Antoine Carter Nick Fairley. I feel a little better about the secondary than Goldberg does; three of the four starters are by-now veterans, but I concede the point about depth.

In similar terms, while I think Goldberg is right to credit the offensive line starters for being a good group, there's just precious little backup there. If even one of those guys goes down, Auburn is in serious trouble. Assuming Gus Malzahn can avoid calling a "Meercat" offense including that awful east-west draw (with the added benefit of no blocking), I feel safe in saying that the Tigers will have a vastly-improved running game in 2009. I wish I could argue his points about the quarterbacks and receivers, but let's face it: no wideout on the roster has significant catches, and the one returning quarterback with significant playing time was pretty awful last year. No, that wasn't always his fault, but not unlike his head coach, the burden of proving that he can be (a lot) better is Chris Todd's to deal with until and unless he does so.

I'd also extend that point towards Auburn fans who've gotten worked up over being picked last or next-to-last in the West, or at somewhere in the second half of Division 1-A in the extended preseason polls. Look, folks: Auburn was terrible for most of last year. The most significant win? Toss-up between 5-7 Tennessee and 7-6 Southern Miss. We then went and hired a coach with a losing streak as ugly as your average ramp-rat in Tuscaloosa. What the heck are they supposed to think? I'll give you a hint: it sure isn't "championship contender."

Now, like every other preseason prediction, those are based on perception as least as much as reality, and predictions certainly aren't destiny. But, again: you've got to prove the perceptions wrong. It's not up to the observers, no matter who they are or how little they might be paying attention, to change their minds first. You've got to give them reason to.

Auburn's first opportunity to present its case, for better or for worse, is Saturday night.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Letter To The Editor

Editor, Auburn Magazine,

Even given the abysmal descent into of style over substance, touchie-feelie "Oprah" writing and embarrassing errors that have come to dominate the pages of Auburn Magazine during the tenure of editor Betsy Robertson, this quarter's issue has to be an all-time low. I suppose one could make a legitimate argument for giving a prominent alumnae such as Selena Roberts coverage in the magazine, but turning that coverage into a fawning puff piece is inexcusable [the article is not yet available online; when it is, I'll link to it --WC].

Selena Roberts is not a credit to Auburn University; she is a disgrace upon its good name. I still can't believe that Auburn Magazine--of all publications!--not only brushed over and excused Roberts' serial abuses as a New York Times "reporter," but couldn't find so much as one paragraph to note Roberts' slanderous and unfounded attack on the Auburn athletic department and the Reverend Chette Williams in early 2005. Back then, Roberts ran a breathless column insinuating Williams was guilty of NCAA violations on behalf of AU.

Subsequent investigations by Auburn and the NCAA found nothing of the sort, but Roberts, true to form, never retracted or apologized, and her unsubstantiated hit piece is quoted to this day by representatives of rival schools. And that doesn't even touch on the article's airy dismissal of Roberts' infamous rush to judgement (and subsequent "what, me, responsible?" reaction) to the Duke Lacrosse hoax.

No doubt Roberts' editors at the arch-liberal Times were more than pleased to read an assault on those redneck rubes and their backwards Christian ways written by one of their own, but under no circumstances should Roberts have received six pages of celebrity worship coverage in the University's own alumni publication.

Auburn Magazine is badly adrift, and in dire need of new leadership.

--Will Collier, AE '92

(Cross-posted to WillCollier.com.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The recent spate of columns about Terry Bowden's new job at North Alabama (or more accurately, Jerry's post about them) got me thinking about Bowden for the first time in quite a while.

Terry Bowden is the only Auburn coach I've ever actually known personally. Pat Dye wouldn't know me from a pair of mud-encrusted plaid pants, and while Tommy Tuberville certainly knows who I am (he almost banned the local Rivals guys from the athletic department thanks in part to my '03 columns), we've never spoken in anything other than brief pleasantries at the Atlanta alumni club banquets.

But I spent a bit of time with Terry while writing "The Uncivil War," and a little more time in the years between its publication and his abrupt departure. Not a lot; we weren't on each other's Christmas lists, but he'd take my calls on the very rare occasions when I made them, and I got to know him a little bit. Most of what I got to know you could figure out from a distance: Terry is a smart and talented guy, but he was always a lot more about Terry than he ever was about Auburn.

I suspect the only people Terry ever really listened to were other Bowdens, and this was the downfall of both Terry and Tommy as coaches if you ask me. Together they could bounce ideas off each other and one could call the other out when he was suggesting something stupid. Apart, lacking feedback they respected, each one would go ahead and do the stupid thing. Quite obviously, Terry loves the sound of his own voice, and he's got the politician's habit of telling whomever he's talking to what he thinks they want to hear.

When it comes to why things just didn't work out with Terry and Auburn, two specific moments leap to my mind. Bowden's Auburn honeymoon ended on the night of September 21, 1996. The hometown Tigers lost a close one to the LSU variety on the night the old gym burned down outside the stadium gates, but what sticks out from that night for me was Bowden's post-game radio interview. Obviously agitated, Terry recounted how Auburn's kicker had a meltdown, and the backup quarterback threw a bad interception, and a few other things that time has thankfully erased from my memory.

Mind you, nothing he said was untruthful. The kicker did melt down, and the backup did throw a pick or three, but Bowden didn't take responsibility for the loss on himself, and virtually everybody listening thought, "He's blaming his players." The resulting reaction was the first real dose of poison in the relationship between Bowden and Auburn at large, and things festered, slowly, over the next couple of years. Bowden was still successful enough on the field to survive and occasionally thrive--at least while Dameyune Craig was in an AU uniform.

I also remember the exact moment when I knew Terry's job was in trouble. In August of 1998, there was a scrimmage for the scholarship donors in Jordan-Hare, with a coach autograph session in the Club Level after the "game." I'd recently done some freelance stuff for Inside The Auburn Tigers magazine, and was on the sidelines for the scrimmage (I recall ITAT editor Mark Murphy trying to telegraph to me that it was going to be a long season).

I walked up to the Club Level to see how things went afterwards. A couple of hundred hot, sweaty donors were lined up with their kids for autographs, but no Terry. I chatted with Pete Jenkins for a little while; Jenkins was and is one of the best people ever in that profession, and he did his level best to calm things down, but time kept ticking, and the day kept getting hotter, and still no Terry. The line got angrier and angrier; you could see Bowden's support literally dripping away on the faces of the rank-and-file athletic donors, the people whose goodwill he'd need the most just a few weeks later.

Since I was never looking for any autographs, I decided to hang it up and go find some air conditioning. On my way out of the stadium, I glanced down into the superstructure below the south end zone. There was Terry, yukking it up and eating watermelon with the ground crew. I shook my head, and went on home.