Watching the game on Saturday I pondered it over again and again. Looking back on the misery of 2012 season and the pain the program endured in its quick downward spiral, I tried not to lose focus. My twelve year old son pointed out the positives of this team and I quickly countered with the negatives. I was doing my best to keep it real. As it turns out… he was more right than me. Surprise! Therefore, I think it’s important to clear the air…
First and foremost I am so very proud of this team. Auburn came in to the 2013 season with an outside hope of attaining a 6-6 or 7-5 record. And look at them now.
The prognosticators, with me among them, thought that AU would lose to the SEC elite. The games with LSU, Ole Miss, TA&M, UGA, and bama were sure losses. Games with MSU, ARK, and Tennessee were doubtful. As the season progressed it was noticeable that this team probably didn’t believe much in itself either because it simply wasn’t very good. Like a rusty piece of machinery that hadn’t been operated in decades it was lethargic, and unwieldy. It was hard to believe that we won a National Championship in 2010. AU squeaked through the opening games with Washington State and Mississippi State. But still the team chugged along. Like the tin man… all it needed was the right coaching… and lubricant.
Then the torrential downpour game with LSU in Baton Rouge and the progress we had noticed taking place seemed to be lost in the flood. From where I sat it appeared that the wheels had fallen off. AU was dominated from the start to the finish. But even with the loss, something phenomenal appeared to be happening. AU didn’t quit. AU kept slugging. It made me think that the saying “it’s a new day” actually seemed to mean something instead of another flashy, empty media slogan. Auburn, with its head coach leading… kept fighting. In a game that should have been a 28 point loss, AU pulled within two touchdowns to make it respectable. I think valuable lessons were learned that day.
Then Ole Miss came to town… with a tough Oxford squad that had beaten Texas at home. But it had suffered one loss which came to bama the week before. AU and Ole Miss tied up and punched it out. The game went down to the wire for all intensive purposes. And Auburn pulled out a tough, physical victory. Suddenly, AU was 5-1 going into College Station to face Texas A&M. It was then I asked the question: do you believe?
I realize that it might seem silly to think AU stood a chance in the home of the 12th man, but I asked the question any way. The fight I had seen AU develop in Baton Rouge I expected to see on this day. And see it we all did. The year before the Aggies had decimated Auburn in Jordan Hare before halftime. But this year, Auburn battled and fought. Down and back up again. Behind and ahead. Auburn came through and beat Johnny Football and the Aggies at home in probably one of the toughest venues in the Southeastern Conference. I was hooked!
7-1 and with a new light ahead AU rolled in to Fayetteville. AU was able to battle Murphy on the road and once again pull out a victory. In the perfect upset game, Bret Bielema blows the ambush that SEC scheduling had naturally set up to provide him with the signature win he needed to provide him at least a three year contract. He ran his mouth and earned the ire of Gus Malzahn who is an Arkansas native. Still, AU played to the ability of its opponent and won.
That brings us to the next team that had an equally natural set up for a near ambush… Tennessee and its coach Butch Davis. While their fans may be classless, the program is definitely one of the up and coming teams in the SEC I believe. Playing at home in front of its home crowd Tennessee actually had already had what many considered the signature win against a highly ranked South Carolina squad and a near upset of Georgia to whom it lost in over-time.
Again, Tennessee is a team that plays better at home. It was ranked 109th in passing, 48th in rushing, 88th in overall offense, and 94th in overall defense.
Coming into the game, Auburn was ranked 108th in passing, 3rd in rushing, 18th overall in offense, and 22nd overall defense.
While the passing grades might confuse some, any AU fan would be able to explain that the philosophy of Gus Malzahn is to run first and pass only to open up the run. I think this remained true against the Vols.
When the game started, Auburn’s defense opened flat. Tennessee was able to drive the field and score a field goal. The mere fact that AU kept them out of the end zone was a minor victory in and of itself. Auburn’s offense took possession and subsequently punted. The good news was that UT didn’t fare any better in its next possession and punted. Based upon good special teams play from AU, it started in Tennessee territory. In two plays AU scored with a 22 yard pass from Marshall to Uzomah that appeared flawless and seem to answer critics that Marshall was unskilled as a passer hitting Uzomah in step on a wheel route. However Tennessee’s special teams blocked the extra point try. This proved to be the Vols only impact on special teams.
Again, AU kicked off to UT and they drove the field scoring another field goal and thereby tying the game. On AU’s next possession, it fumbled the ball away killing a 44 yard drive. UT got the ball and put together the only touchdown drive it had all day. UT kicked the ball back to AU and the next drive took two plays and 75 yards for another AU rushing TD. AU had answered the bell and continued to answer the bell for the rest of the game. From there on out AU was in control. AU went on to win handily 55-23. Even with two turnovers and sloppy play, with one of the turnovers for a pick six… AU never looked back.
Auburn is about to enter “Amen Corner” with our remaining two games with UGA and bama. If AU wins out – AU plays for the SEC championship and possibly has a chance to play for the National Championship. What more could we ask for? But it’s called “amen” corner for a reason… it’s the toughest part of our schedule. Always has been.
I want to state for the record, regardless what happens in these remaining two games of the season, I am happy with the progress of this Auburn team. This season is a success by any measure. I believe that Malzahn should be considered for coach of the year honors considering the turnaround of this team. Accordingly, next year seems extremely bright. That said, this year still has games to be played and AU control’s its own destiny.
It’s time to focus on the University of Georgia. Murray is the all time passer in the SEC. He is the best. And UGA is a different team with Gurley as running back. With him back on the roster I know AU will have its hands full in Jordan Hare. I expect nothing less than the “Oldest Rivalry in the South” to live up to its name. Expect a shoot out of tremendous proportions. I truly believe this game will last 60 minutes and come down to the last possession.
Isn’t it funny how college football is so unpredictable? UGA was expected to compete for the National Title. And it’s now their role to play spoiler for Auburn and try to salvage their season.
Make no mistake: Auburn’s strength is its offense. I think Auburn is hitting on all cylinders at the right time. AU needs to come into this game and put the pedal to the metal and knock the dawgs out early. Because I for one believe that Mark Richt will have the dawgs ready to play. Todd Grantham, UGA’s defensive coordinator, will have the tools to try to lock down the read option and take away Marshall’s ability to run. Expect UGA to load the box. It will then be up to AU’s offensive line, quarter back and it’s receiving corps to blow this game open.
But it should be pointed out that against UT our receivers were not a sure thing. And Marshall was below 50% with 3 of 7 for a total of 35 yards passing with a TD on the day. Still, Marshall hit every mark. I think it was receiver’s just not catching the ball. The one where he hit Savage in the groin on a third down attempt to keep a drive alive couldn’t have been better thrown. But the one for the screen that was taken back for six points… well, that was a poor read by Marshall against a substandard defense. Even with our offense this week during practice, there are areas that AU must improve in coming into the Georgia game.
But it’s Ellis Johnson’s defense that specifically has me worried. We are as porous on defense as a sieve is to water. For example, Tennessee was able to garner 354 yards on Auburn. True AU was able to keep them out of the end zone two of three times they visited the red zone. Still UT got 128 yards through the air and another 226 on the ground.
Our defensive line took nearly a whole quarter before it ever registered a sack. That means that for 15 minutes AU’s front four got whipped at the line of scrimmage. That is unacceptable. The teams we face in the next couple of weeks have offensive lines that are as good as OR many times better than UT’s. AU’s front four must do more.
I believe that the Achilles heel of AU’s defense is our linebacker corps. Even with Holland on the side line our LBs whiffed time and time again with Frost and McKinnsey. Our success will depend solely on this group’s ability to plug running lanes and covering their receivers. But more importantly on their ability to execute an open field tackle.
If AU can’t corral Gurley and UGA’s ability to run the ball – then the last two games are in jeopardy because bama thrives on the run just as much if not more. AU must shut him down and hold Murray in check with the pass. Murray gets sloppy when he has to dust himself off so our front four must play one of the best games in their careers.
Make no mistake both games are winnable. But as we have already insinuated, AU must focus on the bulldogs first until that game is in the books. Once it has closed the deal, AU can finally exercise the final demon from the season it’s trying to forget 2012.
So once again friend, I ask the question: do you believe? Do you believe in Auburn? Do you think this squad, the same squad from 2012, has the intestinal fortitude necessary to battle the biggest demons from the forgettable season? I do. Still. As football fans and alumni I think we sometime forget that fate can be fickle. I think Charles Dickens said it best…
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
I will leave you with this: this team is capable. Things are coming together at the right time. I don’t think it could be any more exciting… and I am thankful Auburn is in control of its own destiny. Regardless what happens… I believe in Auburn.
As always, War Eagle! And beat those damned dirty dawgs!