(photo:Vasha Hunt, al.com)
A hearty War Eagle to one and all. Your resident pessimist has definitely had a shortage of material to whine about this year. I have put off writing this column as long as I could simply to try to get the bitter taste out of my mouth following the Florida State game. I did this because I want more than anything to be objective in my views. We should have beat Florida State. We were the better team. FSU was definitely ‘Not’ the world beaters they thought they were. Jameis Winston was exposed as nothing more than a slightly above average QB who can’t read defenses but has benefited from an all-universe receiving corps and weak competition. On top of that, Florida State’s vaunted defense did little better stopping the Auburn attack than did anybody.
That particular night, the better team did not win. The team that made the fewest mistakes won. Even though FSU was not the better team, they played the better game, and as a result, they were hoisting the crystal football and we were heartbroken. Make no mistake about it, this does not diminish what Auburn accomplished this year, and this team should be proud of everything they did. I said before the game that win or lose, it has been one hell of a year, and I stand by that. I am more proud of this team then I could have ever hoped to be.
Now for the scary part.
I watched every game this year, and I never saw this team put together a complete game. No matter who they played, no matter what happened, they made mistakes at critical junctures every single time they stepped on the field. The closest they came was the Alabama game, but even then our boys left points out on the field and made some huge mistakes that kept the turds close, (the TD pass from the end zone comes to mind). I can’t imagine how good this team would have been if they had managed to play a flawless game. They also came close against Missouri, at least offensively, even though the defense game up a ton that game. But, in this writer’s opinion, not once this year did this team play all the way up to its full potential.
Think about that for a moment.
How good could these guys really have been? How lopsided would the FSU game have been without Auburn making all the huge mistakes they made? FSU played a damn near perfect game, with the small exceptions of a couple of dropped passes and Jameis Winston’s fumble, and they barely managed to squeak by a team that went 3-9 the year before. Of course, every national pundit and Vegas betting service expected FSU to destroy Auburn. Shows what they know. Anybody that plays in the SEC knew better, but the rest of the nation wasn’t hearing it.
Next year we get almost everybody back. The two biggest losses will be Greg Robinson and Tre Mason to the NFL, and losing Dee Ford is going to seriously hurt as well. Nosa Eguae’s leadership will be sorely missed, along with a few other names we’ve all come to know and respect over the last few years. However, one thing that Gene Chizik did not leave us after his departure was a bare cupboard of talent. The backups are more than capable, and with this staff coaching them up, I have no doubt that there is nothing but great things in Auburn’s future.
We return some key components: Cameron Artis-Payne will likely be carrying much more of the load next year in the backfield, and one of the biggest play makers in the SEC, Sammie Coates, returns as well. The speedster Corey Grant remains. And probably of most importance will be a veteran offensive line; who one could argue was among the best in college football last year. We have a 5 star JUCO receiver on the way in as well, and if his play is half as good as his hype, we could be in for a real treat. Jay Prosch’s blocking will be sorely missed, though. Despite our losses, I don’t believe the offense will miss a step next year, and could likely be even better
Of course, there is still the question at quarterback. Nick Marshall will be back for his senior season, and despite his play this year, my feelings on him remain bittersweet at best. I honestly don’t think the job is automatically his next year. I don’t believe they would have pulled the redshirt off JJ if that were the case. Could we possibly see a new man under center next year? While I don’t think it’s likely, I definitely think it’s possible.
Marshall is a bit of a conundrum. He definitely has his strengths. His greatest strength, to me, is why he became the unquestioned starter last year. There is ‘absolutely nobody’, that runs the zone read better than him. Not just on the team, not just in the SEC, but in the country. Not only is he quick, elusive, and deceptive, his ‘understanding’ of that play is what makes him so great at it. Marshall knows how to make the quick read better than anybody. He knows when to give it up, when to keep it, and most importantly he understands how that play affects team defenses throughout the course of the game, and is constantly changing his decision-making process based on what he sees on the field. That is a rare gift indeed, and it is why Auburn had one of the most prolific offenses in the history of college football, all the while spending most of the year running about 5 plays. It is why everybody on the entire field can know that the zone read is coming, but nobody can stop it. Nick Marshall is the prime key to that. He is the reason Auburn’s rush attack was so unstoppable.
But…..Marshall is not without weakness. As good as he is at the zone read, this year he never developed into a good passer. Honestly, he never really developed into a decent passer. I read a column earlier about how Marshall returning next year has been largely ignored by the media and the writer was wondering why. The reason is that Marshall, despite his talents running the ball, is not seen as a threat throwing the ball, and for good reason. Plain and simple, he just isn’t very good at it. Oh, he made some good throws, don’t get me wrong, but at the end of the day teams never really believed that Marshall could beat them with his arm, and they were probably right. Of course, even completely selling out to the run, teams still couldn’t stop Auburn’s rushing attack, so it was never really necessary for Marshall to win a game with his arm, with the exception of the last drive of the Mississippi State game, and the last drive of the Georgia game.
The MSU game was a thing of beauty. The ‘Miracle at Jordan Hare’ was an incorrect read and under throw that lucky bounced its way into football history. Yep, I said it. That’s all it was, whether you like it or not. On that particular play, Sammie Coates was wide open, and would have walked into the end zone with a good Marshall throw. Instead, he misread the play to Ricardo Louis, under threw the pass, and got a lucky bounce. There were times where he would make throws that looked like Joe Montana, and there were times he made throws that looked like a chicken spit them out. Overall, he was just way too inconsistent to ever be considered a real threat throwing the ball. Were Auburn not so good at running the ball, (thanks largely in part to Nick), the offensive numbers would look vastly different. All year-long we heard pundits and talking heads say that Auburn was ‘one dimensional’. Well, like it or not, they were right. The only thing was that one dimension was unstoppable. Nick Marshall was never a true throwing threat. He was barely good enough to keep teams honest. That’s the truth. All year, for every brilliant throw he made, he made two terrible ones. At the end, he was still making incorrect reads, missing progressions, making awful decisions (the FSU game interception for one), and missing wide open receivers.
Will he get better with spring practice? Will he be able to learn from an entire year of tape to watch and seeing mistakes he made? I hope so, because if Nick Marshall can figure out how to become truly effective throwing the ball, Auburn’s offense next year could move from the unstoppable to the utterly ridiculous. The loss of Tre Mason will be devastating, but I believe CAP is up to the task in filling those very large NFL bound shoes. I have faith in Gus and company, and I’m confident that next year might be even more fun. If there’s one thing Gus Malzhan knows how to do, it’s put points on the board.
Defensively, I still think we’re a year or so away.
Even with the loss of Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae, as well as both of the Ryans, there is the distinct possibility of improvement. We have some immediate impact freshman help coming in the secondary. Kris Frost and Cassanova Mckinzy have another year of strength and conditioning, as well as film to look at and improving to do. The secondary will get better too. I think a lot of how good the defense ends up being will depend on the front 4, and how well they cope with the losses of Ford and Eguae. The positive thing is, all of those guys have already been playing and have a LOT of game experience. It’s a bit of a question mark, but odds are, the DL won’t miss a step.
I’ve heard a lot of people say, “next year can’t get here fast enough.” Well, put me down in that crowd as well. I’ll go ahead and say it: returning to the National Championship game is ‘not’ out of the realm of possibility. However, I don’t think we should allow the gargantuan weight of expectations to ruin our love of this game and this team. In 2013 we expected nothing and damn near got everything. 2014 should be no different. I don’t believe in expectations. I believe is rooting for your team and being happy when they bust their butts for the students and alumni they represent. I was proud of our team even after they lost to FSU in the BCS-NCG, but I was also proud of our fans. Unlike the Updykes, who were wailing, gnashing their teeth, tearing their clothes, jumping from buildings, and tweeting death threats to their kicker, we came together and expressed our gratitude and pride in our team. When Tre Mason tried to apologize to the fan base for losing the game, we smiled and told him to stuff it, because we were more proud of him and his effort then he would ever realize, and appreciated him and the rest of the team more than they will ever know. That is why I’m proud to be an Auburn Tiger. That is why I point and laugh at the Bammers. That is why, no matter what happens in the season, in the Iron Bowl, or in National Championship record counting, we will always be better than them.
War Eagle, my friends. See you next year.