Monday, September 10, 2007

When we knew

We found out what team Auburn is in 2007 with about 7:30 left in the second quarter Saturday night. The Tigers had the ball 3rd-and-14 from the South Florida 22, score 14-10. A conversion was unlikely, but provided Auburn avoided the sack or a pick, wunderkind kicker Wes Byrum looked more than capable of nailing a 39-yarder (or less). With Auburn's defense having forced two straight punts and looking like its usual dominant self again, the important thing was to take the not-quite-sure-but-exceedingly-likely points and run, and play the defense-and-special-teams game Auburn has become such exacting specialists at over the past 14 games or so.

But it was at this point we knew that Auburn is not going to be the 10-2 team some of us envisioned. Auburn is not going to challenge LSU in the SEC West, not going to extend that juicy "Over the past X seasons, Auburn has the Xth-bst record in the nation" statistic. Auburn is going to have to scrape and claw and belley-crawl with a knife jammed in its teeth for every single inch of field position it can get, all just to reach 8-4.

Because all the optimism and high expectations were based around the "senior quarterback" theorem. Experienced, we all said. Completely healthy again, we were told. Gutsy, no question. The receivers were lacking, the line was green, the tailbacks talented-but-unproven, but with a 100% Brandon Cox we believed we had the glue to hold all of that together well enough for the defense to make the difference.

But on that second quarter 3rd-and-14, our senior quarterback, in his 27th consecutive start, dropped back and under minimal pressure, leaned on his back foot and tossed the prototypical wounded duck towards a double-covered tight end, Tommy "Not Exactly a Jump-Ball Specialist, Brandon" Trott. The Bulls had little problem picking that piece of ripe fruit and Auburn put no points on the scoreboard after a first down at the USF 18.

And that was that. If Auburn does not even have a quarterback who can be counted on to make the safe plays and good decisions--much less a quarterback who makes the incisive, surprising, game-breaking plays--it has nothing on offense. Nothing. In fact, against USF, it had less than nothing. If Auburn's first six possessions of the second half had simply been a succession of three-and-outs and not Fumble-Punt-Fumble-Fumble-Punt-Hideous Interception, Will Muschamp's D might have been able to rescue the whole damn salvage operation singlehandedly. But singlehandedly and with the Auburn O an albatross swinging from their neck? Almost (thanks to some help from a kicker some USF blogger somewhere is surely referring to as D*****t A*******o), but not quite.

No, Cox didn't get much help from his receivers, most notoriously fellow senior Prachae Rodriguez, dropper of Cox's best throw of the night (on the same drive as the pick mentioned above) and a sure touchdown. Cox wasn't responsible for Mario Fannin poisoning his oh-so-promising debut with two backbreaking fumbles.

But the fact remains that whatever hope the Auburn offense had of turning around their 2006 troubles rested with Cox, and he is not going to fulfill that hope. It seems unfathomable that a QB who could be so collected as a sophomore (he failed to throw a pick 40 attempts in Baton Rouge that season) could be so utterly shaky as a senior, but this is the case.

Personally? I think it's a health issue for Cox, though not the one you might be thinking of. I believe the constant pressure and endless sack parade in the 2006 season has scarred Cox for good mentally, to the point that he now feels pressure when none is near, that he sees receivers as open that aren't because he wants so badly to believe that it's a good time to just get rid of the damn thing. MG sucks, but arm trouble or physical fatigue isn't wht's getting Cox into trouble, it's his reads--and the disease shouldn't mess with his ability to look off his first choice or check down when he needs to, should it?

Honestly, though, all the theorizing and rumormongering is pointless. Whatever reason for Cox's backslide, it's happened. After 3rd-and-14 at the South Florida 22, there was no doubt anymore. Which is why I didn't wind up cursing at house pets or tossing items off of balconies after the loss. Auburn is what they are: a team with solid coaching, a brilliant-bordering-on-heroic (in the sports sense of the word) defense, kickers none of us saw coming, and an offense that will have to be dragged forward like a tantrum-throwing, turnover-spewing toddler every step of the way.

Phil Steele was right, and I was wrong. As difficult as it is, it's time to re-adjust our focus, Auburn fans; if we can escape 2007 with four or fewer losses and an Iron Bowl win (gigantic if), this is going to be a successful season. That's all this quarterback and this offense gives us reason to hope for.

Other thoughts:

--I'm torn about the potential for benching Cox. On one hand, Cox is a senior and is trying and if Field hasn't beaten him out already, what is he really going to bring to the table? On the other, Field truly can't be any worse and I worry about how long the defense will continue to move mountains if the offense can't even move, uh, pebbles. (Note that Burns isn't even in this picture. This team isn't worth a year of his eligibility.) I think Cox deserves his shot at redemption through the Florida game. If the Gators eat him up the way K-St. and USF did, it's time to see if we've got other options. Sorry, Brandon.

--I think it's time for Auburn fans to cut Al Borges some slack. 2004 still wasn't all that long ago and I thought his play-calling Saturday was fine, if not better. 17 points in the first half, for this offense against a quality defense ... that's more than acceptable. And as for the second half, I'm not sure how you pin any of those turnovers on him unless you think he's in charge of getting the Stickum onto Fannin's hands. Look at the overtime series (scroll all the way down on the link): 1. A straight-ahead rush with a straight-ahead runner, not flashy but what got Auburn going in the 2Q 2. A nice-looking slip screen to Trott that goes for 15 if Cox doesn't throw it at the back of Trott's head 3. A post that puts Dunn open at the 3, but Cox can't find him. The first is the same call 99% of Auburn fans would have made themselves and the last two are successful calls undone by poor quarterback execution. Maybe you can argue Borges and the rest of the AU staff should have done a better job getting Cox prepared, but ... the's a fifth-year senior! 27 starts! How much coaching can you give him? The bottom line is that Auburn's got way, way bigger problems to worry about than Al Borges.

--The fickleness of fans--2006 was Tubby's best coaching job ever! Wait, fire the bastard!--hurts our general credibility, but occasionally fans have it right. When I read Phillip Marshall's critique of Auburn fans' response to the K-St. game, I thought he had it wrong--this wasn't pessimistic Auburn fans seeing a win in the worst possible light, it was well-founded fear based on what was a decidedly lackluster perfromance that foretold losses, and soon, if there wasn't dramatic improvement. And whaddaya know, here that loss is.

--Time for some credit where it's due: The defense was balls-out incredible again (first quarter excluded, but how bout Muschamp's adjustment-making ability?), Byrum's clearly ready for his fourth-quarter game-winner closeup, the offensive line looked much improved, and I'll even credit Tubby for having his guys by-and-large ready to play against a team I thought they might overlook. (Again, I don't see how Cox descending into full on head-casery can be laid at Tubby's feet.) Even the decision to play for OT didn't bug me much. It's another example of Tubby lacking his ol' aggressiveness, but that that point he and I both agreed that a catastrophic turnover was the more likely result of an attempted drive than an Auburn field goal. It's weak, but that's the offense we're dealing with.


Jaiden said...

Good points. All of them. Our offense is woefully inept, but our defense is really tough. That being said, I don't think our D can overcome the pit of crappola that is our offense. It will be a long, long season.

KennyBanya said...

Good stuff, I agree with everything but the Kodi Burns part.

Tuberville has no choice but to get Kodi Burns meaningful game experience this year. Whether its every third or fourth series as a change of pace - or more than that - Burns MUST be ready to play next year.

I think its obvious that Blake Field and/or Neil Caudle are not the future of the program. If they were then they would already be playing. I also think 8-4 is but a pipe dream if no changes are made.
6-6 is the most likely because I don't see us winning any of those games on the road and I am not putting a loss to either Vandy (most likely), Ole Miss, or even MSU past us. We just lost to the 4th place team in the Big East. At Home. At Night.

If Burns gets experience then Tuberville has somewhat of an excuse for a 6-6 season. And IF (the biggest IF of all) Burns is as good as some of the players seem to think he is (all we can do is infer from quotes) we probably open up the 2008 season as a Top 10 or 15 team. There is talent coming back at almost every single position. The defense will be even better, our offensive line's worst player is a Senior, I have no doubt that - pending ball security - Fannin is our next great tailback, and the only truly talented wide receivers are all Freshman and RS Freshman this year (and per Al Borges' comments will both be starting next week).

The most important thing to remember is that we open up with West Virginia next year. There is no time for a RS Freshman QB who has never been in a game to feel his way into the season. He needs to be ready. If he's not I think we run the risk of a 6 or 7 win season next year as well.

And that almost guarantees we will have a brand new coach in 2009. Which I personally do not want at all. Because that team is setting up to be absolutely special.

I'm not buying the "its not worth wasting a redshirt" argument. Kodi Burns will be playing for Auburn until 2010 even if he plays this year. That's 3 full years of starting quarterback. That's more than 98% of NCAA quarterbacks play. If we can't have a talented QB ready to go by 2011 then its really not worth you or I getting worked up about this football program.

And if Kodi Burns ends up being below average then we might as well accept the fact that the Tide has turned. No pun intended. Sorry for the novel. Needed to vent, I enjoy the blog.

Buford T. Justice said...

First off, I agree with kenny. If Burns is going to be the starter next year he plays this year. Even if you only get an abbreviated year this year and then '08 and '09, it is worth it. However, I agree that Brandon gets to start the Florida game. He has that chance to rebound.

I was upset with the play calling right after the game, but took a look and didn’t see much not to like. Cox really hamstrung Borges and his performance necessitated playing for the tie and the end of the game and being conservative in the OT. I’d say if we all rationally thought about it, we would have agreed that it was more likely that Byrum was going to make the kick and the defense was going to hold up than it was for the offense to drive 25 yards. I just realized how sad that statement is.

I certainly don’t fault Tuberville for the poor play, I do fault him for personnel decisions. Cox should have been taken out of that game right around the time he threw off his back foot. It was clear to everyone something wasn’t right with him and yes Blake Field couldn’t have been any worse. The other decision I don’t understand was removing Mario Fannin for more than one series. Sure he fumbled, but on a night when nothing went well on offense, he was the lone thing that gave me any hope. He is clearly more talented than Ben Tate. Again, sitting him so that he understands that fumbling isn’t acceptable is fine, but after one series the team was seriously hurt by his absence. Plus, what kind of message does it send that you took him out when your quarterback threw three interceptions and almost threw three more?

As for the record, I’m with you on eight wins being possible. The defense is good enough to keep us in any game we play. The kicking game seems fairly solid. The mystery is the offense. You could see flashes of brilliance that would last four, maybe five plays. One of these games, they will put it all together (ala Washington State last year) and look spectacular. I don’t know what the record will be come December, but I can assure you one thing, pretty much every game will be a down-to-the-wire, tight ball game. A young team, learning how to win, will draw a lot of experience from this year.

travis said...

Is that MSU game still an "auto-win"?

Jerry Hinnen said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Very, very good stuff here.

Kenny: It's not about giving Burns time to get ready for 2011, it's about getting the absolute most out of his four years of eligibility. Why have Burns play three-and-a-quarter years when he can just play four? I wouldn't be so quick to assume he won't be able to cut it as a RS Fr. next year--Cox's best year was his first (though obviously he very first game left something to be desired). I just don't think the WVU game alone is worth basically one whole less season of Burns tearing it up. And Tubby's not going anywhere, even with back-to-back six win seasons. Lowder had his shot at ousting him and blew it.

Also: I wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss Caudle. There was more than one report that he was leading the backup QB derby before he got hurt. Damn his injury!

Buford: I agree with you about the offense having one good game in them and I think we still manage to win one of these road games. Knowing history, it'll be UGA.

Travis: Feeling feisty after that Tulane win and seeing LSU bludgeon Tech as badly as they bludgeoned you guys, huh? I don't blame you.

I'll stand by what I wrote and don't regret writing it. But that's also the last you'll see of the MGoBlog designations here (those haven't worked out for either party, have they?) and to be honest I would not use those terms if I was previewing the game today, no.

KennyBanya said...

I agree its not about playing for 2011 - but think about this, first four games next year:

1. West Virginia
2. at Miss St
3. LSU
4. Tennessee

That's 3 possible pre-season top 10 teams in 4 weeks.

Do you really want to go into those games with a quarterback who has never played a meaningful down of college football?

I also know from my years at Auburn that Lowder is never out of the picture. If we win 6 or 7 games this year with Cox (i would say likely) and we start next year 1-3 (also likely if Burns OR Caudle is starter and neither has played a down) - checkmate Lowder. He is back in complete control. The media is ALL over Tubs and staff for not having a QB ready to play after 3 years.

Anonymous said...

Good points, but i disagree about when we knew. I thought it was once we decided to permanently bench Fanin for the rest of the night. It was a night/day difference with him in the game.

When it comes to playing Burns, forget trying to give him 4 full years. It should be about can he help us win games RIGHT NOW. If the answer is YES, then PLAY HIM.

Cox blows, blew last year, and will blow in the future. The decision to not try someone else blows even worse.


Jerry Hinnen said...

Not that anyone's still reading this comment thread, but the more I stew over Saturday the more I'm softening on Burns. I really, really wish we could get a look at Caudle. I think he could break out a la Cox in 2005 AND save Burns's redshirt AND give us Burns insurance/play Leak to his Tebow in 2008.

Post devoted exclusively to the QB situation coming next week when we have info from tomorrow.