Monday, October 29, 2007

Not Surprise

"Well there's a big surprise! I thought I was going to have a have a heart attack and die, from Not Surprise!"
--Iago, Aladdin

I really wish bookies would take prop bets on things on useless, intangible stuff, because I could have made a killing on the Ole Miss game. Or last year's Ole Miss game. And the Ole Miss game before that. It's the same Ole Miss game, every year.

How? Let us count the ways:

1. Statistical dominance from Auburn but still an inexplicably close game well into the second half? Check. I know, I know, the score's the only statistic that counts, but it's also the only place this was even a remotely competitive game. 420 yards to 193. 22 first downs to 15. 36 minutes of possession time to 23. 5.7 yards a play to 3.7. Exactly one Auburn drive failed to end in Ole Miss territory. This was a 30-3 blowout in "If not for that interception, this was a tie ball game!" clothing.

2. Final score still worth two touchdowns of comfort? Check. Sure, Arkansas obliterated the Rebels, but the Hogs were mad. The Rebels took Florida and 'Bama both to the wire. I'll take our 17-3 snoozer over the Tide's outing against those guys any time. In fact, I won't just take it, I'll even throw in a couple of bucks for the Rebels' trouble. The bottom line is that two-TD SEC wins--especially this year, especially when one's team is playing its ninth straight week without a bye, especially when they're only a week removed from their most physically and emotionally demanding game of the season--do not come as cheap as this one looked. (Or, I'm assuming it looked. I was rocking the Sirius.)

3. Post-game headline and stories geared towards assuring the fans that the somnabulant win is no cause for alarm? Check. Check, check, check.

4. Fans who decide the light drizzle is the sky falling in? Check. What's funny is that I was writing a response to this kind of reaction just about this time last year. After Auburn's closer-than-expected win over, whaddya know, Ole Miss.

Here's the only rub: that performance last year, better than so many Auburn fans gave it credit for, did ... well ... sort of prove to herald a stretch run I think it's fair to call, um, subpar. (The always-sugary 'Bama win notwithstanding, when paired with the embarrassment against Georgia and truly hideous win over Nebraska.) I don't think Saturday's win needs defending. But will it when we've come out the other side of Amen Corner?

I don't think so, for three reasons on display against the Rebels:

1. Evil Brandon (i.e. the guy who started against UGA in 2006) is exorcised, with yet another clutch fourth-quarter TD as my witness.
2. This offensive line is better than last year's and will neither let Good Brandon come to so much psychological harm nor watch the running backs behind them meet tacklers before the line of scrimmage, as was the case so often a year ago (One sack Saturday, 4.8 yards per rush).
3. This defense (the principal point of worry after last year's Ole Miss game, you'll note) will not yield provided they're not in the presence of Matt Flynn channeling the departed spirit of Kurt Warner circa 1999.

So, as stated before, one slightly off Saturday filled with Not Surprise isn't going to worry me. At this point, it's a second straight year of tanking vs. the Dawgs that would be the real surprise.

Friday, October 26, 2007

6. Let us now praise famous men (Forward!)

Sixth and final post in a series.

I started this little rockslide of LSU posts looking at the downside of Auburn's loss, and why I'd summarize the post-game reaction amongst the Auburn faithful as much more "The Kids Are Alright" than, well, my reaction. There was so much at stake in that game--and Auburn came so damn MATT FLYNN NOOOO WE HATES HIM FOREVER close--that, personally, I know good and well I'm going to be cursing the purple-and-gold principals involved for as long as I'm going to curse the MiB-style alien inside J**n V****n's head who spilled Coke all over his control panels in 2005.

But I wouldn't care nearly as much if the Tigers hadn't shown--once and for all, as the saying goes--in their exquisite first half, and then again on that fourth quarter drive stirring enough that this post proved to be entirely appropriate, that they have gone in a few short weeks from a team that had to rally to beat New Mexico St. to one that could beat any team in the nation if the breaks fell right. There is no doubt any more; this is a terrific Auburn team, and my disappointment in the LSU defeat comes not from their performance, but that such a fine performance could still result in defeat. If they weren't this good, the stakes wouldn't have been so high. Only great teams play the kind of great games that wound this deeply, and make no mistake--this was a great, great game.

And here is the gleaming silver lining: We will see this Auburn team play five more games. At least two of them--those terrible, wonderful final two in the Amen Corner--will have similar stakes, and many could (and will) argue that this year's Iron Bowl will have even higher all-in stakes than the LSU game. I'm probably one of those fans myself. A win over 'Bama without an SEC title or an SEC title without win over 'Bama? After this particular season of Saban worship, I'll take the former. (Hat tip here to TWER for both their all-too-accurate label of "fetid" for this column and the single best pun on King Crimson's name yet generated. Somewhere, Rushdie's applauding like mad.)

I have miles and miles to go before I feel confident saying anything definitive about the outcome of the Amen Corner. But I know that this team is going to play hard, play well, and is going to go into the fourth quarter (or as I've come to call it, "Cox Time" .... though I don't call it that out loud, no, for obvious reasons) with a chance to win the game. Barring injury, there are not going to be any 37-15 beatings this year. That, I feel beyond confident about.

It's thanks to these guys:

1. Brandon Cox. 18-28, 199, 2 TD, 0 picks. Against LSU. In Death Valley. Including that ridiculous fourth-quarter drive capped the equally ridiculous all-by-itself throw to Smith, easily the single best throw of Cox's career. I don't know if Evil Brandon is dead just yet, but the doctors are looking worried and any fans of his (Ferguson?) might want to take this opportunity to say their good-byes while they can.

2. Sen'Derrick Marks, Pat Sims, Josh Thompson, Quentin Groves, Antonio Coleman. Those were the two best defensive lines in the country on the field last Saturday or my name is Van.

3. Jason Bosley. Sprained knee, out for two weeks. Oh, except he's actually going to come back and play every snap of those two weeks, on the road against Arkansas and the horrors of LSU's d-line. Why do I get the feeling we could have used more of this sort of stubbornness and determination on last year's offensive line?

4. Jerraud Powers. Forget it, Jerraud. It's Chinatown. Er, Baton Rouge.

5. Brad Lester. After another "He's back" performance (125 total yards on 21 touches) and seeing Tate, well, maybe not display quite Lester's quality of vision on a couple of plays, Auburn's got its No. 1. (Again.)

These are but five, of course, out of many, many, many that fought like Tigers last Saturday. Do I wish the same way I wish Ann Arbor had a Chick-Fil-A (i.e. like hell) that they'd come back with a win from the valley of Death? Yep. But that doesn't mean--particularly given what this team's next two or three seasons already look like--I'd trade them for any other team in America.

War Eagle.

(p.s. Disregard some of this optimism if Auburn loses to Ole Miss today. No Wish List, this week, sorry. I'm wishing for a win, preferably one that doesn't involve injuries or heart palpitations for the fans. After the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of the past few weeks, I feel like that's all I really want.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

5. Ockham's razor

Fifth in a series. Click for posts One, Two, Three, and Four.

The simplest explanation is the most likely one.

So which of the following explanations for this:

is the simplest?

Explanation A:
That, as Tyronne Green explained to Phillip Marshall, the play was an unfortunate result of an error in the execution of Auburn's cut-block pass protection scheme. Tubby is being honest when he apologizes for the play and says there was no intent to injure.

Explanation B: With Tubby's agreement and supervision, Hugh Nall teaches Auburn's offensive linemen how to chop block and readies them to do so in game action. After Dorsey's early-game success against Auburn, they maliciously make the choice to take him out of the game and instruct Ramsey to make the chop block. Everyone involved--Tubby, Nall, Ramsey, Ziemba--go into it understanding they may be ending Dorsey's career and do not care. Afterward, Tubby lies through his teeth at the press conference, concocts an explanation and later instructs Green to lie as well, and even alters the team's offensive line grading sheets just in case a snoop like Marshall lets something slip in the comments thread of his blog.

So: Explanation A or Explanation B? I think it's rather obvious which is simpler. I think it's rather obvious which is more likely. I see no evidence other than the video itself to support Explanation B.

But, hey if you're the sort of 'Bama fan who gets your jollies headlining your posts with an inflammatory description of Tubby that just happens to be the exact opposite of what he actually said, I suppose "simpler" doesn't much matter. If you're Orson and trying to stir up as many fans from as many sides as possible in the fastest possible time, why wait for "most likely" or "evidence" when you can just label Auburn's coaches "sh*tbags" and throw around unfounded accusations?

To be perfectly honest, watching live, yes, I thought Ramsey was due for two games on the bench. But given that Tubby--a guy not exactly foreign to sitting his guys down when he feels it's warranted--says adamantly that a suspension isn't appropriate, that Auburn has no track record for this kind of thing, that the league office hasn't taken action, that as Marshall points out no one but the players on the field has any hard cause to believe anything one way or the other, and that we have Explanation A in hand ... what reason is there to believe otherwise?

(p.s. Have you looked up "irony" in your Merriam-Webster's this week? It reads: "irony: n. LSU fans crying about a suspension for Ramsey after their team won a game started by a guy who went Bruce Lee on the opposing quarterback the Saturday previous.")

4. It comes around

Fourth in a series.

No, unlike Tubby, I'm not wound up about the officiating in this game.

I do think it's rather evident that picking up an illegal formation flag just because the replay official happened to consider it the right thing to do is a flagrant violation of officiating protocol. And that infamous spot on LSU's final drive was a bad joke.

But overall, the officiating in this game wasn't quite what I'd call one-sided. Even Tubby admitted the Dorsey "chop" should have been 15. There's a blatant, screaming, take-down hold by Bosley on the pass to Lester that takes Auburn inside the 10 on their final drive. It went uncalled. And the helmet-to-helmet penalty from earlier on that drive, while I think a necessary call, was hardly what you'd call an obvious case of malicious intent. I seriously doubt I'd be writing about it now if it hadn't been flagged.

But more importantly, there's this:

Whatever you think of this call--and I am of that happy Auburn majority who happen to think the correct call was made--it's not debatable that it could have gone either way. Whatever you think of Chris Leak's fumble/not-fumble in Jordan-Hare last year, again, it has to be acknowledged that the direction chosen by the officiating crew on that play might as well have been chosen by the flip of a coin as much as an examination of the rulebook. I don't agree with ATVS's position on Ramsey (that's up next) but I don't see any reason to disagree with them when they write that it was Auburn's turn to draw the short straw from the officials.

The hard truth is that the Law of Averages was never going to be kind to Auburn this week. As Kevin Scarbinsky pointed out this week (when he wasn't busy using the word "Maybe" as its own paragraph, anyway), beating Florida, Arkansas, and LSU all on the road was alwasy going to be the next-best-thing to impossible. Doing it in mega-dramatic, fourth-quarter heart-stoppages, touchdown-or-less fashion all three times? I know this whole season is college football's version of Opposite Day, but we're talking "Auburn wins 24-23, tear opens in the space-time continuum" unlikely here. (It does not help that, despite what some enthusiastic Auburn fans and LSU haters seem to think, LSU was the better down-to-down team. 488 yards to 296 is still 488 to 296, as well as Auburn owned the clock and bent rather than breaking on D.)

And, of course, there's last year to deal with. I'm not going to repeat myself (yet) again, but the bottom line is that Auburn was not as good as their glittering record last season. So it became likely that this season, Auburn would in fact be a better team than their record indicated.

And here we are. At 5-3 and with the three losses coming a) in overtime b) with Auburn stalled nine yards away c) on a well-defended 25-yard pass play on the last play of regulation, all by a total of 14 points, it's safe to say that Auburn is indeed seeing what went around in 2006 come around.

3. %&@# Matt Flynn

Third in a series.

That's right, I said %&@# this guy. Against a Kentucky team just seven days before whose defense is, to put it as politely as I can, not Auburn's, he goes 17-35 for 130 yards, one TD and one pick. That's an average of 3.7 yards an attempt, with any number of throws so ugly they should have been sponsored by the uniforms Notre Dame threw up back to vs. USC. I know Doucet wasn't there, but that doesn't begin to explain that kind of statistical performance. It was awful. Atrocious. Decisively "L"-worthy. Even an outing twice as good against Auburn, given Auburn's own sound performance, wouldn't have been nearly enough.

But of course the bastard doesn't play twice as well. He plays, oh, I think the scientific terminology would be a googlebazillion times better. He goes 22-35 for 319, a TD, and a pick that only a brain fart so loud the Queen of England turned to someone somewhere and said "Goodness me, how rude" kept from actually being another 40 yards and maybe a second TD. Every pass that doinked harmlessly into the ground against UK's soft coverage fell beautifully into hands of blanketed receivers against Auburn. Yards per attempt? 9.1. It seems near unbelievable that a defense as good as Auburn's could give up 488 yards and I would still look back and say "I'm not sure they really could have played that much better," but I'm not sure they really could have played that much better.

Flynn was that good. And judging by his performances elsewhere, he is unlikely to be that good again. He saved his best for us. He had to; any less brilliant of a performance, any one less pass on the money, and LSU loses that game.

Again: %&@# him, %&@# him completely, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

2. Decisions

Second in a series.

Not sure if I have ever, ever, seen a game with so many gigantic coaching decisions to analyze. Consider LSU's last drive alone, on which Tubby had to decide:

1. Whether to use both timeouts to save time on the clock for the offense
2. Whether to use one timeout to save clock and save one to ice the kicker
3. To use neither and double-ice him
4. To use one to ice and save one for the offense's drive (which would have been a poor choice)

as well as supervising all the usual defensive calls, all while Miles had to decide:

1. When the offense was in field-goal range at all
2. If they were, whether to accept that field goal try or try for the end zone
3. Whether to try for the end zone or try to push further down the field for an easier field goal

... while also accounting for time and the timeout in his pocket each and every step of the way. Fascinating, excruciating stuff, the exact sort of thing that makes this currently the best-played, most exciting rivalry in America. Four years, four bona fide classics. Can any other series at this level (i.e. at the point where a BCS conference title is at stake) make that claim? I don't have the time to seriously investigate, but I bet the answer is "not quite."

As for Miles's final call, everything I would say has been said already by Michael and Brian. I have been stunned by how many pundits, bloggers, etc. have simply ignored the obvious fact that the LSU timekeeper was busy watching Hee-Haw reruns or just getting back from a nice long visit to the john or in the middle of another endless Lord Palmerston v. Pitt the Elder debate, or whatever he was doing. If he does his job, no one's talking about Miles having testicles for brains. The only counter is that Miles should have tried for a more makeable field goal, but with that strategy comes a bushel-ful more risk of interception, sack, chaos, etc.

Tubby's endgame decisions are less defensible. In a vacuum, the squib makes sense. Your kickoff coverage unit has proven itself unreliable this season; your defense has meanwhile proven itself, by and large, to be the team's greatest strength and a damn-near impenetrable force when on its game. It makes every bit of sense in the world to put the game in the defense's hands rather than the kickoff team's.

But the game wasn't being played in a vacuum or on paper or any other peculiar Phantom Tollbooth-esque venue, and in the all-too-real confines of Death Valley LSU needed only a field goal and Auburn's defense had been shredded like so many incriminating documents all half long. Every other kickoff until that one yes, squib away. But at some point adjustments have to be made. Even Auburn's best-case scenario put it on the 30, and the defense just couldn't be expected to hold from there, either, with as much time as LSU had to work with.

From my viewpoint that wasn't Tubby's only error, either. Given how well Cox had directed the last drive, given how well he's done all season with the game in the fourth quarter and balanced on a wire, and given what Byrum has likewise accomplished to date, I think you burn the timeouts and give them a chance to win it with a field goal of their own. Having a less-exhausted defense wouldn't have hurt Auburn's chances of forcing a long field goal, either.

But I can't be too tough on Tubby. For starters the criticism of his failure to challenge that last-drive spot is off-base; it's oh-so-easy for those of us with a glowing yellow line across the field to say the guy fell a half-yard short, but they don't have that benefit on the sideline and even if they did, risking a timeout just to force LSU to sneak the ball a half-yard for a first-down might not be the best play, either.

More importantly? His team was ready to play, again. They executed as well as they possibly could against one of the best, if not the best, team in the nation, again. They did it on the road in a nauseatingly difficult place to play, again. Am I still unhappy the game ended the way it did? Yes. But I am not unhappy with the effort, preparation, or in general the coaching decisions.

Tubby didn't bring his "A" game. But I'll still take his "B+" game against the likes of LSU any day of the week.

1. Opportunity

First in a series.

No. Watch: this is where this game gets decided.

It's 2nd-and-7 LSU, on the Auburn 35. 1:50 left in the game. Colt David's career long is 45 yards; LSU needs seven more yards to make that range and probably 12 to feel good about themselves. Or as good as they can feel, anyway, with a kicker who missed a 36-yarder just two weeks ago at home and honked a 28-yarder to open the fourth quarter in this same game, in this same venue, two years ago. Put briefly: until LSU cuts the field-goal distance to 42, 43 yards or less or so, Auburn is the game's most likely winner.

So: 2nd-and-7. The call is a toss right, to the strong side of the formation, to Jacob Hester.

Sen'Derrick Marks, playing left defensive tackle for Auburn, gets a decent push upfield but the play moves wide too quick for him to do anything but force Hester to cut upfield a touch later than he might like. Quentin Groves, playing left end, is blown three yards off the line of scrimmage and towards the sideline by LSU tight end Richard Dickson. LSU's right tackle, Carnell Stewart, fills in behind Dickson and erases linebacker Craig Stevens at the point of attack. Dickson's and Stewart's blocks have opened a lane for Hester.

Auburn has a player standing in this lane, however. Safety Eric Brock moved quickly and smartly towards the line of scrimmage on the toss and is in position to make the tackle. It will be one-on-one between Brock and Hester, a mere half-yard beyond the line of scrimmage. If Brock stones him (unlikely), LSU will face 3rd-and-7. If he simply tackles, LSU faces 3rd-and-5, 3rd-and-4. Makeable distances, yes, particularly in two-down territory, but Auburn will still have the upper hand and LSU did not execute in a similar situation the week prior at Kentucky. And: while there is a lot of space for Hester to work with, Brock is in position.

But he does not make the tackle. Hester cuts to his left and Brock nearly whiffs entirely, leaving pursuing weakside linebacker Chris Evans to drag Hester down from behind but not before LSU has moved to the 25-yard line. First down. Auburn no longer has the upper hand, and 90 seconds later Les Miles will feel secure enough in his field position that he will smartly eliminate his field goal kicker from the equation entirely. The game is not lost on the touchdown pass. The game is lost when the touchdown pass not only becomes a possibility, but a sound strategy. The game is lost when Eric Brock fails to tackle Jacob Hester.

I don't mean to single Brock out as a goat; he just happened to be the key Auburn player on what I view as the game's key play. (Hell, you could argue Groves was as much at fault for not holding his ground and allowing the lane to form in the first place.) There are also extenuating circumstances for Brock: Due to the injury to Aairon Savage, Brock has been on the field nearly every play for the last several games. Hester, on the other hand, was fresh as a corndog-scented daisy thanks to LSU's flotilla of running backs and is a load in any case. And as quickly as Brock reacted, so clean were LSU's other blocks that didn't really have time to set himself and explode. He did everything right; he gave himself the opportunity to make a play that may have altered the game's outcome; but for understandable reasons, he didn't take advantage of it.

Which is why that play not only played a major role in deciding the game, but serves as a microcosm of it; Auburn-LSU 2007 in a disappointing nutshell. This game was Auburn's capital-O Opportunity. A massive, season-sized one. There are oodles of sound reasons Auburn missed it. But that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

It's true that in the wake of the Crooming, the idea of Auburn even receiving (much less seizing) that kind of opportunity seemed flat impossible, the mere starry-eyed dreams of too-close-to-see-the-big-picture team members and coaches, the delusional CandyLand chirpings of fans not mature enough to see the truth. So I wonder if finding out that the truth was as bright and pastel-colored as those fans said, as Tubby bafflingly declared it might be, is why many Auburn fans seems to have this loss shaken off while I'm still watching Hester slip through Brock's grasp on DVR, cursing, rewinding, cursing again.

Of course it's exciting to think about the program's future when the entire team, sans QB, is back next year. Of course it's terrific that a team that turned the ball over 10 times in two weeks neither fumbled nor threw an interception facing quite possibly the country's best defense. Of course I am more than proud of the Tigers' incredible team effort, of the guile of Brandon Cox and that amazing 83-yard TD drive, of even Jerraud Powers being in the best possible position to foil that last touchdown pass when we would all immediately forgive him for falling a step behind on a call like that one.

But this was an Opportunity to play for and possibly win the SEC championship. This team was (no, not "is," unless Flynn decays back into his vs. Kentucky form) fully capable of that accomplishment. And that's not an Opportunity--however badly we Auburn fans would like to believe it is--that comes every year.

Just looking at the Tubby era, the 1999 and 2003 teams were never close. The 2001 team was capable of pulling things together for one-off shots of brilliance (Florida, Georgia) but was never top-to-bottom good enough to win a title. Ditto 2000, fun as the ride with Rudi was, with Florida standing in the way. Ditto 2006 after that brutal LSU win, with victory after victory arriving via smoke-and-turnover-related-mirrors.

The 2002, 2004, and 2005 teams, yes, did have this Opportunity. 2002's was lost on 4th-and-Too-Damn-Far against that outstanding Georgia team. 2005's disappeared in the haze of J**n V****n's brain. 2004's, of course, was seized by the throat and never released.

And now we have seen the 2007 team give itself that same Opportunity, and we have now seen it go. Give Tubby full credit, yes, for ever having a group of Tigers this young in that remarkable position. But I don't think Auburn fans can be at the point yet where we can take these Opportunities for granted. It was there, right there, barrelling into Auburn's arms like Hester coming towards Brock.

Should we expect Brock to make that tackle? Should we have expected Auburn to come back from Baton Rouge with a win? No. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't still hurt like total hell to watch Jacob Hester break free and carry another SEC title away and out of reach for our team.

If Auburn finishes 10-3, even 9-4 with an Iron Bowl win, I will feel better about this. But today Auburn is 5-3, and forgive me for still mourning what was lost for good this year last Saturday.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Delays, Power Poll ballot

First, an apology for not having any post-LSU reaction up yet. I mean, cripes, you know a game like that one, we've got reactions for days. But Life, Work, etc. have had other ideas the last couple of days. I'll make it up to you one way or another later this week.

In the meantime ...

1. LSU. If Matt Flynn's going to continue to show that kind of Kurt-Warner-in-1999 accuracy, just hand them the crystal football now. And oh yeah--if the LSU timekeeper's not asleep at the wheel, no one's questioning Miles.

2. Florida. Who needs a secondary? With Carolina's demise, what offense left on the Gators' schedule is going to be capable of keeping up with Tebow and pals?

3. Auburn. Auburn fans will live with being the consensus best three-loss team in America. Not sure they'll feel quite as chipper if they wind up the best four-loss team at any point down the stretch.

4. Kentucky. After Woodson re-affirmed his Heisman bona fides, 'Cats should be favored over both Tennessee and Georgia down the stretch. In related news, Satan has called for a 12 p.m. press conference tomorrow at which he is expected to announce that due to recent developments, Hell will shortly be reopening as Lil' Devils Sno-Cone and Shaved Ice Emporium.

5. South Carolina. Apparently Spurrier spent some time hanging out in smoking jackets with Charlie Weis in the Offensive Geniuses Club last week. Nonetheless the 'Cocks' wins over Kentucky and Georgia still trump 'Bama's over Tennessee and Arkansas, both at home.

6. Alabama. Aw, damn. Their incompetence was fun while it lasted. Thanks for nothing, Philsbury Doughboy.

7. Tennessee. Not much difference between the Vols and the next two teams on this list, so their head-to-head win over the Dawgs keeps them ahead. But the guess here is they end up in the "best team that's not from Mississippi or named for a guy who liked to pretend he'd been in the Navy" by season's end.

8. Georgia. Week off shouldn't obscure fact that Dawgs' last two games have been bludgeoning at hands of Keystone Vols and lottery-winner-fortunate win over Vandy.

9. Arkansas. All three losses came in Twiggy-narrow fashion, two very good teams in Auburn and Kentucky and one on road at 'Bama. You know Nutt's taking as many teams down with him as he can manage.

10. Vanderblilt. In: Mackenzi Adams. 5 minutes ago: Curtis Nickson. Out: Greg Zolman. (Two more to a bowl! Go, Vandy, go!)

11. Mississippi St. As Auburn loss fades into background, have to ask why Bulldogs couldn't make a bit more of their upset bids against either the Vols or 'Cocks, both of which looked eminently upsettable this past week, at least. Oh, and of course WVU demolished them.

12. Ole Miss. Safe to say the Rebels just might have caught the Hogs at the wrong time. Happen to think 'Bama fans and bloggers could have been a touch more gracious toward the poor benighted Rebels and fans in the wake of the replay reversal (How often do they get a chance to win a game like that? Of course they're going to whine) but it sure didn't look like the Rebs had gotten over themselves by kickoff, either.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Auburn V

Press play.


This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Tubby the king, Muschamp and Borges,
Cox and Blackmon, Tate and Etheridge,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers ...


... Let me speak proudly: tell the constable
We are but warriors for the working-day;

Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
With rainy marching in the painful field;

There's not a piece of feather in our host--
Good argument, I hope, we will not fly--
And time hath worn us into slovenry:
But, by the mass, our hearts are in the trim ...

Go Auburn.
Beat LSU.
War Damn Eagle.


(Massive tip of the hat to commenters Pat and SCTiger for basically writing this post for me. I take it as a sign that maybe I am doing something right if I am drawing readers like these.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wish List: LSU

One More Time, Wes.

When Auburn has the ball

1. That Auburn keeps pounding, chipping away. That Cox keeps his head up after one or two bad plays. Statistically speaking, there are no chinks, no flaws, no imperfections in the LSU defensive machine. They allow the fifth-least yards-per-carry in the country. Opposing passers have a lower rating against LSU than any other team in the country. Only Ohio St. allows fewer yards-per-play, period, and what's most impressive about this resum-ay is that it's been compiled playing the likes of Tebow and Woodson and Henig, as opposed to, say, whoever's quarterbacking Minnesota these days. There is no weakness to pinpoint, no magic bullet, against this group. Even looking at the Kentucky game doesn't seem like it'll help much. We're all back on the Cox ... well, it never graduated to "bandwagon" status, did it? Let's say we're all back on the Cox Radio Flyer. But even sitting in our beautiful little red wagon that suddenly accelerates to 60 miles-an-hour with three minutes to play in the game, we're not going to ask our quarterback to throw 38 times. Because he's not going to complete 21 for 3 TDs and, well, isn't a first-round All-American.

But Kentucky did something besides let Woodson rip, and that's the something Auburn can peel from the Wildcat "blueprint"--they stuck with the run, even with no Rafael Little, even with precious little success. They finished 41-135, an average of dead-on three a carry. It wouldn't be accurate to say they exactly "wore down" LSU, either. They rushed six times for four yards in OT.

But they had to keep rushing, because there is no way a one-dimensional offense survives against LSU. Just rush the ball, you're going nowhere (ask Va. Tech). Just pass and you're begging for Sack-Fumble or a pick. Balance is always nice; against a D like LSU's it's mandatory. Even if Tate and Lester keep getting swallowed alive by Dorsey, Borges should keep handing off. Even if Cox slips into early-season inexplicability for a play or two, he should keep taking his shots. Giving up on either the running or passing game is a sure way to give up on the offense as a whole.

Because they have Andre Woodson, Kentucky could get away with throwing the ball 38 times. My hunch is that if they'd asked him to throw it 50-55 times, they might have gained a few more yards, but they'd have watched him get crushed a time or two, get picked one more time, and they'd have lost the game. Balance, balance, balance, Auburn.

A quick little note here about the run game: As good as his reputation is, I'd run right at Tyson Jackson. Look at the right side of the Tigers' d-line: Dorsey has 34 tackles (fifth on the team, a crazy number for a defensive tackle ... by comparison, as well as Pat Sims has played this year, he's 13th on the Auburn list) and right end Kirston Pittman has 40. Jackson, however, and left tackle Marlon Favorite have only combined for 32. Jackson's obviously a great speed rusher, but just coming into this season I'd have told opposing teams facing Auburn to run at Groves, I wonder if some space can be carved out on that side of the line. As with last week: King Dunlap, it's now or never.

2. That Borges leaves nothing in the playbook. For two weeks I've asked to see Kodi Burns do anything other than take the snap and start running around, and we're still waiting. The only reason I haven't been angrier about this--and believe me, when we're talking about wasting a year of a five-star next-Jason-Campbell QB's eligibility to have him run around three times a game, I am starting to grow very angry indeed--is the hope that the Auburn coaching staff has kept him under wraps for this game. Whatever Burns-based tricks we've got, whatever snazzy fake end-arounds or middle screens or flea flicker reverses Borges has stashed away, now's the time to pull them out.

Alabama is, yes, still the most important game on the schedule, but this one is almost certainly Auburn's most difficult. LSU's defense is too good to not have them at least a little worried about the threat of some chicanery. As fantastic a job as they did against Florida and Vandy, our offense is still led by Brandon Cox, will start two true freshman (fantastic as they are) on the offensive line and a hobbled center, and does not possess a deep threat at wide receiver. It's an extension of the first wish, really: If LSU is not kept off-balance, they will grind Auburn's offense to dust.

3. That Auburn commits no turnovers in LSU territory. None.
I wished the opposite against the Gators a couple weeks back, because in the Swamp it was the offense that was the elite unit and had to be given every disadvantage. In Baton Rouge? Every single point is beyond precious. Neither team has scored more than 17 points in regulation in the last three years of this rivalry and given that these may very well be the two best defenses in the country (seriously, look at the total defense rankings, and tell me which teams in the top 15 have faced the slate Auburn and LSU have. Please don't make any comparisons between what Auburn's D did against New Mexico St. and what Boise's did, though. Thanks for your cooperation) I expect that to continue. Despite his Duval-esque hangover last week, Byrum deserves the benefit of the doubt and if trying a 40-yard field goal means running a draw on 3rd-and-14 from the LSU 23, I for one am OK with that. Winning 9-7 games in back-to-back weeks is fine and dandy with me, sir. But if Auburn fumbles inside the 10 again and misses two field goals, or Cox reverts to his USF-era "Screw the dump-off, I'm going for six even though my guy couldn't be more covered if he was a Waffle House hash brown" madness, even nine points will seem like a fairy tale.

Conversely, if Auburn does turn the ball over in our own territory, I kind of like our defense's odds of coming up with a stop and their kicker appears eminently more crappy than ours. Unlike against the Gators, it's more important for the offense to take advantage of short-field opportunities than it is to limit theirs.

I usually stop at three, but one more quick wish for the offense:

4. That Auburn limits three-and-outs.
There's only so much that can be done against that D, but as against Florida, the more time Auburn milks off the clock the less involved that nutzoid crowd gets and the fewer possessions each team gets and the more random bounces of the ball matter and the less time LSU's overall talent and experience advantage--yes, it's there ... aside from running back and probably kicker, which of LSU's units isn't at least equal to Auburn's in pure ability? more on this in a second--gets to pay off. 1-for-13 on third down isn't going to cut it this week. I don't expect Auburn to go on the sort of 80-yard marches they pulled off against Florida, but the defense has to at least get a first down's worth of wind-sucking on the bench or the burden of winning this game--which certainly falls on them--will wear them down.

When Auburn is on special teams

5. That whoever punts for Auburn doesn't suck this week.
I don't think I have to go in-depth about how important field position is in a 13-7ish game; it's a lesson I think we all learned in vivid color against Miss. St. Losing 10 yards of it every time we drop back to punt is unacceptable.

When LSU has the ball

6. That if the game's throat is available, Auburn seizes it. It happened again last week. An opposing quarterback threw directly into the arms of a member of the Auburn secondary--I think it was Etheridge--with nothing but wide open spaces and six glorious points in front of him. And the ball slipped to the turf.

I would guess I'm more forgiving of these kinds of plays than most fans. Defenders aren't necessarily expecting to have the ball thrown at them, they don't have the hands of their offensive counterparts, a ball that slips through their fingers usually means that they were in the correct position and did something very right even if they didn't add the proverbial cherry on top.

This week? If the opportunity arises those plays must be made. Getting six points of our defense--hell, just getting the opportunity to kick a field goal--in a first-to-17-wins game would go beyond the terminology of "big play" and "huge" and most likely go straight to "play that determines the outcome of both team's seasons." The best news is that based on Matt Flynn's play against a Kentucky defense nowhere near Auburn's capabilities--try 17-35 for 130, a mindblowingly-awful 3.7 yards per attempt that doesn't take an ugly pick and three sacks into account--the opportunity for that kind of play will be there. Make it, Auburn.

BONUS 7. That they come after Flynn. I'm not always the biggest fan of blitzing. Do it against any halfway decent QB, don't get there, and either he's off and running through broken contain or he's found someone in man-to-man. With Doucet back, as good as Powers, Lee, and Wilhite have been, the little red "DANGER" light is going to be blinking any time more than four Tigers cross the line.

But Muschamp should bring the heat anyway. As mentioned, LSU gave up three sacks to Kentucky--the same Kentucky that recorded zero against a Florida Atlantic team that threw just as often. Tulane--Tulane!--got to Flynn six times. I might not say the same were the game on the Plains, but Auburn's defense doesn't just need to hold LSU down in this game. They need to help the offense. And as vulnerable as LSU's pass protection has looked in recent weeks, forcing Flynn into panic mode (or just applying the Josh Freeman Heimlich Maneuver) looks like the most convenient way to force the turnovers that will accomplish that.

Closing thoughts

Like Ryan at the Auburner (though maybe not with quite so much the LOL-worthy sputtering rage), I wish LSU had pulled out the Kentucky game, breathed a sigh of relief all week, and arrived Saturday unprepared for how Auburn's defense will hit them. We know now thats' not going to happen.

But this game has become important enough--I daresay with the demise of LSU's traditional rivalries against Texas A&M and Ole Miss, Auburn may be their public enemy No. 1--that I don't think the loss to Kentucky really makes all that much difference. LSU was going to be ready regardless. Auburn was going to be ready regardless.

Which means it comes down to the teams, the coaching staffs, and that soul-destroying edifice and the corndog-scented manimals that inhabit it. Remember: it is the one environment even Tubby, Road Game Mind Ninja, has been unable to figure out.

Both defenses have major advantages over the offenses; I would say LSU's experience on the offensive line, overall talent, and success in running the ball means they match up slightly better vs. our defense than our offense (who really could have used an explosive wideout in a game like this) does vs. theirs. So that's two ways I would give LSU the slimmest of edges.

But Auburn has a trump card. They approach this game as a sizable underdog, with everything at stake, the complete redemption from the Crooming within grasp--and there is no coaching staff in America that has proven itself better at preparing for a game with these kinds of elements at work than Auburn's. No one's. As we all know, Tubby is 9 of 10 against top 10 teams, and here is his chance to erase that one smudge on the record.

I said last time that the odds are long enough that I cannot bring myself to expect him to do it. But I would never, ever, bet against him.

War Eagle.

(Two p.s.'s: One, you should check out And the Valley Shook for your LSU blogging needs. Two, there's one more post to go here before the game, maybe this afternoon, more likely tomorrow a.m. Do check back.)

Dare to dream

Let's be up front about this: LSU should be the No. 1 team in the country. Their defense remains filled with terrors and beasts not above the basest savagery. They will be playing at home, at night, in a cajun-spiced death-hole our Tigers haven't emerged from with a W since 1999. Whatever slim hope Auburn had of finding them overconfident and dozing in the backseat until Miles pulled them into the SEC Championship parking lot evaporated last week.

And yet, I do not make the declaration I made to Brandon Cox before the Florida game, that he and his team should travel to into hostile enemy territory completely unburdened by the weight of expectation. At that time, Auburn fans did not know what team we had. An Auburn that was headed for a 2-10 Dubosian disaster? An Auburn unable to compete with the conference's alleged elite but able to scrape to 6-6 on the backs of Vandyish wins and and a visit to the Next Great City of the South? (Please, children, refrain from snickering.) Or something much more grand? There can be no expectations placed on nothing, and after the NMSU game and the glimmer of Good Brandon's return, Auburn fans knew nothing.

Now? We know Auburn is, in fact, that something grand. The Tigers are a mad roiling stew of precocious youth in nearly every position you look, a quarterback simultaneously terrifying and perfectly composed, Tommy still-the-same Tuberville, a kicker who arrives on campus and a handful of weeks later boots game-winners as effortlessly as if he was simply mashing "X" in NCAA '07, an injury-shredded defense that may be the guttiest I have ever had the privilege to watch ... and, oh yeah, this guy:

Warning: some language for grown-ups involved.

...who is rapidly on his way to becoming Auburn's Han Solo. Is he a scoundrel? Scoundrel? On the video, yes. But we like the sound of that, don't we, Auburn fans?

This is a good team, we know that now--when a team outgains and defeats both Florida and Arkansas on the road, there is no doubt any longer--and good teams have things expected of them.

I expect Auburn to remain competitive Saturday, at the least. I expect the defense to limit the success of Matt Flynn, whose very best this season has been just north of mediocre. I expect that some pressure will be applied and some rushing plays stuffed against an offensive line that has struggled against both Tulane and Kentucky. I expect our offensive coaching staff and our senior quarterback to engineer and execute enough of a gameplan to put some points--however few--on Auburn's side of the scoreboard. I expect our punters to not hurt our field position as they did (or tried to, anyway, before hops so kind I hope Shoemaker and Tatum bought them something from Hallmark) last week. More than anything, I expect Auburn to play as hard as they can from kickoff to final whistle. On that count, I have no doubt they will.

Do I expect a win?

No, I cannot say that I do. Part of that? Again: 0-3 since 1999. Often with good teams, against worse teams, with a head coach that has by now almost quantifiably proven himself the best road coach in the nation. And there is, of course, the matter of Tyson Jackson and Craig Steltz and Trindon Holliday and Glenn Dorsey and all the other LSU super-studs that have fueled my nightmares this week. More on them tomorrow.

But also, because it seems like asking too much. Win Saturday, and all standing between the same Auburn team that fell at home to Miss. St's backup quarterbacks and Atlanta will be home wins against Ole Miss and Alabama. Win Saturday, and a team that can sometimes barely get out of its own way on offense will have gone 4-0 in two seasons against the two other strongest programs in the SEC. Win Saturday, and we can begin seriously discussing the possibility of an SEC title.

For this team, this season, this would be a dream. It sounds like the King of Cliches, and it is, but it's the best way to describe Auburn winning at the should-be No. 1 team in the country, against our second-biggest rival, to seize control our the SEC West race. It's storybook. It's fairy tale. It's something to think about and wish "Golly, wouldn't that be something" to pass the time waiting in line at the bank or cruising the Interstate. It's not something to expect.

But this entire college football season has been seemingly designed to tell fans and pundits that what they expect means precisely nothing. And Auburn has been at the forefront of that design as much as anyone: Few expected the USF loss, none the Crooming, only the absolute most starry-eyed of us the Florida win. Maybe the majority of Auburn fans expected a win in Fayetteville, but holding McFadden and
Jones to 67 yards is an occurrence as unlikely as anything.

So, as I learned in the IMAXish theater at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center so many years ago, the dream is alive. Auburn can beat LSU Saturday. Auburn can still win an SEC championship. "Keep dreaming" is often used an an insult, but that's what at stake this week--there are expectations, there are hopes, and there are dreams.

C'mon, Auburn: keep us dreaming.

Actual alleged analysis tomorrow. Also, the image at the top of this post can be bought at Seriously, if I ever become an Auburn fan running an online memorabilia shop, I hope I have the dignity of not carrying any Daniel Moore prints. Standards, man.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Power Poll ballot, Ohio St. thoughts

One thing before I get to this weeks' ballot: The OH NOES OHIO STATE SO UNDESERVING AAAAHHH paranoia that seems to have swept SEC country over the past few days needs to get reined in just a bit.

For starters, the Buckeyes still have a long, long road to travel before they limp their way into the national title game and it's highly unlikely they reach the end of it unscathed. Yes, the Big Televen makes a gauntlet of beaded curtains and those doors to restaurant kitchens that swing open at a touch look like the Eliminator. (SEC road games in this analogy = those freaking hand cranks.) But even last season OSU nearly stubbed its toe against Illinois and Michigan and that bunch of Buckeyes was a much, much better team than this year's model. Meanwhile, its opponents (with the exception of the Wolverines) have gotten better and its schedule (this year at Michigan and with Wisconsin included) has gotten worse. And, of course, any top-five ranking thus far this season has a curse on par with the monkey's paw's. In short, I'll believe the Buckeyes will go undefeated when I see it and not a moment before.

Second, would a one-loss SEC champ really wind up behind the Buckeyes in the polls come season's end after the Buckeyes' de-pantsing in Glendale? Probably, but I think a careful evaluation a la Brian's this week would give the Harris voters, in particular, a lot to think about.

Lastly and most importantly, yes, yes, it's very, very difficult to get through the SEC with a perfect record and yes, many other teams have it easier. But as an SEC fan, would you trade the season's first month-plus--and Arkansas-Alabama, Georgia-Alabama, Auburn-Florida, Florida-LSU, LSU-Kentucky, Auburn-Arkansas, and another half-dozen thrilling games--for that colossal waste of time Ohio St.'s season-to-date has been? For South Florida's midseason back-to-back Florida Atlantic-Central Florida snack break? For the Big 12's endless series of Nebraska, Baylor, and Iowa St. beatdowns? The JCCW, for one, will gladly accept going from "possible mythical national title shot" to "unlikely mythical national title shot" in exchange for the week-in, week-out Shakespearean-quality drama the SEC and the SEC alone provides. We have it better than fans of any other conference in the country, without argument, and whether or not one of our own happens to parachute into the Fake Sugar Bowl this January won't do a thing to change that.

Of course the system needs an overhaul. We've known that for years. It's just not reason enough to start gnashing our collective teeth in the middle of the most exciting regular season, SEC or nationally, I for one can recall.

On with the ballot!

1. LSU. Looked like someone forgot to refill the gas tank on the (in the words of SMQ) high-octane, two-stroke genitals after the Florida game. No matter, as far as this poll is concerned; array of victories still much better than Carolina's or their recent conquerors.

2. South Carolina. Something tells me Carolina isn't really quite the second-best team in this conference and that we'll find that out as they enter the poisonous meat of their SEC East slate, but then again that same something told me to keep Kentucky, like, sixth two weeks ago. It's not a something to be trusted.

3. Kentucky. That they did it without Little is the most amazing thing of all. Wait, except for holding LSU's line to zero sacks. That's not even amazing ... that's beyond it, like, finding out that unicorns are real, and that their horn keeps a store of Jim Beam inside or something.

4. Florida. Come back from Lexington with a win, or into the muddled middle you go, likely never to return. If this team is as good as they appeared to be those first few weeks, facing the exhausted (physically, mentally, emotionally ... and any other "-ally"'s you'd like to mention) 'Cats it's a mission they should accomplish.

5. Auburn. Oh, yes, I would so love to move them up over the team they beat. So, so tempting. But for all the good work done by Kansas St. and USF on Auburn's behalf, that loss to Miss. St. isn't really looking much more explicable, and the Gators don't have a loss even remotely comparable. A win this week, however, (however terribly unlikely said win is), and then ...

6. Tennessee. Still worth repeating: their two losses are on the road at Cal and Florida. Get past Alabama in T-town this week, and it's home cooking up until a potential division-decider against the 'Cats at year's end.

7. Georgia. Just as solidly mediocre as last year, evidently. The only difference is how much luckier they are, or it'd have been two-in-a-row to the 'Dores.

8. Alabama. The price of heart medication in Tuscaloosa has tripled over the last three weeks, and doesn't look likely to drop with the Vols coming to town. A must-win if 'Bama wants to be taken seriously in 2007.

9. Arkansas. Call me Nutts (har har har) but this team is going to beat someone it's not supposed to in a fashion no one sees coming. The karma of enduring three straight heartbreakers is going to pay off at some point ... just not soon enough to save Nutt's job.

10. Miss. St. Likeable program, always the bridesmaid save for the occasional lightning strike, looks like progress might be being made but who really knows ... if they got their academics totally up to snuff, why, they'd be the Vanderbilt of the West.

11. Vandy. In the meantime, the title "Vandy of the East" is still firmly controlled by Vandy. Remember when Phil Steele said Vandy was going to be better than Kentucky? Remember when some of us believed him? Remember how I told you to never bet on any advice I have to offer?

12. Ole Miss. If they'd taken Vandy as seriously as they took Florida, Georgia, and 'Bama, they'd have an SEC win by now.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What I care about

The timing could have been better. But I don't care about the 7 points Arkansas scored Saturday night.

What I care about is the 20 they didn't. I don't care about the 43 yards Darren McFadden gained against the Auburn defense; I care about the other 127, playing at home in a must-win game in every possible sense of the term, he did not. I don't care about Felix Jones's 10-yard and 17-yard runs on the Hogs' touchdown drive; I care about the 74-yard second-quarter touchdown run he never made, the 35-yard third-quarter backbreaker that would have given the crippled Arkansas offense just enough confidence to breathe. I don't care that Casey Dick finally threw a touchdown pass; I care that he put the ball in the air 25 other times and still got less than 98 yards out of it.

I care deeply, deeply about those things because only the most insular and jaded (or "National Championship or bust!"-delusional) of Auburn fans could deny that we are watching one of the more--if not the most--phenomenal Tiger defenses of recent history, a throwback to the Rocker-and-Bruce-and-Benji Roland-and Craig-Ogletree '80s nightmares that powered Dye's best teams.

Obviously the '07 Tigers--even after a three-game stretch in which they allowed only 31 points combined--aren't quite the 1988 Destroyers of Worlds and they certainly don't have that kind of All-American star power. Yes, when Blackmon regained his eligibility in July I wrote that "the next great Auburn defense" might be on its way, predicated on the fearmongering talents of studs like Blackmon and Groves and the budding Savage. But those talents have either been laid waste by injury or selfishness (both, I suppose, in Groves' case), and that makes what the Auburn D is doing right now even more memorable, because they're not doing it with talent. What are they doing it with instead?

They're doing it with coaching. Muschamp is just the latest evidence that whatever you think of Tubby's game-day motivation and preparation, he is nearly unparalelled in his ability to choose quality assistants. With his and his players' orientation year under their belts, Muschamp has both time and again put his Tigers in the correct position to make plays and lit the kind of fire in them necessary to make sure they make said plays. I suspect that the longer Muschamp patrols the Auburn sideline the more his hummingbird-on-his-third-espresso persona will lead to chuckles and cracks from the SEC peanut gallery, but if you were a college defender, would you rather play for a guy who taps you on the butt for a good play or the guy who leaps clear into your friggin' arms he's so uncontainably excited by your play?

Muschamp is a big reason Auburn is doing it with heart. Chris Evans wasn't even a scholarship player when he arrived at Auburn. All he has done is hold together the spit-and-bailing-wire Tiger linebacking crew nearly singlehandedly in the face of opponents like Tebow and McFadden. Pat Sims nearly left the team. He is now an unmovable rock in the center of the line. Zac Etheridge was supposed to spend a year learning behind Eric Brock. He beat out Brock, who could have sulked and instead has ensured Savage's absence has barely been noticed.

The list goes on: Josh Thompson. Craig Stevens. Pat Lee and Jae Wilhite. Antonio Coleman and Antoine Carter. Sen'Derrick Marks shouldn't really go on a list about "heart," since he offers more physical gifts than any Auburn starter from Saturday other than Blackmon, but he's been playing like his hair is on fire all season anyway, too.

I spent the first part of last Saturday at the Big House watching Michigan blast hapless Purdue, and one of the things you can't help but notice is just how much Wolverine fans care about Mike Hart. Whether it's the endless stream of "20" jerseys, Hart t-shirts, the cries of joy when he spun off the back of a defender and scored on what appeared to be a lost play, the cries of anguish when he left the game with a limp and appeared on the JumboTron grimacing as his ankle got the once-over.

It occurred to me that perhaps not since the outpouring of admiration and respect Auburn fans offered Campbell, Cadillac and Ronnie, and Borges in 2004 have we cared about our players or coaches in anything approaching the kind of fashion you see here in Ann Arbor regarding Hart. I know as an SEC fan I'm supposed to never admit envying anything about a Big 10 program under any circumstances, but yeah, I was jealous.

Then came Arkansas's 3rd-and-2 on the Auburn 45 in the first quarter, and McFadden, as I said just this week the best SEC running back in a decade, taking the pitch right. He gets strung out, cuts forward, and Thompson and Evans stone him in the hole as coldly as a stoning comes. No gain. Punt.

And it occurs to me that Auburn fans do have something to care that strongly about: this injury-ravaged, star-less, manic, gutty, madman-coached, Gator- and Hog-conquering remarkable defense. They may not be able to pull out a win in the cauldron of Baton Rouge. But I have no doubt that the defense of Will Muschamp and Chris Evans and Pat Sims is going to give us a reason to applaud, a reason to hold our hearts in our throat, a reason to care for our Tigers in a way four short weeks ago we never thought we would in 2007. God bless them.

Other thoughts from Saturday:

--Auburn is now 2-0 halfway through our murderous four-game road slate. That's 14 out of 15 road wins for Tubby. Patently unbelievable.

--Tubby might not have been overflowing in compliments for his team afterward, but this wasn't as close a game down-to-down as the score indicated. Auburn outgained the Hogs by nearly a hundred yards, 290-193, fumbled inside the 10, missed two makeable field goals, and handed the Hogs dozens of yards in field position with uncharacteristically crappy punts. Auburn was, without question, the better team. To be the unquestionably better team on the road against a quality team scratching for its season's life (remember, a claim outgained Kentucky couldn't even begin to make following their visit to Fayetteville), particularly on a night when Auburn couldn't pass its way out of a wet paper bag, is a very, very encouraging sign. Speaking of said paper bags ...

--He didn't throw a pick, seemed fairly aware in the pocket (one sack!), and of course led yet another game-winning drive (again: someone please brainwash Cox into thinking it's the last drive of the fourth quarter and Auburn's tied or trailing on every drive. Yes, he'll be confused and angry if Auburn faces 4th-and-long early in the drive and sends the punt unit out, but what are the odds that happens if Cox really is trying to lead a two-minute drill?), so it's not fair to say that Evil Brandon made an appearance this game. But geez, the Auburn passing game nonetheless finished up averaging a Notre Dame-esque 4.4 yards an attempt, and that's after it gained 30 yards on its final attempt of the evening. (Before then? 12-22, 71 yards, 3.2 an attempt. Ugh.) I wrote this week that expecting the Auburn offense to continue its dreamlike efficiency from the Florida and Vandy outings was to ask for disappointment, but obviously it would have been nice to not see it plummet off the statistical cliff quite so dramatically. Some blame here has to go to the Auburn receivers, who regressed to their weeks 2/3 "Make plays? Us? No, sorry, you want the units on the other side of the ball" shirking of responsibility.

--Fumbling is officially an Auburn running back problem, not a problem of any particular Auburn running back. Someone tell them that the tub the ACME salesman left on the sidelines was axle grease, not glue.

--When I wrote (again, from the RazorbackExpat Q n' A) that "if Wes Byrum has the opportunity to kick a game-winning field goal, Wes Byrum is going to kick a game-winning field goal, by damn," I didn't realize he would be quite so intent he would miss other field goals to set up said game-winner. I appreciate you going the extra mile to make me look prophetic, Wes (given this blog's track record, moreso than most bloggers would, in fact), but next time, just don't sweat it and go ahead and make the earlier kicks. Thanks.

--What's with Scarbinsky claiming the LSU-UK result gave Auburn "an opportunity" it "took advantage" of? After the UK win, an Auburn win Saturday meant the Tigers would be in control of their own destiny in the West. But an Auburn loss meant the Tigers ... would still be in control of their own destiny in the West. (The only set of results that would have meant otherwise was an LSU win and an Auburn loss.) Unless Auburn follows up with a second win over LSU this week, the only thing the LSU loss did for Auburn was to piss LSU off. I hardly think Tubby was celebrating when he heard the news. (Also? If columnists are going to insist on writing one-sentence paragraphs in their columns, is it really too much to ask them that those sentences be, well, complete sentences and not half-assed fragments? Are "To lose the game" or "Combined" really acceptable to use as complete, stand-alone paragraphs? I dunno, maybe it's just me, but somewhere my second-grade grammar teacher is circling Scarbinsky's column in red pen and Ms. Thrasher, I'm somewhere over here nodding in agreement.)

--The same team that lost to Miss. St at home is 60 minutes away (60 incredibly difficult minutes by the end of which Cox will likely be chewed up and spit out, but still) from taking a two-game lead over the West frontrunners in the division race. I know everyone's been saying this season is insane, but has anyone's season been more pleasantly insane to date than Auburn's?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Wish List: Arkansas

More of this, please.

True fact: Auburn record before I started writing Wish Lists: 1-2. Auburn record since: 3-0. Of course, I don't want to take all the credit. Tommy Tuberville has done a fine, fine job these last few weeks. He can have some, too.

One wish for the team as a whole before offense/defense-specific ones ...

1. That Auburn simply keeps the gravy train rollin'. Looking back at our previous surprise beatdowns this decade at the hands of the Hogs, I made a surprising discovery. (Well, surprising to me. But a lot of things are. 42 cents for a stamp? When the hell did that happen?!?)I sort of hazily recalled that this year's potential scenario--early loss, huge win over Vandy gets team overconfident, Arkansas runs for a yardage total so embarrassing the coaches mothers won't speak to them afterwards and wins by a bajillion--had been what led to the other routs, but it turns out Auburn hadn't really been so impressive the week prior in any of the three cases:

1. 2001: W, vs. La. Tech, 48-41 (OT) -- 42-17 L to Hogs
2. 2002: W, vs. Syracuse, 37-34 (OT again) -- 38-17 L to Hogs
3. 2006: W, vs. South Carolina, 24-17 -- 27-10 L to Hogs

Which makes me wonder: Looking back, why on earth did any of those Arkansas "upsets" come as so much of a shock? Sure, we'd gotten some huge wins early in each of those seasons (2002 somewhat excluded, though they had taken both Vandy and Miss. St. to the woodshed), but clearly the implosions vs. the Hogs were simple continuations of the somewhere-well-south-of-dominant performances the week before. (I was there in person for both the La. Tech and 'Cuse games, and I still remember them clearly enough to assure you those teams were, to put it politely, complete garbage. The Carolina game last year was a little better, but our low-fat shredded defense found salvation solely through the generosity of Tubby's daring onsides kickeration.)

So, if Auburn's merely continued sucking was to blame for those earlier catastrophes, it stands to reason that continued success could be responsible for a solid W today, right? That's all I ask, Auburn--just keep the foot on the gas pedal. Easier said than done, I know, but the history here suggests that however close said pedal is to the floor entering the Arkansas game is where it stays, so I'm not asking that much, am I?

When Auburn has the ball

2. That Dunlap plays like a man.
Your name is King Dunlap. You are a senior, our only one of consequence. You have NFL talent, NFL size. And yet you have been benched, hurt, ridiculed, and forgotten as a whole gaggle of fresh-faced kids who still get excited when they order their own delivery pizza have made you look, well, extraneous. Unnecessary. An insurance policy.

But there's been another injury and now you're back. If you have any pride, if you are the sort of lineman I still think you can be and which Auburn needs you to be, you are going to come out and show us today how short-sighted that viewpoint is. And if you don't--if you don't seize this opportunity by its vulnerable throat and make someone pay for what's happened to you thus far this season--you will deserve your future spot back on the sideline.

3. That they still get Tate his touches.
Oh, I'm still looking for Lester any time Auburn gets inside the 30. All those beautiful touchdown-to-carry ratios he's built the last two seasons haven't been by accident. But Tate, it's looked to me, has blossomed into a bona fide hoss these last two weeks: running harder, hitting the hole quicker, fighting for yards when he could glide out of bounds. A reward is in order, particularly if said progression, thus encouraged, continues.

4. That they FREE KODI BURNS. Seriously, I'm about two weeks away from printing up t-shirts. If you're going to use him at all, let him do more than plow forward for three yards and hand off.

When Arkansas has the ball

5. That they don't allow the home-run run. Arkansas's kind of unusual in that when they're looking for a big play, they don't throw the ball. Particularly now that Marcus Monk is still in his recovery monastery (I know I used that same line in the Q n' A, but let's see you come up with a whole repertoire of monk-related jokes), Arkansas's going to look to the passing game for a quick 15-yard play-action pass or a quick five-yard hitch, just to keep the chains moving. For long-ball purposes, though, they're going to hand off to Thing 1 and Thing 2 in the backfield, who while lacking many characteristics of the Dr. Seuss characters of the same name do share an ability to cause unbridled chaos and fear an are similarly not of the human species.

The one on the right is McFadden.

They're going to get theirs, but if Auburn can at least not give up the 70-yard ground-bombs that have plagued them throughout this series this decade, the more opportunities they'll give themselves to force a Casey Dick mistake or luck into a first-down TFL to stop a drive.

And for God's sake, Auburn, don't give up a kick return for TD. Our offense is playing well, but it isn't Kentucky's. There's no hope of keeping up if the Hogs don't even have to take a snap to score.

6. That Wilhite, Powers, and Lee play smart.
Forget zone, forget safety help. Etheridge, Brock, and McNeil have more important Thing 1 and Thing 2-related things to do than double-cover Arkansas's third-string wideouts. The corners are going to be out on that proverbial one-on-one island, where instead of pineapples they grow game-changing plays, for one team or the other. The Hogs don't have the QB or the receivers to test Auburn's corners repeatedly, but when they do, they'd better be ready.

Win this one, Auburn, and we all eat for one glorious week at the cotton candy dream machine. Let's go. War Eagle.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Works, Off With Her Head-style


Sorry for the profanity, I really am. But let's see you read this remarkable story at the War Eagle Reader from the Reid McMilion 1993 game and not come away fired up to lay down your own bit of sassmouth on the nearest sash-wearer. Money quotes:

"The turning point came when we had been berated the entire first half by the Arkansas homecoming queen — yep, we were so bad in ’92, we were picked as homecoming — and finally defensive back Otis Mounds had had enough," Atkins said ... "He turned around to the young lady – decked out in a fur coat and tiara – and yelled at her in the third quarter ‘Shut up, bitch.’ Now, that is what made the whole sideline pickup and we won the game."

Hells to the yeah. By the way, this is yet another example of why--not to sound too much like a 1980s' dishwashing detergent commercial, or something--if you're not reading TWER, you're not reading the Auburn blogosphere. Excellent wrap-up of the Vandy game there as well including some thoughts on the 1957 national champs reunion, which I idiotically forgot to mention.

One quibble: J. Henderson plays a little bit of "What if?" at post's end about the USF game and the Crooming, and in my very humble opinion we as Auburn fans can't get caught up in that temptation, crazy tempting as it is. For two reasons:

1. We were so frickin' overdue to lose a couple of close games. As pointed out ad nauseum on this site, going 6-0 in close games one year means you'd better win decisively the next. Auburn didn't, that's what happens. Would I be willing to trade those razor's edge victories in 2006 for ones earlier this season? The Nebraska one, maybe, but none of the others.

2. If anything is keeping Auburn's feet on the ground right now as we head off to Fayetteville, it's the endless reams of "These guys totally suck" newsprint and blogprint that hit after MSU game. If that anchor of anger wasn't there, I'd feel even more confident this was 2002 all over again. (There's also the rather surprising fact that the 0-2 SEC team is getting three points on the 2-1 SEC team with the incredible road track record and the win over Florida, a fact I have precisely zero doubt has been mentioned more than once this week in the Auburn locker room. Thanks, Vegas.)

The coin's flip side.
Wonderfully-named Arkansas columnist institution Wally Hall provides 10 reasons Arkansas could win this game, and while I don't buy all of them--Casey Dick's passing game isn't going to "click in a big game" until Monk gets back--but No.2 (D-Mac) and No. 1 (Felix Jones) are really all the reasons the Hogs need. Especially when 0-3 in the SEC and the surefire firing of their coach are on the line. As has been said elsewhere, the Hogs are all in this week.

Accuracy, please. Snatched off the useful Best of SEC newswire is this piece of fluff from MSNBC. On the balance I agree that the SEC is still the nation's best conference, blah blah blah. But honestly? I think the league might have been a bit overrated entering this season. LSU is all that and a bag of cajun-style potato chips, of course, Florida is a worthy No. 2 as anyone who saw their slugfest last Saturday would attest, and if this were a chessboard South Carolina would make a fine bishop alongside LSU's queen and Florida's, like, almost-queen ... but who else? Kentucky is not a contender until they start allowing less than 12 yards a carry. Auburn has potential, obviously, but could likely lose to a Sun Belt team if they put their mind (not) to it. Tennessee rolled over and died in Gainesville, but are apparently still light years better than the toothless Dawgs, themselves road winners over the reeling Tide. MSNBC guy touts the number of SEC teams in the top 25, but I'm not sure even in this insane season more than those top 3 belong in the top 20. I hope I'm wrong. We'll see.

Second, bigger gripe: MSNBC guy writes that "South Florida whipped Auburn at Auburn." Whipped? That game went into overtime, jerkface, and the yardage totals, while not in Auburn's favor, weren't exactly one-sided. But why just say "beat" or "defeated" when you can go for something wholly inaccurate but still, dude, way cooler-sounding? This is a problem all over the place in college football writing; witness the reliable, reasonable OTS at RollBamaRoll writing this week that Miss. St. "squeak(ed) by" UAB. I know the Blazers led by a slim margin entering the fourth quarter, but still, that game finished 30-13. 17 points, only the final 7 of them coming via turnover really equals a squeaker? The JCCW is probably not innocent of this sort of exaggeration, either, mind you, but this sneaky, creeping tendency to describe games in terms based on the context the result is being placed in (i.e. the SEC isn't perfect, so Auburn got "whipped", MSU isn't going to beat UT, so they "squeaked" past UAB) rather than the result itself needs to be weeded out.

Stereotype confirmed. SEC fans, want to feel superior about the intensity of our crowds and gameday experience while simultaneously having your suspicions as to the milquetoast climate at Big 10 games scientifically verified? Have a look see at this letter from a Michigan fan exposed with snappy malice at MGo. If I hadn't seen these types of fans at the Big House with my own two eyes, I'd be tempted to think this was a parody, so thoroughly crotchety, ornery, and generally "Stay out of my yard, you damn kids!" that letter is.

Also worth checking: Braves and Birds lays into the ESPN brand of intangible analysis (look also for an insightful comment from LD of Gunslingers fame); Jay G. Tate reports that you may want to hold off on wishing Patrick Trahan well on his road to academic recovery; USC fan Jonathan Tu on Stanford's heroic backup QB: "earnest young lesbian ceramics associate professor"; and finally, please read occasional JCCW commenter PhillipVU94's Vandy blog Save the Shield, which I meant to point you towards earlier this week and, honest to God, got my Vandy blogs with two S-words in the title mixed up. Apologies to Phillip.

Wish List possibly later today, more likely first thing tomorrow a.m.