Rememberin' the good times, back in the first quarter when things were swell.
It's true: when you follow the ol' college wellness class instruction to take a deep breath and let go of the infuriating failure of the Spread Eagle, the placekicking, the quarterback situation, and those repulsive boos as you slowly exhale, Auburn has given us reasons to be satisfied, reasons to be happy, even, with the win over Tennessee Saturday.
For starters, for all of the Lifetime-quality drama we've gotten from the offense and the separation and eventual reconciliation of Khrisodi Burn-Stodd, five games into the season Auburn's record is 4-1. If in July you expected them to come out of this little two-week jaunt against LSU and Tennessee better than 1-1, you probably also expected Ed McMahon to stop by with your giant novelty check by now for subscribing to Self.
There's the fact that Auburn's defense may be human, but only just so; however intent Jonathan Crompton and the Vol offense may have been at taking careful aim at their own third metatarsal and firing away, it's still fair to label their effort Herculean. It's one thing to keep a blind squirrel from finding more than a single nut, it's another to do it when the offense keeps tossing the squirrel into the damn Planters factory. Sure, there's not much doubt that given the current state of the offense Auburn could lose to anyone on the schedule, but I also don't have any doubt that with this defense Auburn can beat anyone on the schedule. Where there are Markses and Powerses and Colemans and backups who are Josh Byneses, there is hope, and nothing will change that.
Kodi Burns is getting snaps and will continue to get snaps. This is a Step in the Right Direction.
If you keep looking, you can keep finding positives. Mathematics has no gripe with Auburn's SEC West chances, such as they are, not when LSU still all three of the other members of the conference's consensus top four remaining on the schedule. Auburn's ranking is still, somehow, some way*, holding steady inside the country's top 15. As baby buzzard-ugly as both the Mississippi St. and Tennessee wins were, neither one was a statistical fluke--Auburn outgained both. Durst is back and still a revelation. The fumbles have been cut out. Tommy Tuberville is still the Auburn head football coach and no one is expecting a single damn thing from his team anymore, which is generally when Tommy Tuberville does his best work.
And surely, surely, oh please dear God, the offense cannot get any worse. It cannot. It must improve. It will improve. The laws of Nature and logic and statistical probability and all that desperate jazz demand it. Don't they?
I don't know. Probably not. They can only mean so much when sure first-down passes go whizzing directly through the hands of your senior wide receiver. There's only so much improvement to be made when the starting quarterback's arm is clearly, obviously, glaringly shot to pieces and his ability to make up for this with his "legs" is "utterly nonexistent." There are only so many points Auburn can score when it becomes necessary for an offense this rickety to put the ball in the end zone each and every time they reach opposing territory, what with field goals no longer a viable option.
You can only be so happy when after five weeks of his inaugural season, the new offensive coordinator talks about how much he's taking out of the playbook as opposed to how much he's adding in, only so happy when on the same day your team wheezes to a two-point victory over the only team on the planet more discombobulated on offense than your own, your team's archrival goes on the road and tears one of the best teams in the country into tiny, quivering shreds. There's only so much optimism to scrape together when the offensive line that was supposed to hold the unit together while the skill guys worked out the kinks is causing the rot from the inside out, one false start at a time.
And, of course, you can only expect them to work so hard to get better when thousands of their own fat-assed fans choose to honor the hard work they've put in to this point, the countless hours they've spent, sacrifices they've made, etc. by booing the hell out of them.
So, yeah, I'm trying to remember the good things. I'm exhaling nice and slow and repeating Vanderbilt's yardage deficits to myself. But there's only so much good that will do when Auburn seems so irretrievably stuck in the good-but-not-great rut they've been in since New Year's Day 2006, when the only thing that would redeem that monotony--an Iron Bowl victory--seems to grow less and less likely every week.
Yes, I have hope. Yes, I have belief. But only so much of it these days.
Wait ... I have to have three?
Josh Bynes. There are many, many things I would like to go back in time and make a wager on--$100 on "Lee Corso will predict Alabama will defeat Georgia on the road and be correct" would probably have turned a tidy profit--but I bet I could have gotten some hella good odds on "Tray Blackmon will become arguably Auburn's second-best middle linebacker" in the preseason. That's not to say I think Blackmon ought to lose his starting job, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't face facts: Bynes made more of an impact Saturday than Blackmon has in any game this season.
The secondary, collectively. Crompton played as poor a game at quarterback as you can possibly play without being intercepted, but it wasn't entirely by accident, not when you've got Tennessee's more-than-serviceable crop of receivers and you finish averaging 2.8 yards per passing attempt. Powers, Etheridge, McNeil, McFadden, Thorpe: we salute you.
Clinton Durst. Not eye-popping numbers in Saturn V's return (43.7 a kick gross, 36.1 net, no fair catches), but a shank on any single punt in the fourth quarter would have meant a field goal try at least and quite possibly defeat no matter how stoutly the defense held. A shank might have even been sorta forgivable, given that we're talking about a guy who's playing his fourth-ever career football game and the first one at home with anything approaching this kind of pressure. The shank never came anyway.
Three opportunities for improvement
Placekicking. This team as currently constructed simply cannot afford to have a liability at placekicker. Unfortunately, that hasn't kept Wes Byrum from officially becoming a liability. 3-of-7 from 20-45 yards is not good enough. It's not even really close to good enough.
Hmmmmmmm, maybe the passing. The run game sort of secretly picked up a bit this week--I know that overall 2.6 per-carry mark is uggggggggly, but Tate and Fannin combined for 93 yards on 23 carries, up over 4 a pop--but the passing game that looked so worthwhile against LSU went face-first into the toilet this week. As in "4.4 yards an attempt with a devastating pick" face-first. Take away the one touchdown drive and Todd finishes 10-19 for 51 yards (or 2.68 an attempt). Some of that is drops, some of it is Tennessee's excellent secondary, and I do have some sympathy with the fact that getting yanked and reinserted isn't easy ... but this is still just bad, bad quarterbacking from Todd.
Offensive line penalties. On Auburn's first five possessions alone, the Tigers were flagged for three false starts and two holds. As if the rest of the offense needed the extra degree-of-difficulty just to make it challenging. Cripes.
Numbers of importance
7, 47, 6.7. Number of offensive touches for Mario Fannin, number of yards gained on those touches, and the average gain on those touches. Please please please let the talk this week about his shoulder just now getting truly healthy be true, because if our offensive coaching staff didn't realize "Hey, this guy's pretty good, why don't we try getting the ball in his hands and see what happens" until this week--or if this becomes a one-game fluke as opposed to a trend--I can't imagine it's a positive sign.
7. Consecutive combined three-and-outs for both teams in the fourth quarter. I'd always wondered what it would look like if you could somehow translate the 1990 World Cup into a game of college football, and now I know.**
4.04; 6. Todd's and Burns's yards-per-pass attempt, respectively. Make of it what you will.
Your bottom line
All those who looked at the 2008 schedule over the summer and thought "That Vanderbilt game could very well prove to be the one that defines Auburn's season" raise your hand. That's what I thought. And you there, in the back: either you misheard me or you're a liar.
Nonetheless, that's where we are. If Auburn can get out of Nashville with their hide intact, it seems pretty gosh-darned likely they'll be able to survive the catastrophic Hogs at home (as if Tubby's willingness to sell his soul for that one didn't make it likely already) and escape into their bye week at 6-1. From there the road trips to Morgantown and Oxford will each be a colossal pain-in-the-arse, but Auburn will at least have extra preparation time for both. IF the Tigers win Saturday, it will seem entirely possible (if not likely, exactly, depending on how close Franklin appears to solving the offensive woes) that the Tigers will head into Amen Corner 9-1 and maybe even in control of their SEC West destiny.
Lose Saturday, and of course all of those wonderful dreams dissipate as quickly as the one you had this morning, just before you woke up, where Auburn won a big SEC game by more than the skin of their teeth.
*That way is called "Wake Forest losing to Navy and East Carolina falling apart."
**I'm well aware that like two people will get this, and I do apologize to the rest of you, but I really think those two people will be like "Oh, dude, totally."