What we expected: With the Golden Eagles coming off of a 51-point explosion vs. UL-Lafayette in Larry Fedora's head coaching debut and the curiously scuffling Auburn offense firmly in Chris Todd's hands following Kodi Burns's week 1 injury, the consensus was that the game could be closer than expected ... if the Auburn offense didn't improve. But the consensus was also that the Auburn offense would, in fact, improve, as long as Todd wasn't totally incompetent.
What happened: Auburn 27, Southern Miss 13, but it wasn't quite as close as all that: Auburn led 24-0 late in the third quarter despite fumbling inside the Southern Miss 20 on both of their first two possessions. First downs ended up nearly even and the total yardage difference (75) wasn't that wide, but Auburn gained more than a yard more per play and forced punts on eight of USM's first nine possessions. With nearly 400 yards of total offense, it looked like the Spread Eagle was finally taking flight, and Robert Dunn--with four punt returns for 103 yards--looked like Auburn's biggest special teams weapon since Tristan Davis was Tristan Davis.
As for Todd, no complaints: 21-of-31, 248 yards, zero picks. Burns made a cameo and, well, ended up wishing he hadn't: 0-3 with an ugly pick. No one was surprised when Tubby said immediately following the game that Todd was the starter.
Defensively, the suspicions of greatness were (we thought) confirmed, as Fedora's spread did next to nothing until the game was all but out of reach.
The vibe when all was said and done: Yours truly was worried that Todd's ascension to the quarterbacking throne was more a product of Burns's bad luck and a lackluster USM defense than actual quality on Todd's part, and the fumbles were disconcerting, but overall this was the high-water mark of Auburn optimism in 2008: the offense looked functional, the defense deathly, the special teams (Byrum aside) like difference-makers. As I wrote in that same post:
(T)he defense, special teams, and running game can likely handle some wobbles as long as the quarterback situation doesn't derail the whole damn thing.We expected some "wobbles" but wholsesale derailment looked quite, quite unlikely.
The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From the Sept. 5 preview:
"The JCCW believes the final margin to ultimately be in Todd's hands; both teams should be able to move the ball, but if Todd is sharp Auburn should roll their way to an easy victory; if he's adequate, the Tigers' advantages on the ground and along the defensive line should be enough to win by two possessions; if we see a series of crushing picks, all bets are off."Todd was somewhere between adequate and sharp, leading to a victory that finished in the two-possession range but was closer to "easy" than the score indicated ... so I'm giving myself FULL MARKS for this one.
The JCCW, looking as foolish as usual: From that same follow-up post:
"Nonetheless, after seeing what the rest of this team is capable of over the past two Saturdays, we're more-or-less just waiting to find out what happens at quarterback. We know the Auburn defense will sow chaos and reap jellylegged fear against every opponent they play; the Southern Miss offense was laden with more All-SEC-caliber talent than Miss. St., Vandy, and Kentucky combined and they went nowhere for a half. We know the Auburn offensive line is going to give the quarterback some semblance of time and the running backs some semblance of space in which toI read things like this and wonder: Will we ever be this confident again? Ever?
fumbleoperate; there's too much experience, talent, etc. for them not to. We don't know if they're going to hold on to the ball, but we do at least know the Auburn running backs are going to run hard and run fast whenever they do."
What we learned about 2008: For starters, that Chris Todd was going to be our starting quarterback until such time as he was poor enough to not be the starting quarterback anymore. Other than that, as with the UL-Monroe game, mostly misinformation about how insanely awesome the defense was, how Dunn was going to break all kinds of records, etc. We learned that everything save the fumbling problem was OK--and hoo boy, it was not OK. (That bit about the fumbling proved to be a pretty accurate worry, though, in retrospect.)
What we learned about 2009: Well, one good game will not a quarterback make this fall, that's for sure. It'll be at least two and probably three games before anyone declares any Auburn QB our new savior ... if ever. (Not that anyone was going nuts for Todd last year--but the expectation after USM was that he'd be good enough.)
Also where the quarterbacks are concerned: the job probably shouldn't be decided by injury. It's tricky--I still don't think Franklin or the Auburn staff had any choice but to make Todd the starter, though I think they also worked Burns back into the rotation too slowly--but Burns never really got a shot to get back into the starter's role until after the coaching change. I think the new staff have to be a little more open-ended about the consequences of injuries, if that happens to rear its ugly head again.
What else? That special teams explosions, nice as they are, are pretty random even for the very best--this would have been a much closer game without Dunn's heroics, and as the weeks went by and the team needed actual offense for offense, it became clear that maybe part of our overrating of Auburn after their first two weeks came because Dunn couldn't repeat his earlier feats. You can win or lose games with special teams all the time ... but still, most of them are going to be won down-to-down. (I desperately hope we get to put this lesson to work this year ... since it'll mean we've had another few good days on special teams.)
Next time, the wheels come off the wagon.