What we expected: With a 26-point spread coming into Auburn's season opener, a Tiger victory was the universal consensus despite a certain team's certain performance against the Warhawks the year before. So the more important expectations centered not on the outcome but on how Auburn would get there: namely, with an appropriately suffocating defensive performance and some promising periods of explosiveness from Tony Franklin's shiny new offense. I think most rational Auburn fans weren't expecting a huge point total in Franklin's first ... er, second game right out of the box--especially with the quarterback issue still to be resolved--but obviously, we didn't think signs that things were coming together at an SEC-quality pace would be too much to ask for, either.
And oh, speaking of the quarterbacking issue, Franklin had conditioned us to not necessarily expect a decisive victor in the Burns vs. Todd battle--but I would say we as Auburn fans also believed that seeing the two of them on the field would give us some level of insight into where the two stood.
What happened: Auburn 34, UL-Monroe 0. Auburn pitched a shutout, ran for 321 yards, outgained the overmatched Warhawks by 180 yards, and covered the spread with a touchdown to spare.
But they also:
--Punted on their first six offensive possessions and failed to put together a touchdown drive longer than 30 yards until 6:49 remained in the game
--Passed for all of 85 yards on 27 attempts, for an average of 3.1 yards a pass
--Saw Burns leave the game with an undefined leg injury that would prove to keep him out of Auburn's next three games, and Phillip Pierre-Louis tear an ACL on the first play of the season.
So, yes, room for improvement on the offensive front, to say the least. Good news did emerge on special teams : mystery walk-on punter Clinton Durst finished the game with a net punting average up over 42 yards an attempt ("If maintained over the entirety of 2007, that would have placed Auburn second in the country") and Robert Dunn broke a 12-year punt-return-for-TD drought. Neiko Thorpe and D'Antoine Hood acquitted themselves well in their Auburn debuts, easing some concerns about their major-by-necessity roles in the secondary. Between the dominant defense and exquisite special teams, Auburn's offensive woes barely even mattered. Sort of.
In retrospect, the Burns injury was the biggest development to come out of this game. If Burns doesn't have to sit out the Southern Miss game, there's a good chance it's him rather than Todd who wins the job headed into the LSU game and beyond. Hard to say that changes anything in the end, given the disastrous level of dysfunction behind the scenes with Auburn's offense ... but maybe it does. And the road to Todd's ascension starts with Burns cutting his shin open here.
The vibe when all was said and done: In the court of public opinion, however ... yeah, they did matter, at least a little. The widespread reaction was an enthusiastic Yeah, but. Defense: great. Running game: even better than expected. Overall: They'd better get better. Soon.
But the panic button hadn't been pressed just yet. As Will pointed out at the time, there was another recent year in which Auburn was breaking in a new offensive coordinator and struggled out of the gate against UL-Monroe. That year was 2004; it was quite the comforting thought.
Also worth noting is that the consensus in the wake of the ULM game was that when healthy again, Burns--who had in some ways thrown the ball better than Todd and had provided his usual spark with this legs--had earned enough separation to start over Todd. If he was healthy.
The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From the ULM Cheese Puff Preview, June 12:
"ULM's problem is that as experienced as it might be, as Acid Reign pointed out it matches up with Auburn's offense about well as Alan Dershowitz matches up with Heidi Klum. They have great safeties; Auburn could probably care less about throwing downfield. They have a great back seven, but are questionable up front; Auburn's offensive line might be its strongest unit on either side of the ball. Auburn won't have it easy early on, particularly if they still have that new offense smell, but by the late stages of the game ULM is going to need a hell of a chin to stand up to the heavyweight blows Ziemba, Green, etc. are going to deliver."And hey, sure enough, by the fourth quarter Auburn was plowing over the gassed Warhawk linemen at will. Oh, if only every team Auburn played could have been so thin up front.
The JCCW, looking as foolish as usual: From the
"As for the passing game's woes, I'm not sweating just yet. ULM came in way, way more familiar with Franklin's offense from their battles with Troy, for a start. Season-opening nerves are going to have more of an impact on the precision execution needed for the air game than he ground game. And, again: how many times over the past two years has Auburn won with quarterbacking just as bad--if not worse, given Evil Brandon's interception predilections--as we saw yesterday?"When it does." Good one.
Besides: it'll get better. We didn't see a single thing yesterday to suggest that when it does, Auburn won't be every bit the SEC contender we believe them to be."
What we learned about 2008: Not as much as we should have. Yes, that the defense would have to carry the offense for a while; that Durst was legit; that the freshmen corners would be OK. But that "Hey, the running game's OK after all!" lesson we thought we'd learned ... yeah, that was some misinformation.
What we learned about 2009: Well, if the Gus Malzahn offense comes out and looks as bad in its first game as Franklin's did, I'm not going to be the one to tell the Chicken Littles to hush up this year. It wouldn't be time to write off Malzahn as a whole, of course, but it very well might be time to settle in for another very frustrating offensive year.
I think we also have to be more honest about what poundings of lesser teams actually mean, which is: nothing. Arkansas almost lost--arguably should have lost to this same bunch of Warhawks--and of course would go on to walk out of J-Hare with a win. On the flip side, Alabama looked absolutely dreadful against Tulane and finished the regular season undefeated. I think in some cases you can extrapolate how well a team might fare in the SEC by their nonconference exhibition schedule--combine Mississippi St.'s awful 2007 Pythagorean numbers with the opening-week loss to Louisiana Tech, and you could guess with a high, high degree of confidence that they were headed for the kind of season they had. But otherwise ... just don't read too much into it, one way or the other. (Not that we'll be able to help ourselves, of course.)