What we expected: The 3-2 game had let nearly all the air out of the Tony Franklin balloon, but the overall bunch of orange-and-blue balloons was still mostly aloft. Wouldn't be accurate, I don't think, to call Auburn fans "confident" entering a game against the then No. 6-ranked Bayou Bengals, but I wouldn't say there was much outright pessimism, either. Our defense had allowed just 3-out-of-46 third-down conversions and was laying waste on all sides. Clinton Durst had become an outright weapon. Auburn was at home in a series dominated by the home team. And perhaps most persuasively, Auburn was going into the game as a home underdog a situation of which Tommy Tuberville had always been the Kung Fu Master. (And maybe he'd been sandbagging. It could have been happening.) Expectation? Maybe not. Hope? Plenty of it.
What happened: LSU 26, Auburn 21. In retrospect, this was probably Auburn's best performance of the season. Yes, it was a five-point home loss in which Auburn was outgained by 78 yards and had the benefit of a pick-six ... so no, we're not talking about an especially fine best performance of the season. Still, there was also 320 total yards (Wow!), 16 first downs (Sweet!), and most of all, not one but two long touchdown drives, the second of which came late in the fourth quarter to retake the lead. It would never get this good again for the Auburn offense. (Of course, that LSU's defense was later proved to be their most porous unit in memory probably had a little bit to do with that success).
Even here, though, the alarm bells were ringing: our supposedly impregnable defense gave up 293 yards in the second half and nearly six yards a play. The special teams, led by a disastrous performance by Ryan Shoemaker (filling in for a flu-stricken Dusrt), was a train wreck. After a couple of weeks of safety-first protection of the ball, Chris Todd threw two backbreaking interceptions (and proved to yours truly, seeing him in first person for the first and only time, that his arm was either shot already or would be soon). And perhaps most damningly, the rushing stats looked like this: LSU 38 carries for 178 yards, 4.7 per attempt; Auburn 36 carries for 70 yards, 1.9 yards per attempt. Yikes. When Franklin told the press later the answer to Auburn's troubles was to just pass more rather than figure out how to run the ball efficiently, I knew ... well, you couldn't have watched the Miss. St. game and not know Auburn's offense was in trouble, but this was another nail in the coffin.
Oh, one other development: Kodi Burns sat out the entire game again.
The vibe when all was said and done: This is hard to believe, but it still wasn't all that downcast. Remember that after the game LSU would ascend to the AP top-5 and were the hands-down, no-question-about-it favorite to take the SEC West. (Check out Will breaking down how Auburn might still get back in the SEC West race after the game.) Yours truly afterwards (please stifle your giggles):
(A)gainst the LSU's of the world, Auburn just isn't talented enough right now--especially on offense--to win these games merely by playing well. Todd isn't Campbell. Tate isn't Ronnie Brown. The receivers aren't Aromashadu, Obamanu, Taylor, etc. As good as the defense is, its nickel and dime backs are still true freshmen. There is no margin for error when facing a team a dripping with talent as LSU.Actually ... if that had been even remotely true, that would have been nothing but great news. Stupid LSU, simultaneously refusing to live up to expectations and confusing us all.
It's not the end of the world; it's been this way ever since 2005. Since that point, Auburn's had to play not just very well but damn near out of their minds and catch a couple of breaks to beat the other upper-echelon teams in the SEC. They've done that several times, of course, and it won't surprise me much if against Georgia and 'Bama they do it again. Against teams in the second tier like Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Vandy, Auburn's more than capable of making enough plays to pull out a victory, a la Arkansas last year and 'Bama the last couple.
That's the good news: after the LSU game, it's safe to say Auburn's just as good as they were in 2006 and 2007. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news.
Anyway, coming off of the offense's best performance of the young season and assuming the defense would mostly hold up against teams that didn't have LSU's beef up front, the general consensus was "all's not lost just yet." (We'd have to wait one more week for full panic.)
The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From my Friday preview:
Ever since Georgia left the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry's "Road team always wins!" meme in tiny, white-jerseyed tatters last fall, I've felt apprehensive about ascribing too much weight to the Auburn-LSU win "Home team always wins!" meme. When we're talking about a series that's been as razor-thin as this one has been over the past four years, I'm not sure it's home-field advantage as much as it is just good ol'-fashioned luck. Move V****n's kick six inches inside the upright, make Campell's fourth-down pass to Taylor a fraction of a second later, have Matt Flynn throw that last-second ball a foot behind where he did, and maybe we're talking about why the home team always loses this game rather than vice versa.I read this and think of that play early in the game, when Trindon Holliday fielded a punt inside his own 10, muffed it, and an Auburn player--I forget who--dove squarely on the ball. Somehow it squirmed out from underneath him and LSU recovered. Pure, unadulterated bad luck on Auburn's part ... and if that one play goes our way, who knows.
All of which makes me think: at some point the other shoe is going to drop. At some point the home team isn't going to catch the break they need. And as supremely likely as this game is to come down to that one single break (yet again) and with the specter of Georgia rearranging the momentum of that rivalry still hanging over us, it worries me like hell.
The JCCW, looking as foolish as usual:
From that same review post: I'm well aware there were several positives to come out of the game. Heroes or not, the defense is still hellacious. Chris Todd kept his pants pristine and excrement-free in the biggest game of his life and against one of the best defenses he'll ever face. Look past the devastating sack to close the game, and you realize pass protection was fantastic--allowing just two sacks against a line as ferocious as LSU's with a quarterback as statuesque as Todd is a tremendous accomplishment ... Add all the positives together and this is still a team whose goals--win SEC West, win 10 games, BEAT BAMA--are still more than attainable. There remains no reason to think Auburn will be outmatched in any game on their schedule--yes, even Georgia--and no reason to think our Tigers won't continue to play very well in big games. You have to admit that much: Auburn played very well Saturday night, against a damn strong football team.Hey, it sounded good at the time.
What we learned about 2008: That we had to have Durst healthy. That the Spread Eagle's running game wasn't ever going to get going against decent teams, at least not so long as Todd was out there pretending he might keep the ball on the zone read. That we very probably weren't winning the SEC West. That the defense could be breached, and that the old complaint about Tubby's undersized D's--that you could run straight at them--had some fact behind it in '08.
Other than that, well, I would say thanks to our vastly overinflated opinion of LSU, we didn't learn as much as we should have.
What we learned about 2009: The principal lesson here is in regards to the running game. If Malzahn wants to fiddle with the zone read, that's cool, but he'd be better off just ignoring it if he settles on Caudle as his quarterback. It just doesn't do any good to have a quarterback who can't run "occupy" a defender with a fake when that fake is only going to be flatly ignored and creates a mismatch in terms of blockers vs. defenders.
Also: stop screwing around on special teams against LSU, for the love of God. In 2007, LSU's winning touchdown was set up by a botched pooch kick. In 2008, LSU's winning touchdown was set up by a botched attempt to "punt away" from the LSU punt returner ... who happened to be the backup punt returner. Man up and kick away unless we're at the very end of the game, please.
From the fan perspective, well, if the Spread Eagle 2.0 is struggling, the lesson is not to get all that excited by one good performance. It's going to take more than one week to solve the problems of "3-2," and if it looks likes there's been substantial improvement ... maybe the D on the other side isn't as good as we think.