What we expected: For a team that was just two short weeks away to losing to Vanderbilt, firing its offensive coordinator, and collapsing in a heap, things were still generally positive heading into the Tennessee game. Losing to LSU hurt, but the passing game had shown its first signs of genuine life against a team that wasn't Southern Miss, the polls had been generous (Auburn was still No. 15 coming into the meeting with the Vols), and it looked unlikely the sputtering Clawfense-- equally hapless twin brother of the Spread Eagle--would put up much of a fight after getting throttled at home against Florida the week before. With even the most rational Vol fans more worried about Phil Fulmer's future than the Auburn challenge, it seemed like an excellent chance for the Tigers to take advantage of the chaotic, panicked atmosphere surrounding Tennessee and bounce back with a solid win. Follow that with held serves against Vandy and Arkansas, and Auburn would be, as the saying goes, right back in that thing.
What happened: You wouldn't think one football team could play in a game that could rival "3-2" in pure, unadulterated butt-ugliness just two weeks after taking part in that first anti-classic, but when you're talking about the Season of DEATH, the normal laws of averages don't apply.
And so, we were treated to Auburn 14, Tennessee 12, quite possibly the least satisfying Auburn victory I can ever remember. The two teams combined for 417 total yards (yes, 14 yards fewer than the Miss. St. game), an average of 3.7 yards-per-pass-attempt, nearly as many punts (19) as first downs (24), and a mind-blogging seven consecutive three-and-outs in the second half. There was some respect for what the Tiger defense was still accomplishing, as I tried to express in the game's wake:
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.Still, between the offensive immolation, the booing of Chris Todd (which led to this post), and the ever-swirling, rising waters of the quarterback controversy--fueled by Burns finally returning for a handful of snaps here and there, some of them even successful--it was as empty a win as I imagine Auburn will ever claim.
The vibe when all was said and done: The confusion and frustration that greeted "3-2" was replaced by something else this go-round: outright anger. This post at Jay G. Tate's blog makes me cringe with its negativity and defense of booing, but I think it's a pretty fair expression of where the mood across the Auburn fanbase was after the Tennessee game. Yours truly tried to look on the bright side and pretty much failed:
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?Sorry for the long quote (of myself), but I think this was something of a turning point: the point where the frustration boiled over, where we started to realize the defense wouldn't be able to always bail out an offense this wretched, where even in victory we could sense we'd turned inexorably towards 5-7dom. As the "21-10 over Vandy" prediction at the end of the Tate post showed, I think there was a sense that the rot could be held off a little while, but there just wasn't any denying that the rot existed and that chaos was fast approaching--hell, even the coaching staff wasn't doing much to hide it those days.
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.
The JCCW, looking prescient for once: From the Friday preview:
(T)here's going to be one Mistake that's going to decisively tilt what should otherwise be a balanced game in one particular direction. Oh, it's coming.You can see a picture of this Mistake at the start of this post.
The JCCW, looking as foolish as usual: I kind of wish I hadn't followed up that "Planters factory" quote above with the following:
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.Funny, it turned out that losing 14-13 to Vanderbilt would change that. Who knew?
What we learned about 2008: That even under the very best of circumstances, 2008 was going to be a slog: that the QB controversy was going to be an issue again, that the Auburn natives were going to be seriously restless, that Tubby and Franklin were not entirely on the same page. I mentioned in that after-post that Auburn was still mathematically in the SEC race, but I think this was the week we realized that was every inch a pipe dream.
What we learned about 2009: In retrospect, we learned that we should judge the defense's performance in the context of the offense they were attempting to stop. The second-half capitulation against LSU was much, much closer to what we should have expected from the D the rest of the season than what they managed against Tennessee's howling vortex of Suck.
The disconnect between Tubby and Franklin--with Franklin insisting that it had been Tubby's choice to insert Burns into the game and Tubby saying he and Franklin had made that decision mutually--was another warning sign that we won't miss if (please no) it does happen to rear its ugly head again. I'm not expecting Malzahn to say at any point this year that Chizik made the decision to insert Caudle/Rollison/Burns and Chizik to say Malzahn had signed off on it and meanwhile Jeff Grimes stands around gruffly complaining about whether the players are in a two- or three-point stance ... but if there is some kind of division of thought between the head coach and the OC, we'll know things aren't going smoothly.
And lastly: hopefully we learned to take victories however we could get them. We were all unhappy after this game, and not without reason. But when you look back and realize that that was the last win Auburn would have all season over a D-I program, maybe we still could have done a little bit more to say "Hey, at least it's a win."