If you follow Auburn football at all then you already know we lost yet another home game to a conference foe. You may also have heard that we haven’t won an SEC game at home since October of 2014. If you are in any Auburn forums or facebook groups then you likely have seen incredibly poor displays of sportsmanship of late and many a fan calling for Malzahn to be fired.
I must admit that Malzahn’s play calling has frustrated me off and on since 2009 and our inexplicable loss to Kentucky at home – this of course excludes his play calling in 2006 for Arkansas that tore us to shreds, also a home loss. That said, I am not really in the fire Malzahn camp at all, nor am I in the camp of people often referred to as ‘sunshine pumpers’ in Auburn circles. No, I tend to take a more analytical approach to this sort of thing. What’s going on with Auburn football of late is perplexing to say the least. Let’s step back a bit before we talk about the loss to aTm.
Auburn vs Clemson
You’ve likely heard about our game against Clemson, and you likely heard it was a coaching debacle. You know, when I was watching the game live, I was flabbergasted and confused, to put it mildly. At some point my sons and I just started laughing at the QB carousel, because … you know … laughter is the best medicine, and we make a point to enjoy ourselves win or lose.
When I re-watched the game a day later, I saw things differently. For all the lunacy, for all the idiocy with the offense … the plan almost freaking worked. Had JJ not thrown off his back foot, that INT was a sure TD. Had Sean White not overthrown Cox in the endzone, that was another sure TD. Had Kerryon Johnson’s catch at the one not been overturned by the refs, that likely would have been another TD. That’s 21 freaking points and doesn’t even consider the field goals we didn’t kick or the other INT in the endzone.
So, in retrospect … there was a problem with execution just as much as there was a problem with the plan. Sure, we can say the QB carousel messed up the offensive rhythm and led to the poor execution, but had any of those things mentioned above gone the other way, Gus and his mad scientist ways would have been the talk of the town. He’d have been a hero. Alas, they didn’t, and he wasn’t. I don’t mention any of these things to criticize the players, mind, far from it. I only want to point out how close we were to not only winning the game, but winning in a blowout. You win some, you lose some – these things happen. But with these missed opportunities in mind it seems Clemson was lucky to escape with a six point win. Yet the prevailing post game analysis from this game in the media and most Auburn circles was that Gus is an idiot. Ok, if you say so … if you need to play the blame game. You know, you could always just be a good sport and say good game, Clemson, you executed better than we did and won.
Auburn vs Texas A&M
Sigh … where should we start with this game? Since we were just talking about prevailing analysis in the media and Auburn circles, let’s start there. I have read countless fan comments calling for Gus to be fired, for JFIII to be the new starter, and claiming that we can’t win with Sean White. I’m reminded of a line from Shakespeare when I see this … something about sound and fury. Even though our offensive line gave him little time to throw, Sean White completed 66% of his passes. That’s a good, high percentage. JFIII and the QB for the Aggies both only completed 50%, just to make a comparison. Not to mention some of Sean’s incompletions were nicely thrown drops. Sean played well, especially considering he was sacked within 2 seconds of his first snap of the game and was under duress all night afterwards.
Like the Clemson game, watching this one live was a bit … uh … frustrating, but if you check the stats, you’ll see we got our yards. They were just on the wrong side of the field. Credit aTm for that – they won the field position battle, they won the turnover battle, and they won the battle at the line of scrimmage. With this in mind, it’s pretty damn amazing we still managed to rush for 236 yards in this game. In total, we put up 399 yards to A&M’s 478. The major difference? They had the big plays and we did not. Namely, we gave up an 89 yard rushing TD late in the fourth that put the game out of reach … just two plays after going for it on fourth and three in the red zone. That decision, to go for it instead of taking the points, is the main mistake I will lay at Malzahn’s feet in terms of how he called the game. If he takes the points there, we get a kick off and that 89 yard rushing TD likely does not happen. Without that 89 yard play, we out gain aTm by 10 yards. Yeah, I know, if frogs had wings … I only mention these if-laden scenarios as a matter of offering perspective.
Texas A&M won the field position battle, plain and simple. Most of our drives started at our own 25 yard line. Our first touchdown drive started at our own 20, but teams almost never consistently score touchdowns on drives of 80 yards. We had one drive that started at our own seven yard line, and another that started at our own nine. Only twice in the whole game did we start a drive with excellent field position. Our best starting field position was at our own 44, and Sean White completed a pass that was fumbled on the first and only play of that drive. Our second best was at our own 42, and we went three and out for just the second time in the game, first since our opening drive. We only crossed the 50 yard line five times in this game, which lead to two touchdowns, one field goal, one turnover on downs, and one punt from the 43. And look, here I am making the same mistake as many other analysts and critics by only focusing on the offense.
Yes, our defense played great, much better than what we’ve gotten used to seeing on that side of the ball the last few years. It’s just that aTm’s defense played better; give’em credit. They got their sacks, all four of them. They are tenth in the nation for sacks this season. We were only able to muster one sack total and had a hand full of QB hurries that turned into decent scrambles for them. We are 77th in the nation for sacks this season, ouch. Their defense forced a turnover; ours did not. We had our opportunities. We forced more 3 and outs than they did, but we also gave up more field position when they didn’t go 3 and out. Thus we allowed more field goals/scoring drives, and as much as I hate to say it, we allowed more big plays.
The thing is … we just got out played, not so much out coached. When teams win the field position battle, they win something like 72% of the time. When teams win the turnover battle, they win something like 73% of the time. When teams win the battle at the line of scrimmage, they win something like 86% of the time. Texas A&M won all three of those battles. The only important battle we really won was time of possession, holding the ball 31:04 to their 28:56. Yet, the prevailing analysis during the game and since has been that Gus called a horrible game, that he called the same three plays over and over, even though he didn’t call the same three plays over and over. Besides not attempting the field goal, the only other fault I can really put on Malzahn is that the pass plays that were called didn’t really have many routes going down field. But then, that may have had something to do with our line only being able to give our QB roughly 3 seconds to throw. Where is our slant route? Where is our crossing route? These should be bread and butter pass plays, and that is a legitimate critique of the coach. Is it legitimate enough to call for his head when we don’t win? No, not really. Once again, we could just man up a bit, be grown ass men instead of groaning ass men and say, ‘Hey, good game Texas A&M, you executed better than we did and won – congrats!”
Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to win this game, I want us to win every game. Yes, I’m very tired of losing conference games, especially in our own stadium. But I am not of the mindset that when we lose, the whole season is over, or even of the mindset that when we drop out of competition for the conference title that the season is over*. We still have nine games left in this season, at least. There is a lot of football left to play, but judging by fan comments on social media, all is lost and it’s time to break out the search committee for a new coach. I don’t buy it. I don’t really want to get into defending Malzahn so much as analyzing what is going on, though I’m not entirely sure what is going on. I just have a theory.
What’s Going On at Auburn
Yes, it’s true that our SEC record of late is abysmal. It’s true that our home game record vs. power 5 opponents of late is horrid. These are facts that cannot be denied. It’s also true that most of these losses were incredibly close games, so what’s up? My theory on the matter requires an understanding of the learning curve that goes with becoming a head coach for the first time. Based on my own observations, that learning curve is roughly a five year ordeal. Some coaches learn to straighten the curve and become very successful. Other coaches never quite get it figured out and go back to being coordinators (ahem, Lane Kiffen). Malzahn is just now only three games into his fifth year of being a head coach.
Listen, it’s a free country and we get to choose if we want to be optimistic or pessimistic about all the things we deal with in life. We get to chose how we want to carry ourselves. I tend to lean toward the optimistic in nearly all things, not so much because I want to hide from facts or deny reality, but more so that I am choosing to somewhat exert my will upon a situation, that I’m choosing to carry myself in a way that likely leads to more enjoyment and happiness in general as I navigate through the experiences in my life. You, of course, are free to choose to be however you’d like to be. I am full of hope that Malzahn will figure it all out this year. Do I really think he will? I’m not 100% sure he will. How could I be? But I am 100% sure I hope he does. It is possible, so why not believe? You would think the fans who witnessed the “The Miracle in Jordan Hare” and the “Kick-Six” in back to back weeks would be willing to believe in all manner of hopefully possible things for their team.
Even with the abysmal and horrid records vs conference and power 5 opponents of late, Malzahn still has a better overall win/loss record than that other coach across the state had at the same stage in his career. Does that really mean anything? I don’t know. It might, and it might not. At the very least, it does mean that even Saban had his struggles straightening the learning curve when he first became a head coach. Things seem to have turned out pretty good for him though, barring his unsuccessful foray into the NFL. Not everyone can be Pete Carroll and find success at both levels I guess. But that comparison also means there is still hope for Malzahn to figure it out and become one of the greats. It’s possible, so why aren’t we all hoping for it? I have a couple theories on that as well.
One theory is that Auburn is sometimes frustrating to watch on offense. But then, this is nothing new. Anyone remember the interception game vs LSU? Our offense did nothing in that game, and it was frustrating … until our defense won the game. Sometimes when watching Malzahn’s offense, I tend to be as baffled as my brother, who says he just doesn’t understand the inconsistency. At times we seem to have it all working and clicking on all cylinders for a few plays or even a few drives, and then out of nowhere we start falling apart. It’s baffling. Is it a matter of Malzahn calling bunk plays? Is it a matter of Malzahn being predictable and allowing defenses to anticipate our plays and thwart them? I imagine it’s a bit of both, combined with a few other things. That’s the thing abut being baffled … there are no easy answers.
Hope & Perspective
Speaking of being baffled, did you know that even with this recent loss, Auburn has 58 first downs the last two games? That’s the two best two-game stretch since 1995. Did you know that Auburn is the only team in the SEC with two running backs ranked in Top 10? Special thanks to @AUGoldMine for these stats. They give me hope. They let me know that even though we’ve lost two games already, the season is far from over. Sure, we may not win a title this year, but I don’t buy into that title or bust mindset for defining a season. What if we beat LSU and UGA this year? What if we beat Bama and both Mississippi schools? What if it turns out this is Texas A&M’s year? What if we become a team that Clemson and aTm later say they were glad to play early? It could happen. And you know, we have a really good chance of beating UGA this year, as a matter of fact. Their new coach is just in his first year of the head coach learning curve.
So, if I could offer some advice to my fellow Auburn fans, particularly the ones who seem to be the most critical and vocal on social media, it would be to lighten up. You only have a limited number of football games per year – why not enjoy them all win or lose? There is no worse way to spoil a hallowed football Saturday chock full of enjoyable family time, football food, and adult beverages than by being a spoiled sport/sore loser/grumpy curmudgeon/adult crybaby throwing a tantrum when your team, who you have no control over, doesn’t perform the way you want them to. There is no quicker way to come off as an intellectual lightweight than by giving in to the knee-jerk emotional reaction of calling for a coach to be fired. You sound like Georgia fans during Mark Richt’s tenure when you do that.
Admittedly, Richt’s record during that time was far better and more consistent than our record during this time. Yet all things considered, it could be worse, a lot worse. You could actually be a Georgia fan. Imagine … all those consistent winning seasons and hardly any hardware to show for it: just two conference titles in fifteen years, both over 10 years ago, and zero national titles, zero Heisman winners. Even with all our ups and downs the last 15 years (paralleling Richt’s tenure at UGA), we still have three conference titles, two undefeated seasons, one national title from two title game appearances, and a six win streak over our in state rival. In just 3.25 years as Auburn’s head coach, Malzahn already has one conference title and one national title appearance, not to mention being the offensive coordinator during our undefeated conference and national title winning season.
Imagine if Malzahn manages to straighten out the head coach learning curve. We know he’s smart. We know he’s recruited extremely well, which in itself is amazing considering the in state competition for recruits. I don’t know … again, I don’t want to get into defending Malzahn. He frustrates me too, ya know. Still, I think it would be better for us in the long run if he straightens his learning curve while at Auburn, and so I really hope he does. I just worry about my fellow Auburn fans who seem so angry**. In the same way I am hopeful Malzahn gets it all figured out, I am hopeful my Auburn family will lighten up and remember to enjoy the ride. War Damn!
*Does anyone remember the Tubberville years? I think most fans remember his years fondly these days. I know I do, but I also remember winning or tying for the division title five times while only winning the conference title once. From 2000 – 2005, Tommy went 6-2, 5-3, 5-3, 5-3, 5-3, 8-0, and 7-1 respectively in conference play. Though we were a regular at the top of our division, we only played in the conference championship game twice in that span, where we went 1-1. Yet, I still remember those seasons with pleasure. I remember beating LSU and UGA consistently, and bama more often than not during those years. So I just don’t understand the mindset of modern fandom where there is this assumption that if we lose a crucial game and/or can’t compete for a title that the season is over, wasted. This season is far from over, and a good coach will make sure his players know that and don’t get infected by the mindset of negative fans’ comments they read on social media. Yes, I’m tired of losing, but none of Malzahn’s losses have been blow outs, except LSU last year of course. Most have been by 8 points are less. It remains to be see if Malzahn will be a season salvaging coach or not – he’s certainly set himself up for it by starting off 1-2.
**I have a theory about the anger — man, I’m just full of all kinds of theories today. I think it has something to do with social media smack talk and getting ribbed by fans of other schools, particularly bammers, who have been on a hot streak since 2009. Well, that and being dissed by the media … as if that’s anything new, 2004 anyone? I get it though. People are tired of hearing crap from rivals who laugh at our poor performances, particularly bammers. But it’s really an ‘if you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen’ situation, isn’t it? I mean, why let the assholery of another fan bring out the assholery in you? Still, I think people can easily get too caught up in comparing their own team to some other team, particularly bammer. We would all do well to remember that comparison can be valuable for analysis, but outside of that, comparison is often the thief of joy. It’s also good to remember the wheel goes round and round, and success in college football is cyclical. Just ask USC, or Tennessee, or Florida. Maybe I’ll write another post soon about how to disarm a smack talking bammer, or any obnoxious fan from some other fan base. Hmmm …