Last Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, fans witnessed a game that toyed with their emotions all day. Fans went from displeased to happy to hopeful to aggravated to sheer hopeless to extremely happy. The emotion that defined the day, however, was concern.
The defending national champions have been nothing short of an afterthought in the preseason polls and magazines. Without Heisman winner Cam Newton, All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and a host of other important players (many of them on the offensive and defensive lines), the Tigers have been expected to struggle a year after running the table for the 12th time in school history.
The Tigers' 42-38 miracle win over Utah State did nothing to prove the preseason publications wrong. Auburn was completely outplayed by a WAC team with a freshman quarterback named Chuckie. It took two late touchdowns for Auburn to win. While Utah State might be a "good team with a bad name" (they only lost to Oklahoma in the 2010 opener by a touchdown, 31-24), Auburn was expected to win by more but instead played flat for the first 57 minutes.
While there were many negatives to take away from the performance, there are some positives as well. And these positives will need to make themselves more evident with #16 Mississippi State coming to town in what's being billed as the biggest Bulldog game in decades.
Of all the positions Auburn had to fill this year (including the offensive line, wide receivers and defensive line), no player played better in his first start than Barrett Trotter did in replacing Cam Newton. Trotter went 17-23 for 261 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He led two clutch touchdown drives in the final 3:38 to pull out a win over Utah State. If any player in the game was consistent, it was Trotter. In other QB news, Kiehl Frazier did take a snap, meaning his redshirt has been burned (barring an injury, of course) and, in all likelihood, he will see more playing time the rest of the year as a wildcat QB or a change-of-pace guy.
Negative: Offensive and Defensive Lines
For the first time under Gene Chizik, Auburn ran for under 100 yards in a game as a team, gaining just 78 yards on the ground against the Aggies. The previous low? 100 yards against West Virginia in 2009. Meanwhile, the defensive line, which helped the Tigers lead the SEC in rush defense last year during a BCS title run, allowed 227 rushing yards in the season opener. Auburn did suffer from physical issues early last year as well before Chizik threw down the gauntlet in practice, but last year's lines both had experience. Auburn will need a better performance in the trenches against an extremely tough Mississippi State team.
Positive: Defense against the Spread Offense
Under Chizik, Auburn is 4-0 against teams that run a true spread offense (beating Mississippi State and West Virginia in 2009 and Mississippi State and Oregon in 2010). The defense has been a key reason why, as the Tigers allowed just 21.7 points in those contests (All four teams averaged at least 34 points per game coming in). Pro style offense have seemed to plague the Tigers' defense, but Auburn has done a good job of stopping spread offenses in the past couple of years.
Auburn's biggest problem last week was really simple -- the Tigers couldn't tackle. They simply couldn't. The whole game resembled the fourth quarter of the 2009 Kentucky game. They went for big hits and couldn't make it stick. This is fixable, like many problems Auburn had Saturday. The tackling must improve or Mississippi State will have an offensive party on Pat Dye Field.
Positive: Special Teams.
I wouldn't hesitate at all to say Auburn had the best special teams performance in college football last Saturday. What wasn't to like? Four touchbacks, a kickoff return for a touchdown by "Tre La Soul" (Tre Mason), a punt downed at the one-yard line... The special teams had a special day indeed.
Negative: Will the Tigers finally play man coverage?
Aubun had a truly tough time stopping Utah State's offense, and one big reason was zone coverage. The cornerbacks, rather than pressing the line of scrimmage and forcing a receiver to beat them deep, step at least 10 yards away from the wide receiver, giving him a big cushion to get a good gain. Gene Chizik has promised that the Tigers will use more man coverage against the Bulldogs, but will he and Ted Roof stick to it?
Positive: The Attitude is still there
During the Tigers' 16-game winning streak, nine games have been decided by eight points or fewer. The latest proves that, even without Cam Newton on that sideline, this is a team and a coaching staff that refuses to give up, no matter how gloomy things may appear. With so many freshmen, it would have been easy for the Tigers to give up once Utah State went up by 10 with little time left. Instead, we perhaps saw the maturation of a lot of youngsters in a down-to-the-wire finish. Auburn may not have the experience or the depth it would like to. Auburn might have a lot of talent, but it's extremely raw. But with Gene Chizik as coach, there is no quit in Auburn's football program.
Mississippi State is heavily favored in this game, and for good reason. They made the plays in week one. Auburn didn't. But if Auburn can correct defensive mistakes (tackling, poor coverage, lack of physical play), get the running game going and capitalize on the home-field advantage of Jordan-Hare, the Tigers can most certainly put an early damper in Mississippi State's SEC championship hopes.