If you're new to how I recap a game weekend, an explanation is in order. Each week, I'll try to give you not only what I saw, but the way I saw it. That process started on the MySpace blog and it evolved into a Tumblr. And now, I guess we'll give it a go here. What you're going to get is a day in the life of a college football fan and Auburn alumnus navigating from couch to local watering hole, from long car ride to tailgate. Whatever conditions I spent my Saturday is how this will be relayed to you. I'm just a college football fan, and my takes are no better than your takes.
I had considered making the trek to Legion Field for the UAB/Troy showdown, but when my company failed to present a game plan and I had already driven to Burger King and picked up two sausage and cheese crossanwiches, those plans were dead at 10:28. So the first half of this football Saturday was a lazy one: I largely flipped between the Penn State/Ohio & Georgia/Buffalo games before meandering to the record store next door and picking up a couple of records. Just in time to catch Florida!
I was offered a chance to check it all out live with the CaM crew for a reasonable price, but as most fans know, that reasonable price was one that showed alarming signs of escalating when added to gas, food and beer. And I'm heading to the DeLuna Festival in two weeks and to send off Chipper Jones at Turner Field a week later. Conservation of funds was key.
I eased over to my local watering hole around 5 p.m. to ensure a nice spot before the Auburn game. This was confusing, as I was told the TV I was in front of would carry the Auburn game with sound until 7, but it would then be switched to Alabama. So I could get comfortable, but then I wouldn't be able to see and knowing where "my game" would end up was a crapshoot. Fun times.
We'll start the rundown in what basically amounts as a reverse chronological order, because you're here to read about Auburn. I suppose.
1. The Offense. I wasn't disappointed. Kiehl Frazier played as well as anyone could have expected. And I didn't sense any kind of significant dropoff in Tunde Fariyike (Fer-EEE-KEY, as the phonetic spelling earlier this week let me down). Auburn ran the ball reasonably well. Lutzenkirchen was clutch, and the long Emory Blake touchdown showed a lot of promise. There's no way to get over the Trovon Reed mistake in the back of the endzone, one that could have changed the game.
There were opening day jiiters -- there were rookie mistakes. But I don't think the offense could have done more to meet reasonable expectations. In the al.com podcast this week, I predicted Auburn could win with 17 points. I think this group will mature. How quickly is the difference in how the 2012 story writes itself.
2. The Defense. I want to say I was wildly disappointed, but was I? The interior defensive lineman did not live up to expectations. I think the ends played pretty well. I didn't expect the linebackers to play well, and they met my expectations. This spread allowed a lot of underneath stuff and I'm not sure Van Gorder knew what to do about that. Was the spread even a thing when he made his first collegiate tour?
I don't think it's an offense he will see again this year. So to take this performance and set some kind of standard to compare everything that follows is impossible.
That said, I promised it wouldn't be as bad as it was last year and it wasn't. While the yardage allowed is troublesome, the points were not. Auburn's defense managed to allow a number small enough to give its offense a chance to win. The two young units simply could not get on the same page.
3. The Scene. I don't really recommend the bar route for watching a game unless it's in Auburn, Alabama. While the beer was cheap and the wings were too, the split crowd and the confusing television situation isn't ideal. Alabama fans were bored with their game (as well they should have been and for all the right reasons), so they had simply taken to cheering against Auburn. It wasn't fun. If I'm not at games, I typically stay at home and maybe that's a better idea from now on. At least I never once had to figure out a way to respond to someone saying, "Well that's the ugliest t-shirt I've ever seen."
I suppose the inner-city Bama fan is sophisticated enough to just chant "Roll Tide" as Clemson scores rather than critique how fashionable a $15 t-shirt is that simply displays the name of a school they don't enjoy on it.
All of it got on my nerves, though, and I essentially just ended up in a second half tweet barrage of jokes about cheating. Everybody likes cheating.
4. ESPN did a lot of things right? Listen, the way ESPN handled the opening of the Penn State game was absolutely remarkable. Showing the entire crowd, arms around one another, singing their alma mater then cutting to a cold open from the studio by Rece Davis setting the scene rather than jumping into a crowd shot straight from GameDay's close, to the broadcast team allowing nearly 60 seconds of silence as the team ran on the field and hit their knees in prayer -- it was very, very well done. It is probably my personal highlight from the entire day. ESPN screws a lot of things up -- like "sources" -- but this is one thing they did perfectly.
I feel like someone, regardless of reach, should give them that credit.
5. Where does Auburn go from here? At this point, it's quite simple. I looked at this schedule before the beginning of the season and I saw 8-9 wins. With optimism for a young team, I saw no way Auburn could survive Alabama or LSU, and I felt certain they'd drop another along the way. Would that be a Georgia team that wins 9 games every year? Would it be an Arkansas team searching for answers with an interim coach? Would it be a Mississippi State team that has nothing to work toward but this game? Whichever the third (or fourth) loss was, I didn't see it as Clemson. I thought Auburn would survive this one, especially with the loss of Watkins.
It didn't, which leaves Auburn at an unlikely crossroads heading into Week 2. This season will be deemed a success or failure on the results of three games: Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia. If Auburn finds a way to steal two of those, it can still get to eight wins and reach any reasonable expectation. And reasonable expectation is a tragedy in 2012. I think most realize 2013 is the year for this team's maturity and talent, but it's also the year the schedule flips. Championship seasons will never be made at Auburn in odd years, when the Tigers have to travel to Arkansas, LSU and Georgia -- and, presumably, next year, Texas A&M. That's a lot of mileage. The even years -- the two trips to Mississippi with one to Tuscaloosa -- that's your real chance in a reality of home field advantage being a real thing.
If Auburn falls to Mississippi State, it WILL go into Arkansas at 1-3. Could it recover? Anything is possible. But figuring out a way to take care of Mississippi State will certainly allow for a brighter entrance to October.
Is there a silver lining? Clemson is a very good football team. It's a borderline top ten football team. It's a team that may be better than all three of those teams among Auburn's "swing games." And Auburn, with the least experience it will have all season entered that game as a 3.5 point underdog and left it seven points short. The sky isn't falling. But it's overcast. How Auburn weathers that storm in Week 2 is more important than almost any week two game in memory.