The preseason is now sure enough over. We’ve played four games. Losing any one of them would’ve been catastrophic. Now we’re going to play six SEC opponents over seven weeks. In some years, this might be the stretch where a loss can ultimately be forgiven by the pollsters (or, now, the committee). But our heart of the schedule may shape up to be an everything-to-lose-and-little-to-win scenario.
For all that’s been made of Auburn’s schedule strength, if Mississippi State and Ole Miss get throttled Saturday by Texas A&M and Alabama, respectively, those games will suddenly be must-win. We’re already favored over LSU—by more than a touchdown—and South Carolina already has a couple of conference losses. A&M may be the most respectable opponent on our schedule, and a loss to them could be too late in the season to be overcome.
So if Auburn wants to go back to the national championship game, we need to beat the one SEC team that beat us last year, and likely everyone else. Did we show Saturday that we can do that?
Why We’re Not Going Back
Championship teams are often even-keeled and steady. They don’t get too up for any one game; they play strong, but sober, every week. The 2014 Tigers seem to be a little up-and-down. The offense was up for Arkansas, down for San José. I think they were more up for Kansas State than the execution indicated, then down for La. Tech. If you’re going to be up-and-down, La. Tech is the game you want to be down for; that’s OK.
The defense has been a different style of up-and-down. They’ve been inconsistent quarter-to-quarter. Granted, that’s more true of the first two games than the latter two.
Hopefully, Auburn will play more consistently the rest of the season. It’s not impossible for an up-and-down team to win every game, but if we’re down for a game like South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are up, we won’t be going back to the national championship game.
Why We Are Going Back
Big play capability. One of the reasons I say we were down against La. Tech is that we needed big plays to win by as much as we did, rather than routinely marching down the field every drive. At the same time, it’s a positive that our big-play-making capability was still sharp, even in a down game. Marshall’s dramatic touchdown passes to Duke Williams and Quan Bray, along with Bray’s punt return, represent a certain lethal quality—rather than brute force, it’s like scoring with a perfect draw of a previously concealed weapon.
It’s good to have that kind of firepower on our belt. It could save us in a down game against a tougher opponent.
Who We’ll Meet When We Get There
Here’s a team we haven’t looked at yet—Notre Dame. The Irish have three currently ranked teams on their schedule: no. 14 Stanford this Saturday; free shoes on Oct 18; and no. 16 USC on Nov 29. Perhaps the Cardinal will knock off ND this week. But, if they don’t, the Irish will be up for their game with the Noles, who certainly look beatable.
The Bottom Line
Are we going back to the national championship game? The answer this week is Yes. I’m really just deferring to last week. It’s nearly impossible to answer this question after a game against an over matched opponent. This week we play LSU, who could basically reenter the national championship race by beating us.
We better be up. And some big plays wouldn’t hurt, either.
Josh Dowdy is a College & Mag contributor. He also writes about Auburn sports and the Auburn Family at heartofauburn.com.