I had a really amazing story. It was going to be the thing that led this column and the thing I shared all week in podcasts and what not. And look, let's be honest, I still will. But had Auburn won, it would be a much better story. Like the time that I had to be in a wedding in Rogersville in 2001, gave my student ticket to one of my step-brother's friends and looked at my mom after the wedding and said, "We're going to win this game. I'm going down."
That was the Florida game. I hit 90 on I-65 listening to the radio broadcast. I parked my car in the lot that was where the baseball deck is now and bought a ticket for $10 from a scalper and I walked in. My ex slid her student wristband off and, because I have tiny, feminine wrists, I was able to slide it on, get into the student section and watch Damon Duval kick a game-winner in the driving rain.
That was a night, bros. And I really hoped everything that led to this one was shaping up for the same type of story. It actually played out in my head. But it just didn't come to fruition. Those types of memories are few and far between, as I recall that specific moment from 13 years ago. And I'll never forget it. But just the same, I don't think I'll ever forget the circumstances that led up to this one.
1. The Set Up: You Want This (Gonna Give it to You): Several Birmingham area high school games were lightning delayed/postponed on Friday. I was to be covering the Vestavia Hills game. I don't even remember who they were playing. We waited around, twiddling our thumbs. No rain. For nearly two hours. Nothing. But there was lightning, and I'm not going to diminish the growing concern of taking proper precautions against weather in this state. Sure enough, at about 8:50 p.m., the bottom fell out. The game was postponed. They'd make it up at 5 p.m. on Saturday. My editor texted me that night and said, "I know you don't want to do that game at 5 - can I get you to cover Homewood at noon?"
"Will you pay me twice?"
"Sure," he said. And my difficult Saturday was, actually, made easier. Cask & Drum was on Saturday in Birmingham, a second year festival that had amassed an incredible lineup, and my friend Lee Bains was taking his band Lee Bains and the Glory Fires onstage at 2:30. The same time as the Auburn kickoff. I was already unsure of what to do, but now I was being paid money for a freelance project, so I would go, skip the first part of the festival and write the story at my friend Joey's (who doesn't live far from Homewood's football field) and make it to the festival in time for the two headliners. Problem solved.
Lee is a huge Auburn fan. While he got his break in the Dexateens, the most staunchly Alabama Crimson Tide band that ever existed, he loves Auburn. I interviewed him last week, one of the best interviews that I have ever done. And off the record, we talked a lot about Auburn football. He had mentioned that he, too, was struggling with being onstage when the game kicked off. He joked, I thought, about me giving him score updates during the show.
In the first quarter of Homewood's game against Walker, he texted me. "Hey, are you still coming out?"
"I'm really going to try."
"Well, I was being kind of serious about wanting you there to give me score updates."
Shit. So I prep this story, right? Like, i have it worked up where I can insert names and numbers and have it ready to GO. But I wasn't the only one that wanted out of there - the teams scrapped the bands, cut halftime to 15 minutes and gave college score updates. These two teams were running. And running. And running the clock. At 1:50, I was on the field interviewing the kid that won the game on an interception returned for a touchdown, and I had a few words with the head coach. At 2 p.m., I was sitting in my Jeep emailing the box score that I had compiled to the news desk. At 2:20, I was parking in Lakeview, eight blocks from the festival site.
I texted Lee. "I'm walking in."
Then dad called. Panting, I said, "Look man, this has been a DAY. Let me call you back."
Lee texts back: "We have a microphone waiting on you. We're about to go on. Come on."
I had to jump through hoops at will call, and I never got the correct wristband. But that's fine. No complaints. I'm just illustrating the tale, if you care. By 2:39, I had worked my way to the front of the stage. I leaned against the rail checking Twitter, The Score, whatever I could. Just trying to do this thing for a guy that has always been one of my favorite artists and has become a friend.
He looked over before the game had had its late kickoff and said, "We got a score update?"
So that was worth it. Fun times. He looked over another time or two during the first quarter debacle and I kind of shook my head. He blazed. He KILLED. He's the BEST. Love that bro. But when his set ended, I realized, "Ok. I am PARCHED. I haven't eaten. I need to write the story on this game. I'm hot. But most importantly, I am wearing the wrong shirt."
I wasn't wearing the shirt that had won all season. So I hightailed it back to my Jeep. I drove back to my Southside apartment stripped it off, put on the correct one. I shotgunned a Gatorade. Then a water. Then I sat and typed my story. In this timespan, Auburn scored 13 unanswered points, which becomes the spot where I start thinking, "This is going to be a story for the ages."
I ate half a muffuletta leftover from Mr. P's after I filed my story at 4 p.m. Then I settled in for the rest of the game.
And we know how that goes. I went back to the festival site around 7 p.m. for Drive-By Truckers and Girl Talk.
Afterward, we went to Al's Deli. I had chicken fingers and ranch fries and a grilled cheese sandwich on the side. It was delicious.
2. FAHR EVERYBODY. Ok. Let's start with the stupidest, most asinine thing I have heard or seen since the loss. Gus Malzahn did something wrong?
This "guy behind you" is a riot.
The last ten minutes of that game may be the best coaching that Gus Malzahn has ever done. Ever. I'll stand beside it forever.
Auburn scored a touchdown, and Gary Danielson is out here wanting Auburn to go for two. Why? Auburn scored a field goal and Gary Danielson is out here wanting Auburn to go for it on fourth. Why? Auburn kicked off and Gary Danielson is out here wanting Auburn to onside kick. Why?
Gus Malzahn didn't panic and chase points before he had to do so, and as a result, I completely felt like Auburn had a chance to win that game with 2:44 remaining down 15 points. I never gave up on that game; I was cool, until that ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted in the red zone. If Nick Marshall hits that touchdown, Auburn is down eight and THEN they are onside kicking, likely getting it and likely going to overtime. It was all very calculated, and Mississippi State just proved to be too damn good.
The scariest thing about what happened at the end of that game is that Gus Malzahn, like Nick Saban before him (remember Nick Saban, before the game had passed him by?) was coaching like an NFL coach. He was playing the percentages, and doing the smartest things he could do to keep his team in the game. Tuberville would have gotten cute. Dan Mullen, in the SAME GAME, DID get cute. He faked a punt in his own territory up by three touchdowns, which almost shifted momentum enough to bring Auburn back. But Coach Malzahn was cool as hell. He never chased points. And THAT is the thing that should scare you because if Coach Malzahn ever leaves, it's for the NFL. And when the guy that people think is "cute" plays it like a professional? You got problems. So THAT was both the most encouraging and heartbreaking thing about the breadth of this sports match to ME. IDK, maybe you want to bitch about not playing Jeremy Johnson more. Have fun.
3. PUT IN JEREMY JOHNSON. Stop it. Until that interception, Nick Marshall had played incredibly. And guess what? The interception wasn't all on him. His passes can be a little low, but his offensive line could protect him a little better, too. No one commands Gus Malzahn's offense like Nick Marshall. Nick Marshall is a lot closer to Cam Newton than Jeremy Johnson. Sorry bout it.
Jeremy Johnson is going to be great. He may win a Heisman. He is a phenomenal passer. But he is, now, absolutely no threat to run. Nick can have a mediocre day with 200 yards in the air and 100 yards rushing and three total touchdowns. Jeremy Johnson is Jason Campbell. And you know what? Jason Campbell was damn good at football. But he wasn't going to run. And that threat makes Nick Marshall dangerous in Coach Malzahn's offense. He almost always makes the right read on that read option, and he can throw. Sammie Coates didn't lay out for a sure touchdown. But there were other times that Nick hit seams that seemed impossible. Nick is one of my favorite quarterbacks in the history of this program, and Auburn has had a bunch: Cam, Dameyune, Jason, Stan, Reggie.
Auburn has two quarterbacks on its roster that could start at almost any SEC school that isn't in Mississippi. But just because they do, it doesn't mean the answer to Auburn's third loss in the last 20 games is to put the other guy in.
4. PUT IN ROC THOMAS. Admittedly, Roc looked pretty good. And I don't know why we haven't seen him more. But this isn't really a huge issue - Auburn has a lot of talented running backs and in this day and age, they should all be getting 10-15 carries a game. Sometimes, when I go to CiCi's pizza, I get that BBQ pizza, maybe that spinach, maybe a pepperoni. Then I'm full. And then I'm walking out and I'm like, oh crap, I forgot to get some of that cheesy bread. It sucks, but now I'm full and I can't eat more cheesy bread. It doesn't mean that I didn't like my meal, it just means I had a lot of options and cheesy bread got lost in the mix. It wasn't ready when I was going through the line and I didn't want to be the fatso that got a number so they could bring it to my table. Now I'm full. I've had plenty of running backs, CiCi's Pizza, Thank you.
5. The Bottom Line. When the Associated Press poll came out on Sunday, October 12, Auburn was ranked 6th. I told you last week that this game bothered me more than any left on Auburn's schedule. I suspected this Mississippi State team was pretty damn good, and I was proven right. So guess what? Two of the teams ahead of Auburn play each other next week (Notre Dame v. FSU). Auburn still plays one of the teams above it (Ole MIss). So in a playoff system? Sixth place on October 12th ain't too bad. Lots of things need to happen, and I think the reason that gives Auburn fans anxiety is because of 2004. Auburn did every single thing it needed to do and still missed its chance. No one can discredit anything that team did, and the team that won the national championship was cheating.
I get that. I was there. I was crying in the Buffalo's American Grille bathroom on the phone with my dad before the polls came out but after Auburn had beaten Virginia Tech shouting, "I'M SO GLAD YOU LIVED TO SEE THIS MAN."
But this ain't 2004. I'm not sure that anyone can beat Mississippi State but Ole Miss, but at least Mississippi State is in Auburn's rear view mirror. Who scares you on Auburn's remaining schedule? Ole Miss? Okay. But it better not be South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia or Alabama. Auburn will beat those teams. If they don't, I owe you a beer. War Eagle. Forever.