Happiness is the difference between expectations and reality.
Auburn started the season against a Power 5 conference opponent coached by a disgraced offensive genius. We had a new starter at quarterback who struggled badly. During the second half, Auburn fans were calling for him to be benched in favor of a highly-touted but unproven freshman. Our starting running back never found his groove but a backup saved the day off the bench, running for 100 yards. Auburn's defense struggled but came up with big plays when they needed to as Auburn won 31-24 . . . against Washington State in 2013.
Auburn fans left the stadium that night praying for six wins and a bowl. Auburn ended the year 12-2 and 13 seconds from a national title.
So, here we are again. Auburn started the season against Louisville and most fans left disappointed in a win. Unlike 2013, Auburn has sky high expectations for the season. Auburn is the preseason favorite to win the SEC and represent the conference in the college football playoffs. These expectations were built on Malzahn's reputation and a series of assumptions:
- Jeremy Johnson is an All-American caliber quarterback. This assumption seemed reasonable given Johnson's performance in limited action for the Tigers.
- One of Auburn's running backs would emerge as a dominant force. This assumption also seemed reasonable. An Auburn running back has led the conference in rushing the last two years even though neither back (beloved though they are) was a Ronnie Brown or Rudi Johnson.
- Auburn's offensive line would mostly be another year older and more experienced and one of our new H-Backs would fill the Jay Prosch role. This assumption seemed reasonable as well. Film don't lie . . . does it?
- Auburn's defensive personnel would be improved with the return of Carl Lawson, several high profile transfers, and several high profile freshmen recruits. This assumption seemed reasonable because Auburn's problems on defense started with the lack of a dominant pass rusher.
- Auburn's defense would improve because of the addition of Will Muschamp, Lance Thompson, TRob and others on the staff. Again, this seemed reasonable as these men have a long history of success.
It's easy to be omniscient and optimistic in the offseason. How comfortable should we feel about the season after Saturday afternoon?
1. Is Jeremy Johnson the Answer?
Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes yes.
First, if there's anything we knew about Louisville it's that they returned a talented defense. They aren't Alabama, but they're very representative of what the Tigers will see this season in SEC play. The Cards defensive game plan was based on the bet that their defensive front could matchup with our offensive line. That would free them up to keep one and often two deep safeties in the middle of the field to help stop the passing game. Last year, Nick Marshall faced a lot of defenses that were selling out to stop the run and were daring him to beat them through the air. Until Auburn's running game arrives, Johnson is going to have to throw against much more complex coverage schemes than Auburn's faced in the past in the Malzahn era.
Second, let's remember what we know about Jeremy Johnson. This is the same quarterback that picked apart a good Arkansas defense last year. We've seen him in games. We've seen him in scrimmages. He had a bad day. But the talent is there. Nick Marshall was an ugly 10-19 for 99 yards in his debut. Brandon Cox threw 4 picks in his first start. Jason Campbell was 12-26 for 121 yards and a pick in the 2003 season opener. Dameyune Craig was 18-32 for 180 yards and a pick against UAB in 1996. Like Craig and Campbell, Johnson has a track record. He still has everything he needs to be the man.
Third, the backup quarterback is always the most popular man on campus. Just remember that if you were among the 87,000 shaking your head at Nick Marshall against Wazzu in 2013 (as I was) and wondering how that bum was starting in front of the highly touted freshman who was reported to look amazing in practice you would have been asking Gus to start . . . Jeremy Johnson. Give the man time. He's not Kiehl Frasier. He will become what we expect him to be.
There were two things Auburn fans should be nervous about with Jeremy Johnson. He didn't go through his reads against the Louisville defense. He broke the huddle with a receiver in mind and threw to that receiver regardless of how covered he was. Also, Johnson didn't carry out a run fake after a handoff. Good wing-T and option quarterbacks always follow through after they give the ball up just to confuse the second and third level defenders. No one expects Johnson to be Nick Marshall on the ground but he runs well enough. When he hands the ball off, he needs to take a few quick steps to make the safety wonder if he kept the ball. Marshall did that consistently and often, it delayed the safeties or linebackers just long enough for the running backs to find a crease.
2. Will an Auburn Running Back Become Dominant?
We can still feel OK about Auburn's running game. Peyton Barber is at least a Cameron Artis-Payne caliber running back, and that ain't bad. Like Artis-Payne, Barber isn't flashy. He hits the hole, makes one cut, and takes all the yards available to him be it 3 or 30. Robinson looked good in limited play. Like Barber, he's a one cut back but I think he's more talented than Barber if he stays healthy. Roc Thomas is an incredible athlete. He has the physical ability to be a Cadillac Williams but he needs to mature a little and stop trying to break every run for a touchdown. One of these guys will become the man and run for 1500 yards or more.
3. Will Auburn's Offensive Line Become a 2013 Type Unit?
Too early to tell. In the second half they did a good job opening holes against a talented Louisville defensive front. They protected Johnson well in passing situations. On the flip side, they also had some high profile holds that negated good plays. I'm optimistic that the line (plus Pettway/Cox) will develop chemistry as the season progresses but they've got a ways to go before they can go up against the best defensive fronts in the conference.
4. Does Auburn's Defensive Have Improved Personnel?
They did until they all got injured. The first play of the game highlighted the reason Auburn fans had hope in the preseason.
Carl Lawson beat blocks and put heavy pressure on the quarterback. The quarterback is running for his life and throws an ill-advised pass right at transfer Tray Matthews. By the end of the game, both of these men were out with injuries. The extent of their injuries are not known at this time but both are expected to return.
With Carl Lawson and Tray Matthews, the defense was excellent. They looked like the best Auburn defense since Muschamp left the Plains in 2007. Without them, they were average/good. The freshmen played well. Irvin, Holland, and Cowart acquitted themselves admirably but they're still freshmen. If Lawson and Matthews are out, the defense will be a step up from last year, but not better enough to allow Auburn fans to dream about national titles unless other players step up.
5. Did Muschamp Earn His $5.1 Million and Sack of Krystals Today?
Yes. Here's a mental exercise: Name games from 2008-2014 where Auburn's offense didn't show up and the defense took up the slack. The team tonight reminded me of 2006: Run the ball well enough, play good defense, and wait for magic to happen.
Better get used to what you saw defensively. Muschamp is going to leave our undersized, mean corners one on one with receivers all day long. We'll give up some big plays; we'll make some plays. But things are looking up on the defensive side of the ball.
6. Something Concerning We Didn't Anticipate.
Auburn Fast was real in 2013. Lately, it's felt more like a marketing slogan. Auburn used pace less frequently in 2014. Last night, if Auburn used the hurry up no huddle at all I must have missed it. It felt like Auburn reverted to the Tubershell for the entire second half. Like the Tubershell always does, Auburn took a solid win and turned it into a nailbiter. From the first drive on, Gus and Rhett looked like they were uncomfortable with something the offense was doing. Maybe they decided to shut it down early and spend the next two weeks getting it fixed before LSU. Malzahn needs pace to succeed. Pace keeps the defense basic. Pace allows Malzahn to identify the defense's tendencies and reach into his bottomless Bat Belt of tools for the proper adjustment.
FINE, FINE, BUT SHOULD WE WORRY?
All of this may not completely answer the question, should we worry? It depends on how you look at this season. If you think this is Auburn's year and that anything short of winning it all is failure, you should definitely worry. Auburn looked better tonight than it did against Wazzu in 2013 so nothing is impossible but the Auburn team that took the field tonight will not win the SEC West. Take that statement for what it's worth. I would have said the same about the 1993 team that sneaked past Ole Miss in the opener and the 2010 team that barely escaped Starkville in the second game. I also would have told you Auburn was a lock to win a fourth straight SEC title after early action in 1990 and that team completely fell off the table in November. Anything can happen but Auburn has to improve if they want to live up to preseason hype.
If you judge Auburn by trajectory, there's reason to be optimistic. This is a young Auburn team at every position except receiver. Auburn is playing a lot of talented true freshmen and will return a lot of talent in 2016. We have some of the best offensive and defensive coaches in the game on our staff. The present is bright; the future is brighter.
So What Do We Do Now?
Same thing we've always done. Strap in, secure tickets to Jacksonville State, and support the Tigers. Try to remember that Auburn is 1-0 against an underrated team that will likely finish in the bottom half of the top 25 and will challenge for an ACC divisional title. Better days than Saturday are likely ahead.