This may come as a shock after the way many of us probably felt last night at the end of the game, but I'm strangely much more confident about the rest of the 2016 football season right now than I was even at the end of the game. This season could absolutely still nose dive into absolute horror, but it could take the opposite turn, too.
I haven't rewatched the game, so these are purely my thoughts based on what I was able to see in the stands from my seats in Section 52 and from looking over stats and comments by coaches after the game. So, here are 10 things on my mind after Auburn's near upset (which, amazingly, is a 100% true statement at the end) of #2 Clemson.
1) After a first half of looking absolutely inept, there were moments of hope on the offensive side of the ball in the 2nd half. After amassing just shy of 40 yards total offense (granted, there were two big sacks that might have put us over 50!) in the first half, Gus Malzahn & Co. made some great 2nd half adjustments to put up 200+ yards. The offensive line spent the first half getting absolutely destroyed from what I could see from the stands, but in the 2nd half that wasn't as much the case. They provided time for the QBs to make some throws. They still weren't opening the running lanes we needed, but at least there was progress. That's promising. It's even more promising when you think about the fact we were playing the #2 team in the nation. However...
2) Auburn's Maddening Magical Musical Quarterbacks. It's hard to get excited when seeing quick changes gets so incredibly frustrating. Sean White made some great throws last night only to see himself get yanked on the next play for another player playing QB. I could almost get behind it with the way it played out on the last two drives, since it did seem the running game opened up more with John Franklin III in, but overall I just don't understand the rotations.
3) If you had to ride with one... It would be Sean White. Sean is going to make some questionable throws at times, but he seems to play with the more aggressive and attacking style. He can make some fantastic throws, he can move in the pocket, and he doesn't play scared. Given the ability to run wide open with the offense, I really do think he could do just fine.
4) Where was Kamryn Pettway? After hearing about his move to running back all offseason, he didn't get a single carry and I'm not sure I ever saw him come in at all to be honest. Kerryon Johnson did a great job in the 2nd half with getting close to 100 yards rushing, but I can't help but feel like Pettway's big bruising style of running would have been beneficial at times. Particularly down close to the end zone on 4th and short when everyone in the whole stadium knew Jeremy Johnson was going to keep up the middle.
5) The Will Hastings Hype Was Real. Walk-on kicker turned wide receiver Will Hastings shocked a lot of people by being put in the 2-deep rotation. He more than justified that with his play last night. He made three great catches for 29 yards and made some nifty moves with the ball when he had it in his hands. He also made a great play to come back to the ball on a pass that resulted in the defender almost taking his head off on a pass interference that extended a 4th quarter drive.
6) Red Zone is still the Dead Zone. Holding Clemson to 19 points should have been enough for Auburn to win. It was enough for Auburn to win. The Tigers left so many points on the board last night that after an initial feeling of "I'm ok with a one-score game against the #2 team in the nation" I actually get to feeling angry that Auburn didn't win. Auburn reached the red zone four times in the 2nd half and only came away with 10 points. The other two possessions were an INT on a rushed 4th down call and a turnover on downs.
7) We have a defense. Clemson had some turnover last season, sure, but the core of the offensive playmakers (especially with Mike Williams back from injury) from a team that put up 40 points on Alabama's defense back in January and was very good the year before, too, was still there. They were still led by Deshaun Watson, a pre-season Heisman favorite. Auburn's defense bent a good bit with Watson connecting with Williams for 174 total yards on the night, but they still only allowed 19 points.
8) The young coaches acquitted themselves well. There are still some growing pains to be had, but overall I was ok with the blocking by the wide receivers. I don't recall too much in the way of egregious drops, either. The receivers may need work on getting open, but for a first game with only one real experienced wide receiver on the roster (Marcus Davis), I thought they played ok.
On the other side of the ball, there was Travis Williams' linebacker unit. There were a ton of questions about them going into this game. Tre Williams was the only returning Auburn Tiger with anything in the way of real experienced. They were all young with the exception of Williams. How would they hold up? Well. They held up quite well. I can't think of a bad play they made all night. Which leads to...
9) That's not how you go about making displeasure known. They've since been deleted, but graduate transfer linebacker T.J. Neal was not happy with his playing time - or lack thereof - last night and he put it on full blast on Twitter. I get his frustration. He transferred to Auburn intending to play. He wasn't guaranteed a starting job just because he was a senior graduate transfer, though, nor was he guaranteed playing time. Is there anyone who thinks the defense would have improved greatly if he'd played at linebacker? His method of voicing his displeasure was bad enough, but it wasn't even really based on merit. The linebackers that did play played very well. If there's any player on the team I feel had justification for questioning playing time last night, it's Kamryn Pettway.
10) Final Thoughts: There is promise. But there are still so many questions. The defense played well enough last night to beat most any team in the nation. The offense found something that worked in the 2nd half, but couldn't convert it into points consistently. If the offense ever does find something that works - at least, if they find it soon - then the rest of this season could still be pretty special.
Clemson was a losable game. There is no shame in an unranked team coming a true freshman WR making the wrong decision in the end zone on a Hail Mary away from knocking off #2 on the opening weekend. This was not a conference game. All of Auburn's goals - no matter how lofty - are still reachable.
I just don't know how Gus & Co. are going to get the red zone issues fixed. 200+ yards in the 2nd half and not falling into the usual 3rd quarter lull we've come to know so well in recent years was a significant improvement from the opening half of football of the season to the 2nd half. There's still just so many questions about play calling in the red zone.
It's hard to play the game of "what if." What if Auburn takes the FG in the two failed red zone possessions? Then would we have been looking at a chance for Carlson to win the game at the end? Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows what Clemson does on their subsequent drives if they're starting from the 25 rather than backed up inside the 20 or the 5? Still, though, with the way the defense was playing I think I take the points.
There are worlds where the two-QB system works. Florida won a national title with it in 2006 by letting Chris Leak do the majority of the work and then Tebow cleaned up in the red zone. I think there's a way Auburn could make a rotation work, as well. I just don't think rotating on the level that happened last night is the way to go.
Gus Malzahn said after the game that he was more concerned with getting the running game going in the 2nd half than he was with the QB rotation. I can understand that, and it did finally pick up a bit. That still doesn't explain the complete lack of Kamryn Pettway or Malik Miller.
They say teams make the biggest improvements between Week 1 and Week 2. Next week, Auburn welcomes defending Sun Belt champion Arkansas State to the Plains. The Red Wolves were blown out at home by Toledo in their opening game. I watched a good bit of it, and their offense was even more clueless than Auburn's. I have a very good feeling that the Auburn defense will eat them alive and give the offense a chance to find itself in Week 2. We'll see, though. I had similar thoughts last season between Week 1 and 2 and... yeah, about that.
There's a lot of football to be played. Auburn played horrifically on offense for an entire half and still had a chance to beat #2. There's something to be said for that. There is still promise in this team. A lot of it. It's entirely on the coaches to put them in the right position to make that promise a reality, now.