Before kickoff I made two statements: (1) this Auburn team is more talented than the team we had in 2013 that won the SEC; (2) I'm not sure if this team will win a lot of games. Both suspicions were confirmed Saturday night.
Last year, Clemson was never held under 20 points. They were held under 30 only three times. They tallied over 500 yards of offense in each of their last eleven games. They put up 40 points and 550 yards on an Alabama defense that will be remembered as one of the best units to ever dress out.
Despite Clemson returning most of their offensive firepower, Auburn's defense held them to 399 yards and 19 points. For the first time since 2010, Auburn's defense didn't miss tackles. For the first time since 2007, the defense looked like Auburn. They made Clemson earn every yard. They broke up deep passes and limited gains on Clemson's short passing game. They held Deshaun Watson to 1.9 yards per carry and Clemson as a whole to 3.4.
The offense showed some signs of competency. Kerryon Johnson had 94 yards against a stacked box. The offense ran the ball well with JF3 in the game. They passed the ball adequately when Sean White was in. The freshmen receivers are very talented.
Kevin Phillips didn't allow a punt return all night. In addition to showing off his leg on a monster field goal, Daniel Carlson put the ball in the end zone all night. The coverage teams did their job.
Despite all that, I spent the last drive asking myself one question: if Auburn pulls this off, will I be satisfied? Clemson is #2. We know how good they are. On paper, it'd be a huge upset. If Auburn wins, will I be 2001 Auburn/Florida delirious?
The answer kept coming back, no.
I couldn't figure it out. Here Auburn is on the verge of a program changing wins, and the feeling in my stomach is closer to the feeling I had when Auburn was storming back to catch Georgia with Cam. When the second Hail Mary dropped to the ground, I didn't have any "moral victory," hey-maybe-we're-better-than-expected glow.
It took a while to find the words to explain the emotion. Then, it struck me: the better team lost.
Clemson--who will probably be in the playoffs again this December--didn't belong on the same field with Auburn. If Gus doesn't treat the game like a high school jamboree, play quarterback roulette, try to resurrect plays not seen since General Neyland roamed the earth, and otherwise kill any bit of chemistry and momentum the offense found, Auburn wins that game by two touchdowns.
It's time we talk about an awkward truth. Gus's offenses have generally started slow. It takes him until October to figure out what his offense does well. The 2010 offense didn't hit its stride until Game 4 versus South Carolina. Our offense was pretty mediocre in 2013 until Game 6 versus Western Carolina. In Game 7, Nick Marshall came back with renewed energy and the offense really started humming.
This team is more talented than the 2013 team. Other than the lack of an all-time-great quarterback, this team is probably more talented than the 2010 squad. Unlike 2010 and 2013, we don't have time to figure it out. Arkansas State is a respectable nonconference opponent. Texas A&M looked good in its win against UCLA. LSU will be LSU again by the time we play them.
By October 1st when Louisiana Monroe comes to town, we'll know what kind of season we're looking at. Auburn could be 3-1 with the easiest stretch of the season ahead of us. At that point, we would be a serious contender to win the West, the conference, and make an appearance in the playoffs.
Alternatively, we could be 1-3 facing must-wins to make it to any bowl.
Gus survives this season. He will be Auburn's coach in 2017. He won't be fired after his fourth season for fielding an average team. But if he wants to survive long-term he needs to rediscover his offensive magic and keep it up for an entire season.