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Nerd’s Take: Gut Check Time

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Auburn won’t be winning any titles or taking home any major hardware this year but there are still six games left to salvage the season. Is this team up to it?

NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

This won’t be a gif heavy article because let’s be honest, you don’t really don’t wanna relive much of what happened Saturday night. If you do, I posted some thoughts on a few critical plays last night on Twitter. Warning, it might make you sad.

Because of that, I’m not really sure what kind of article this is this week. Maybe like a rant? A pump up speech? A melt? We’ll call it “Nerd’s Ramblings” or something clever like that.

Auburn went to Starkville this past Saturday night and played one of the most infuriating games I’ve seen under Gus Malzahn. Which, to be honest, is saying something. I’m not sure if it was “rotate 5 QBs” level of fury but it was durn close. It seemed like everything and everyone was conspiring against the Tigers winning. There were botched calls, dropped balls, missed tackles and overthrown touchdowns. A quick run down of some key moments:

  • Auburn opens with 3 straight 3 & outs on offense
  • Tigers put together best drive of game so far only for a bad snap to ruin a 3rd & 1 chance
  • Anders Carlson misses field goal
  • Early 2nd quarter, Jarrett Stidham misses a wide open TD pass
  • After defense gets a stop immediately after, Ryan Davis fumbles the ball
  • Mississippi State runs out the half but is stopped short of the goaline only for the bammers in Birmingham to award the Bulldogs a touchdown anyway
  • Defense allows Mississippi State to eat up more than half of the 3rd quarter but holds them to a field goal
  • JaTarvious Whitlow breaks loose for a game changing TD only to (maybe) fumble it at 1 yard trying to change hands AND reach across the goal line
  • Darius Slayton drops a sure TD pass because he decides to hold the ball with one hand instead of securing it with two

Despite ALL of that going down, Marlon Davidson blocks a Mississippi State field goal and Daniel Thomas returns it to midfield with Auburn only down 7 midway through the 4th quarter.

That’s right. Despite committing almost every single sin you can commit the Tigers had to travel less than 50 yards to tie the game.

They couldn’t do it.

It was mind boggling to watch. Neither Auburn’s offense nor their defense really played good enough to win, yet there were multiple opportunities for them to do just that. What does it mean? Is Auburn’s talent that good that they can stick around despite looking like literal dog crap? Is Mississippi State really just that bad that they can’t better capitalize on all of Auburn’s mistakes?

I don’t know. I really don’t know anything about this team.

You can see the flashes, the moments where you wanna believe. It’s a team who at times has an offense that shreds two of the best defenses on TD drives and then seems incapable of moving the football against air. It’s a team with a defense that ranks #1 in the country according to S&P+ but can’t get Joe Burrow off the field to close out a game and surrenders over 300 yards on the ground to Mississippi State. It’s a team whose special teams helped beat up on poor Arkansas only to fail miserably on the road in Starkville.

When you see program wide inconsistency it all points to one thing. The head coach and the $49 million man Gus Malzahn.

I’m one of the few probably still on the bus. You are free to laugh at me all you want but I still believe Gus is the best guy for Auburn’s program RIGHT NOW but man it’s getting harder to keep believing it. I have a copy of multiple Gus Malzahn playbooks from his time at Tulsa and both stints at Auburn. All of them have this as their 2nd page:

WHO ARE WE

Two back run/play-action team that will keep constant pressure on the defense & defensive coaches by:

- Running our offense at a 2-minute pace the entire game (physically and mentally wearing them down)

- Balanced attack (take what the defense gives us)

- Having misdirection in the run and pass game

- Stretch the field vertically and horizontally

- Throw the book at them (special/unusual formations, fire alarms and wildcats)

- Present the option three different ways (zone read, speed option, power g option)

WE WILL

- Have a physical, hard edge at EVERY position

- Have great discipline & great execution (no stupid penalties)

- Have great ball security (GOAL: #1 in the country)

But is that the program he’s built on the offensive side of the ball? It aint...

Auburn has become a finesse offense. Saturday night they basically went full on Air Raid because the team ain’t tough, talented or strong enough to run between the tackles. There is no pace to this offense right now. The attack is somewhat balanced but ineffectively so. There’s misdirection at times but nowhere near what we have seen in the past. Auburn sure is stretching the field horizontally but can’t threaten much at all vertically. I guess you could say AU has “thrown the book at em” a few times this year but with not a ton of success. Auburn uses the option but not in the three ways Gus has defined.

Auburn sure as heck ain’t been physical at every position specifically the one they absolutely have to be. They are one of the most penalized teams in the SEC. Fumbles continue to plague this offense and special teams.

What happened? How in year 6 is the offense SO far away from the vision Gus set for this team?

To me it’s been a death by a thousand cuts. JB Grimes struggled as a recruiter his first stint at Auburn. In Auburn’s 2013-2015 classes the Tigers only signed 7 high school offensive lineman (two JUCOs) with five coming in one class. That inconsistency continued in Herb Hand’s tenure as he also only signed 7 high school offensive lineman but with a little better spacing out (2, 3, 2) instead of (1, 1, 5). But over that time period the talent Grimes did sign went undeveloped by Hand. Grimes has been trying to reteach the basics to this group and it’s lead to an OL doing too much thinking and not enough hitting.

The Tigers have also been all over the place in their QB and RB recruiting. It’s not that Gus HAS to have a running QB to be successful but he HAS to have a power run game of some sort. The Tigers haven’t done a good job of consistently bringing in the type of backs that can stand the 20+ carry poundings Gus wants from his guys. One class he will sign a dual threat, the next a pocket passer.

So despite the strong words on paper mapping out a program vision, Gus has not built his program around that vision in his recruiting and staffing. Instead, Auburn has been all over the place pulling in a collection of different types of personnel and talent leading to consistently slow starts and frustrating finishes when that delicate machine loses a part. It’s absolutely maddening.

But one thing his teams have never done is give up. They didn’t do that Saturday night either. Despite all that went wrong, Marlon Davidson still found a way to get his hand on that kick. Daniel Thomas attempted to juke the whole Mississippi State team to give the offense a shot. Deshaun Davis somehow returned to the field after suffering what looked like a possible season ending leg injury. Boobee Whitlow kept fighting despite an injured shoulder. Jarrett Stidham kept trying to push this offense down the field. Don’t confuse poor execution with a team that has quit. I didn’t see that Saturday and it could have been very easy.

That’s why I’m not ready just yet to consider this team heading for complete self destruction. I’m aware of the “reports” from earlier this week of frustrations within the locker room. There should be frustrations. I would be more concerned if there weren’t any after that performance.

However, I don’t think that means this team is about to fall completely apart. I admit I am a posibarner and this could all look real stupid Saturday afternoon if the Tigers lose to an awful Tennessee team. But I trust the guys like Deshaun Davis, Ryan Davis and Marlon Davidson to not let this season go 2012 bad. It’s gut check time now. Not playing for any titles or any chance at the playoffs. You are playing for the logo on the helmet and the brother next to you. Saturday can be a chance to truly rally and feel good about themselves for a day or a chance to crash into the mountain like everyone expects. We will find out what kind of character makes up this team. I suspect, it’s good enough to make us proud.

If not, well at least we have an Australian punter that sometimes briefly forgets what sport he’s playing to laugh about.

Oh and it’s almost basketball season!

War Eagle!