Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Space: Week Two Recap
Jeremy Brevard/USA Today Sports
Well, that sucked. Auburn went to Clemson and squandered a fantastic defensive performance in a 14-6 loss. We'll spend plenty of time diagnosing the many ills of the Auburn offense, plus we'll look at other major developments around the conference and the country. Let's see if I can maintain my chipper snark after bleeding from the eyes during much of the second half on Saturday night.
As is often the case with developments surrounding Auburn, there is the reaction from within the Auburn family and the reaction from without. And as usual, those reactions are pretty wildly different. On the one hand, the Tigers traveled to Death Valley to take on third-ranked and defending national champion Clemson, coming away with an eight-point defeat. On the other hand, the promise of the offseason that this Auburn offense would be different, that the Tigers had answered the QB question, that the passing game would be able to compete with strong defenses, all that promise seemingly evaporated into the South Carolina night.
In the weekend preview, I half-heartedly picked Auburn on the basis that we may have been playing possum a little bit against Georgia Southern. That definitely seems to have not been the case. This is the Auburn passing offense as it stands: 13-24 for 79 yards, no touchdowns, and 3.3 yards per attempt. That's against a very likely elite defense at Clemson. Last week against what appears to be a very bad Georgia Southern team, the Tigers posted this line: 15-26, 184 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, one fumble lost on a passing play, and 7.1 yards per attempt. And of course, the big, resounding number from Saturday night, 11 sacks allowed. (For what it's worth, Auburn was sacked three times by Georgia Southern.) At no point through 120 minutes of football has Jarrett Stidham looked comfortable in the pocket or with his receivers. Now surely some of this had to be expected. After all, Stidham has been out of live football for almost two years. Comfort is something that normally has to be worked toward over some period of time. But what we're seeing here goes well beyond that expectation. We appear to be seeing major breakdowns in playcalling, protection, quarterback play, and receiver play. The Auburn passing game is firing on no cylinders right now.
The arrival of not only Stidham, but Chip Lindsey in the offseason brought a belief to the Plains that Auburn's passing offense would appear wholly different from what we've grown accustomed to (and often frustrated by) under Gus Malzahn. More intermediate and timing routes would be introduced, routes that could more fully utilize our highly touted receiver prospects, and we'd now have a quarterback who could "make all the throws" as the saying goes. This would augment the often the "boom-or-bust" nature of the Tiger aerial attack, allowing for far more consistency in that aspect of the game. If you're being charitable, many of the apparent deficiencies on offense can be explained away. Stidham is understandably rusty and hasn't had time to develop a rapport with his receivers. The wideouts are equally uncomfortable with Stidham. The offensive line has some new faces and may have simply been outgunned by Clemson's stout front four. Those statements are all true to some degree, but that still leaves us with the playcalling and route design. Why does this look like the same crap, different year?
The Gus Malzahn offense obviously thrives on downhill running, something Auburn wasn't able to really establish Saturday night. Working off of that, his offenses prioritize deep throws and quick hitters to the edge in the passing game. We've seen that formula be very successful for Auburn before, but in recent years, the all-or-nothing nature of this style of passing had worn very thin. The quick slants, seam routes, out routes, curls, sluggos, stick routes, and on and on that you hear guys like Jon Gruden go on about during NFL broadcasts weren't really a major part of Auburn's offense before, but at least some of that was supposed to be worked into the system this year. The Malzahn running game was to be left untouched (though, frankly, it may need some freshening up as well), but the passing game was going to be something new. Right now, there doesn't seem to be much new about it. I know it's early, but when are these new concepts supposed to be introduced if not in the first couple of games? Trying to add them to offense now seems like it would be much harder than implementing them during the offseason. This looks like the same Auburn offense that has both thrilled and confounded Auburn fans since 2009.
And while I'm not here to drag Jarrett Stidham (Zod knows that Clemson already did plenty of that), this is now twice in three years that we just couldn't wait to see Auburn's new hotshot, possible Heisman candidate QB, only for him to come out looking like a total schmo right out of the gate. Again, Stidham's been out of the (live) game for a good long while now, but why all the hype then? And before anyone goes on about how this is the media's fault for overhyping the kid, let's cut that off right now. People close to the program were raving about this guy during spring and fall camp, just like they were about Jeremy Johnson in 2015. Yeah, the media takes these things and runs with them (sometimes running them right into the ground), but that media fire requires a spark. Twice now in three seasons, the Auburn program has entered the season convinced that they are more than set at QB, only for the passing offense to immediately fall on its face. I can't for the life of me reconcile how the Jeremy Johnson we saw in spot duty in 2013-14 and heard about during the run-up to the 2015 season became the Jeremy Johnson we saw play over his final two years. With that baffling wound still fresh, Auburn fans can be forgiven for thinking we may be heading back down the same road. Currently, Stidham isn't doing anything particularly well. His deep throws aren't catchable. His shorter throws aren't especially accurate, often causing the receiver to break stride or catch the ball off-balance. He's not feeling the pressure well at all. This was a problem even against Georgia Southern before becoming the bane of Auburn's existence at Clemson. And while he's not a statue back there, he's not the kind of dynamic runner that Auburn's had in the past at the position, which has helped offset some of Auburn's passing game issues in previous years. There's plenty of season left for him to improve, including two very forgiving matchups with Mercer and Missouri over the next two weeks. Given what else we're seeing from the Tiger offense, that improvement needs to come and come quickly.
There are numerous other areas of concern for the Auburn offense. The running game seemed lifeless with a gimpy Kamryn Pettway and no Kerryon Johnson Saturday. (Also, it was puzzling that Kam Martin didn't get a carry. Chandler Cox did, but Martin didn't. I don't understand that even a little bit.) The O-line got their lunch eaten by an elite Clemson front, and that's not totally surprising. While credit must be given to the men in orange for their skill, the Tigers in white will see other elite fronts later this season. The line play must improve, or a similar fate may befall Auburn when it runs up against LSU, Georgia, and Bama. But to be fair to the line, to Stidham, and to the receivers, the playcalling continually put them in a poor position to succeed. From our frustrating inability to even try to attack Clemson's defense with outside runs (again, Kam Martin didn't get a single carry), to the repeated use of slow-developing passing routes even though it was apparent early that the Clemson pass rush wasn't going to give Stidham much time to throw, to baffling situational calls (the attempted deep ball on 4th and 3 in the third quarter), this was an F from the Auburn offensive coaches.
All that leads us to one unavoidable question - what does this mean for Gus Malzahn's future at Auburn? Given that, again, this was still a close loss to an excellent team on the road (Auburn barely dropped in the polls at all), and that all of Auburn's goals are still realistically in play (win out and this game doesn't much matter in the grand scheme of things), maybe this means nothing. Again, there's a lot of season left for things to get better on offense, and Auburn has a history of significant offensive improvement after the third game. (I'd say that happened in 2010, 2013, and 2016 with Gus around.) And largely unmentioned during this screed, Kevin Steele's defense played like men all night long Saturday. It's a shame that an effort that strong came in support of such a putrid offensive showing. The upcoming schedule looks manageable, though that visit from Mississippi State on September 30th looks hairier by the week. On October 14th, the Tigers head to the other Death Valley to kick off a three-game SEC road trip. I'd strongly advise Auburn to have gotten its head out of its rear on offense by then, or else things will very quickly go awry. Gus has been a solid coach at Auburn in an era when the program across the state has been historically dominant. That hasn't helped Malzahn's perception, fair or not. And in an era where coaches like Art Briles and Hugh Freeze do potentially cataclysmic damage to their programs with off-the-field garbage, Gus has represented the university well. (Briles and Freeze are both good friends of Malzahn's, but nothing other than that has thus far indicated that Gus may fall into similar professional ruin.) But the question will be asked from now until either Gus leaves or the offense pulls out of its tailspin, "What is he bringing to the table if not a consistently strong offense?" Steele, like Ellis Johnson and Will Muschamp before him, seems to have carte blanche on defense, and the special teams are relatively average outside of Daniel Carlson's monster leg. Gus is here for his offense, the same one that Cam Newton used to deliver Auburn a national title, the same one that propelled the Tigers from 3-9 in 2012 to the national title game in 2013. But it's also the same one that just gained 117 yards in four quarters this past weekend, and has legitimately run aground against good defenses over the past three years.
I recall hosting the Real Postgame Show (RIP) back on October 6, 2012, when the Tigers lost to a terrible Arkansas team that was coached by the one and only John L. Smith (smile!). In no mood after that game, I remember saying, "The clock has started on Gene Chizik." I am not some sort of mountain-mover with my words, but I was really saying that as an observer of several coaching changes at Auburn and at other, comparable schools around the SEC. I do not necessarily believe the clock has started on Gus Malzahn. Some would disagree with that, but I think we're still a ways from that statement being absolutely true. Remember, Auburn was all kinds of bad in 2012, and that Arkansas loss was the fourth of the season by the first weekend of October. The defense alone should keep Auburn from falling into that sort of black hole again this year, which changes the nature of this discussion. The ouster of Rhett Lashlee in January seemed to be a direct shot across the bow for Gus, as it regards his seeming stubbornness over his offense. If an offseason of promise turns into another frustrating season of inconsistency and mediocrity on that side of the ball, will there be another warning shot? Or something more drastic? Hopefully, we won't have to find out. There's plenty of time for things to turn around. That time needs to be utilized.
Around the SEC
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Not quite as good a week for the SEC in week two as it was in week one. South Carolina beat Missouri in the first league game of the year, while the league only went 1-2 against Power Five opponents this weekend, bringing the league's total through two weeks to 4-4. The power rankings return this week, and remember that these rankings strive for observable facts, not opinions. As more games are played, they'll start to conform more to general orthodoxy.
1. South Carolina Gamecocks (2-0 overall, 1-0 in SEC) - BOOOMMM! (Warning: Dirty words at that link.) Cocky lands in the top spot on the strength of two wins away from home over Power Five opposition. Plus, an SEC win should count for a lot at this juncture. Are they the best team in the league based off the eye test? No. Do I expect them to win the conference (or even their division)? No (and probably not). But this has been a great start to year two of the Muschamp era in Columbia. NC State is a solid enough ACC team, and Mizzou is probably going to end up being a bad SEC team, but the Gamecocks have yet to play at home and have two wins. They get their home opener this coming Saturday against Kentucky (6:30 CT on SEC Network). If they win that game, they can start planning on playing in an actual good bowl game, not the kind that 6-6 (or even 5-7) teams sneak into.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (2-0, 0-0) - The Tahd took care of business against an awful Fresno State team on Saturday, leading 28-3 at the half. (It was enough to put Nick Saban in a jocular mood - more naughty words at link - after the game.) Alabama tends to laze their way through one non-conference clunker per season, but this didn't seem to be it. They were also able to get some of their ballyhooed freshmen some game action, with highly-touted QB of the future Tua Tagovailoa tossing his first career TD pass to fellow stud recruit Henry Ruggs III in the fourth quarter. The level of competition steps up just a little, but not a whole lot next week when Colorado State comes to T-Town (6 CT on ESPN2).
3. Georgia Bulldogs (2-0, 0-0) - UGa was able to pull out a close win in South Bend to keep the conference from going winless against other Power Five teams this weekend. (Notre Dame counts as a P5 team, and this defeat and a rambling question from a reporter sent Irish coach Brian Kelly into one of his trademark snits.) Terry Godwin made one of the best catches of the year, and Nick Chubb and Sony Michel ground out 136 yards combined to ease true freshman Jake Fromm into a win in his first career start. I have no idea how good Notre Dame is this season, and I'm not sure many others do either. But pulling out a W on the road against a team with Notre Dame's talent is still a big deal for the Dawgs, who now get FCS foe Samford between the hedges in week three (6:30 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel). A visit from Mississippi State in week four, though, could prove very interesting.
4. Tennessee Volunteers (2-0, 0-0) - The Vols avoided any short week hangover and made fairly short work of Indiana State, and don't think that the short week after a Labor Day game hasn't tripped anybody up in the past. (Remember this game?) But UT breezed past the Sycamores 42-7, and now look forward to a trip to the Swamp this weekend. (Maybe.) From a purely football standpoint, Tennessee would benefit if the game is played as scheduled, as they could ride their momentum past a Gators team that was in disarray before a giant hurricane hit their home state. The game is slated for the CBS afternoon slot (2:30 CT), and a Volunteer win would help bring some early clarity to the SEC East race. (Though it didn't work out for them so well last year.)
5. LSU Tigers (2-0, 0-0) - Through no fault of their own, the Bayou Bengals sit at five, but they'll have plenty of chances to change that. BYU doesn't appear to be very good, so it's arguable that we still don't really know much about Coach O's boys. That will change this week when the Tigers visit Starkvegas (6 CT on ESPN). Honestly, this is a much more interesting game to me than Florida/Tennessee. Whether LSU wins or not, and how they look doing it, will be the first real test of the Matt Canada era on offense. I think State has the horses to beat them straight up, but LSU's talent can never be underestimated.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-0, 0-0) - Speak of the devil. State went to beautiful downtown Ruston, Louisiana and took out Louisiana Tech on Saturday night. Humorously, the Bullies at one point forced La Tech to face a 3rd and goal from their own 7-yard line. So, effectively, Tech had a 3rd and 93. I've heard of 3rd and 40 or so before, but I think this one is comfortably the longest down and distance I've ever seen. (Again, technically, it was still 3rd and goal, but still.) Aside from that, State has flexed so far against two overmatched foes, but they've had a history of smoking lesser foes before not quite being able to rise to the occasion against an Auburn or LSU in the past. This year, a possibly winnable game at home against LSU looms on Saturday night (6 CT on ESPN). Again, I'm mighty intrigued by this game. Also note that State hosts LSU, then travels to Georgia and Auburn over the next three weeks. That's quite the stretch.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores (2-0, 0-0) - While it's hard to get to pumped about a win over an FCS team, what was impressive about Vandy's 42-0 blanking of Alabama A&M was how they came out and took care of business. After handling a Middle Tennessee State team on the road last week (an MTSU squad that won at Syracuse this week), the 'Dores ripped through Alabama A&M and had the game put away at the half, cruising out to a 35-0 lead. This week brings as intriguing a matchup as I can recall Vandy having as Kansas State rolls into Nashville (6:30 CT on ESPNU). A win is very possible (though I don't think I'd go as far as predicting it), and if Vandy wins, this season becomes a whole new ballgame for the Commodores with Big Bad Bama rolling into Music City in week four.
8. Kentucky Wildcats (2-0, 0-0) - UK's barely holding on at eight after a pretty poor showing in a sloppy win over FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. The Colonels led for much of the game, with the Wildcats finally pulling ahead for good late in the third quarter behind a Benny Snell touchdown run. The 'Cats sneak past Ole Miss on the list on the strength of their road win at Southern Miss in week one, but this effort was a tad concerning. Kentucky needs to step it back up if they're to win at South Carolina this Saturday night (6:30 CT on SEC Network). A Florida team they haven't beaten since the Reagan administration awaits in week four.
9. Ole Miss Rebels (2-0, 0-0) - The Rebs show up as the lowest ranked of the remaining SEC unbeatens. No, as forecast in the weekend preview, Ole Miss did not send Tennessee-Martin to Massacre Island, though QB Shea Patterson continues to throw up big numbers against lesser competition. This week's line was 32-43 for 489 yards and 5 touchdowns with a pick, following on from 429 yards and 4 TDs last week. Now, that part where the Rebs only led South Alabama 13-10 at the half last week, and trailed UT-Martin until the final minute of the first half this week is still a problem. An intriguing cross-country trip to Cal is up this Saturday (9:30 CT on ESPN), with the Bears also sitting at 2-0 and with a win at North Carolina under their belts. This one should feature quite the offensive display.
10. Auburn Tigers (1-1, 0-0) - Well, we talked plenty about the offense, but Auburn sits atop the one-loss heap because the Tiger defense is better than any of the individual units on the teams below. (Florida's defense is in range, though.) And again, everything the Auburn wants to accomplish this year is still on the table. The Tigers have a couple of games ahead that seem ripe for offensive improvement, but a visit from State at the end of September could stand as a litmus test for how Auburn stands to fair over the final two months. Before that, however, Mercer (a common basketball and baseball opponent) makes its first football trip to the Plains this Saturday (3 CT on SEC Network's alternate channel).
11. Florida Gators (0-1, 0-0) - Not that it much matters, but I'm not going to punish Florida for canceling their rent-a-win over Northern Colorado. As mentioned above, I hold Florida's defense in high enough regard to land the Gators here. Obviously, the problems on offense are legion, and UF both didn't get a week to tune things up against a lesser foe and they've been dealing with Hurricane Irma with a visit from Tennessee looming. There's talk of the game potentially moving venues but not weeks, which would be the worst possible scenario for UF, losing a home game but not getting time to recover from the way this season has opened. Anywho, the game is still scheduled for 2:30 CT on CBS at the moment.
12. Arkansas Razorbacks (1-1, 0-0) - Auburn didn't have the market cornered on ugly offense this past weekend. The Hogs fought hard defensively against TCU, coming away with a 28-7 loss that doesn't truly reflect how well the Piggie defense played. Offensively, however, was another matter. While Arky didn't have the problems gaining yards that Auburn had, their fresh offensive hell involved going 4-14 on 3rd downs, while they watched the Horned Frogs go 10-14. Bret Bielema talks a good game (and honestly, I've warmed to ol' Beluga over the past few years), but he's not really producing. He was hired in Fayetteville at the same time Gus Malzahn was hired at Auburn, and Gus has produced more hands down. Bielema's swagger and some key wins scattered through his tenure have helped keep the heat off, but that'll change soon if they take more losses like this. The Bacon get a bye week to stew about this before heading to Jerry World for a date with an even more desperate A&M team.
13. Texas A&M Aggies (1-1, 0-0) - Speaking of! The old saying goes that there's always a bigger fish. Equally true, I think, is that there's always a smaller fish. For any Auburn or Florida fans who are cursing the heavens over how their season has started, there's what's going in College Station. The epic choke job in Pasadena was followed up with a listless win over Nicholls State this past weekend. The Aggies broke a 14-14 tie with half the fourth quarter left, and added a field goal in the final seconds to push the final score to 24-14. Kellen Mond and Jake Hubenak both played at QB, and there doesn't seem to be any more clarity to the Aggie situation under center. What we are apparently now calling simply Louisiana (formerly Louisiana-Lafayette, formerly formerly Southwestern Louisiana) rages into Kyle Field this Saturday (11 CT on SEC Network).
14. Missouri Tigers (1-1, 0-1) - That 72 points thing against Missouri State appears to have been a bit of a mirage. The 43 points allowed, however, weren't. South Carolina's 31 points weren't super unexpected, but a Cocky defense that was viewed as a major question mark preseason holding the Tigers to 13 in their own house is a different matter. Mizzou's already made changes on the defensive side, but the program right now appears to be in dire shape. With seemingly everybody in contention in the East, it has to be a bummer for Mizzou fans to already know that they (and they alone) aren't. A Purdue team that put a fright into Louisville in week one rides into town this Saturday (3 CT on SEC Network). If the Tigers can't compete here, I'm not seeing too many other wins on the slate for Barry Odom's boys.
Calling All Stations
Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch
Auburn does seem to have a bad habit of losing games and putting their fans into a foul mood, thereby unable to properly enjoy some other development in the college football world. This week's edition was Ohio State getting handled at home by Oklahoma. Now, I don't know exactly when THE Ohio State University supplanted Alabama as the nation's most hackle-raising program (maybe it was when they all started saying THE Ohio State University all the time), but they seem to be comfortably residing at the top of the Haters' Poll. Pictured above is OU quarterback and all-purpose irritant Baker Mayfield planting a Sooner flag on the big midfield O at the Horseshoe. Normally, a guy like Mayfield doing something like this would draw a pearl-clutching response from many quarters around the country, but him doing it to Ohio State mostly drew amused grins. Clowning on the Buckeyes has become a thing that unites us during these troubled times.
Otherwise, USC looked very much the part in the Coliseum against Stanford after yawning past Western Michigan in their opener. The Trojans rung up 42 on the Cardinal defense and firmly established themselves in the national title discussion. Obviously, Clemson and Oklahoma's efforts on Saturday night similarly placed them in those same conversations. With the conferences already jockeying for position, the Big Ten seems like the biggest loser thus far with Ohio State's loss. But Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin don't appear to be going anywhere, and all three losers of Saturday night's big tilts (Auburn, Ohio State, and Stanford) are still on the board somewhere, too. So far, the playoff has produced nothing but one-loss champions, and we've only had three undefeated champs since 2006 (Bama in '09, Auburn in '10, and FSU in '13). Let's not start writing anything down in ink just yet.
Massacre Island Recap
There wasn't a complete and utter massacre this week from the SEC side of things (I mean this kind of gaudy, unnecessary beatdown), but Mississippi State did toss up 57 at Louisiana Tech. (And again, they made the home-standing Bulldogs face a 3rd and goal from their own 7 at one point). The State Dogs actually trailed 9-0 before scoring the next 36, and led by as many as 43 in this game. Vandy's 42-0 handling of Alabama A&M also warrants mention, as Vandy leading anybody 35-0 at the half is fairly noteworthy.
Nationally, I actually called one this time. Washington threw a 63-7 whoopin' down on FCS foe Montana, while both participants in last week's Maryland/Texas game came out this week and brought the heat. The Longhorns smacked San Jose State around to the tune of 56-0 (and bonus points for doing it against an FBS team), How much that helps them get ready for a trip to the Coliseum to take on USC on Saturday (7:30 CT on FOX) remains to be seen. Maryland also sent mighty Towson to the island with a 63-17 rout. Fear the turtle, ya'll.
NFL-wise, most of the games were fairly low-scoring (with the exception of Kansas City's glorious torching - more naughty language at the link - of the Patriots on Thursday), but special mention has to be made of the Andrew Luck-less Colts, who flew cross-country to get crushed by the expletives deleted Rams 46-9. I hope they at least had a good flight. (Al Bundy's view on the Rams still holds, however.)
That's it for an especially lengthy edition of this column. A more chipper preview column for week three should be ready by Thursday. Push the button, Frank.