Will Moon's Deep Football Thoughts from Outer Space: Week Eleven Recap
Wooooooo! On a wild, impactful weekend of football around the country, Auburn picks up its biggest, most satisfying win since the 2013 SEC Championship Game at least. The Tiger defense dominated, the Tiger offense made plays, and everyone in orange-and-blue seemed to have a ball at Jordan-Hare on Saturday. Elsewhere, Bama got pushed all the way to the limit, Oklahoma spanked TCU, Miami spanked Notre Dame even worse, and Tennessee finally, mercifully fired Butch Jones. Let's hit it.
It started up front. Most football games do, but this was an extreme example. Georgia's lines were able to hold a little early in the game. There were some 3rd downs where they gave Jake Fromm time to throw and some plays where their defensive front was able to get pressure on Jarrett Stidham. But in the running game, on both sides of the ball, Auburn controlled the action early. As the game wore on, Auburn controlled all of the action on both sides of the ball. Stidham had time to throw, Fromm didn't. Kerryon Johnson had room to run, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel didn't. If the Tigers needed a play, the big men up front were able to provide one. Rightly so, most of the principal figures in the game (Gus Malzahn, Stidham, Johnson, Kirby Smart) all mentioned how strong Auburn was up front. Herb Hand and Rodney Garner should be extra proud of their hog mollies this week.
To single out any particular offensive lineman would be to detract from how powerful and effective the unit is as a whole, but we should shine a light on Braden Smith (or Brandon Smith, as Gary Danielson called him, although it's 50/50 that Pat Dye gave Danielson the wrong name). The Kansas Clobberer (or Drago, as he was nicknamed by former Auburn center Reese Dismukes when he arrived on campus) plays big, mean, and angry at all times. I can't remember the exact play, but there was a running play where Smith kept blocking his man through the whistle and all the way to the ground, then loudly tossed out some "words of encouragement" to the poor pancake victim afterwards. He's a monster, in other words. Austin Golson, as always, continues to deserve acclaim for his unbelievable versatility. He switched sides in this game due to Darius James' injury, and the line didn't miss a beat, thanks to Golson's skill and a strong effort in relief from Prince Tega Wanogho. Having seven or eight linemen you can run out there and feel confidence in is a huge key for this team, and that top group of Smith, Golson, Wanogho, James, Casey Dunn, Mike Horton, and Marquel Harrell all deserve more praise than linemen usually get. The Gus Malzahn offense is keyed as much as anything by not just good line play, but dominating line play. The Tigers dominated up front Saturday.
On the defensive side, the vaunted Auburn front four played like it. Jeff Holland, Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Andrew Williams, Dontavius Russell, and TD Moultry all played big Saturday (Holland and Moultry could be considered linebackers, but they play as hybrid buck ends). The Tigers totaled four sacks, five tackles for loss, and six hurries, but those numbers don't indicate how much Auburn affected the 'Dawg passing attack. Georgia's 32 carries for 46 yards does do a good job of indicating how much Auburn affected the 'Dawg rushing attack, though. Auburn came out and punched the Bulldogs in the mouth across both lines of scrimmage, and the 'Dawgs didn't react well. You could see UGa coming unglued pretty early in this one, and the Jordan-Hare atmosphere plus Auburn's physicality I think were major contributors to that.
Of course, it wasn't just the lines that played well. Sticking with the defense first, Auburn played tough, physical football in all three levels. Tre Williams played well in the middle and showed how important he is to this unit. Darrell Williams may have played his best game as an Auburn Tiger at the linebacker spot, too. (He also had a key fumble recovery on a muffed punt in the 3rd quarter.) In the secondary, Carlton Davis continues to come up and play hard-nosed football against the run and short passing games from his cornerback spot. He's still an excellent cover man (when he doesn't fall down), but his tackling skills are really impressive for a guy his size. Stephen Roberts was all over the field at safety, too, and Tray Matthews had the big game against his old team that he's been waiting for since he got to Auburn. Jeremiah Dinson also deserves some praise for his effort Saturday. It was a team effort, and Kevin Steele's defense delivered everywhere.
On offense, Kerryon Johnson. Jarrett Stidham was sharp and made good decisions. Kerryon Johnson. Stidham showed his willingness to run on the zone read, which will be key against Alabama. Kerryon Johnson. The receivers played better as a whole. Kerryon Johnson. Darius Slayton made a magnificent play on that game-turning deep ball. Kerryon Johnson. Ryan Davis continues to quietly be one of Auburn's best players. Kerryon Johnson. Even though the plays didn't necessarily work, I applaud Gus and Chip Lindsey for trying some creative stuff Saturday. Kerryon Johnson. Calling the wide receiver screen to Davis against that overloaded blitz off the corner was one of my favorite things that's happened this year. Oh, and Kerryon Johnson.
Yeah, Auburn should probably play more running backs to keep KJ fresh, yeah. I agree. But watching Kerryon develop into this every down monster tailback right in front of our eyes this year has been magical. He's one of those guys who's able to find consistent success even when the other team knows he's getting the ball. He kept coming up with positive plays Saturday, keeping the offense on schedule by limiting those pesky early down negative plays that so often kill drives. He was the definition of a workhorse, and I've especially liked how Auburn's worked him back into the passing game the last couple of weeks. The throwback screen that went for the long touchdown was a thing of beauty. But Johnson may have run into the Heisman mix on the strength of his usage rate and consistency. The Le'veon Bell comparisons are real, folks. His patient running style has worked incredibly well behind Auburn's offensive line, and his versatility is similar to what Bell brings, too. I fully expect the NFL to be taking notice.
If there was an area of concern, it continues to be in the special teams. Daniel Carlson was his usual excellent self, and his 54-yard field goal on Auburn's first possession was a huge play after Georgia had driven down for a touchdown to start the game. And as mentioned above, Darrell Williams came up with a huge fumble recovery on a muffed punt by Mecole Hardman, Jr. You could argue that that may have been the single most important play of the game, as Auburn was able to really seize full control after that. But the coverage game was a headache for the rest of the game. Hardman was able to gash the Tigers repeatedly on both kickoff and punt returns, with a long punt return almost putting the 'Dawgs back in the game right before halftime. (Fortunately, Georgia played way too conservatively and then missed a 42-yard field goal.) Alabama and Georgia, if we see them again in Atlanta, have guys that can hurt you in the return game, just as LSU, Arkansas, and A&M have hurt the Tigers in recent weeks (especially LSU). Auburn began having Carlson pooch-kick on kickoffs in the 2nd quarter, and that may continue to be the default plan from here. (Credit to the Tigers return unit, though, on the sneaky decoy punt return they dialed up in the 3rd quarter that saw Stephen Roberts draw the gunners away from the ball while Ryan Davis sprinted back and caught the ball in the open field away from any coverage men.)
This was a pretty complete effort from the Tigers against both a huge rival and the #1 team in the country. Gus Malzahn's job security has been discussed a fair amount over the last couple of seasons, and after the LSU debacle, those discussions were amped up. While there is still significant upheaval going on around the athletic department, I think this win pretty much ensures that changing head football coaches won't be part of it. Auburn's got a lot left on their plate from here, but this is something the university administration (regardless of what form it takes in the coming months) can point to. There was an atmosphere of pure revelry in the crowd and on the sidelines for much of the game. The Tigers jabbed Georgia with the inclusion of former Bulldog boogeyman Nick Fairley as an honorary captain, and then trolled them again later by cranking that Soulja Boy over the PA system. The team played loose and confident all game, and the crowd created an electric atmosphere from the get-go. It's always a great day to be an Auburn Tiger, but Saturday was an especially great day, almost a cathartic one as the team shook off the hex that Georgia's had over the program in recent years and re-entered the playoff discussion at the same time. The Iron Bowl looms, sure, but let's enjoy this one for a minute. No matter what happens the rest of the way, no one can take Saturday away from those who experienced it. It was glorious.
Around the SEC
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The biggest development around the league came at Jordan-Hare on Saturday, but a lot happened elsewhere in the league, with a huge near-miss in Starkvegas, some clarity brought to the SEC bowl picture, and the final, ignominious nail in Butch Jones' coffin.
Obviously, Georgia's blowout loss takes a huge bite out of the league's chances of putting two teams in the playoff. Some scenarios are still in play for it, but a Georgia win on the Plains would've put them in great position to get in regardless of what happened in Atlanta. That's no longer the case. The Bulldogs need to win out to make it, and their performance Saturday doesn't make that seem particularly likely.
Alabama pulled out a tough win at Mississippi State Saturday evening that looked like it was going to be an upset for a huge chunk of the game. I admire Dan Mullen as a coach and I think he's who Florida should hire to fill their vacancy on the sidelines, but he butchered the final few minutes of this one. The Bullies got a break when Bammer missed a field goal late in the 4th, but then were too conservative with their playcalling afterward. They went 3-and-out then couldn't execute a sky punt, which rolled into the end zone for a touchback. That sequence doomed them as Bammer regained momentum and scored the game-winner in the final minute. Jalen Hurts deserves a ton of credit for stepping up as a passer to get this win, and Calvin Ridley again proved why he may be the Tide's best player. There are obviously concerns for Nick Saban and his staff coming out of this game, as Bama looked far less physical than usual on defense and up front on offense (the injuries on defense may have finally mounted up too high for even the Tahd to overcome). That could be a huge problem for them in two weeks.
LSU rolled Arkansas as expected. The Bayou Bengals have a great shot at finishing 9-3 in Ed Orgeron's first full year. With Mississippi State likely to finish 9-3 as well and Auburn possibly 9-3 if they lose to Alabama, the bowl pecking order could be a little murky come season's end. (All three teams went 1-1 against the others.) This is around when we start hearing which bowls like which teams, but I expect the Tigers of LSU to draw a solid Florida bowl game matchup with a Big Ten team, either in Orlando or Tampa. For Arkansas' part, they still have flickering postseason life at 4-6, but with State and suddenly hot Missouri left on the schedule, 4-8 seems more likely. I think Bret Bielema could possibly save his job with a bowl berth, though that's by no means a certainty, but it's looking more and more likely that he's done in Hogville come season's end.
Speaking of that, we no longer have to live with the sham of the Butch Jones era at Tennessee. Blowout losses to Georgia and Alabama didn't end it. Losses to South Carolina and Kentucky didn't end it. What finally brought the axe down was an ugly beatdown at the hands of once-lowly Missouri. The Tigers of the SEC East (but not the actual east) have lived off the fat of the disarray in Gainesville and Knoxville these past two weeks, but give a lot of credit to Barry Odom, who's brought a team that looked dead as a doorknob in September back to the brink of bowl eligibility. With games against Vanderbilt and Arkansas left, a winning season isn't just possible for Mizzou, it's likely. Think back to their performances against Purdue and Auburn early in the year and tell me how likely you would've thought that was back then. As for the Vols, former Michigan coach Brady Hoke takes over as the interim head cheese for games against LSU and Vandy, and Vol fans can start dreaming even more of hiring Jon Gruden, just so they can have their dreams crushed by the cold reality of hiring somebody like Dave Doeren in about a month.
Elsewhere, South Carolina uglied their way past Florida, who at least tried to win this week, for whatever that's worth. The Gamecocks close out SEC play at 5-3 and have a really good shot at finishing in a clean second place in the East. Kentucky clobbered a now almost inert Vandy squad in Nashville, which puts UK in position to maybe finish 8-4. They have games with Georgia and Louisville left. I could see them giving the Bulldogs a fight if UGa can't shake this past weekend off (which is something to keep an eye out for). The Kentucky-Louisville game is extremely hard to predict, but 7-5 is the worst-case scenario for the 'Cats, which is pretty good considering how things had been going up there prior to last season. And the two non-conference rent-a-wins went about as expected, with Ole Miss and Texas A&M throwing down on Louisiana-Lafayette and New Mexico respectively.
Calling All Stations
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On a day where Georgia crashed and burned in Auburn under new coach Kirby Smart, former head 'Dawg Mark Richt and his Miami Hurricanes twisted the knife in a little deeper with a highly impressive 41-8 slaughtering of Notre Dame. (Richt's success and the significant weakening of Georgia's signature win over the Irish providing a two-hit combo for maximum damage.) The 'Canes now have to take care of business against middling Virginia and Pitt teams before they draw what could be a massive date with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. And with this weekend's events, it could be that game that manages to land both participants in the playoff, not the SEC Championship Game.
Stanford's win over Washington doubled as the Pac-12 essentially excusing itself from the remainder of the playoff chase. While I don't think any of the other leagues necessarily needed that to happen, it's still nice to get at least that clarity. Wisconsin took care of Iowa in fairly resounding fashion, and they still shouldn't have any issues making it to the playoff as long as they take care of business. With regular season games left with Michigan and Minnesota, plus the Big Ten title game against most likely Ohio State, it's probably 50/50 on whether they can make it through unscathed.
Oklahoma clobbered Texas Christian, and have been getting some support to be the #1 team in the next playoff poll. They'll likely have to beat the Horned Frogs again in the Big 12 title game at the end of the year, which could have that weird effect of making both wins look less spectacular, but with their Ws at Ohio State and Oklahoma State already, plus their national brand, the Sooners should be in good shape going forward.
I figure two-loss Auburn will be ranked sixth or seventh in the committee's poll come Tuesday night. If there's a major concern for the Tigers, it's the possibility that Alabama stays ahead of them even with an Auburn win in the Iron Bowl. That's essentially what happened last year with Ohio State and Penn State, so I'm curious to see how that would play out (plus, it would mean Auburn beats Alabama, which is always welcome). Also, I keep seeing people say that Auburn's the only two-loss team that has a chance at the playoff, and I don't think that's true at all. I could totally see Ohio State getting back into this if things break the right way. The key that played into the Buckeyes' favor last year when they got in over twice-beaten Penn State, and what could play into both their and Auburn's favor this year as two-loss teams, is non-conference schedule. The Buckeyes had won at Oklahoma last year, while Penn State lost to an OK Pitt team. That ended up being the difference. This year, Auburn and Ohio State have losses to elite non-conference teams (Clemson and Oklahoma, respectively), while Alabama and Wisconsin played and beat four bad teams. (Florida State wasn't supposed to be bad, but has fallen apart.) That'll be the biggest wild card down the stretch in the event that the Tigers and Buckeyes win their respective conference titles.
The Heisman Trophy is also up for grabs as long-time presumptive favorite Saquon Barkley of Penn State has fallen off of late. Right now, it looks like Oklahoma's infuriating quarterback Baker Mayfield is the frontrunner, while Stanford's Bryce Love is also in the mix. But I still think a guy like Auburn's Kerryon Johnson or even Alabama's Jalen Hurts could marshal some support over the coming weeks.
Massacre Island Recap
The predicted beatdowns were pretty one-sided (Penn State over Rutgers, Ole Miss over ULL, A&M over New Mexico), but the real massacres came in some of the biggest games of the weekend. Auburn's 40-17 win over Georgia was a pretty comprehensive effort from the home team. Miami rocked Notre Dame even worse. The Hurricanes' advantages in total offense and rushing yards were notable, but the real killer for the Fighting Irish was turning the ball over. Miami's gaudy, wonderful turnover chain got lots of face time on ABC Saturday night, as the U came up with four takeaways, while Mark Richt's offense played turnover-free football.
But the biggest slaughtering came in the Horseshoe. A week after getting Mack trucked themselves by Iowa, Ohio State lowered the boom on poor Michigan State in a 48-3 runaway. The Buckeyes outrushed Sparty 335-64 and handed MSU their worst loss in series history and in the Mark Dantonio era. Urban Meyer's squad can be maddening, but their talent is undeniable. Performances like that are what make me say they could still be a factor in the playoff race. Performances like the one in Iowa City are what make me not assume they're going to go ahead and win the division. I'm sure tOSU fans aren't frustrated by that at all.
Let's Get Ready to Rumble
The rerun of Catholics vs. Convicts didn't have the feistiness of the 1988 original on the field, but it certainly did off it. A melee broke out on the concourse at Whatever-They're-Calling-the-Dolphins-Stadium now, and it went on for a while before any security could get involved (and if it was anything like last week, run some hands of their own.) There was some decent action here, as several participants on both sides got some good licks in. It seemed one solid punch was about the limit for everybody, though, as all good swings were quickly followed by some pretty sad stuff. Blue-shirt Notre Dame guy seemed to be the focal point of everything, as he got off some good shots but also spent a lot of time on the ground. Green-shirt Notre Dame guy and the orange-shirted Miami fan who hit him from behind could both stand to learn to keep to their heads on a swivel. It's dangerous out there.
What a weekend for Auburn. We could argue all day and night about playoff scenarios (and ESPN has an army of dudes who will), but enjoy this butt-whoopin'. Amen Corner can be really dispiriting when the Tigers aren't up for it, but when they're ready to compete, there's nothing better in college football. So savor this W. Most of the conference plays, as James from Opelika would say, "rudy-poo teams" this week, including Auburn, who hosts Louisiana-Monroe. As usual, I'll be back on Thursday to set it all up and maybe start getting everybody into an Iron Bowl-mindset.