Making Sense of Auburn

With Florida-Auburn being the one and only game of particular quality this Saturday, the Wednesday look at the SEC will focus on Tommy Tuberville’s Tigers, a team that has come to a fork in the road.

Which path will Auburn choose this Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium? That’s a question the college football world–and Gator fans–are asking as kickoff time approaches. It’s a question that’s hard to answer, moreover, because of the injuries and graduations that have altered the chemistry of a team that, in November of last season, played the best college football of anyone in the country, not just the SEC.

Auburn is a team that, over the past few years, has established an identity in which physical, high-energy football sets up big plays and finesse-oriented play calls in the second halves of games. Raw body blows in the first half set up the whippet-fast knockout punches in the latter stages of a game. This is the basic formula Tuberville has relied on at Auburn, with offensive coordinator Al Borges being the man who can call plays in accordance with it.

Injuries and attrition have been so damaging to Auburn this year–particularly in the loss to Arkansas–because they have eroded both pieces of the Tigers’ winning formula.

If you saw the Arkansas game, you clearly noticed that a slowed-down Kenny Irons–a raging bull of a marvel at running back when on his game–had none of the finishing kick that makes him so good. Irons’ ability to shed tackles or (at least) gain two extra yards after the first point of contact was clearly nonexistent, and Auburn needs that ingredient in order to create better down-and-distance situations for Brandon Cox, whose incredibly good groove from last November is a distant memory.

It should be no surprise that Auburn’s depleted running game is accompanied by a diminished passing attack. Cox isn’t as comfortable as he was last year for many reasons. One of them is the fact that he doesn’t have a reliable corps of veteran receivers (unlike last season), but another reason is the decreased effectiveness of Irons, who has had some bursts of brilliance, but not the sustained excellence that Auburn’s offense needs if it wants to ring up big point totals. Irons is hardly mailing it in, but his injury is plainly taking away his ability to finish runs with the authority needed to turn 2nd and 6 into 2nd and 3. The effects of this are adding up–or more appropriately, “subtracting down”–for Auburn.

Perhaps the biggest loss on Auburn’s offense, though–certainly the loss that many people are overlooking or underappreciating–is the absence of now-graduated tight end Cooper Wallace. In Auburn’s 2004 breakthrough season and last year as well, it was Wallace–the reliable tight end–who represented a superb complement to the power ground game while also taking the heat off the Tigers’ receivers, who made a lot of vertical plays downfield. Wallace was the perfect security-blanket-cum-change-of-pace option for Al Borges, who needs a dynamic tight end in his offensive scheme. Wallace was able to move the sticks with regularity, but he’d occasionally tear off big gainers because he got so wide open on play action when defenses would stack the box against the run. Borges has consistently used–and needed–this component in his play calling at Auburn, and without it, the Tigers’ offense suffers noticeably.

It should be pointed out, then, that when Auburn survived South Carolina on Sept. 28, it was tight end Tommy Trott–Wallace’s successor–who led the Tigers in receptions and made key catches to extend drives in that famous third quarter when Auburn kept the ball from Steve Spurrier for the duration. It was in that quarter–more than any other quarter of Auburn’s season to date–when Borges finally settled into a flowing, rhythmic groove with his play calling. On Saturday night, then, shutting down play action and containing Trott will be two particularly big keys for Florida’s defense.

On a larger level, a Gator game plan on the defensive side of the ball should expect Auburn to come out throwing Saturday night. When you account for Auburn’s injuries and its inexperience at the receiver spot, the hunch here is that when Tuberville and Borges hunkered down in the war room earlier this week, they likely decided to throw the ball early against the Gators for a simple strategic reason. Given that Irons is far from fully healthy, and given that Auburn generally likes to rely on its smashmouth running game to set a tone, it seems to be in Auburn’s best interest to try and establish the passing game to set up the run. Put differently, if your strength isn’t as strong as it needs to be, you need to do other things to build back your best asset. Auburn–to make its power rushing game truly effective–must throw to give Brandon Cox confidence and keep Florida’s defense off balance. Trying to cram the ball down Florida’s throat–while macho and virile–could get Aubur n painted into a box very quickly. Passing early in the game will enable Auburn to have more strategic options and variations for the full 60 minutes. Borges could get the Gator defense swinging back and forth like a pendulum if he can start with a successful passing game, then mix in the run, and have a full bag of goodies available for the fourth quarter. But if Borges starts with a ground-based attack and Florida’s front seven smothers it, Auburn–at least on the offensive side of the ball–is toast.

Beyond Auburn’s offense and immediate considerations of strategy, a larger overview of the Tigers suggests two things heading into this mammoth encounter with Florida: 1) On the psychological front, the Tigers’ energy level will return to an LSU level; one only needs to remember an October Saturday night from 2001 in order to realize that Auburn will bring over-the-top emotion to the ballpark against a highly-ranked Florida team. 2) The Tigers’ injuries and deficiencies might be significant enough that an inspired effort alone will not be enough to carry them to victory. Put more plainly, Auburn’s overall condition at this point in time suggests that if both teams play at an equal level–or if both teams bring their A-game–Florida will win. This means that Auburn’s defense absolutely must (it’s a non-negotiable, non-debatable point, in this writer’s opinion) force multiple turnovers, or at least one turnover with a huge impact at a meaningful moment, in order to win. If Aubu rn’s defense can’t stagger Florida’s offense in the first half, and the Tigers establish none of the offensive balance and unpredictability referred to above, the second half could get ugly for Tuberville… and dreams of an SEC West title will evaporate on the Plains.

Auburn can either reaffirm its elevated status and get back on track for Atlanta, or allow deficiencies to wear down its resolve and erode its fragile sense of confidence. How the Tigers respond against Florida will likely determine their season. Tommy Tuberville has arrived at the fork in the road for 2006. He can only hope a fork won’t be stuck into his backside by the Florida Gators.