The Worst Start in Sixty Years

I had been writing a post for this slot about Widespread Panic’s new album, Wood, which came out on October 16, and I’ve also been working on a thing about Community Supported Agriculture around the Deep South for November, but right this minute only one thing about the Deep South seems worthy of my attention. A few weeks ago, in early September 6, I wrote about my love for Auburn football, how I couldn’t wait for the season to get started . . . but I had no clue then that we would be entering what has now become a 1-6 start, the worst start since 1952, with yesterday’s loss to Vanderbilt.

Back in September, I watched in dismay as the Tigers lost their season opener to Clemson, and with further dismay when they lost to Mississippi State and then barely scraped by Louisiana-Monroe in overtime. The next two losses, to LSU and Arkansas, weren’t as surprising after I had watched my team struggle some more. I thought maybe Auburn could get back on track by beating Ole Miss, but that was a no-go too, and now another loss comes at the hands of what is easily the SEC’s weakest team historically, Vanderbilt. WTF, Auburn?

CBSSports.com published an article on Saturday evening, after the Vanderbilt loss, titled, “Auburn starts 1-6 for first time in 60 years after loss to Vanderbilt.” Its thoroughly covered content made it clear enough that the article had been researched and written in advance of the game, with the website’s editors just waiting for the final buzzer so they could post it. Even though I hear talk about this matter all the time these days, at this point writer Jerry Hinnen’s second sentence didn’t surprise me: “That is, quite obviously, not good, and the status of Gene Chizik’s job for 2013 is now unquestionably a matter for open debate.” Hinnen continues later with a point-by-point explanation of why this season’s poor performance is so astounding, including these facts: Auburn were the national champions in 2010, they have not started this badly since 1952, and they have never been 0-5 in the SEC. Auburn is on its way – with its remaining SEC opponents being ranked teams: Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama – to losing every single conference game, unless they pull an upset against one of these three teams.

I hate to forecast gloom-and-doom for my Auburn Tigers, but I remember watching one of the games – they’ve all been so disappointing now that I have forgotten which one – and in the third quarter, the now-benched, then-starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier had been sacked so many times that, in the third quarter, Auburn’s offense had negative yardage. No team on Earth could win a ball game when their offense has negative yardage in the third quarter!

And it’s not just the offense. The defense is pretty bad too, and the national TV stations airing the last two games have seemed to enjoy posting the statistic that Auburn has been outscored in the fourth quarter 62-3 so far this season. In an article posted on al.com last week, Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was “asking for patience.” He is quoted as saying:

“I knew in the spring we had a lot of work to do. And our goal is to be the best in the country on defense. I know it’s a process,” VanGorder says. “We have to continue to work to improve. But we’re getting ourselves ready to play in big games in the future, and what we do right now is vitally important – it is key in what we do right now in building it.”

I’m not sure how much more patience Auburn fans have, Mr. VanGorder. However, a friend of mine said it best when she posted on Facebook after one Auburn loss: Anyone who is only a fan of a team when they’re winning is a schmuck.

So what’s the deal? People can talk about firing coaches all they want, or the TV can flash isolated statistics up on the screen, sure. For my part, I think the worst kind of schmucks are the people who look for scapegoats and seek out punitive actions rather than identifying problems and finding solutions.

When I went to Google and began typing in “What is wrong” the first prompted search result it suggested was “What is wrong with Auburn football.” In the immortal words of actor Jim Nabors, Surprise, surprise, surprise! So what is wrong with Auburn football? Part of the problem is described pretty well in one ESPN.com article, which ran on October 4, prior to the Arkansas game:

With a loss [to Arkansas], Auburn will likely miss out on a bowl game for the first time since 2008 and it doesn’t help that the Tigers own the SEC’s worst offense (297.8 yards per game) and the third-worst defense (419.3).

Well, that happened, Auburn did lose that game. Now, with six losses, the likelihood of going to a bowl game is basically nil. At the time of this writing, ESPN.com listed Auburn’s rankings this way: 117th in the nation in passing yards per game, 100th in the nation in rushing yards per game, 121st in the nation in points made per game, and 56th in the nation in points allowed per game. Terrible.

Since I am not a football expert – I only played for two years in junior high school, then decided I had better things to do – I don’t know why Auburn is having those problems, but I can say with great certainty that Auburn University is paying a coaching staff millions of dollars to know why, and how to fix it. And the $50-per-ticket price for home games should explain why some fans’ have a bloodlust for firings and why Brian VanGorder’s pleas for patience may fall on deaf ears.

Another aspect of what makes this season so shitty is that the University of Alabama’s team is killing everyone, again. Nothing gives an obnoxious Alabama fan as much joy as seeing Alabama win and Auburn lose. (Not all Alabama fans are obnoxious, but some certainly are. Very.) The Crimson Tide looks like it’s on its way to another national championship.

For my part, being a long-haul kind of guy, I am worried for my team. If AU fires Chizik and his coaching staff, Auburn will have to rebuild, the new coaches will have to build fan loyalty back up, the players will have to learn a new scheme, etc., etc. And next year will likely ugly, too. But if they keep Chizik and his boys, a losing season like this one will hinder recruiting possibilities, especially if any good high school football player in Alabama has the in-state choice between joining a losing team in a slump or a repeating national championship team.

From what I see and hear, I think just about everyone around the Deep South who cares about football is wondering exactly what I am: how in the world did the Auburn Tigers go from being so good to being so bad so fast, and with the same head coach? Dismissing the Tigers by reducing their national championship to Cam Newton’s talent would be easy but not very accurate. Or maybe some people want to attribute it to Gus Malzahn’s offensive scheme as the key to success. Who knows?

Either way, watching my favorite team get shit-canned week after week sure does suck . . .

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