The Auburn Tigers are 2-1 on the season, 1-0 in SEC play, which on the surface doesn’t look so bad.
While the loss to Clemson last weekend was devastating and caused a great deal of despondency among fans, and I’m sure the players, it wasn’t so much the loss to Clemson as it was a culmination of fears that have been the subtext of the Auburn games for three weeks.
Fears that the Tigers didn’t quite have it together in order to compete this year; fears that the bloom is off the Rose after winning the BCS National Championship last year.
Well, the hard facts are that last year’s team is gone along with its star QB, Cam Newton, defensive heartbeat, Nick Fairley, and about 26 other starters.
This is a new team that needs some work, and definite change in the way it operates. The fear should be turned off and something more positive should come about.
I commented on Kevin McGrady’s article yesterday that true failure is to keep doing things the same way and expect a different outcome.
Head coach Gene Chizik has made no excuses for the loss and recognized that change has to happen, on both sides of the ball.
However, what specifically do the Tigers need to do?
The Auburn camp has been quiet since Saturday, actually holding a Sunday practice with no break for the team—something that should be done to hammer home the urgency to the team.
But, ahead of what they actually will do, here are some thoughts.
One of many missed tackles on Clemson's Sammy Watkins
The Auburn Tiger defense is the glaring problem that Coach Chizik mentioned, and also the most obvious to anyone watching the game.
Articles have been written about it on B/R and the rest of the Internet, to the point that I’m sure you’re sick of hearing it.
But, Auburn gave up 624 yards of offense to the Clemson Tigers, the most of any opponent so far, although the previous two games were equally huge in yards allowed. Somehow, Auburn figured out how to win those.
The AU Tigers defense has a lot of talented, yet inexperienced guys and maybe there was too much assumed in preseason. But, learning how to tackle and going through those drills daily can make it second nature, as it should be.
There were so many missed tackles against Clemson last weekend, it was obvious this defense did not understand how to lock up and get a player to the ground. Maybe they need to go back to the beginning.
Missed tackles in the backfield, like the ones last weekend, could have changed the momentum and the outcome of the game if they had been made. Tackles are that critical.
Nosa Eguae has the Fairley Fire, but he can't do it alone.
It occurred to me in the Utah State game that this Auburn defense seemed to be moving in slow motion—not attacking, no blitzing—like they were hesitant to take on the offensive line.
Coach Chizik said the following week that the defensive playbook was going to be simplified so that second and third thought processes wouldn’t be necessary—as if the perceived hesitation was due to thinking too much.
Well, that didn’t resolve anything, and it seems that the defense is not getting instilled with the idea that in the SEC, it’s OK to rattle somebody’s teeth, take the O-lineman to the ground and show them who’s going to win this matchup play after play.
Nick Fairley had that attitude, as did Tracy Rocker; both of them were inspirations to the defense last year. But, it doesn’t have to be them; Nosa Equae seems to be the only one on this year's team that has it, but he can't do it alone. The defensive group should be getting that encouragement from the coaching staff too.
Something is not happening in practice to instill that principle in the defense, and unless it gets there, offenses will run up yardage like the first three games.
Fairley was criticized by Georgia fans for his aggressiveness last year, but no apology is or was necessary; that aggressive play on defense is what it takes to win football games in the SEC.
There was a critical play in the second quarter in which Auburn Sophomore DB Ryan Smith was charged with pass interference because he was face guarding the receiver. He was, and didn't have a clue where the ball was.
Experience is one thing, but basic DB deep coverage provides that you key off the reactions of the receiver, that's true.
But when you’re in a situation where you’re in the receiver’s face, the ball is coming, you turn and play the ball.
Since both are going for the ball, you will not get the interference call. You might get a chance at an interception as well, something your back certainly can't do.
It requires some finesse, but this can and should be coached repeatedly, in order to avoid needless penalties that allow the opponent to gain yards, 1st downs and the momentum to their advantage.
All that is wrong with the Tigers is not defense.
Auburn has been sputtering offensively in all three games so far. Sputtering and inconsistent.
The start of the game usually provides some optimism, but the follow-through of sustaining a drive doesn’t seem to be there.
For example, the use of Michael Dyer infrequently when it’s actually working effectively doesn’t make much sense. His performance could keep the drive alive.
He was effective in the first quarter, with a 52-yard touchdown, but we didn’t see him much again except sporadically throughout the game.
When your horse is working, you take advantage for all the benefit he gives you.
This is the case with a lot of the standouts for Auburn such as Tre Mason, Travante Stallworth, Keihl Frazier and many more. The offense has talent, but it’s not being used consistently enough.
Onterrio McCalleb makes a gain of eight yards and a 1st down. The fans go crazy and get excited.
Wait, it’s being called back because there was a false start or illegal motion, or something else deflating.
Nothing stalls an offensive drive like repeated penalties. It comes from inexperience, yes, but it also comes from a mindset that is distracted or thinking too much about their assignment.
Practice, like game conditions, can solve this, but it has to be coached.
Momentum is one thing that Auburn has a knack for losing, at least from the games we've seen.
If the Auburn Tigers take their loss at Clemson to heart, this week before the game with Florida Atlantic will answer at least one thing: Have they gained any discipline, aggression and consistency on both sides of the ball?
As I said in my postgame article, the guys who were freshmen last year and those from this year did not know the sting of losing until Clemson came along.
They had never lost a game at Auburn. I doubt they want to feel that sting again.
It all comes down to Coach Chizik staying with his vision, getting that communicated and felt deeply within the coaches and players.
But, most of all the players need to take ownership for what they’re not doing so far this season and ownership for doing their jobs the best way they can. It's called Execution.
Regardless of whether it’s Florida Atlantic or LSU, if some changes are made this week, there should be a visible difference in the way the Auburn Tigers carry and conduct themselves in the game—aggressive, quick and “All In.”