We drove southwest from North Carolina on a college break, many miles down I-85 in a brave red Ram.
My buddy’s girlfriend was an Auburn student, and we could stop outside Atlanta for a bonfire with his brother on the way. With our baseball and school commitments in Chapel Hill leaving little time for family, those two things were reason enough to go.
Another: No. 6 LSU would be in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday visiting the No. 4 Tigers.
It was October 2010, LSU was 7-0 and trying to return to the national championship since winning it in 2007. Auburn was 7-0 and had the same dreams, but its had been deferred for more than 50 years. A blossoming quarterback named Cam Newton gave Tigers fans hope.
It was my introduction to SEC football, to this fun-loving but entirely gone-mad world in which the tone of eight subsequent months bend around the whims of 13 or so Saturdays at the end of the year.
I remember vividly when the trip began to feel like a baptismal.
We had spent the afternoon doing first-time Auburn things for the first-timer in the group. Lemonade at Toomer’s Drugs. Check out the trees that have since been lost. Walk through campus. Locate Jordan-Hare and feel giddy about how insane the place would soon be. Mark the grassy spot we’d eat jambalaya and barbecue and drink cheap liquids before the game. Stop at Momma Goldberg’s on Magnolia for steamed sandwiches and nachos.
Now, as the day turned late, we were at SkyBar. We stayed in the front half, away from the back sector that turns into a thumping, sweaty nightclub. My buddy and I are beer-and-conversation guys, dudes who like a beat but don’t really get down to them. A steady stream worked its way through the front door until we were nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, and then I noticed something odd: The room had divided.
On our side were men and women, from early 20s to middle age, dressed in blue and orange. On the other were people of the same range dressed in purple and yellow. Auburn fans and LSU fans. Just as many of the latter as those who make a residence in this town.
Suddenly, this deafening hum began to build. It soon felt like a thousand humming birds doing the devil’s work to your eardrums. I didn’t know that it was the sound of a drawn out “war,” the same sound that fills Jordan-Hare as Spirit is in flight, only to be punctuated with an emphatic “EAGLE!” as the bird lands on the field. Then it stopped.
And terribly drunk and beautifully loud “L-S-U! L-S-U!” chants began. After a while those halted, and it was back to the hum. Then back to the chants. Each group took their moment then offered it to the other. It wasn’t a macho thing; delightful women yelled as loud as anyone.
It was just a thing, and there was a respect. After about five minutes, everyone cheered in unison and returned to drinking too much. I had never seen a comparable pregame scene, so many fans of both teams, together, charged like that. None of us in that bar could wait until kickoff.
It was Wednesday.
I suspect Auburn is beginning to feel like that again.
After slipping to 8-5 in 2011 and plunging to 3-9 last season, the Tigers are 9-1 (5-1 SEC) and again occupy a seat somewhere in the upper ranks of the SEC. Gone is Gene Chizik and now gripping the wheel is his offensive coordinator from that 2010 championship season, Gus Malzahn.
The little irony buried in this is Malzahn has tripled last season’s win total with many of the same players, returning 15 starters from 2012. Of course, hardly any of them seem the same.
The offensive line exchanged its youth for reps and is much improved built around center Reese Dismukes. They’ve carved massive lanes for running back Tre Mason, who’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry – for a total of 1,038 yards this season – and has driven an Auburn run game that’s jumped from 79th in yards per rush last season (4.07) to third in the nation in 2013 (6.49).
That improvement isn’t all Mason, of course. As Malzahn brought his tempo-based offensive system back to Auburn, he imported an engine that could power it. From Garden City (Kan.) Community College came quarterback Nick Marshall, a part-time runner, part-time passer and full-time liability for opposing defenses.
Last season at the position, Auburn was stuck with the round hole of Chizik’s pro-style attack and its square peg personnel. What became of it was a confusing three-headed concoction of Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Jonathan Wallace, none of whom seemed to fit.
That confusion is now gone. Moseley graduated and Frazier moved to safety in the preseason and then permanently to wide receiver last month. Wallace, a sophomore, finds himself stuck behind freshman Jeremy Johnson, who was Alabama’s Mr. Football in 2012, and third on Malzahn’s depth chart.
Marshall now, along with Mason and their line, is making it all go. He’s a raw passer, completing only 58.5 percent of his attempts this season, but he’s taken Auburn’s passing yards per attempt from 58th last season (7.3) to 15th in 2013 (8.5). If Marshall’s inefficiency has left some scrapes on his pass game, his legs have served as timely dabs of Neosporin, accounting for 734 yards rushing and 7.1 yards per attempt, which ranks 13th among all rushers with a minimum of 60 attempts.
There’s been improvement on the defense, too. When Malzahn left Arkansas State to return to Auburn, he plucked Ellis Johnson from the unemployment corps. Johnson had taken a head coaching opportunity at Southern Miss, and it went, quite literally, as poorly as such a gig could go. Southern Miss didn’t win a game, going 0-12, and Johnson was fired. But with a reputation as one of college football’s best defensive coaches and 16 years in the SEC, Malzahn saw the complement to his own offensive genius.
Johnson went to work installing a system with the malleability to fit the talent on hand, bouncing from zone schemes to man-to-man and interchanging pieces along the way. Perhaps that’s part of why Auburn ranks 51st in pass yards per attempt allowed (6.9) and 71st in yards per rush allowed (4.23), although both of those figures have improved from a year ago — 7.5 per pass and 4.9 per rush.
Good growth spurts remain across the field for Auburn, but whatever the case, one year’s worth of improvement has put the Tigers back in the national top 10 and given them a shot to win the SEC and even play for a national championship.
They have Georgia next week, which, no matter how many injured Bulldogs you want to take off the field, ain’t some turnstile along the way to Atlanta.
Still, you can feel the forces rumbling. This all seems to be pointing to Nov. 30 when the Iron Bowl comes to Auburn. The Tigers will get their shot at No. 1 Alabama, and the implications of that game know no bounds. We don’t need to spell them out now.
The fact that Auburn has made that game something more than an Alabama victory lap is enough.
It’s become a contest, again, one that Malzahn’s Tigers can win, and it’s been some time, since Cam and the days when big-game tailgates began on Wednesday, anyone has said that and believed it.
Four mostly irrelevant things that happened this week.
This is awesome: Jerry Kill, who’s been off the sidelines recently trying to control his epilepsy, danced with his players after Minnesota beat Penn State.
Ron English was fired at Eastern Michigan. His 11-46 record probably had the most to do with it, but the release of this vulgar audio tape while addressing his team certainly didn’t help.
Johnny Manziel probably played his last game ever in College Station, and the students asked him for one more year.
Myles Jack is a true freshman linebacker for UCLA, who was also a running back in high school. He rushed for 120 yards against Arizona Saturday, including this 66-yard TD run. Human bodies aren’t supposed to work like this.
Notes from the nation
An assortment of links from around Week 11 in college football.
Alabama tricked then pounded LSU. TJ Yeldon was terrific, rushing for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. AJ McCarron did what AJ McCarron does, be efficient and take care of the football.
Auburn crushed Tennessee in Neyland Stadium. I know the Vols are 1-5 in SEC play, but that’s a great win for the Tigers. Tennessee has been tough in Neyland this season, beating South Carolina there and taking Georgia (in the game it began to lose a bunch of players) to overtime. Now Auburn has UGA at home next week before a bye and then the biggie against Bama.
Florida suffered its first home loss to Vanderbilt since 1945. The bigger news is the Gators now are unlikely to reach the six wins needed for bowl eligibility. They’re 4-5 with at South Carolina, vs. Georgia Southern and vs. Florida State left, which means they need to beat either the Gamecocks or Noles (and not lost to Georgia Southern, of course). Their best shot is next week in Columbia, and even that’s a lot to ask.
Missouri whipped Kentucky, with Dorial Green-Beckham hauling in four TD catches, and now enters a trick home stretch: at Ole Miss and home against Texas A&M. Two more wins and the Tigers play for the SEC championship in Atlanta.
Aaron Murray became the SEC’s all-time leader in TD passes, and now Georgia prepares for a trip to Auburn. With Auburn, Kentucky and Georgia Tech left on the schedule, the Bulldogs should get to eight wins and a decent bowl game.
It was (very likely) Johnny Manziel’s last game in College Station, and he made his home finale a memorable one. It’s not the last we’ve seen of him though. Next week at LSU should be fun, and then he can dirty up the SEC East by winning at Mizzou in the final week of the regular season. Win both of those, and the Aggies are definitely in a BCS bowl. Split, and perhaps it’s the Cotton. Fun stuff, either way.
I went to Palo Alto this week to take in Stanford-Oregon and see how football fits into the culture of Stanford University. What a fantastic place.
USC had three punt returns for touchdowns on its way to crushing Cal in Berkeley. Ed Orgeron is now 4-1 as USC’s interim head coach, and next week’s home game against Stanford becomes interesting. It’ll be a defensive game, and the Trojans rank 20th in the nation in yards per play (4.93). They won’t need to score many points to keep up with the Cardinal, which could make this a much tighter game than you’d expect from two teams so widely apart in the rankings.
UCLA freshman linebacker Myles Jack had a huge game against Arizona … at running back.
Nebraska beat Michigan in the Big House, and the Wolverines can’t stop the bleeding. After starting the season 5-0 (unconvincingly, we should add), they have lost three of their last four. Michigan ranks 25th in yards per play allowed but 65th in the same category on offense. Just not enough offense as a whole and not enough growth from QB Devin Gardner, who ranks 58th in efficiency (60.7 percent) and has thrown 11 picks to 14 TDs. In other news, all that Bo Pelini hot seat talk? Cornhuskers are 7-2.
Utah’s been hunting the leaders of the Pac-12 this season – it got Stanford – and almost took down Arizona State Saturday. The Sun Devils won, though, and they remain in sole possession of the Pac-12 South, a game up on UCLA and USC. In two weeks, they’ll visit the Bruins in a game that very well could decide half of the league.
Nice win for Kansas State, beating Texas Tech on the road to push its record to 5-4. The Wildcats aren’t in the league’s top tier, with Baylor and Oklahoma State and others, but they’re better than many of us (hi, Wildcats) expected. KSU has a top-30 offense and top-40 defense based on yards per play. They should beat TCU and Kansas and give Oklahoma a challenge.
Oklahoma States beat down Kansas, and now the 8-1 Pokes get their shot at Texas, which remains unbeaten in the Big 12. After that: Baylor and Oklahoma, both in Stillwater. Everything is in front of the Cowboys.
Minnesota beat Penn State to earn the Governor’s Victory Bell, and now the Golden Gophers are 8-2. That’s the most wins for the program since the 2003 team went 10-3. Can these Gophers get 10 wins? It’ll be tough, with Wisconsin and then Michigan State on the road, but what a season it’s been for Jerry Kill’s team.
Wisconsin beat BYU and is now 7-2 and one game behind Ohio State in the Leaders division. Seems some are sleeping on the Badgers. They could easily be 8-1 without the kneel down gaffe against at Arizona State earlier in the season. Even so, with Indiana and Penn State at home, and a road trip to Minnesota in between, the Badgers have a solid chance of finishing the season 10-2. Running back Melvin Gordon ranks eighth in the country with 8.11 yards per attempt – and that’s over 143 attempts. Nobody comes close to matching that production with a similar number of carries.
It’s been a difficult year for Iowa, and there’s plenty of work to be done, but the Hawkeyes moved to 6-4 by beating Purdue Saturday and will head to a bowl game. With Michigan and Nebraska left on the schedule, they have a chance to add another win, or two, and finish the season with a little positive energy entering 2014.
Florida State crushed Wake Forest, forcing seven turnovers. The win clinched the ACC’s Atlantic division for the Seminoles. What’s left: Syracuse, Idaho, at Florida, ACC title game. It’s impossible to imagine FSU losing either of the first two. At Florida looked like a challenge a few weeks ago, but the Gators are falling apart. And the ACC title game opponent will be someone mediocre, most likely Virginia Tech. In other words, welcome to the BCS title game, Noles.
On homecoming weekend in Chapel Hill, North Carolina smoked Virginia. At Pittsburgh, vs. Old Dominion and vs. Duke left for the Tar Heels, who need to win two of those to become bowl eligible.
Miami lost to Virginia Tech and let control of the Coastal division slip away. The Canes, for all their talent, have too often played to the level of mediocre teams this season. They should have lost at North Carolina and needed to grind out a home win against Wake Forest. So it’s not that surprising they lost to a VT team that lost to Duke (7-2 Duke, that is!). It hurts not to have RB Duke Johnson, obviously.
Your BCS buster candidate, Fresno State, is still alive and undefeated after beating Wyoming. One thought: How bad does Northern Illinois getting whooped in the Orange Bowl last year hurt the Bulldogs this year? Will the voters be inclined to put a non-major conference team in a BCS game after that? Tough to see.