A Daunting Task on a National Stage.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Daunting Task on a National Stage.

Clemson Week

Can Auburn stretch a stout Clemson defense?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! It’s a big game week for Auburn, in Week Two of the 2017 college football season. The Tigers travel to Clemson, South Carolina, to take on the defending national champions. Auburn won’t have as big a chance to make a statement to national voters and committees till the Iron Bowl in late November.

     I have heard it opined elsewhere that this game isn’t particularly important, as Auburn will come out of it undefeated in the SEC, regardless what happens. I disagree. This Auburn team hopes to compete for a national championship. And if this team is to become a national champion, it has to win these sorts of games. It must be able to focus, block out distractions, and go into a hostile environment, and win. If the team can’t win in South Carolina, how is it going to fare during a 3 game road stretch to Baton Rouge, Fayetteville and College Station, later in the season?

     I think back to the 1987 season, for a comparison. After blowing a 10 point lead in Knoxville and leaving with a tie, Auburn was on a tear. A tough road trip to Chapel Hill followed, and Auburn was up to the task, beating North Carolina. Florida and Emmitt Smith would tame the Tigers, or so the writers opined. Auburn blasted Florida 29-6, to move to 6-0-1, and 6th in the nation. Florida State came to Auburn, ranked 4th. Head Coach Pat Dye opined famously in a press conference leading up to the game, “This one ain’t important. It’s not an SEC game.” The team took Dye at his word, and mailed it in, that Saturday. FSU trounced Auburn, 34-6. Auburn would still finish the season with a 27-11 win at Georgia, and a 10-0 blanking of Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers were SEC Champions, headed to the Sugar Bowl to play unbeaten, untied Syracuse. That game featured the infamous last second field goal to tie, and Auburn finished 9-1-2. Had Auburn won against Florida State, they would have been playing for a national championship that year.

     My gut feeling for this game is that Auburn will continue playing well on defense, as the unit has been very, very consistent over the past year. The defense can’t win the game by themselves, though. The offense is going to have to make some first downs, and avoid mistakes. We saw plenty against Georgia Southern, last Saturday. I think we’ll have to see some good throws down the field. Georgia Southern backed off and allowed dumpoffs underneath. Clemson won’t. They’ll press, and they will blitz. Last week, Auburn did not complete a single pass of 20 yards or more.

Thoughts around the SEC, after the jump.

     I felt like before the season started, that Missouri had most of a pretty good offense coming back, and they might even contend for the SEC East title. In a tune-up against Missouri State, the offense did indeed set records. Unfortunately, so did the Mizzou defense. In the 72-43 Missouri win, the defense gave up 492 yards. The sad thing is that in the SEC east, it might not matter. There were offensive struggles throughout the division.

     Vanderbilt traveled to Middle Tennessee, and took on the Blue Raiders on the road. In the past few seasons, this is the sort of game that Vanderbilt loses. Instead, they shut down the Raiders, and won 28-6. It was a good start towards getting bowl-eligible for a second year in a row.

     Kentucky also went on the road, to Southern Mississippi. Kentucky had one of the better offenses in the East, last season. In Hattiesburg, that wasn’t the case. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s bunch looked lost at times, and made mistake after mistake. Fortunately for the Wildcats, the Golden Eagles made even more mistakes, and Kentucky survived, 24-17.

     South Carolina traveled to Charlotte, and took on a North Carolina State Wolfpack team everyone had marked as an ACC contender, this season. Under second year coach Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks refused to go quietly. Despite being outplayed by a Wolfpack offense that had twice as many yards, South Carolina made fewer mistakes, and hung on for a big 35-28 win.

     Georgia hosted Appalachian State, and sleep-walked through the first bit of it, going three and out on their first three possessions. Then, starting quarterback Jacob Eason was lost to injury, and the Bulldogs rolled over in their sleep enough to put away a 31-10 win. Here’s hoping that they wake up enough to show up for a big game against Notre Dame in South Bend, this Saturday.

     Speaking of sleep-walking, Tennessee did the same thing in Atlanta, Labor Day night against Georgia Tech. Georgia Tech had a big 21-7 lead in the 3rd quarter, and had thoroughly outplayed the Vols. Then, neither team could play defense in the 4th quarter. Tennessee stormed back, and Georgia Tech blew several chances to put the game out of reach. In the bottom of the second overtime, the Yellow Jackets tried to end the game with a 2 point conversion, and failed. Tennessee survived, 42-41. Tennessee gave up 535 rushing yards to the Jackets.

     The worst performance of the week for the SEC had to go to Florida, who was thoroughly dismantled 33-17 by the Michigan Wolverines, in Arlington, Texas. Florida’s 2 touchdowns were both on interception returns for scores. The offense was beyond awful. It’s hard to believe that 5 years ago, Florida head coach Jim McElwain was a national championship-winning offensive coordinator.

     If Florida was the worst SEC team of the week, Texas A&M was a close second. For more than a half, the Aggies dominated UCLA. The Aggies rolled up 382 rushing yards, and held a 44-10 lead. Then the Aggies gave up 5 unanswered touchdows. The worst of it was that the Aggies kept throwing incomplete passes, generously stopping the clock time and time again for the Bruins. UCLA stormed back and won the game, 45-44. I’m shocked that no one got fired, after that performance!

     LSU played Brigham Young last weekend, in a game hastily moved to the New Orleans Superdome, thanks to bad weather. The LSU defense was dominant, pitching a shutout and holding the Cougars to 97 total yards. We kept hearing that the LSU offense was going to be different this year, opening things up. Instead, it was like Les Miles never left. LSU handed off, and handed off some more, and attempted only 18 passes. Derrius Guice carried the ball 27 times, in a game where the Cougars had no chance to score. I guess the staff learned nothing from beating Leonard Fournette into submission the past few seasons.

     Arkansas kicked off the SEC season on Thursday night, and looked weak early against Florida A&M. Unlike some SEC East teams, Arkansas got it together, and blasted the opposition 49-7 in the end.

     Mississippi State had little trouble with Charleston Southern, roaring to a 49-0 win. Southern managed only 33 total yards.

     For the second year in a row, South Alabama was looking to open the season with an upset over an SEC team. Ole Miss seemed ready to oblige them, for about a half. The Ole Miss passing attack then came alive, and the Rebs pulled away in the second half, winning 47-27.

     Alabama traveled to Atlanta in a big showdown with the Florida State Seminoles, for a defacto national championship elimination game. Alabama’s new-look defense looked just fine, in this one, while FSU’s offense was a no-show. Alabama won comfortably, 24-7.

     This Saturday, we’ll have our usual open thread, and I’ll be doing a full play-by-play at game time. Auburn and Clemson will kick off at 6:00 PM, on ESPN national television.

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