When Auburn went up 24-7 in the 3rd quarter against Ole Miss yesterday on Walt McFadden's insane pick six, I texted my friend that the game was much more fun than any of the previous three. He accused me of potentially jinxing it (about the time Ben Tate ran half the field for a touchdown and a 24-point lead), but I knew that might be the case. I wasn't afraid of a jinx because even if we had blown the game and lost, it was still more enjoyable than the previous three weekends. The offense returned to ludicrous speed, Todd threw some deep balls, and the defense showed up in a big way. That seemed like a game from the 5-0 Auburn, for sure.
However, I feel (along with some of my Auburn brethren, I'm sure) a little frustrated by the game. Had we played like that during our three week swoon, we could be 7-2 or 8-1 right now with our sights firmly on a New Year's Day Bowl and possibly in control of our destiny in the SEC West. So what changed from the first five games to those three to the Ole Miss game? I am pinpointing it on one thing: offensive tempo.
During our statement 26-22 victory in Knoxville, I noticed that the offense was running at a slower pace than we had seen in the first four weeks, but I attributed that to the fact we were playing on the road for the first time, in a loud stadium. We needed to get more signals from the sideline presnap in order to get into a positive play. However, we continued to employ this strategy more and more in the next three games and it bit us.
What we saw yesterday was a return to Malzahn's preferred ludicrous speed. We actually got a delay of game penalty called because we snapped the ball too soon. I have never seen that in my 20 years of watching football games. Gustav was running the offense the way he originally envisioned, and it worked. We scored more points, gained more yards, and wore down Ole Miss' defense. It certainly was a 5-0 Auburn-esque performance. So that leads to the question, "Why did we slow it down so much?" And I think the answer is simple: lack of depth on defense.
Auburn's depth issues (especially on defense) have been well-chronicled this season. When you run an offense that tries to score in as little time as possible, that wears on a defense, and a defense whose depth chart probably has the team waterboy as 2nd string in a few positions is a scary thing to have wear down. I imagine that Chizik and company looked at the defense and injury reports and decided as a team to tone down the offense. Seeing the on-field results for the previous three weeks, however, Chizik decided to go back to what worked, knowing he would be risking giving up tons of points and yards on defense, and it was a gamble that paid off. I would wager that we see the offensive tempo we saw from 5-0 Auburn the rest of the season because it worked out well against Ole Miss, and we are at a point in the season where every team has guys banged up and worn down players.
What more did the Ole Miss win do for Auburn's program? Well, for one, we're bowl eligible, and in the running for an upper-tier bowl. In ESPN.com's most recent Bowl Projections, both Mark Schlabach and Bruce Feldman pick Auburn to represent the SEC in the Outback Bowl against Wisconsin (Another bowl game against the Badgers? Be still, my beating heart!). If we end up at 7-5 or 8-4 with a New Year's Day bowl game, the 2009 season can be labeled nothing less than an unequivocal success for Gene Chizik and his coaching staff. The three-game losing streak left some sour taste in Auburn fans' mouths (self included), but Mean Gene and company have done a fine job with our Tigers this season. War Eagle!