What follows is in no way intended to diminish what the LSU Tigers achieved on Saturday afternoon in their home ballpark. The Bayou Bengals faced a ton of questions entering this season, and they’ve answered them quite well through three weeks. LSU didn’t have the benefit of a warm-up game in week one, yet Les Miles’s group has stacked together SEC West wins to get an early start on the rest of the division. That’s very impressive, and it speaks to the ability of the staff to make adjustments to a new defensive coordinator and a relatively unproven quarterback, Brandon Harris, who is doing what he needs to do to make his team successful.
Full props are in order for LSU, so fans of those Tigers should know they’re not being shortchanged here.
Why is the main story of this game not the homestanding victors, but the discouraged losers from the Alabama Plains? It’s rather simple: You don’t win national championships in September, but you sure can lose them. Auburn, though not officially done and dusted, has exposed itself as a team which is just not ready for prime time. Maybe this team can somehow pull a Missouri-style 180 akin to last season, but barring that, it certainly appears that Auburn is going to be a much worse team than many (though hardly all) pundits expected.
It’s true that Jeremy Johnson was no sure thing entering this season. He had to be great — or at least very good — in order for the rest of the Auburn restoration project to take (War Eagle) flight after the regression witnessed in 2014. His performance in the 2014 opener against Arkansas (when Nick Marshall was disciplined) suggested that he’d be ready for this season, but three weeks in, it’s clear that he isn’t.
There’s not much need to go into exquisite detail about this thumping endured at the hands of LSU. The simple storyline of this game was that Auburn, having endured a wobbly afternoon against Jacksonville State of the FCS, had a chance to show that it was made of sterner stuff in a main-event SEC West throwdown. Auburn wasn’t expected to win this game, but Gus Malzahn’s team was at least supposed to put up a good fight.
After all, in the 2013 SEC season — in which Auburn won the league and came within an eyelash of a national title — the Tigers lost to LSU… but did so honorably. The way Auburn competed in that game, on a night when precision was lacking from the offense, stuck with everyone in that locker room. It was precisely the ability to lose nobly against LSU which in many ways defined that 2013 Auburn team.
On Saturday against the Bayou Bengals, two years later, that same resilience and resourcefulness were conspicuously missing from the picture.
Gus Malzahn was, in many ways, the brains behind the 2010 national championship team, just as he was the source of creative inspiration behind the 2013 SEC champions and national runners-up. His track record at Auburn suggested that he’d be able to get the ship pointed in the right direction once again, but this game shows that he’s not there… and actually, not even close to being there. Jeremy Johnson’s readiness for the season was going to reflect well on Gus, and the Gus Bus’s readiness for the season was going to shape Johnson’s quality of play. Both centerpiece figures have utterly failed, and so on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 20, an Auburn season that could have cut in any of several drastically different directions has taken the worst possible turn.
It might not be a crisis just yet, but if you claimed that it is, you wouldn’t get too much of an argument, which is a statement in itself on the condition of Auburn football.
Again, that’s no slight against LSU; it’s merely a reflection of the belief that Auburn crashing and burning represents the bigger story in September… when seasons aren’t necessarily made, but can certainly spin out of control.
Auburn needs to arrest its tailspin before it’s too late… but the point of no return might already have arrived in Baton Rouge.