Auburn’s Stealth Football … Didn’t See It Coming

Lyn Scarbrough

October 15, 2018 at 12:06 pm.

Oct 13, 2018; Auburn, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers running back Ty Chandler (8) runs behind the block of receiver Jauan Jennings (15) during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 13, 2018; Auburn, AL, USA; Tennessee Volunteers running back Ty Chandler (8) runs behind the block of receiver Jauan Jennings (15) during the first quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Photo Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Definition of the adjective “Stealth” … “designed to make detection difficult.”

Fans in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday for the Auburn-Tennessee game were treated to two major surprises, things seldom seen, totally unexpected and gone again really fast.

Just before kickoff, a B-2 Stealth bomber streaked over the stadium as the Auburn band was on the field finishing the national anthem. The crowd roared its approval, in awe of the power. Then, the B-2 streaked off into the distance at a speed hard to believe.

Not long after kickoff, the stealth Auburn offense, seldom seen this season and certainly unexpected, streaked across Pat Dye Field, going over, around and through the Tennessee defense, scoring a touchdown. Again, the crowd roared its approval.

The next time with the ball, the Tiger offense did it again, driving to first and goal at the Tennessee 3-yard line. Then, just like the B-2, it was gone again at a speed hard to believe.

With the exception of one brief stealth-like streak by freshman wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, the Auburn offense, joined most of the game by the quickly-becoming stealth Tiger defense, played embarrassing, frustrating, disappointing football, losing to the Volunteers, 30-24.

In case you didn’t see the game, don’t let numbers confuse you. Sure, the winning margin was only six points. Auburn led in first downs, 22-16, and in total offense, 448-396. Tennessee rushed for only 68 yards, averaging just 1.9 yards per carry.

But, make no mistake. It was a thorough, convincing, devastating loss for Auburn, a game-changer, a season-changer. Could it end up being a program-changer?

When sportswriters primarily cover one team, they may tend to give the benefit of the doubt a little longer, point out the positive as much as the negative, look for a silver lining. It’s a lot more fun to write about good things.

But after what happened in Auburn on Saturday, it’s not possible to do that regarding the Tigers and maintain any credibility.

Start with the Tennessee game, standing alone.

Auburn lost to a Volunteer team that had lost 11 consecutive Southeastern Conference games. The last Tennessee win over an SEC team had been mid-November 2016.

Auburn had won six in a row in the head-to-head match-up. The last time Tennessee defeated the Tigers was the first Saturday in October, 1999 … 19 years ago.

Tennessee had lost three games this season … West Virginia, Florida, Georgia … ironically all by dominating 26-point margins. In those three games combined, the Vols were successful on just 15 of 42 third-down conversion attempts. Against Auburn, they converted 10 of 19 attempts, including six when facing 3rd-and-8 or longer. For the game on third down completions, Tennessee averaged more than 17 yards per pass.

If the Tennessee game could be viewed alone, it would be bad enough. But, it can’t be.

While the B-2 bomber is not publicized for obvious reasons, that wasn’t the case for this Auburn football team. National media, including Lindy’s, ranked the Tigers in the preseason Top 10. We ranked their defensive line third best in the country, their linebackers second best nationally, and junior Jarrett Stidham the fourth best quarterback in college football.

Head coach, Gus Malzahn, told people that this could be an unusually good season for Auburn.

“I really like our team,” he said at SEC Media Days in Atlanta. “Our staff continuity, our staff chemistry is very strong. And to have both of our coordinators back with the majority of our players coming back is a very good feeling going into this year.”

Not sure Malzahn or any Auburn football followers share those “very good” feelings today.

The high-speed crash of the season didn’t begin this past Saturday. It started stealth-like after the first two games.

Auburn defeated highly-ranked Washington, then crushed in-state rival Alabama State. The collapse started in the second half against LSU when Auburn, with an 11-point lead, lost on a last-second field goal. Tiger fans could rationalize that loss since it took a phantom pass interference call to put LSU in position to kick the winner.

After lackadaisical wins over Arkansas and Southern Miss, Auburn lost to a Mississippi State team that was 0-2 in the SEC and on the brink of its own season collapse. But that one could be explained by the Tigers’ unforced errors … a certain score lost by an overthrown pass, a fumble that cost a touchdown, a blocked field goal attempt that yielded no points, a dropped pass near the goal line.

After Starkville, Auburn fans were promised improvement. Instead, against Tennessee, they got more of the same. Another certain scoring pass overthrown. Another lost fumble that cost a touchdown. Another blocked field goal attempt that produced nothing. If anything this was worse; it was at home against an opponent not as good.

The Tigers’ problems are many and major.

Stidham is not the quarterback he was last season. Overthrown passes. Poor decisions. Carelessness with the ball. The offensive line … poor pass blocking, poor run blocking … just isn’t very good. The defense, supposedly the team’s strength, has gotten consistently worse … poor tackling, getting beaten on the corners, defensive backs seemingly unable to find the ball. And, from the coaching staff – predictable play calls, ineffective schemes, a lot of words without any results.

Other than losing three games, Auburn has already lost national prestige, fan enthusiasm, player confidence – and is on the verge of losing bowl eligibility.

A realistic look ahead at the Auburn schedule:

Ole Miss, Oct. 20 – The Rebels beat Arkansas on the road last week with quarterback Jordan Ta’amu gaining 527 yards total offense by himself (387 passing, 147 rushing). Three games ago, Auburn beat Arkansas at home, gaining just 225 total yards as a team. Against the Tigers, Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald ran for 195 yards; Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano passed for 328 yards. Ta’amu, who does both, is next. If things don’t drastically and quickly change, does Ole Miss sound like an Auburn win?

Texas A&M, Nov. 3 – The Aggies barely lost to No. 2 Clemson, 28-26, then scored 23 points and gained 393 total yards in Tuscaloosa. Kellen Mond threw for 353 yards in the win at South Carolina last week. A&M has never lost to Auburn at Jordan-Hare and there’s no reason to think that string will be broken now.

If those two games are lost, Auburn will have dropped four consecutive games to teams with first-year full-time head coaches (Moorhead in Starkville, Pruitt in Knoxville, Luke in Oxford, Fisher in College Station).

Georgia, Nov. 10 – Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger. Auburn has not won in Athens since 2005.

Liberty, Nov. 17 – In its first season at the FBS level, the Flames (3-3) massacred Old Dominion on the road, 52-10. That’s the same ODU team that outscored nationally ranked Virginia Tech in the fourth quarter, 28-0, in one of the biggest upsets this season.

Alabama, Nov. 24 – After Auburn’s comfortable division-clinching win last season, imagine what this one could be.

Auburn must win two of those remaining five games to become bowl eligible. If that doesn’t happen, a team that was 4-1 and ranked No. 8 just three weeks ago, will end up spending the holidays at home.

This could end up being one of the most embarrassing, frustrating, disappointing and underachieving seasons in Auburn’s long, proud football history. And, with a 4-8 record or 5-7 or even 6-6, who knows what the short-term or long-term future for Auburn football will be?

Still looking ahead, Auburn’s first regular-season basketball game is Tuesday, Nov. 6 and Bruce Pearl had four 5-star prospects in town last weekend. Tiger fans will want to circle that date on the calendar.

Auburn basketball is ranked in some of the preseason Top 10 polls and no stealth bomber will be flying over the arena.