In retrospect, why should anyone have been surprised? Isn't this what we've seen before, time and again?
Tommy Tuberville's teams have three hallmarks. They're usually talented, though that talent is often unevenly distributed. As a general rule, they're well-disciplined, and when they play well, they play very well indeed. Finally, they tend to get blown out two or three times a season, seemingly at random, but usually by teams that are objectively not much better--if at all--than Tuberville's own squad.
Looking over the modern history of Auburn football, the big losses during Tuberville's tenure leap off the page. Outside of the tumultuous years of 1991-92 and 1998, neither Pat Dye nor even Terry Bowden had a habit of losing by lopsided scores when they had the talent to play straight up with their opposition. By contrast, Tuberville has now lost comparable (or better) talent games by large margins eight times in the last two and a half seasons alone.
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Oddly enough, LSU's Nick Saban has very similar tendencies. The flip-flop scores of the last two years are not a coincidence; they're a window on the strengths and weaknesses of the two opposing coaching staffs. Saban's recurring problem is staff turnover and general dissatisfaction among his assistants. Tuberville's is much the opposite, giving too much reign to underperforming coaches, and placing too much faith in his own personal relationships at the cost of getting the best people for the job. Two extremes, with the end results pretty much the same.
I could go through the litany of everything that went wrong in Baton Rouge Saturday night--the offensive line couldn't block anybody, Jason Campbell couldn't find a receiver more than five yards downfield, the defense never figured out that quick screen pass, an inexperienced secondary was exposed again, and the kicking game was just this side of horrendous--but at this point, the details are almost superfluous. The team wasn't ready to play, and their coaches couldn't handle it when the game plan fell apart. Everything else, as they say, is commentary.
There's a reason why Auburn often looks great on offense in the first half and barely mobile in the second: the script. Hugh Nall and Steve Ensminger spend game week preparing a fairly rigid offensive plan, and when it works (see Tennessee and Arkansas), it's very effective, at least for the first two quarters. During halftime, a worth-his-salt defensive coordinator usually adjusts to whatever Nallsminger are doing differently that week, and unless the other team has up and quit, the Tigers struggle offensively for the rest of the game.
Saturday night was the same story, only on fast-forward. When LSU jumped out to a quick start, they turned Auburn's carefully-scripted offensive plan into so much useless paper. The now-familiar pattern reemerged as Ensminger went into random-play panic mode, and the game was effectively over by the time the second quarter started.
The combination of Ensminger's scattershot play calling and Campbell's general loss of composure--helped not at all by a breakdown in blocking that led to four sacks and crippled the running game--were beyond frustrating to watch. The game for Auburn was neatly encapsulated by Campbell's hopeless attempt to call an audible on fourth-and-short in the first quarter, with only five seconds left on the play clock. Nobody, probably not even the center, could hear the audible, the line took off basically at random, and Carnell Williams was stuffed as soon as he touched the ball. Horrible decision making; you don't call an audible in that situation, you call a time out and get your act together. A fourth-year junior should have known as much.
Campbell never noticed wide-open receivers downfield on several occasions, and the receivers that he did see were on too-short routes on what seemed like every third-and-long play. Coaches, why do you bother to call a slow-developing three-yard pass on third and seven? With no blocking for the receiver? What's the point?
Sadly, Campbell just hasn't developed as a quarterback, due in no small part to the bush-league coaching he's received for three-fourths of his Auburn career. After blossoming last year under Bobby Petrino, his play has actually gone backwards in 2003. Without competent help, it's hard to see how he's going to be much better in his senior season.
Obviously, the defense didn't do the offense any favors this time around. This was easily the worst showing of the year for the Tiger defenders, who were out of position, over-pursuing, and breaking out of coverage in a pretty fair imitation of the slipshod showings of late 2001. The kicking game was even worse, with missed field goals, horrible coverage, and devastating fumbles on punt returns. I'm as big a Tre Smith fan as you're likely to find in Auburndom, but when the guy loses the ball four times in two games, it's time to sit him down for a while--and Tuberville should have realized that after the first dropped ball last Saturday.
So, here we go again. The team will now hunker down for a while, probably annihilate a lousy homecoming opponent, then try to salvage the season with a trio of big conference games. Frankly, none of the potential final records would surprise me, from 3-0 to 0-3. If this team follows form, they'll probably win a couple and lose another, and the loss likely won't be close.
Seven weeks ago in this space, I called for Auburn to make a change at head coach. I haven't harped on the subject since then, partly because I believe in giving credit where it's due, and partly because I'm not organizing a crusade here. Hollering "fire the coach" every week isn't just counter-productive, it's tiresome for both the reader and the writer.
That said, Saturday's collapse was another reminder to me of why I made the point in the first place. I made it because I don't see any reason to believe that things are going to change significantly as long as Tommy Tuberville is the head coach. I don't want the guy strung up in front of Samford Hall, I don't want to see him out of work with his children sold into bondage. I just want to see an Auburn team that doesn't get embarrassed on the field two or three times a season.
According to an old proverb, one definition of "insanity" is, "doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result." At this point, there's no reason to expect different results from Tuberville-coached teams. They'll do very well for the most part, and very, very badly a few times a year.
That's just not good enough.
Editor's Note: Third-generation Auburn graduate Will Collier is the co-author of "The Uncivil War: Alabama vs. Auburn 1981-1994." He currently lives in Atlanta, where he works as an engineer on the F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter. Will writes a regular (actually, somewhat irregular of late) column on his own web site, willcollier.com, and is currently plotting a sequel to "The Uncivil War" with his partner in crime, sportswriter Scott Brown.
Copyright © 2003 by William B. Collier, III. All rights reserved.