Sunday, April 8, 2018

Auburn Basketball 2017-2018: OUT OF THE ASHES WE RISE

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its own fiery demise the 2017-18 Auburn basketball team rose... from the ashes of its own fiery demise to win the SEC regular season championship.  It is still simply unbelievable to me.  The last time I wrote about Auburn basketball was on September 26th when Chuck Person, the greatest player in Auburn basketball history and former top assistant coach, was charged with corruption in a sworn complaint from the FBI and arrested on federal charges.  I wrote how dark a day it was for Auburn and opined that this was the death knell for the program.  Bruce Pearl was our last chance and it seemed like it was over for him and the team when his top assistant was arrested and his two best players were suspended.  I saw Pearl's first presser of the season right after this and it was like the life had indeed gone out of him.  It certainly looked like a fiery demise for a season and a program...

Things looked even worse after the team's first exhibition game:
"Auburn will enter the regular season facing even more questions than the uncertain futures of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy and FBI investigation into assistant coach Chuck Person after losing an exhibition to a Division-II opponent.  Barry, the No. 12 ranked Division II team, rallied to a 100-95 overtime win over Auburn before a sparse, unenthused and eventually stunned announced crowd of 6,374 at Auburn Arena on Thursday.

A day that began with Auburn announcing Wiley and Purifoy are out indefinitely due to "potential eligibility issues" in connection with the federal corruption case against Person ended with Auburn losing an exhibition to a D-II team for the first time since Nov. 8, 2010 (54-52 vs. Columbus State) under former coach Tony Barbee."

I already thought it was over for the program and when I saw this I knew it was over.  IT WAS OVER.  Auburn coach Bruce Pearl did not agree and though nobody would believe him at the time, he prophesied that this team was not done:
"I'd be optimistic," the fourth-year Auburn coach said. "We have a good team. We lost to a good team. I think they've got reason to be optimistic because we've got a lot of weapons. We've got good depth.  I can just tell you that, I'd say about half the roster didn't play as well as they typically play. We had four or five guys that did not play well - that doesn't happen very often. I think that contributes a lot. Certainly, Danjel and Austin are two of our top three players, but we've got enough right now without them to still be able to win. I'm not discouraged."

"I'd be optimistic", "We have a good team", "I'm not discouraged"...  I think he believed it when he said it because of how he led the team through the rest of the season.  It is simply one of the most incredible jobs of coaching I have ever seen in any sport.  The Tigers would get a couple of insignificant wins after losing to Barry and then lose to Temple.  It again looked just like any another horrible basketball season of which Auburn's history is full.  Auburn lost to Temple on November 17 and that is when it started.  The team came together and would not lose again for two full months. 

I am not sure when I noticed something different about this team.  Let there be no doubt I had completely given up on them and this program and I had better things to do with my time than watch another bad Auburn basketball team.  However I still would see the scores roll in.  I noticed the Tigers beat two very good mid-major programs in Dayton and George Mason but I pretty much just raised an eyebrow and not much more.  Auburn then destroyed UConn at home and that elicited from me a pretty good "huh..." but again not much more.  I think it was in the SEC opener that this team demanded to be noticed.

Auburn travelled to Tennessee to open the 2018 conference season.  Auburn had not won in Knoxville in almost 20 years in hoops.  I am sure it had been much longer since the Tigers had beaten a ranked Vols team over there if ever.  Auburn would beat the Vols 94-84 on their own home court.  No one could possibly know that this game turned out to be the SEC regular season championship game.  I mean WOW.  Looking back this win was probably Auburn's biggest of the season.  This win would give them the tie-breaker over the Vols at the end of the season and the #1 seed in the SEC tournament.  They would award the Vols a "share" of the title but there can be only one #1 seed and Auburn was it. 

This was definitely when I had to start re-thinking every thing I had assumed about this team.  I mean beating a good Tennessee team on the road???  I did not think we would win on the road all season!  The Tigers followed that up by beating a ranked Arkansas team at home.  I think everyone who followed the basketball team at all was wondering what was up.  Auburn would then beat both Mississippi schools including State on the road to bring their winning streak to 14 games.  The Tigers would then lose a close one in Tuscaloosa and that was where I regressed and went back to being doubtful of whether Auburn would have a winning record in conference since it had not happened in 17 YEARS (!!!). 

The Tigers would then rip off another five game winning streak including two more road wins to go to 9-1 in the SEC.  There was no doubt now, this team was for real however I still could not see a championship.  It was just not possible.  There was no way the worst program in the SEC (record-wise in conference since 1992) that had their historic best player and top assistant get arrested by the FBI and had their top two players suspended for the season could win an SEC title.  NO WAY.  Auburn then lost their only home game of the season by one point to Texas A&M and the Tennessee Vols were gaining ground.  There were also dates with big bad Kentucky and Bama on the horizon. 

The Tigers won on the road again in Athens to set up a huge game against Kentucky.  Yes Kentucky was down a bit but they are always very good (they would win the SEC tournament AGAIN this season) and Auburn almost never beats them.  Auburn's greatest basketball team ever in 1999 lost twice to Kentucky.  Kentucky just assumes wins over Auburn.  They also matched up good against the Tigers since they were so tall.  I sat down to finally watch a full Auburn basketball game for the first time all season.  I had watched parts of games but still had not treated one like a football game.  On top of all that Auburn had moved into the top 10 for the first time since 2000.

The Auburn Tigers defeated Kentucky soundly 76-66.  The Tigers stood up to a huge Wildcat run in the second half where their height seemed to really be getting to Auburn and they took the lead.  I, of course, was like here we go again... but the Tigers fought back outhustling Kentucky and hitting big shots.  Coach Pearl would say: "Our conditioning, our toughness, our resilience, our grit. It's why we won the game...".  It was so true.  These guys were amazing.  Auburn was definitely the smallest team in the top 10 but they just continued to overcome that game after game.  There was a chemistry, a togetherness, a "oneness" between these guys that all great teams share.  Considering everything they were up against, it was simply amazing.

Jared Harper led the team at point guard.  He is undersized and can still take an ill-advised three but his improvement from last season to the team's leader on the court this season was simply phenomenal.  Bryce Brown was simply amazing at shooting guard.  He blossomed into one of the best shooters in the country and man he hit so many big shots during the season.  Mustapha Heron, Auburn's first five star recruit ever and the only constant last season, also raised his game this season and helped the team in all aspects of the game.  He scored, he rebounded, he defended, etc...  He announced this week he is headed to the NBA and I wish him all the luck in the world.  He did it the right way.  He gave his heart and soul to the team and the program for two years and was one of the biggest reasons Auburn won a basketball conference championship.

Around these guys so many other players stepped up and played huge roles.  There was Anfernee McLemore, Horace Spencer, Desean Murray and Malik Dunbar plus freshmen Davion Mitchell and Chuma Okeke.  These guys bought in, accepted their roles and did the dirty work to help win these games.  On top of that they each rose up and played huge roles in winning several games.  When the team was behind and things looked bad, someone would step up, make a play and bring a spark.  You just do not see teams like this very much.  The big dog programs usually always win in the end, not a gutty bunch like this.  Of course behind these guys was Coach Bruce Pearl and his assistants working their butts off and encouraging the team.  It is certainly the greatest coaching job in Auburn basketball history in my opinion.

One of the things that Coach Pearl was doing came to light on a great SportsCenter spotlight on the team late in the season.  Evidently a writer for CBSSports.com predicted that Auburn would go 4-14 in conference.  I certainly cannot blame him, I would have predicted about the same thing.  However Coach Pearl used it as a motivation tool for the team.  He created a shirt with a big "4-14" on it and he wore it first before Auburn's huge upset of Tennessee in Knoxville and then the players took turns wearing it before each game.  I am simply amazed that Bruce Pearl after a pretty long career where he made some mistakes and sure took some tough turns is able to stay so positive and dig in and work so hard to save this team and program.  It is not just the coaching, it is the honest interviews with the media and rallying the fans especially the students. 

Early in the season Pearl bought pizzas for students outside waiting to get in to a game.  He and the team also went out after a big early season conference win at home to thank fans leaving the arena.  The guy is not simply coasting into retirement (i.e. Cliff Ellis) but putting his heart and soul into this program.  There is simply no other way to explain it.  There is simply no way Auburn could "luck" their way into winning an SEC title in basketball.  It takes talent, coaching and great play from all over the team over the long haul.  For a team that had this much going against it, it takes even more from the coaches and the players. 

If ANYONE thinks I am hitting the hyperbole meter a bit too hard, I would say that YOU do not know Auburn basketball.  PLEASE read my posts in the timeline I lay out HEREAuburn is the WORST program record-wise in the SEC since 1992.  Before this season Auburn had only won 34 conference basketball games SINCE 2010.  Before this season Auburn had only only three winning conference records in TWENTY FIVE YEARS.  Bruce Pearl who we knew was a great coach then came in and had Auburn's first back-to-back twenty LOSS seasons.  The Tigers then lost to an historically bad Missouri team in the first round of the SEC tournament last season.  It sure looked like that as good a coach as Pearl was that NOBODY could save this program... till this magical season.

I paused in my season summary with the Kentucky win.  It was such a big win but Auburn still had a long way to go to win a title and it got even longer just a few days later.  The Tigers travelled to South Carolina where the Gamecocks put a complete beat down on them.  On top of that, Anfernee McLemore went down with a gruesome leg injury.  He was out for the season with a broken leg.  I hate when coaches and the media overblow injuries but in this case it was not hot air.  McLemore had turned into one of the team's leaders and was one of the only tall players in the playing rotation.  He led the SEC in blocks (!!!) and was a key offensive and defensive player.  You could tell this one hurt and bad. 

And of course it had to happen before the biggest home game of the season... Bama was coming to Auburn and the Tigers simply had to win if they were going to have a chance to win the SEC.  It had become real clear before the Kentucky game to everyone looking ahead that Auburn was probably not going to win any more road games.  They had three left in South Carolina, Florida and Arkansas and even with things going so good those are very tough spots to win in.  We were right too because Auburn did not win any of those games.  The Tigers simply had to win their home games but after McLemore went down that task got more difficult. 

It sure looked bad with the talented Crimson Tide coming to town.  Bama underperformed much of the season but as they showed at times in the season and in the SEC tournament they have a ton of talent that can come alive.  Also, Auburn not only had an SEC championship on the line but a season on the line.  Bama can lie and alibi how great a season is without beating their main rival (like this season in football) but we know the truth.  I will freely admit that no matter how good this basketball season was, it would not be near as good if we got swept by Bama.  Auburn needed this win in the worst way... and things got EVEN WORSE at game time when it was announced Mustapha Heron had been hospitalized with a stomach virus.  I had an event I had to attend that night and did not hear any of this till I listened to the end of the game on the way home.

I know I would have probably turned it off.  Auburn without McLemore AND Heron trying to beat Bama???!!!???  I am sorry, I love the team and the coaches and they have done a great job all season but again NO WAY they are going to win without those two guys especially Heron.  Well I was wrong again, this amazing team found a way and they not only beat Bama but beat them BAD 90-71.  Jared Harper and Bryce Brown came up big AGAIN.  I mean Brown was on FIRE!!! Chuma Okeke and Malik Dunbar had their best games of the season and everyone chipped in   Coach Pearl put it best again: "It's special beyond compare," Pearl said. "This team is trying to make history. We've got a long way to go. What we're seeing is rare. This combination of grit, determination, resiliency, family, it's all right here. Enjoy this, because it doesn't happen very often."  

No it does not and the crazed students and fans in Auburn Arena enjoyed it to the fullest.  My son is in college and was at this game along with the Kentucky game and the South Carolina game to end the season.  I told him and his friends they were a part of history and like Coach Pearl said, something very rare.  Auburn despite its poor basketball history has had some great seasons but they were mostly in the old Beard Eaves MAUSOLEUM.  They were awesome but there was always a little something missing because of that awful facility.  This season it was so incredible to see the students filling up the place and sitting in the right sections front and center like a real basketball school.  It was never like that in the mausoleum.  Auburn had built its best ever basketball facility in Auburn Arena but this was the first good team to play in it.

If you build it (and I mean the place AND THE TEAM)... THEY WILL COME... and they did!!!  As a student you had to get there about four to six hours before the game to get in.  For regular fans the games were hard sellouts and scalper ticket prices high.  This Auburn basketball team not only brought the program back from the brink but energized a fan base on campus and off that were thirsty for just a good team to come along.  Some of my favorite scenes from this season was seeing the huge Auburn crowd go absolutely berserk at the end of the Kentucky, Bama and South Carolina games especially Bama.  Horace Spencer's late put-back slam brought the house down including Charles Barkley himself going nuts in the stands.

The team found a way to beat Bama and after back-to-back losses on the road they just had to get one more at home against South Carolina to bring home one of the biggest and well earned championships in Auburn's long and storied sports history.  MVP Bryce Brown pulled out of a late season slump to put up almost 30 points and help bring Auburn into the promise land beating the Gamecocks 79-70.  It got tight at the end but the Tigers prevailed and the confetti fell from the rafters.  The team gave everything they had left in the tank to finish this season's long journey to that sacred place. 

I will not soon forget sitting in my car at the old Butler High School in Huntsville before my daughter's soccer game listening to this one end.  I had a tear in my eye as this Auburn basketball team did what I thought could not be done this season.  These Tigers would finally run out of gas and lose badly to Bama in the SEC tournament and then to Clemson in the NCAA tournament but not before they would get one more big win defeating the College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAA tournament with Jared Harper and Bryce Brown hitting big shots one more time to put Auburn over the top. 

I will admit, I got pretty upset after those losses but after taking some time and then writing this post I came to the realization that for this one special season it did not matter.  Look at the last decade of Auburn basketball and how absolutely horrible it has been.  Look at what happened to start this season.  What these guys did...  I will say it one more time, it is just AMAZING.  These basketball Tigers finished 26-8 overall, 13-5 in conference and regular season champs.  They beat Tennessee, the other best team in the conference, on the road.  They beat Kentucky.  They beat Bama.  They were ranked in the top ten during the season and took Auburn back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in fifteen years. 

"The guys wanted to make history," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. "Winning a championship at Auburn means a lot."  "It's unreal. It's so unbelievable right now," said Bryce Brown, who became the 36th Auburn player to reach the 1,000-point mark. "I've got to thank the Lord for everything he's done for me. Knowing where we came from and where we are now, it just feels unreal. I'm so thankful, I'm so blessed."  These guys did make history and this championship means a whole lot.  I think to end this post I will just echo what Bryce said, all of us who witnessed this season also are so thankful and so blessed...

WAR EAGLE.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2018 Peach Bowl Review: DOOMSDAY

Central Florida 34  Auburn 27.  In another amazing exhibition of Malzahn-ball the Auburn Tigers laid another huge egg to start 2018.  Auburn's huge wins over Georgia and Bama at home are not looking near as good after adding two awful performances to end the season to the two awful performances to begin the season.  Auburn won 10 games but lost four in excruciating fashion.  Of course it is a good season but the performances in the losses really make you scratch your head.  The main thread though that runs through all of them is what I have gone over time and time again on this blog and that is Auburn will never have a real passing game under Gus Malzahn.  I am just going to keep referencing my ultimate post after the LSU game this season in the future every time this happens.

Of course now I have to mention that it does not matter how bad Malzahn blows it anymore since we gave him his ridiculous new contract which basically makes him unfireable for a long time.  I will also continue to say I was totally against it.  Malzahn will continue to win more than he loses but he will lose at least three or four games this badly every season.  It is just downright depressing.  I can pretty much predict exactly what is going to happen next season just like the last two.  It is not because I have some unique insight, it is Gus freaking Malzahn!  He is as predictable as it gets and that is also the reason his offenses are just not that good anymore along with not being able to teach any modern passing principles.

THE GOOD
Frankly I cannot glean anything good from this bowl game.  We were mediocre to bad in every phase of the game.  None of the units on either side of the ball played particularly well.  Heck even Daniel Carlson missed a field goal on turf!  You knew it was not going to be a good day after that.  I guess the only good thing I can say is that bowl games outside the playoff are completely meaningless exhibitions.  That would be true if we stomped Central Florida.  This bowl game has no effect on next season.  I have seen Auburn win big bowl games and the next season was terrible and I have seen Auburn get blown out in bowl games and have a great next season.  It just does not matter.  It would have been much more enjoyable to win but it just does not matter either way.

THE BAD
I could elaborate but what is the point?  Stidham made some horrible throws.  Kerryon is still hurt.  We obviously have no other running backs.  The offensive line was terrible.  The receivers had a pretty good day especially Will Hastings but Stidham just made too many mistakes.  The defense was mediocre to bad all day.  I am so tired of hearing about how great Kevin Steele is.  He is a mediocre experienced defensive coordinator who had a very good veteran defense with good leadership and chemistry this season.  It was just a special defense and he was part of it but I do not think we will see one like it again during the Malzahn era.  Even with that said, the last two seasons the Auburn defense has struggled every time they played a good passing team and that continued today.

THE UGLY
I am writing this as the last semi-final game ends.  It is going to be Bama vs. Georgia for the national championship.  It is the DOOMSDAY scenario.  I mean how is this happening in a season WHEN AUBURN BEAT BOTH TEAMS??????!!!!!!?????  Again this could only happen to Auburn.  I mean this entire day in college football has made me physically sick.  We stink it up, Georgia pulls out a miracle and Bama wins big.  I am not sure how much more I can take.  I am fixing to go on a full sports media blackout.  I am going into a vault inside a bunker and am not coming out till I do not have to hear a word about this stupid championship game.  I want to watch the NFL playoffs but I am going to have be on guard. 

THE LAST WORD
I will remember the two big wins from this season but outside of that this is not a great team.  I definitely want to forget many parts of this season but it doesn't matter as it just mixes in with the dozen other horrific Malzahn losses.  It just all looks the same after awhile and now we have many more years of watching this same old shi*.  As I said in a previous post Malzahn should get at least 8 wins next season with the Missippi schools down and with Arkansas and Texas A&M rebuilding plus Tennessee rolling onto the schedule.  He will probably blow one of them though or lose to LSU, lay an egg against Washington to start the season and then of course lose to Georgia and Bama on the road as he has never beat them on the road and probably never will.  But hey I cannot wait to start another season back where this season died in nine months! 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

SEC Championship Review: Down Note

(Authors note: I am late again on post because I actually went to this game and did not get back till late Sunday and then went on business travel, apologies again...)
 
Georgia 28  Auburn 7.  A season turned around by upsetting #1 Georgia and #1 Bama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in November ended on a down note in Atlanta.  Georgia recovered from a bad start to win the SEC Championship convincingly.  I was there to see it in person.  It was tough to watch after the first drive where Auburn scored to go up 7-0 as nothing went right for the Tigers the rest of the game.  The only three drives that did not end in a punt ended in two critical fumbles and a blocked field goal.    The SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Kerryon Johnson, tried to gut it out but was ineffective as was the Auburn offense.  The Georgia defense easily stopped Auburn’s run without a healthy Johnson and then made sure leading receiver Ryan Davis did not beat them.  Auburn had nobody else ready.

It is hard to be unhappy about a 10-3 season that included wins over Georgia and Bama... UNLESS BOTH TEAMS MAKE IT TO THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF ANYWAY.   I mean COME ON.  It is simply unbelievable and could only happen to Auburn. I can understand Georgia since they won the conference championship but Bama?  In the season where the SEC was the worst Power 5 conference?  Bama’s ONLY significant wins were against LSU who got beat by Troy and Mississippi State who lost to a dilapidated Ole Miss team to end the season.  Tennessee, Bama’s other main “rival” finished 0-8 in the SEC, 0-8!!!  I mean are you kidding me???  The college football playoff is a complete joke like the BCS and bowl system before it.

THE GOOD
Again Auburn did finish 10-3, beat Georgia and Bama at home and destroyed every lesser conference team on the schedule outside LSU.  The Tigers had All-SEC players all over the field proving coach Gus Malzahn has been able to recruit in the shadow of big bad Nick $aban and that is pretty impressive.  The Tigers had a top ranked special defense for the first time since the early 90s and has a lot of guys that will play on Sundays.  Quarterback Jarrett Stidham, running back Kerryon Johnson, guard Braden Smith and kicker Daniel Carlson were the best at their position in the conference.  Coach Gus Malzahn obviously did some things right even if his shortcomings were shown in the losses.

Auburn did not lose at home this season.  The magic was back at Jordan Hare and that is always a beautiful thing.  I got to take my whole family to the Ole Miss game.  I got to once again enjoy big wins over Georgia and Bama with my sons.  I got to walk on the field after another epic win over a #1 Bama team.  I got to go to Toomers after both of those wins.  I then got to take my wife to the SEC Championship Game and it was awesome till that first fumble...  Also when you look around the SEC and see Ole Miss under sanctions and half the conference looking for coaches you have to be even more thankful that Auburn is good and relevant.  Auburn also has a good team coming back next season.

THE BAD
I meant everything I said in the last two paragraphs but... good gosh I still hate Auburn’s offense.  Gus Malzahn might have allowed offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to do some plays against his tendencies and throw a few more of his option-style misdirection passes but that is not a long term plan for success.  Auburn will never have an actual passing game under Malzahn.  I have pointed that out many times in this space but since I have to continue to watch it I will continue to point it out.  A simple drop-back pass and read will never be a part of Malzahn’s offense.  Every pass is a misdirection or trick.  Any part of the modern passing game is just not welcome.

It is just excruciating to watch at times.  I am sorry again I REALLY HATE this offense... and now I have to watch it for many more years to come.  I mean when Auburn can run the ball the offense can be devastating but in games where a normal team would have to rely on the passing game Auburn is finished, i.e. Clemson, LSU and Georgia in Atlanta.  Auburn will never win a game through the air while Malzahn is coach.  I hate that.  It is why Malzahn continues to lose the critical games.  I certainly did not want to fire Malzahn or look for another coach but I did not think it would be the end of the world either.  I thought a moderate raise and extension should have been offered and then he could go to Arkansas or not.  I think this good season was built on a special defense that probably will not happen again during the Malzahn era.  I think we will soon be back to 2016.

THE UGLY
Georgia deserved the win in Atlanta.  They came with fire and a good plan on both sides of the ball.  On defense they stacked the line of scrimmage and smothered Ryan Davis and on offense they ran right at Jeff Holland and got the ball to their backs off short passes away from Auburn’s defensive line.  However they also played outright dirty football.  They committed numerous personal fouls including multiple face masks and piling on Kerryon Johnson every chance they got.  They committed so many fouls that the refs called just enough where they kept Auburn in the game long after they should have been out of it.  I have no respect for Kirby Smart or the gutter ball Georgia was playing.  It is just completely unacceptable.   It is sad to say but the Auburn vs. Georgia rivalry is no longer as special and needs to be moved to earlier in the season.

It is just too hard to play two of the top schools in the SEC every year in the last three weeks of the season.  It has killed too many of Auburn’s championship seasons and almost derailed several more.  In this new era of SEC football it has to be changed especially since the home and away rotation is the same as Bama.  It is sad but things just do not stay the same except of course for the “sacred cows” of college football always getting ahead.  As a friend told me, just about every team does have to win their conference to get into the playoff but it was not made a requirement so the powers that be can always get Bama, Ohio State, Texas, USC, etc.. in when they want.  It is pathetic and blatantly unfair.  The NFL does not give the Dallas Cowboys a shortcut to the Super Bowl, MLB does not give the Yankees an express ticket to the World Series and likewise no college football team that does not even win their own division should be in a four team playoff.

THE LAST WORD
It is really sad to feel this hollow after this kind of season but I do.  I am sorry but I have to say it again... I HATE THE GUS MALZAHN OFFENSE.  I simply cannot stand watching it.  How in the world have Georgia Tech fans put up with running the archaic triple option offense this long?  It is bad enough watching Gus' Wing-T.  He has done some impressive things but with the caliber of players he has managed to recruit he has also drastically underperformed.  Jarrett Stidham could be a good passing quarterback like Barrett Trotter and Jeremy Johnson before him but if you are not a running quarterback your talent will be wasted.  I wish we would just stop recruiting good drop back quarterbacks so I do not have to watch the waste.  That was another reason 2013 was fun to watch because at that time Nick Marshall was so raw and better at running the football it was the right thing to run the Gus offense.

Luckily for Gus the Mississippi schools are down and Arkansas is starting over.  Ed Orgeron will never be a great coach and I think Jimbo Fisher is way overrated not to mention poor Tennessee rolls onto the schedule next year.  Gus will feast on most of those teams but will lose to Georgia and Bama on the road next season plus lose another head scratcher somewhere else like 2014 and 2016.  Basically again Gus will continue to lose every game that comes down to a passing game.  I guess 8 or 9 wins with losses at Amen Corner is decent but I am sorry I am not looking forward to it.  I am not sure what I am going to write here.  I do not know how I can continue to break down years more of Malzahn games.  I can pretty much predict correctly almost every game we play in.  I went with 9-3 this season but a special defense got us one more win that I expected.  It will not happen again I do not think under Malzahn.  

BONUS BOWL THOUGHTS
Let me get this straight, we get the more "prestigious" bowl spot but we get sent to the Peach Bowl against Central Florida while LSU gets Notre Dame???  LSU has played Notre Dame several times over the last 20 years while Auburn has NEVER played them.  Do I even have to say that regardless of whether they are undefeated or not NOBODY CARES ABOUT PLAYING CENTRAL FLORIDA.  This completely stinks.  How can we get the best non-playoff bowl spot and get stuck playing in Atlanta again against a non-Power 5 team???  I mean it is like my same friend told me, the powers that be may not go out of their way to screw Auburn but they certainly take the opportunity when it presents itself... "Hey guys we have to send one of these teams to play Central Florida... of course Auburn, great idea!". 

It was great beating Georgia and Bama in November but again this season has certainly ended on a down note but hey now we get to watch basketbal... er nevermind.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Game 12 Review: Just BETTER

Auburn 26  Bama 14.  You grow up Auburn, you grow up cheering for the underdog.  You grow really identifying with David in the whole David vs. Goliath story.  It is just part of Auburn.  It still is and always will be and it was still a factor the last three weeks as Auburn was an underdog to both Georgia and Bama.  However last night Auburn was Goliath, Auburn was the stronger team.  It has happened before like in the late 80s and early 2000s but not during the $aban era other than his first year in 2007.  Auburn delivered $aban two absolutely gut-wrenching losses in 2010 and 2013 on great comebacks but last night Auburn was just the better team beating the #1 undefeated 11-0 Crimson Tide.

I have to say I have never seen a year like this or a coach do what Gus Malzahn has done although I have to say this season does closely resemble the 1989 seasonBoth teams were trying to find their indentity early in the season and struggled losing two tough games but flipped that proverbial switch somewhere along the way and finished super strong beating an undefeated Bama team.  However this season does stick out for how bad Auburn looked in their tough early losses.  After the LSU game I could not even imagine this ending.  I am not sure even now knowing all I do about sports how a team could look that bad and then play this good.  It is simply amazing.

I do not take back anything I have wrote about Gus Malzahn.  He has looked that bad the last three seasons and in those early losses this season.  I can only consider the evidence before me and as I wrote after the LSU game, the mountain of evidence was massive against him.  It looks now that the LSU game finally got him to change enough to allow this team to grow and improve and become the team we have seen the last three weeks.  It was not a huge blaring change but a subtle one.  You saw an extra pass here and there, a play against his entrenched tendencies, not going quite as conservative late, etc...  He is still maybe the most stubborn man I have ever come across but evidently blowing that LSU game and the fallout from it finally got through to him.

Gus Malzahn has now completed the test that separates good solid long-term coaches from shooting stars like Gene Chizik and Terry Bowden.  Those coaches were great and the perfect match for one single season but faltered soon after.  Malzahn like Coach Dye and Jordan before him has now had great success, faltered and then built it back up again and is on the cusp of being the second coach in modern Auburn history to win the SEC multiple times.  However let me stop there and say that Auburn will have a big challenge beating a very good Georgia Bulldog team twice in a month.  It will certainly not be easy but man it is going to be a fun week looking forward to the biggest Auburn vs. Georgia game of all-time.  Auburn vs. Georgia for the SEC Championship in Atlanta.  It just does not get any better than that.

My oldest son and I on the field!

THE GOOD
The Auburn fans especially the students have really brought it against Georgia and Bama.  They created a real home field advantage that rattled both teams including Bama's two botched snaps.  Jordan Hare Stadium is usually not included among the loudest toughest stadiums to play in but in these last two big games no stadium has been tougher or louder.  I feel extremely fortunate to have been in the stadium these last two games and soak up this unbelievable atmosphere.  I think the defense is the catalyst.  It is hard to keep that fervor when your defense is bending every drive and the other team is scoring a lot even if your team is winning.  That brings us too...

THE GREAT
I knew the Auburn defense was good early this season.  I commented there was something special about them several times early in the season.  They had chemistry, leadership and energy.  You could just feel it.  They were very good against Georgia but Georgia had a freshmen quarterback playing his first big SEC road game.  The Auburn defense was great against Bama.  They shutdown the Bama juggernaut and the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year in Jalen Hurts.  I has been a long time since an Auburn defense has gone toe-to-toe with a great Bama team and won this decisively.  They held the Tide to 3 for 11 on third downs and shut out them out in the first and fourth quarters.

Also great this day was the Auburn offense.  Quarterback Jarrett Stidham was simply spectacular going 21 for 28 for 237 yards plus rushing for 50 yards and a critical touchdown.  Auburn fans have seen all season the flashes of how good this guy is and he then put it all together at exactly the right time in the biggest game of the season.  He made great throws and he made great decisions on when to throw it away and when to run.  Right now, Jarrett Stidham is the best quarterback in the SEC.  There is also a good argument that Kerryon Johnson is the best running back in the SEC.  He did it all Saturday running the ball, catching the ball and even throwing the ball in the signature play from this great Iron Bowl victory.  It had to have been one of the greater single play calls in Auburn history. 

It was a play that has been three years in the making.  I think Kerryon has been doing the "wildcat" play for Auburn that long and has never thrown the ball out of it.  It was a perfect call, perfect throw and perfect catch.  After that Kerryon continually pounded the Bama defense getting those tough positive yards inside.  He finished with over 100 well earned yards rushing.  He walked off the field injured but as the crowd chanted his name you knew he was still one of the MVPs this day.  Now every Auburn fan out there is hoping Kerryon can play next week, Auburn will certainly need him.  I have to also give a shout out to the new single season catches leader in Auburn history, Ryan Davis.  His 11 receptions in this game are Auburn's Iron Bowl record and with 69 catches this season, Davis broke Darvin Adams' single-season record of 60 in 2010.

Of course behind every great performance by a quarterback and a running back is a good offensive line playing their guts out.  This Iron Bowl was no different as the Auburn offensive line battled a great Bama defensive line all day and held their own.  It was like I read somewhere else this morning, this was a game played in 4 and 5 yard increments.  There were big plays but the majority of the game was a "mano a mano" battle in the trenches which Bama usually thrives on but Auburn won this day.  To put it in Pat Dye's terms, Auburn was more than "man enough" to take on the Tide.  This was readily apparent on both sides of the ball.  It also shows the one thing Gus Malzahn and his staff has done right the last few years and that is recruiting.  In the shadow of the greatest recruiting machine of all time run by $aban at Bama, Auburn was able to bring this team together.

TOOMERS

THE BAD
I hate to say anything negative after that game but I have to call out the refs.  You cannot do it when you lose or it is sour grapes so I will say it after one of Auburn's bigger wins.  What were these guys doing?  They would not call pass interference even when a guy is getting tackled before the ball gets there.  They call that deflection that hit the ground a touchdown catch for Bama. It was of course reversed but come on that was an easy call.  They then completely mess up the fourth down botched snap play.  Yes Auburn had 12 men on the field but Bama was not set and had multiple people moving.  It was a simple illegal procedure call.  The botched snap and 12 men made no difference because illegal procedure is a dead ball foul.  That is an easy easy call, again what were these guys doing???

THE SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
The Deep South's oldest and best rivalry will now be center stage in the 2017 SEC Championship game.  Auburn and Georgia fans have been waiting a long time for this.  It seemed many times that this would happen but it never has.  I know when this game first started I thought it would happen way before now but finally after 26 games here we are.  It also will be the first one of these in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.  It should be an unbelievable atmosphere and game.  It will be the first to have a playoff spot on the line for both teams.  It is a playoff and championship game for both teams.  I think it will also be the first to feature a rematch of teams less than a month after the first game.

Auburn beat Georgia up pretty good two weeks ago and Georgia made a lot of mistakes.  I certainly expect a much closer game where Georgia cuts down on its mistakes.  The Bulldogs preparation for Georgia Tech will also certainly help against Auburn as well.  There is also the matter of Kerryon Johnson, Auburn would certainly not be as good without him.  That will be the biggest question going into the game.  However Georgia cannot escape one fact, freshman Jake Fromm will have to beat the best defense in the country for the Bulldogs to win.  On the other side, the Georgia defense will have to shut down the best quarterback in the conference.  It is tough to win a rematch but it is also tough to beat this Auburn team right now.  Let the build up begin...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Game 11 Review: The Stage is Set AGAIN

Auburn 42  Louisiana Monroe 14.  Yes, once again this post is late and yes once again it is due to soccer tournaments!   It is hard to cover all these sports in one weekend.  Luckily this game was a snoozer that next to nobody cared about.  It was just a necessary step this weekend for Auburn and Bama to get to this week and the big showdown in the Iron Bowl.  So here we are, for the second time the Iron Bowl will decide the SEC West champion and possibly a lot more.  The stage is set again for another monumental game in this epic rivalry.  While I prefer the Georgia game to this hate fest, there is no getting around how big this game and how great this rivalry is when both teams are good. 

There is really not much to say about the Louisiana Monroe game.  The team was flat and there was probably no avoiding that but everything ended up looking right by the end.  Kerryon turned in another good performance.  Jarrett Stidham despite a few mistakes had a another good day and his favorite targets, Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis, once again did most of the work catching the ball.  The offensive line was solid and well as the defense although watching Jeff Holland go down was simply terrifying.  A couple of other defenders got dinged up as well.  The only casualty right now appears to be Tre' Williams which stinks but hopefully it is not any worse.  That was pretty much the only thing I cared about in this game outside of getting the win was injuries.

Initial thoughts on Iron Bowl... I am a little disturbed from surfing different Auburn sites.  It just seems a lot of Auburn fans seem to think that because of great wins in 2010 and 2013 that some mystical forces are guaranteeing an Auburn win.  It just does not work that way.  Auburn won in 2010 because of a good team and the greatest quarterback in Auburn history.  Auburn won in 2013 because of an incredible playmaking offense and opportunistic defensive and special teams play.  It was not mystical forces.  This year's Auburn offense despite their stat padding against the dregs of the conference is not as good on offense as the 2013 team at that point.  Also other teams now know all of Malzahn's tendencies especially Bama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt who started Malzhan's downfall stopping Auburn's 2013 offense in the second half of the national championship.

The good thing is the defense is miles ahead of the 2013 defense.  However this defense has shown over the past two seasons it is susceptible to the big pass play against good teams.  Auburn has just been lucky not to play many of those.  Jalen Hurts for all his detractors is a playmaker, a lot like Nick Marshall.  He has not lost one game except for the national championship game where the defense let him down as he has put Bama back on top.  The guy is a winner.  I would much rather face Bama's backup.  It is unbelievable the complaining I hear from Bama fans about this guy.  He is on his way to maybe becoming the winningest quarterback in Bama's long and storied history.

Bama's offensive line and running backs are as good or better than Georgia and their wide receivers are better.  The Auburn defense as good as it is will have their work cut out for them.  On the other side, Bama's defense is a little down due to injuries.  However people are also taking this too far.  The Bama defense might not be it's usual juggernaut self but it is still very good.  You also have to look at the Gus Malzahn factor.  People are completely overreacting to the Georgia game.  As I wrote, that was the perfect situation for Auburn and while the offensive coaches called a better game they still made mistakes in the red zone that resulted in field goals not touchdowns.  Auburn feasted on Georgia mistakes to blow the game open.  I do not believe Bama will make those mistakes.

Prediction?  Auburn is good enough to beat Bama at home.  I believe that.  However right now unfortunately if I have to pick I just do not think Malzahn has changed enough to beat Bama.  He is still not balanced enough despite the yardage totals.  Auburn pads those passing stats by making every jet sweep a pass and all the swing passes that are basically runs.  Even in the Georgia game, Jarrett Stidham did not do many straight drop back passes. 

I believe straight passing is the only way to beat Bama outside the rare exception like the 2013 team.  I do not believe all of Auburn's motion and misdirection will work against Bama.  Basically in my gut I still do not believe in Gus Malzahn on offense.  It will take more than the Georgia game to get me to forget the Clemson and LSU games and three seasons of terrible offensive plans and play calling in big games.  I hope I am wrong.  I will be there to find out.  It is time for the IRON BOWL.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Game 10 Review: THE PERFECT STORM

KERRYON JOHNSON
32 carries for 167 yards rushing
2 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown

NICK CHUBB
11 carries for 27 yards
 
Auburn 40  Georgia 17.  My last words on my late last post on Friday were:  "This game really sets up well for Auburn.  The Tigers even with Malzahn are due to play well against Georgia.  Georgia is a running team with a freshmen quarterback coming to Jordan Hare.  AUBURN IS THE UNDERDOG even though they have a very good team.  I mean this is the perfect storm..."  I certainly did not see an Auburn blowout win coming but this really seemed like the perfect situation for the Tigers in a really big game.  That definitely turned out to be the case as the Auburn coaches and players took advantage of this great situation and did their best job of the season and annihilated the Georgia Bulldogs.  This Tiger storm washed away a lot of frustration and heartache against Georgia in one glorious night.  No mater what happens in two weeks this game mattered, a LOT.
 
Where do you start?  I will start with my walk to the stadium.  There were Georgia people everywhere and by time I had reached my seat I had just had enough.  I had enough of stupid losses to inferior Georgia teams the last two seasons.  I had enough of the blowouts to Georgia like in 2014, 2012, 2011, 2007, 2006 and 2003.  I had enough of the close losses like in 2002, 2008 and 2009.  Since blowing out Georgia in 1999, our only wins have been in 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2013.  In the last 17 years, our only two convincing wins were by two of the best teams in Auburn history in 2004 and 2010.  The others were in overtime or on the last play of the game.  I mean we only have six wins in 17 years against these guys, only six!  ENOUGH WAS ENOUGH.  The mantra started weeks ago...  BEAT GEORGIA.  BEAT GEORGIA.  BEAT GEORGIA.
 
The pregame at Jordan Hare was amazing.  It was another one of those rare games where something was in the air, you could feel it.  Georgia was coming in undefeated and #1 in the country.  The flyover was incredible and the eagle soared within 15 feet of my seat.  It was so loud by kickoff...  the stage was set... I was feeling good...  and then Georgia drove it right down our throat for a quick touchdown and 7-0 lead.  I was shocked.  I just did not see that coming.  I did not see Jake Fromm hitting that pass on the first drive.  I knew we were better than that and we were.  Georgia would not score another touchdown till the game was decided.  After that drive the Auburn defense rose up and turned in a performance that will become legend.  They held the #1 Georgia Bulldog rushing attack, the best in the SEC, to 46 YARDS (!!!???!!!), 46 YARDS ON OVER 30 CARRIES. 
 
After that opening drive, the Auburn defense thoroughly dominated the Georgia offense.  The defense also had four sacks and held the Bulldogs under 250 total yards.  It was a thoroughly dominating performance from top to bottom, from the line to the secondary and back.  This defense is a special group.  They have chemistry and leadership.  "The Sensei" Jeff Holland and Marlon Davidson leading the line, DeShaun Davis and Tre Williams leading the linebackers and Tray Matthews and Carlton Davis leading the secondary.  There are a lot more leaders and playmakers I am leaving out on all those units as well.  The guys started the season on fire and have rarely let down.  They certainly did not yesterday and put up their finest performance of the season.  They will give Auburn a chance in two weeks.
 
Auburn just has a unique history of running backs.  Frankly it is amazing.  Through the years they just keep coming, in my lifetime...  Joe Cribbs, James Brooks, Lionel James, Bo Jackson, Brent Fullwood, James Joseph, Stacy Danley, James Bostic, Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Kenny Irons, Ben Tate, Michael Dyer, Tre Mason, Kamryn Pettway and now...  Kerryon Johnson.  You saw the talent the last two seasons but he was held up by freak injuries and Pettway stole the show last season.  This season as people left and Pettway got in trouble and then got hurt it all came down to Kerryon.  Everyone including me kept thinking another injury would get him and that he was just not meant to be the every-down-thirty-carry type running back.  Well we were wrong.  Look at the line for the game:  32 carries for 167 yards rushing plus two catches for 66 yards and a touchdown.
 
Kerryon was amazing.  He is just such a smart player.  He did such a good job selling that he was blocking before flaring out on that last touchdown.  He also does as good a job at reading his blocking as any running back I have ever seen at Auburn.  He followed the Auburn offensive line and they led the way for him dominating in the trenches.  The line did a great job especially considering the constant shuffling having to be done due to injuries.  Jarrett Stidham completes the package with his continual improvement at quarterback.  This guy is good.  He will always be under utilized in the Malzahn offense but he still stands out.  With all the team's success, I have still seen a few "what-ifs" about Sean White the last two seasons.  I do not understand it, a fully healthy Sean White is just not near the quarterback Stidham is.
 
Much of the success for the Tigers this year has been because of the huge upgrade at quarterback.  Stidham just gives that next dimension to the passing game.  He is good on the short and long throws.  He is strong and accurate.  He needs to get a lot faster on his reads but unfortunately he will not learn that under Malzahn.  The coaches obviously called a better game than usual against Georgia.  They absolutely burned the Bulldogs on the two reverse screens for touchdowns.  Those were brilliant calls.  The most glaring error that continues to kill Auburn in the red zone is not throwing on second down.  They continue to wait for third down when they have to pass.  If they want to turn around their touchdown percentage in the red zone, they have to throw early and not wait till third down.  Put the ball in Stidham's hands.  He is your guy.
 
Luckily most of the mistakes were made by Georgia.  The Bulldogs are a very good team but their weak schedule and Auburn's play forced them to make a lot of mistakes.  They looked amazing on the first drive and then the bottom fell out.  Jake Fromm missed a wide open touchdown pass, they committed numerous dumb penalties and turned the ball over on a muffed punt to start the second half.  Their defense held them in it and the Bulldogs had a chance to make it a two point game at the half.  Georgia was in business at the Auburn 26 yard line with 22 seconds left and no timeouts.  The only play especially when you are down is to take two shots in the end zone and then kick the field goal.  Georgia head coach Kirby Smart decided to run up the middle???  That had to be have been one of the dumbest calls I have seen this season. 
 
Georgia missed the field goal after the dumb call and Auburn was up 16-7 at the half.  Jarrett Stidham would take it in for the touchdown to close the drive after Auburn recovered the fumbled punt.  Ryan Davis would take it to the house on the next drive burning an obvious Bulldog blitz.  Kerryon would burn them later over pursuing again.  I then got to watch two of the best signs that maybe Gus Malzahn is changing a little.  They had nothing to do with the game and everything to do with a change of mindset.  First, Gus challenged a generous spot for Georgia late in the game when it was well in hand.  That is a change in mindset.  Next backup quarterback Malik Willis was allowed to pass on last drive of the game with all the subs in.  Those two seemingly insignificant events spoke volumes to me.  I hope they are signs of change.
 
My final thoughts are on the amazing atmosphere before, during and after the game at Jordan Hare.  I have already talked about the pregame and it was amazing but it just kept getting better as the game went on.  The crowd was awesome and the students were incredible.  I have not seen the students that into a game in a long time.  I also loved Auburn bringing back a little "Soulja Boy" as payback for Georgia's little dance party in 2007.  Great job to whoever had that idea.  It has just been so long coming against Georgia that I think everyone enjoyed every minute of it.  Of course there is only one place to go after an Auburn win of this magnitude and that is Toomers.  My Dad, son and myself headed to Toomers immediately following the game and I saw something I have never seen before and I have been to a lot of games.  It seemed the entire stadium was heading to Toomers, everybody!  The scene when you got to Toomers was just as amazing.  The masses seem to cover the entire block as the Auburn family celebrated the biggest win on the plains since the Kick Six.
 
This one is now in the books and again no matter what happens in two weeks, it was a deeply significant win.  However the Iron Bowl is the Iron Bowl and this will be the second one to decide the SEC West Championship.  My early thoughts are Bama is a little bit better than Georgia on offense.  I am not sure they are better on defense but I think they will be coached better.  You would think Kirby Smart knows Gus pretty well but he made some mistakes I do not think Bama will make.  Auburn on the other hand is as good as the Tide and will be at home.  Bama is suffering a bit like Georgia from a ridiculously easy schedule.  Auburn has had some easy ones as well but has been to Clemson and had to travel to Baton Rouge where Bama's close win over Mississippi State was by far its toughest game of the season. It is shaping up to be another great one and I can only hope it all turns out like this win for the ages over a #1 ranked Georgia team.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Game 9 Review: Missing In Action

Auburn 42  Texas A&M 27.  Well everyone I am sorry for this late and pretty much non-existent post.  The boys soccer team I coach had a big tournament this weekend and we won.  It was a tough run as they had to win 4 games over two days this weekend.  It was a lot of fun and I am extremely proud of them but...  I completely missed the Texas A&M game.  I have gone back and watched the highlights and there is no doubt it was a big win and made Amen Corner a playoff once again.  Unfortunately the LSU game just continues to stick in my craw but Auburn still controls their own destiny to get to Atlanta. 

The GOOD is Gus Malzahn's recruiting at Auburn.  Auburn beat Texas A&M because they were a better team.  Jarrett Stidham is a damn good quarterback and he threw some beautiful passes against the Aggies.  He finished 20 of 27 for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns.  That is a great day.  The coaches have gotten off their duffs and thrown a few more passes the last few weeks.  Of course the big test will be this weekend but it was nice to see Stidham in that 25 to 30 pass range.  The offensive line did a great job of protection after a slow start and some changes.  That was the key and it will definitely be a big key this coming weekend.

Kerryon Johnson is also very GOOD and is just a man.  The guy is a playmaker and has come through big for Auburn this season.  He finished with 145 yards rushing plus 5 catches and a touchdown.  He will face his greatest tests the next two weeks and Auburn will be counting on him for some big plays however like I said above, the offensive line will determine a lot of that.  Darius Slayton had 99 yards receiving and Ryan Davis had 80 yards.  These two have become the go-to guys at wide receiver and they too will be pushed to their limit the next two weeks.  They will be bumped, grabbed and simply held a whole bunch against Georgia and Bama.  I hope they are up to it.

The defense did a GOOD job holding the Aggies to under 350 yards.  These guys continue to go to work and keep grinding even though a lot of guys are nicked up.  I think these guys match up well with Georgia.  If Georgia beats us, they will have earned it.  They are very good but they are a run-first team with a freshmen quarterback coming into Jordan Hare.  I look for our defense to make it hard for them.  The only really BAD thing other than a slow start by the offense was the Auburn kickoff coverage team allowing another long return.  The Tigers simply cannot afford to give Georgia or Bama great field position or points on bad special teams play.

The only UGLY thing I have seen this week was this announcement: "(Jay) Jacobs will serve as athletics director emeritus upon his resignation, a title provided to the outgoing athletics director by Leath."  I mean ARE YOU KIDDING ME???  It finally looks like we are going to get rid of this boob but now after the basketball program has died and multiple scandals have blown up they are going to give him ANOTHER JOB AND TITLE???!!!???  Probably more money???  This literally makes me PHYSICALLY SICK.  How much can one person leech off of one institution in a lifetime???  It is just flat out ugly.  The best article I have seen on Jacobs is from Kevin Scarbinsky of al.com.

He absolutely nails it with this quote:  "How will Jacobs the athletics director be remembered? As the smiling, backslapping, down-home, all-about-the-family former football walk-on who wore his faith on his sleeve? Or as a scheming, backstabbing, keep-it-down-home, all-about-himself manipulator whose public professions of faith masked his ability to throw people under the bus to consolidate his own power?"  UM I WILL GO WITH OPTION B!  The guy is a backstabbing, keep-it-down-home, all-about-himself manipulator whose public professions of faith masked his ability to throw people under the bus to consolidate his own power.

Oh well it is time to try and forget Jacobs for a weekend and forget Gus Malzahn and this offense will be back next season.  Auburn has a chance to knockoff #1 Georgia if Malzahn can keep his head out of his ass and just call a half decent game.  Unfortunately after Clemson and LSU this year and the LAST TWO GEORGIA games, I have serious doubts.  However this game really sets up well for Auburn.  The Tigers even with Malzahn are due to play well against Georgia.  Georgia is a running team with a freshmen quarterback coming to Jordan Hare.  AUBURN IS THE UNDERDOG even though have a very good team.  I mean this is the perfect storm...