ATLANTA --Like campaign speeches and infomercials, first impressions in college football can mislead.
Or distort. OK, or flat-out lie.
So a single game isn't enough to know what to make of the new Auburn Tigers.
But this much seems evident:
Despite Saturday night's 26-19 loss to Clemson, the Brian VanGorder and Scot Loeffler tenure on the Plains began with considerably more promise than did the 2011 season.
You might recall (or might prefer to forget) that the Tigers were pushed around in their own stadium by Utah State. They trailed 21-14 and eventually finished with a wholly unimpressive 42-38 win. That prompted Utah State coach Gary Anderson to assess afterward, "I felt like we were stronger than them. I felt like we were faster than them."
Accurate or not, that was a strong indictment given it was coming from the coach of a middling WAC team. Clemson is a legitimate BCS bowl game contender. And Auburn looked considerably stronger and faster than it did a year ago.
"I saw a lot of positives out there," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. "I'm as disappointed as anybody that we didn't win the game. But our guys fought down to the end."
Yes, Clemson dominated statistically, outgaining Auburn 528 yards on 87 plays to 374 on 64 plays. Much of that came in the first half. Clemson held the advantage in first downs (16-7), total yards (275-192) and total plays (48-27). Even so, Auburn trailed only 13-10.
By the end of the third quarter, it was 16-all. And early in the fourth quarter, Auburn held an improbable lead, 19-16, after Darren Bates' interception set up Cody Parkey's fourth field goal of the night.
But that underscored Auburn's biggest deficiency of the night -- its inability to come up with the big play inside the red zone and punch it in the end zone. Their lone touchdown came on their second offensive possession of the game. Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier connected with Emory Blake for a 54-yard touchdown strike.
Frazier played as you would expect a second-year quarterback playing under his second offensive system to play. He missed reads -- sometimes before the snap, sometimes after - and missed open receivers. But he played with the confidence of a veteran and displayed passing accuracy at times.
"I'm very proud of Kiehl," Chizik said. "When you start your first game at quarterback, there's a lot of pressure you put on yourself. We'll look at the film and find some things he needs to correct, but we feel he'll only get better."
Frazier's final numbers reflected his inconsistency: 11 completions, 27 attempts, 194 yards. But with all due respect to Barrett Trotter, Frazier gives the Tigers hope. He will get better. In time, he will be good. Maybe very good.
A year ago on this same field, a rebuilding Georgia team was embarrassed by Boise State. The Bulldogs, you might recall, returned to the Georgia Dome three months later to play for the SEC championship. A return trip to Atlanta in December is unlikely for Auburn. But that has more to do with how dominant Alabama and LSU are than anything else.
Next week's game at Mississippi State looms large for the Tigers. A victory in Starkville and one the following week in the home opener against Louisiana-Monroe would put them 2-1 and give them hope against LSU. A loss would make surviving September all the more daunting.
"A game like this shows you where you are and how far you have to go," said Chizik. "And we have a long way to go."
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.