In retrospect, maybe it was asking a bit too much of these Auburn Tigers.
Beating Oregon on a neutral field or a nice road win over against a decent Texas A&M team, or even boat-racing a middling Mississippi State at home all were nice accomplishments.
But facing an improving Florida team at The Swamp with a freshman quarterback, well, maybe that was a bit much.
Auburn’s 24-13 loss to the Gators may have wrecked the Tigers’ dreams of earning a College Football Playoff spot. But maybe such a dream never was that realistic to start with. Not with three more opponents that are probably better than the Gators — LSU, Georgia and Alabama — on the back end of the schedule.
“I told the guys, they’re disappointed and we should be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Big picture, you look at the schedule, 5-1. We have a break. It’s a good time to have a break. We need to get some stuff corrected. We’re going to. This team will respond. We’ve got a bunch of champions in that locker room. They’re going to respond. We have this week off and we’ll make a run at it in the second half.”
For the most part, it was Auburn’s inability to sustain any offense that kept the Tigers from winning. They had a third as many turnovers (four) as first downs (12). Six of their 18 possessions were three-and-out. Five times they failed to convert on third-and-2 or shorter.
“That’s usually our bread and butter,” Malzahn said.
But the Gators won the line of scrimmage on critical downs. Some of that was unimaginative play-calling by Malzahn.
Anthony Schwartz is one of the fastest players in college football — he will tell you THE fastest — and he touched the ball one time, a four-yard loss on a jet sweep off an alleged trick formation.
The coaches had put in some running packages for backup quarterback Joey Gatewood but they left them on the sidelines.
Instead, they rode the back of Boobee Whitlow and freshman quarterback Bo Nix, who for the first time seemed rattled.
Even Malzahn himself second-guessed those decisions.
They started four of their first eight possessions in Florida territory, which ended up accounting for all of their scoring. When forced to drive the length of the field, they sputtered.
“We just didn’t get it done offensively,” Malzahn said. “That starts with me. I’ve gotta do a better job of preparing the guys and having our guys ready. Really, if you look at the game, offensively we weren’t able to get anything going, specifically the running game in the first half ... They’re a good team. The environment, the crowd really did get to us. It surprised me. I don’t know how many false starts we had.”
As stagnant as the offense was, the defense was not above reproach. They gave up two long touchdowns. The first was a 64-yard pass from Kyle Trask to Freddie Swain on a busted coverage and missed tackle on Florida’s second offensive snap of the game. The second was an 88-yard touchdown run by Lamical Perine late in the fourth quarter that effectively put the game away.
Even so, not all hope is lost. Two years ago, the Tigers lost to LSU in October. A month later, they were one win away from making the playoff. The 2013 season had a similar pattern. A crushing road loss to LSU seemed to wreck their championship hopes. They ran the table from that point on and nearly won the national championship.
“We’re still in full control of our destiny and everything we want to do,” said defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who provided a spark and a few laughs when he scooped up a fumble and rumbled down the field before gravity prevailed. “At the end of the day, it’s just a loss. It’s not one you want to take, but you have to look at it from the whole aspect of everything.”
Whether this team can write a similar script remains to be seen. It’s too early to count them out just yet.