It was supposed to be the game that a young team plays against a good team, laying groundwork for improvement, especially from Week 1 to Week 2.
Reality check: Mississippi State showed Saturday that Auburn, less than two years removed from a national title, is worse off than any outsider could have imagined in preseason.
The Tigers’ 28-10 loss in Davis Wade Stadium —a performance that even Auburn coach Gene Chizik called “very dismal” —left anyone watching to wonder, where are the linebackers? Also, is Kiehl Frazier really the best answer Auburn has at quarterback?
State’s first victory in the Dan Mullen era over an SEC West Division team not named Ole Miss also left Auburn 0-2, 0-1 SEC and careening toward a 1-4 start, with games against Louisiana-Monroe, third-ranked LSU and No. 8 Arkansas up next.
“There were a lot of things that were very disappointing today,” Chizik said before rattling off the lack of a consistent running game, lack of consistency against the run, more tackling woes and five Frazier turnovers. “We got outplayed, and I’m going to own it, and that’s the bottom line.”
Question is, has this Auburn hit its bottom line?
The Mississippi State game was one the Tigers survived a year ago, en route to an 8-5 season defined by five blowout losses but with enough positives to write the season off.
It was a young team beset by massive personnel losses after a national championship.
It’s a program on reset after a strong senior class finished, leaving behind the results of bad recruiting classes in former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville’s final two years.
No one came into this season expecting Auburn to regain a place among college football’s elite, but there was every reason to expect improvement.
There was reason to expect better than 8-5, Chizik’s record in both full seasons minus Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton, and better showings against the best teams the Tigers play.
The 26-19 loss to Clemson in Atlanta in Week 1 did enough to keep all of those expectations on track, but no one expected a return to ugly losses at, of all places, Mississippi State.
Does anyone remember that 17-game Auburn winning streak that carried two games into the 2011 season? The Tigers are 6-7 since, losing by an average of 23.4 points.
Auburn hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in its last two SEC games and has scored only one in two games with Frazier as its starting quarterback. Onterio McCalebb scored the Tigers’ lone touchdown on a kickoff return Saturday.
And that put Auburn up 10-7 to open the third quarter, but Frazier was on his way to a 5-turnover day. When he wasn’t throwing one of his three interceptions or coughing up one of his two fumbles, he also wasn’t moving the offense.
He finished 13-for-22 for 125 yards after going 1-for-7 for minus-2 yards in the first half.
Chizik and Scot Loeffler, in his first season as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, wouldn’t lay all the blame on Frazier. Loeffler cited issues throughout the passing game —protection from the offensive line and running backs, route running by potential receivers and, yes, inaccuracy by Frazier.
Two of his interceptions came on overthrows as he tried to escape pocket pressure.
The most disturbing trend, however, was play calling on obvious passing downs. Too often, Loeffler conceded, calling read options or other run plays on third down and long.
“It was field position,” he said. “We got stuck down there in a coming-out situation, and whenever you’re not being productive throwing the ball, you don’t want to turn the ball over down there.”
Shaky confidence in his quarterback was part of that answer, and it showed even when Auburn had good field position. Loeffler seemed to call safe pass plays with limited options for Frazier.
Codey Parkey’s 23-yard field goal in the second quarter came after Frazier scrambled right on third down and goal from the State 14, away from the only two potential receivers he had down field. Frazier kept for eight yards.
Auburn’s defense, meanwhile, at least kept the Tigers close for a time. After State mounted a long but fruitless opening possession, the Bulldogs went punt, punt and fumble on its next three tries.
But State scored four touchdowns and missed a field goal over its next seven possessions, becoming the latest team to take advantage of spotty Auburn tackling and hard-to-spot Auburn linebackers.
Tyler Russell’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Green came when the tight end cut uncovered to the inside. Green also went uncovered to the back corner of the end zone on Russell’s 3-yard touchdown pass, off of play action.
Overall, Auburn’s performance hardly showed improvement from the Clemson game in Week 1. If anything, it seems Clemson revealed Auburn’s glaring weaknesses, and the Bulldogs took full advantage.
“We’ve got to improve as a football team, and we will,” Chizik said. “That’s my job. … We’ve got to get better, starting from the top on down.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.