Auburn football: The good and bad of a 21-day layoff
The 2nd week of November has officially been the week from Hell for college football, and more specifically, the SEC. What was previously a full slate of 7 games was quickly diminished to just 3 involving a single ranked team. Halloween parties remain undefeated.
Coincidentally enough, Halloween afternoon was also the last time Auburn suited up for a football game. It was the Tigers’ most complete game to date, a resounding beatdown of the shell of a former national champion. Paired with a tight win over Ole Miss the week prior, Gus Malzahn’s team was full speed ahead going into the season’s final 4-game stretch.
Early last week as Auburn was preparing to play Mississippi State, 10 players tested positive for COVID-19, the first positive tests for the program since September, and called into question the viability of fielding a full Tigers team for the game. The Bulldogs, however, beat Auburn to the punch, having to call off the game for virus-related reasons as well, moving the date to Dec. 12.
If all things go as planned, which if we’ve learned anything this year is far from a guarantee, it will have been 21 days between games for Auburn when they finally kick off against Tennessee on Nov. 21. Dating back to the 1983 Iron Bowl, this will mark just the 3rd time in program history that Auburn has had consecutive bye weeks. The Tigers beat Alabama in 1983 after a 21-day layoff and lost to Texas in 1984 after a 19-day layoff.
The team did have 3 normal practices last week and was able to resume activities on Friday. But this past week has just been the latest bullet point on a long list of incredibly rare circumstances for a team trying to work in a new offense and rebuild a defense missing 2 All-Americans from the 2019 season.
“This year is unique, and you learn,” Malzahn said. “We’re all learning, and you’ve just got to adjust and adapt. That was really my message way back before the season even started. The teams that adjust and adapt the best are going to have an advantage. … You didn’t know what to expect. You just take it week by week.”
Obviously, a surprise shutdown is never ideal, but that’s particularly the case for this Auburn team with the positive momentum it had established. After weeks of pundits tearing into issues with Bo Nix and Chad Morris, Auburn was poised to emerge from the bye week fresh off their first 500-yard performance of the season heading into games involving arguably 2 of the easiest opponents they will draw this year. That had the foundation for a 4-game winning streak heading into the Iron Bowl, a game Malzahn has figured out how to win 2 of the past 3 seasons.
Instead, the program had to revert to a pseudo-preseason mentality, with Zoom practices and game-planning and the prospect of on-field rust inevitably working back into players and a breakdown of chemistry and timing.
While the surprise bye week has its negatives, the one obvious benefit of an extra 7 days off is more time to heal, something that Auburn was definitely in need of.
Most notably, the added time will be crucial for a pair of Auburn starters in safety Jamien Sherwood and receiver Shedrick Jackson. Malzahn noted that it “would have been a challenge” for the duo to return against Mississippi State, but they now are in a much better position to return against the Volunteers.
The bye was also good news for freshman defensive end Jay Hardy, who dressed for the first time against LSU, and for highly touted 6-7 tight end Brandon Frazier, who also has yet to make his collegiate debut. And all this goes without mentioning the waiting game surrounding senior linebacker K.J. Britt, who would not have been cleared for the Mississippi State game and remains week-to-week with his thumb injury.
If one thing is certain this year, it has been to expect the unexpected, but that’s kind of what this Auburn football team is in a nutshell. One week, the Tigers outscore a team by 37 points and all things are rosy; another, they’re losing to a now 2-4 South Carolina team and it’s time to pull the plug on the coaching staff.
With 4 games remaining, Auburn spent their Saturday watching the Masters in mid-November, just like we all anticipated. The 2020 college football season has been a tumultuous ordeal, but in the end, it may play directly into Auburn’s hands on their quest to finish 8-2.