Gus Malzahn's No. 3 Auburn Tigers confidently reached into their bag of November tricks. They were as surprised as everybody else when the bag turned up empty.
Any lifelong college football fan picked up on this a long time ago, but Week 11 of the 2014 college football season made one thing incontrovertibly clear: last Saturday is not this Saturday. The team you had is not the team you have. And one's fortunes can change in an hour. Or, in the cases of Auburn and Texas A&M, a single snap.
We felt like we had reached conclusions on both of these teams. That was our mistake. Auburn had found an incredible offensive rhythm and was backing it up with a defense that was playing at a higher level than it had last season. Plus, the Tigers had that whole "winning in impossible ways in November" thing going on, conquering Ole Miss in Oxford after recovering two fumbles inside their own 10.
And Texas A&M had cratered, then cratered again. Here's what I said in last week's Numerical:
UL-Monroe has a pretty salty defense. The Warhawks currently rank 65th in Def. F/+ and are easily one of the nation's better mid-major Ds.
Still, it was fair to expect a bit more out of Texas A&M's offense than 21 points and 3.5 yards per play. With freshman quarterback Kyle Allen starting in place of the suspended/usurped Kenny Hill, the Aggies gained 75 yards in 13 plays (5.8 per play) on their opening drive, then gained just 168 in 56 plays (3.0) the rest of the way. Allen completed 13 of 28 passes for 106 yards, a touchdown, an interception, and three sacks. Yards per attempt, including sacks: 2.5. Meanwhile, running backs Brandon Williams and Tra Carson combined for 118 rushing yards on 32 carries, 3.7 per tote.
This is a pretty awesome collapse by the A&M offense. In their first five games, the Aggies averaged 51.2 points per game and 8.0 yards per play. In their next two, they averaged 25.5 and 5.4, respectively. In their last two, they've averaged 10.5 and 3.3. Yes, the competition has increased. But it didn't on Saturday, and the fade continued.
By the way, A&M's next three games come against the No. 10 (Auburn), No. 11 (Missouri), and No. 14 (LSU) defenses, according to Def. F/+.
Last week's A&M team would have gotten destroyed by last week's Auburn team. But on a fresh Saturday afternoon, everything changed. And college football again proved to us that you are a collection of your outcomes, not simply your last one.
If you skipped everything that had happened after October 1, and if you only looked at each team's September portfolios, this game would have made sense. A&M -- with an offense that destroyed South Carolina (from the start) and Arkansas (eventually) -- averaging 7.1 yards per play and scoring 41 points on Auburn? One could see that. A&M, the attacking defense that held both South Carolina and Arkansas below season averages, limiting Auburn to just 10 points in the middle quarters and forcing three turnovers? Sure!
But nothing in the last month, in which A&M went 1-3 with only a narrow win over ULM and switched quarterbacks while Auburn went 3-1 with only a loss at No. 1 Mississippi State, hinted that this was still a possibility.
The numbers didn't think so; A&M had sunk all the way to 61st in the F/+ rankings, while Auburn had risen to first on the power of wins over LSU and Ole Miss and the fact that the MSU loss was based partially in turnovers. The Tigers were given a 98 percent chance of winning, and while that seems mighty high, realize that Auburn's advantage over A&M in the ratings was the same as Alabama's over Iowa State. That's how poorly the Aggies had performed since October 4.
A&M fell behind Mississippi State by 21 points in the second quarter, trailed Ole Miss by 28 in the fourth, lost by 59 points to Alabama and beat ULM by only five, three more than Appalachian State's winning margin over the Warhawks this past Saturday. Against ULM in quarterback Kyle Allen's first start, the Aggies gained 243 yards in 69 plays. On Saturday, against a hostile, confident Auburn home crowd and an athletic defense, they gained 274 yards in their first 27 snaps.
Malcome Kennedy raced 60 yards for a touchdown on A&M's fourth play of the game, and Josh Reynolds scored from 36 yards out on the seventh. Auburn snuffed out a 14-0 lead with two quick touchdowns, so the Aggies scored twice more, first on an 11-play, 94-yard drive, then on a short Reynolds touchdown set up by a 24-yard Brandon Williams run. Myles Garrett blocked an end-of-half field goal, and Deshazor Everett returned it for a touchdown to give A&M a stunning 35-17 halftime lead.
This felt like the most tenuous 18-point lead in the history of college football. Once the calendar flips to November, the Tigers craft weekly wins that are too unrealistic for movie scripts. In their last three November games, they beat Georgia via tipped prayer, they beat Alabama by returning a missed field goal 109 yards as time expired, and they beat Ole Miss by recovering two fourth-quarter fumbles near their goal line.
A&M played along by getting tight offensively. In their last seven drives, the Aggie offense scored just six points and averaged 4.8 yards per play. Kennedy gained 42 yards on a beautiful touch pass/jet sweep to set up a third-quarter field goal, and A&M kicked another field goal after chewing up almost seven minutes on 13 plays in the fourth. That held Auburn at bay, but the Tigers cut the lead to 41-38 with 6:42 left, then forced a three-and-out. We knew where this was going.
Only, following a bomb to Ricardo Louis, Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne botched an exchange at A&M's 2, and Julien Obioha was ruled to have recovered.
But that just prolonged the inevitable, right? A&M went three-and-out again, avoiding a safety by about the length of a football, and Auburn took over at the A&M 42 with 1:28 left.
And on the third play of the sure-to-be game-winning drive, Marshall and center Reese Dismukes suffered a fatal miscommunication. Marshall barked an audible while Dismukes snapped the ball to no one; the ball hit Dismukes' posterior and fluttered to the ground, and A&M's Alonzo Williams spotted it first. Ballgame.
Basically, A&M's offense won the game in the first half, and Auburn's offense lost the game in the final three minutes. And only the latter could have been more unexpected than the former.
We thought we knew how this season was set up. Flying high with only one loss, Auburn would dominate a demoralized A&M before doing the same to Georgia and setting up the Biggest Iron Bowl Since the Last One, one that might decide the SEC's place in the College Football Playoff. A&M would limp home to a 6-6 or 7-5 record, play in a minor bowl, and build for 2015.
Instead, Auburn is trying to convince itself that 9-3 or 10-2 is still a pretty good year. (With that schedule, that is a very good year.) Sometimes we hear about TV shows keeping surprise plot twists from their cast members until moments before filming. For Auburn and its fans, this was a "Henry Blake dies in 'M*A*S*H'" moment.
A&M returned to College Station 7-3 and a new team. With home games against Missouri and LSU, A&M fans are once again thinking about a 10-win season. Allen completed 65 percent of his passes at nearly 15 yards per completion and in no way looked like the true freshman he resembled just seven days earlier. And A&M's receiving corps, blessed with depth but beset by drops and missed opportunities, looked like it was supposed to all along. Kennedy, with four catches for 118 yards, was probably the best player on the field, and Reynolds and Seals-Jones gave Auburn too many weapons to handle.
College football surprises us. We know it's going to, but we're caught off-guard when it happens. Georgia got shoved around by Florida, then dominated a Kentucky team that almost beat Florida. A week ago, the Gators went from hopeless and playing out the string to "Hmm, these 'Florida wins the East' scenarios aren't entirely unrealistic."
A team's fortunes change, often when we least expect them to. Now we'll see which A&M and Auburn teams show up another five days from now, and we'll see which surprises fate has in store for us in Week 12.