By your thirteenth game, you are what you are. There are very rare counter-examples (notably including the only successful outing of Tony Franklin as an Auburn coach, just two years ago), but almost all of the time the team you field a bowl game with is not substantially different than the one you had in the preceding season. Even with a month of extra practice, you're not going to get a night-and-day change from what you already were.
Accordingly, Auburn's Outback Bowl team in the opening hours of 2010 was what Auburn had been in the 2009 season: inconsistent. Transition years are almost always like that. Players and coaches haven't had years together to develop rapport; the majority of the team was recruited by entirely different coaches for two or three entirely different schemes. Making things worse, it's a very unusual first year when the new head coach isn't there precisely because the team is coming off at least one really bad season.
In the bowl, the Tigers ranged from explosively good to can't-stand-to-look bad, with heaping helpings of merely mediocre in between--all in the same game. Just about everything we'd seen over the course of the season was repeated, from the dazzling effectiveness of Gus Malzahn's offense when it's clicking to the infuriating rash of self-defeating penalties. Bowl games in general, given the month-long break between games, are notorious for being sloppy, but both Auburn and Northwestern seemed determined to set new records for on-field buffoonery in Tampa.
In a way, the only thing really consistent about this team was its inconsistency. For the third straight game, Auburn roared out to a two-touchdown lead, but still had to fight down to the last second (and beyond, in this case). Malzahn's play calling continued on the path of alternately blazing down the field and then stuttering badly for long stretches. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Malzahn is still inserting Kodi Burns at inappropriate times, or why he didn't let Ben Tate continue to punish the Northwestern defense late in the first half. The long, painful third quarter was as frustrating to watch as any of this season's second-half stalls--but then you look at the blitzkrieg of Auburn offense in the fourth quarter and remember what this offense is capable of when it's working.
Certainly the next time we see this offense, it will be very different. You can quote me multi-starred recruits all day long, but losing Tate is going to hurt. You can't replace his combination of size and speed and bone-crushing power with a freshman, no matter how heralded, and there's not a back on the current roster with anything like Tate's track record. Chris Todd certainly had his limitations at quarterback, including Brandon Cox-like immobility, but nobody at this point can deny that Todd is a gamer. His successor will certainly lack experience; Auburn can only hope that whomever that player is, he'll have a Todd-like portion of resilience and command. A couple more dependable receivers and some better pass protection wouldn't hurt things any, either.
Auburn struggled against the pass all year, and got worse against it as injuries attritted the defensive two-deep to more like a one-and-a-quarter-deep. Northwestern rarely even tried to run the ball Friday, which in and of itself made Ted Roof's decision to stick with a nickel package for most of the game look sensible--but if the Tigers' defense in the nickel was considered optimal for covering the pass, I'd have hated to have seen what the 4-3 would have looked like. Roof was certainly right when he implied in his postgame comments that the Big-12 officiating crew weren't going to call holding on Northwestern under any circumstances (just check the game's last play, which featured at least two Wildcats clutching Auburn jerseys from behind), and I'm as aware as anybody of Auburn's numbers woes at linebacker... but good grief, 47 completions for 539 yards? Just ugly.
But then you look at the game again, and remember the five interceptions that led to three touchdowns, and see the defense just shutting down Northwestern in overtime. If not for a gift penalty, the Wildcats would have been buried around the 20 for most of that crucial stretch--and Auburn still managed to hold them out of the end zone to win the game, even after the penalty. It's not that the defense (or the team) was awful for the whole game... they were just awful at some very inopportune times.
They were also wonderful at some entirely opportune times. Walt McFadden had the game of his career, clocking in with eight solo tackles, the two huge interceptions, and fighting through an injury for most of the game. He couldn't come out; there's just nobody left to replace him. Neiko Thorpe was beaten up a lot on the boards and in the media over the last month, but he saved the day Friday, never falling for the goofy fumblerooskie play and making the game-ending tackle despite being held from behind. The front four were left isolated for almost all the game with very little blitz support, but they still wore down the hold-happy Northwestern linemen, and dominated them in overtime. The Wildcats' Mike Kafka must have been seeing Jake Ricks and Antonio Coleman in his sleep all this weekend.
There's plenty more that ought to be said, but it'd take almost as long as the four-hour-plus bowl game itself. The penalties were obviously awful, although it didn't help much that the Big-12 crew seemed intent on only throwing flags in one direction. Ditto for the turnovers, which were nobody's fault but Auburn's. We all got a lesson in the value of a solid placekicker (or the lack therof), and with a year left to play, Wes Byrum is already in the record books as one of AU's all-time greats.
It was a wild, frustrating, exhilarating game, one that lived both up to and down to the season that preceded it. You wouldn't want to live through it twice, but you can't deny that it was a hell of a ride.
I'll be back later in the week with some overall thoughts on 2009.