I kept a list of those things that I thought could help make the difference in winning and losing a close football game and I reminded our players about what they were as we had our pre-game meals.
My list included the sometimes overlooked details that can determine the outcome of the game. If the game is not going to be close and you were totally out-manned and over-powered, then the intangibles and the details wouldn't make much of a difference. However, if the game was close, they would be the difference between winning or losing.
It is normal to have upsets every week in college football, and it is the same in pro football, too. A lot of times how each team handles intangibles and how hard it works at executing the little things is a major factor in producing a surprising result. Getting your team ready to play mentally, physically and spiritually every week, week after week, is the most challenging job a head football coach has.
When looking for a major source of upsets the first place to look is in the turnover statistics. Fumbles, interceptions and blocked kicks change field position and momentum. In a best case scenario the team turning the ball over loses about 40 yards in field position. In a worst case scenario a team loses its chance to score and gives the other team seven points.
If you think back to Auburn's 2010 season it offers excellent examples of the importance of turnovers. In the tight games vs. Arkansas, South Carolina, Clemson and Alabama, fumbles and interceptions by Auburn's opponents in critical parts of those games were key factors in the Tigers winning. As an offensive coach you preach the importance of not turning the ball over, not giving up field position and not helping your opponent. On the other side of the football the coaches talk to their players about the importance of creating turnovers to change the momentum.
Although it tends to get overlooked, about a fifth of the plays in a normal game involve some aspect of the kicking game--field goals, extra points, kickoffs, punts or fakes in field goals or punting situations. Because of that no detail is too small to emphasize in the kicking game. A classic example is last year's Auburn victory over Clemson when the visitors made a mistake in overtime that opened the door for Auburn to win that game. Who knows what would have happened if Clemson had avoided the illegal procedure penalty on a made field goal and gone on to beat Auburn that day. If Auburn had lost that night it is a real question if the team chemistry would have developed like it did allowing Auburn to become a great team and advance to the BCS Championship Game.
A football team can make a really big splash in the kicking game by doing something special like blocking a punt, a field goal or extra point. In the case of a blocked punt the defensive team has the chance to put points on the scoreboard and with a blocked kick it prevents the opponent from doing the same thing.
The closer the game, the more importance the kicking game has in deciding the outcome. One of the classic examples of this was the 1972 Auburn-Alabama game at Legion Field in Birmingham. Auburn fans remember the two spectacular kicking game plays when Bill Newton blocked a pair of punts that were both scooped up on the bounce and returned for touchdowns by David Langner. Not as many remember there was another important special teams play that day when Roger Mitchell blocked a PAT attempt earlier in the game. If he didn't do that the score would have been 17-17 instead of Auburn winning 17-16.
To win football games it is vitally important to not beat yourself, and lack of execution of the basics in the kicking game will do that. The same is true of penalties, which in my opinion are nothing more than a lack of discipline.
The other day I asked Auburn senior offensive tackle Brandon Mosley about playing last year at Alabama in what was a very loud environment. Auburn didn't have an illegal procedure penalty that day and I said to him, "You must have been going on a silent count." He said, "Coach, we were calling the snap count, but I couldn't hear it, I just watched the ball." Well, that is an example of discipline in a close football game in which one penalty at the wrong time can call back a game-changing play.
Avoiding penalties and being disciplined were major points of emphasis for me when I coached. Being good in those areas has nothing to do with how fast you can run, how strong you are or how high you can jump. It comes from the fact that you care enough to train and discipline yourself to do what you're supposed to do in those particular situations. Doing things the right way is something you can make work in your team's favor in every quarter of every game all season long. You don't have to be Einstein to go out there and not get penalties.
Another thing I emphasized while preparing for the start of the season was conditioning. I didn't want to take any football team into competition that wasn't prepared to play hard for four quarters and wasn't in better shape than our opponent. If you go back and look over our time and history here at Auburn, we were a well-trained and well-conditioned team. I do know that a tired football player is prone to make mistakes, and a tired football player will lose to lesser talent in front of him. I've seen it happen when I was playing, I've seen it happen when I was coaching. It's a tremendous advantage when you're better conditioned than the team you're playing against.
Another aspect of the game I prepared my teams to excel at as we opened the season was being physical. Combine that with the proper techniques on offense and defense and your chances of winning will improve. Handling the seemingly little things, like a receiver coming back to get the ball on a pass play, can mean a big difference in winning and losing.
Last, but not least, I wanted my teams to take the field with poise and confidence. Having the right chemistry and belief in yourself, your teammates and coaches is huge. That was obviously a big part of Auburn's success last season. I would say Auburn's current coaching staff has done a marvelous job in the area of building confidence and developing leadership on their teams. A confident and poised team won't panic when things don't go well and the team finds itself behind.
A team that has sweated the details and worked hard in the offseason will likely take the field with confidence and have some early success, which builds more confidence as the season develops.
In Auburn's case this season, with the Tigers counting on so many young players, developing confidence will be very important because it is hard for young, inexperienced players to have much of it. With the help of strong leadership from their experienced teammates and coaches, after getting their feet wet and having some success that confidence will eventually develop with the type of talent the Tigers have in their program.
It may happen this year or it might be farther down the road, but at some point in time I am confident that this coaching staff will take this group of young players and produce another great football team. It's just a matter of how quickly they can make that happen.
From the mailbag:
I would love for you to write about one of my favorite teams, your first team in 1981. There were not a lot of household names, but I cannot remember a team that achieved more with their talents or one that would scratch and fight to the last second. Could you tell us a little about how you built that foundation with them that we are still building on today and how those players bought in to your approach to practice, dedication and preparation.
Also, I think it would be interesting if you would critique each of your starting quarterbacks. What they had to overcome to become the starter and what were their strengths.
I appreciate all you have done and continue to do for Auburn
Thanks for your note, Chip. That 1981 team did build the foundation for the four SEC Championships we won in that decade. It is an excellent suggestion for a future column. A column about the quarterbacks is a good idea, too.
(If you have a question or a subject you would like me to write about in future columns, you can email it to PatDye@autigers.com.)
Editor's Note: This is part of a series of columns that College Football Hall of Fame member Pat Dye is writing for AUTigers.com about the game he played and coached. An All-American at Georgia and one of the top head coaches in SEC history at Auburn who was also head coach at East Carolina and Wyoming, Dye participates in the Legends Poll, a Top 25 rating of the best teams in college football as determined by a panel of all-star former head coaches. Dye also writes the Dye-Log and Pat's Picks columns for AUTigers.com.