Every second counts.
That’s the case for Auburn out on the practice field this season, where sweat and humidity fogs up visors and an unrelenting heat beats down before every drill.
And that could be case under dizzying lights in crunch time this fall, in the final two minutes of games with championships on the line.
The Auburn football team made the most of its visit from SEC referees this week, collaborating with them to run two-minute simulations as close to the real deal as they could be on the practice field — moving the ball up the field with a real crew there to spot the ball between plays and operate pre-snap procedures just as they will on gamedays this year.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said last month that the conference would send a set of officials to each campus in the league for a two-day camp during preseason practices, emphasizing communication and discussing rules and techniques with coaches and players.
They were also allowed to engage in on-field practices, and Auburn used them Tuesday and Wednesday to fine-tune one of the most critical operations in its gameplan, the two-minute drill.
“It’s always really good to execute that. It helps our young quarterbacks learn what the expectations are and put them in as many situations as possible to try to get them game-ready, too,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said on Wednesday after the team’s scrimmage in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Freshman Bo Nix and redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood are splitting repetitions in practice in competition as the coaches search for their Game 1 starter.
“Both quarterbacks rotated equally the last two days for the two-minute, and I think it’s great for our defense in those situations, too,” Malzahn said.
Auburn offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said Thursday that those looks can prove vital.
“They were down here for a few days, so we said, ‘Let’s capitalize,’ having them for a period that you can’t really — it’s really hard to simulate without those guys,” he said. “So having those guys here, we could simulate that period.”
In two-minute situations, players are tasked with knowing when the clock is going to stop, run or re-start depending on whether the play ends in an incompletion, or an in-bounds tackle, or a first-down result. In those moments, they’re charged with getting back to the line just as quickly as officials reset the ball for play, in order to save as much time as possible in the precious final moments of a half or a game.
“All the nuances of when the clock is going to start, when it’s going to stop, when we have to push the tempo, when we can slow down, all those things,” Dillingham said. “Snap the ball when the umpire walks away,” he said, thinking of another example.
“All those nuances that may be a little bit different — the same as high school, but operates at a more efficient level with the best officiating crew in college football. You know, it operates a little quicker, it operates at a higher level. So it was essential for us.”
To illustrate that importance, Kodi Burns just thought back to his playing days.
During Auburn’s 2010 national championship season, Auburn went to overtime with Clemson, and had to win on last-second field goals against Kentucky and Oregon.
“It’s really important to get those procedures, because I mean, when you look at a season, if you want a chance to win a championship, a lot of times, it goes down to about three or four two-minute situations,” Burns said. “So, just getting in those situations and getting guys prepared for that, to where we practice it now—and if there are any mistakes, we can correct them now, as opposed to when we get to a game.
“It’s all about the details in a two-minute situation,” he went on. “It’s all about not panicking, understanding what you need to get. You’ve got to understand the situation. Do we need a field goal? Do we need a touchdown? What yard line are we trying to get to? What is the defense thinking? Just those little procedures that I think are really valuable.”