Rest for the Weary!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Rest for the Weary!

Bye Week Blues

Tigers get to heal this week, and work on what ails ’em.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! This is Auburn’s bye week, and thus there will be no Auburn game this Saturday. We are 2/3rds of the way through the regular season, and it’s time to assess where the team is, and what might happen in coming weeks. Anything from a championship down to a dismal 7-5 finish is possible.

     For the most part, Auburn’s defensive stats are pretty gaudy, although yards allowed per game has crept up over 300, as multiple teams have had big 4th quarters in Auburn blowouts. On the season, Auburn is allowing 124.4 rushing yards per game, and only 3.2 yards per carry. At 3.2, teams can’t consistently pick up first downs running, and they are accordingly put in a bind. I was going to write that Auburn wasn’t getting to the quarterback much, but looks can be deceiving. Auburn actually has 25 sacks this season in 8 games, more than 3 per game. Those sacks are included in 55 tackles for a loss. Auburn has only allowed 5 rushing touchdowns on the season.

     Auburn opponents are completing only 56.8 percent of their passes, for a low 5.7 yards per pass average. Of concern is that Auburn has only 4 interceptions out of 250 attempts. We have seen several potential picks dropped. Auburn has allowed only 7 passing touchdowns in 8 games. It’s pretty amazing that Auburn has only allowed 12 touchdowns on the season, or only 1.5 a game on defense. Auburn is allowing 15.6 points per game, which is inflated by a three return touchdowns allowed on offense and special teams.

     While the offense has seemingly disappeared in big games on the road, and had a fumble-fest on homecoming, the Tigers are blistering the remainder of their opponents. We regularly see pieces written on “what’s wrong with the Auburn rushing attack?” The fact is, that despite having our top couple of running backs banged up for much of the year, Auburn is averaging 237.8 yards per game on the ground, at 5.1 yards per rush. Auburn has 24 rushing touchdowns on the season, compared to just 5 for the opposition. Six different Auburn players have more than 100 rushing yards on the season: Kerryon Johnson, Kamryn Pettway, Kam Martin, Eli Stove, Malik Willis and Malik Miller. Johnson leads the league in rushing yards, at 723 yards despite playing in only 6 of 8 games. Johnson has 14 rushing touchdowns, leading the nearest competitor by 4 scores.

     In the passing game, Auburn has one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. Jarrett Stidham has hit 127 of 193 attempts, or 65.8 percent of his passes. It’s worth noting that the Auburn best career completion percentage is 64.6 percent, held by Jason Campbell. Stidham is averaging 8.9 yards per pass. This year, among quarterbacks who have thrown 50 balls or more, Stidham trails only Jake Fromm, Drew Lock, and Danny Etling in yards per pass. Fromm leads the league at 9.6 yards per pass. Ryan Davis is tied with Calvin Ridley for the SEC lead in receptions, with 41.

     On special teams, Auburn has some problems. The Tigers rank 10th in the SEC in kick coverage, and dead last in net punting at just 34.8 yards per punt. Luckily, Auburn is able to hit most kickoffs for touchbacks, and tends to punt away from return men. Auburn’s Daniel Carlson leads the SEC in touchbacks, with 49. The nearest competitor is Alabama with 33. Auburn ranks 9th in punt return average with 8.3 yards per return, and 3rd in kick return average with 24.8. One thing that doesn’t show in the official SEC stats is that punt return man Stephen Roberts has prevented a lot of damage on opposing punts with timely fair catches. Auburn currently ranks 5th in the SEC in field goal percentage, having hit 15 of 19 attempts.

     In other miscellaneous stats, Auburn is ranked 9th in the SEC in turnover margin. Auburn is currently at +1. That needs to improve, down the stretch. Auburn is the second-least penalized team in the league, at 32 yards per game.

Notes on the next 5 weeks, after the jump!

     Texas A&M is a team that worries me. While combing through the stats, I noticed that they lead the league in sacks, and have a bunch of tackles for loss. Most notably, they held Alabama to 27 points a few weeks ago at Kyle Field, where Auburn will play them in a week and a half. Given Auburn’s tendency to be stubborn on offense in tight games, this is worrisome. Auburn has to continue to work the whole field from sideline to sideline, to keep the Aggies out of the box, and out of the Auburn backfield. Like many folks, I feel like this game is a must-win game, in terms of the coaching staff. Lose this game, and losses to UGA and Bama probably follow. I don’t feel like head coach Gus Malzahn is likely to survive a 7-5 finish, this season.

     I feel like the Georgia game at home is a very winnable game, assuming Auburn can hold onto the ball and not gift Georgia with easy points. The Bulldog running game is dangerous with Nick Chubb, but Auburn stops the run well. Georgia likes to hit the big pass, but Auburn has been very good at keeping the lid on coverage and forcing passers to be patient. Auburn has been able this year to just line up and attack defenses that rely on the 3-4. With both Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, it’s best on defense to get them going sideways quickly. If either gets to running downhill, they are tough to stop.

     Louisiana Monroe has been pretty bad in recent years, and they took a 58-7 beating from Auburn last year on homecoming. They have looked improved this season, with a better offense. A current 3-4 record doesn’t look great, but it is better than they have been doing. The big Warhawk problem is that they still can’t stop anybody. They have given up 37 to Memphis, 50 to Louisiana Lafayette, 43 to Coastal Carolina, 47 to Georgia State, and 33 to South Alabama. I do not see them stopping Auburn enough to matter.

     As far as the Iron Bowl goes, I’ll have to see what Alabama does vs. LSU and Mississippi State. No one has moved the ball effectively against Alabama except in garbage time this year. They will give up an isolated big play or two, but no one has sustained anything. I’ve been impressed with their offense. I thought that they’d have a hard time replacing Lane Kiffin, but Brian Daboll has done a great job as the new offensive coordinator. Jalen Hurts isn’t the optimal drop-back passer, but he doesn’t have to be. Alabama has a ton of weapons in the backfield and the wide receiver positions, and all Hurts has to do is spread the ball around. And, if you don’t set the edge and maintain contain, Hurts can burn a defense with his legs. Also, consider this. When Bama runs the zone read, Damien Harris is averaging a ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry. Hurts is averaging 6.8 yards per carry, and that’s with sacks figured in.

     If Auburn can beat the Aggies and the Bulldogs, the Iron Bowl sets up as an SEC playoff for the division crown. In that instance, Alabama would be walking into a very fired-up environment, and it would be a great challenge for them. Auburn would come in with all the confidence in the world. We would be looking at a great game. Should Auburn drop the above mentioned SEC games, they could be just playing out the string, which is not a good place to be going up against Alabama.

     I’ve seen a lot posted on Auburn’s chances of firing head coach Gus Malzhan at the end of the year. The problem with predicting that is that no one above him at the university will comment. Frankly, the athletic department seems to be on fire in a lot of ways, and no one’s saying anything. I think someone will have to be let go as a scapegoat, at least, when it’s said and done. Does a lame duck Jay Jacobs have the wherewithal to fire Gus? I could definitely see a situation where Gus gets one more year, regardless, as various dominoes fall above him. To recap, currently we have had harassment on the softball team that the administration tried to cover up, before jettisoning the staff. The basketball assistant head coach has been investigated and charged by the FBI. A former track assistant is suing for discrimination. The football team is under-performing relative to talent. And right now, I don’t see anyone at the top leading. Stonewalling the press and Auburn supporters on these matters is burning up a whole lot of good will every day.

     My gut feelings on head coach Malzahn are as follows. This Texas A&M game is key. Lose that, and there’s a good chance he could be fired at the end of the year, but… I think Gus might survive if he lost to the Aggies and beat Georgia. Beat Alabama, and all is forgiven, I think, even if UGA and TAMU beat Auburn. It basically comes down to Gus needing to win at least one more SEC game, this season, unless there is a curious lack of action above the head coach. Finish 7-5, firing is likely. At 8-4, it’s probably a coin flip or less. At 9-3, no. If Auburn finishes 10-2 and heads to the SEC title game, a big extension is likely. With 2 losses, I don’t think there’s any way Auburn makes the CFB playoff, unless there is a lot of melting down in November.

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