Expectations were high for Auburn after it began the season as a top-10 team in the AP Poll and a preseason SEC title favorite. But when the regular season ended last Saturday, Auburn (6-6, 2-6 SEC) found themselves on the opposite end of those preseason projections — last in the division with a lower-tier bowl game appearance coming to end the 2015 campaign.
How did the Tigers get to this point? Here are the five moments that defined Auburn’s season:
Peyton Barber’s third-and-9 catch to keep the winning overtime drive alive against Jacksonville State
Auburn nearly derailed its season in its second game against FCS opponent Jacksonville State. It was supposed to be a cupcake game before Auburn went on the road to open SEC play against LSU, but Auburn needed overtime to get the job done.
On Auburn’s first possession of overtime sophomore running back Peyton Barber took over. He broke multiple tackles on a critical third-and-9 swing pass, which kept the drive alive. Barber would later score on the drive to give Auburn the decisive lead to escape.
At the time Barber’s catch helped keep Auburn’s title hopes alive, but the Tigers needed a big win to repair the ugly performance.
Leonard Fournette flips Tray Matthews in LSU’s 45-21 win over Auburn in Death Valley
Auburn had the chance to get that signature win the following week against LSU and Heisman Trophy candidate Leonard Fournette. Auburn was expected to come out with a high level of intensity after the previous week’s scare against an FCS team, but instead, it was Fournette who brought the boom.
Fournette had a 40-yard touchdown run where he flipped Auburn defender Tray Matthews over his shoulder and bowled into the end zone. Auburn could not stop Fournette, as he compiled a career performance.
Auburn’s first loss led to multiple defensive personnel changes by Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But the defense wasn’t the only unit that would have a different look the following week.
Sean White replaces Jeremy Johnson as the starting quarterback
Fournette’s opening Heisman act turned out to be the final scene, at least at the time, for Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson.
Johnson was benched in favor of freshman Sean White, who started his first career game against Mississippi State on Sept. 26. Johnson, who was pegged as a preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, threw six interceptions in his first three starts.
Auburn lost to the Bulldogs 17-9 in White’s first appearance, but he played well enough to keep the job. The Tigers moved to 3-2 with a win over San Jose State in White’s second start, but the victory was followed by bad news.
Duke Williams dismissed from program
Senior wide receiver D’haquille “Duke” Williams was the team’s leading receiver in 2014 and was dismissed from the team on the Monday following the San Jose State game.
Williams was involved in an altercation in an Auburn bar after the win over San Jose State on Oct. 3. It was the third disciplinary issue in less than a year for the senior.
Williams was not having the explosive season that he had in 2014 when he caught 45 passes for 730 yards, but that was as much the fault of poor quarterback play as of the embattled receiver. His dismissal left Auburn without one of its prime deep threats in a passing game that was already struggling with Williams.
Jeremy Johnson’s perfect start against Texas A&M
White would remain the starter for Auburn’s next three games, but the freshman sustained an undisclosed left knee injury in a four-overtime loss to Arkansas on Oct. 24.
The injury paved the way for Johnson to reclaim the starting role for Auburn’s road game against Texas A&M on Nov. 7.
In his first start since getting benched, Johnson completed his first nine passes. On his first drive he completed 6 passes to five different receivers, including the opening touchdown pass to give Auburn a 7-3 lead. Johnson finished the game 13-of-17 on pass attempts for 132 yards and a touchdown.
Auburn’s defense stifled the Aggies, holding them to 10 points as the Tigers won 26-10. It was Auburn’s most complete performance of the season and it gave fans a glimpse of what could have been.
The Tigers could not build off that momentum, as they lost two of their final three games with Johnson under center. Johnson’s good game followed by a disappointing end to the regular season was the epitome of Auburn’s season.