AUBURN, Ala. — Frustrations are high on the Plains after Auburn’s 1-2 start, and things could get more heated Saturday night if the Tigers take another home loss to a Power 5 opponent.
Those frustrations seemed to be the recurring theme in this inaugural edition of “Ask Ferg,” where I will answer questions about all things Auburn athletics — and maybe even a few non-Auburn questions — every Friday morning.
Here’s a selection of the best questions I received this week. If you want your question answered in future editions of Ask Ferg, tweet it to me @JFergusonAU or post it on our Auburn Insiders Facebook page with the hashtag #AskFerg. (Just to make sure I see it.)
Now, to this first batch of questions…
@Timothy_Mathis: Who will be Auburn’s head coach next year?
It should come as no surprise to you that several questions I received this week was some variation of this one. Gus Malzahn’s job security is a hot topic among fans and media types — and that goes beyond the Auburn area.
Right now, I would still predict Malzahn will be Auburn’s head coach next year. Why? Because there’s still plenty of time for him to get things turned around. It’s too early to make a definitive statement on his job status, one way or the other.
Heading into the season, I thought Auburn’s most optimistic prediction would be an 8-4 season. The schedule is tough, and the losses of players such as Jovon Robinson didn’t help matters for an offense that was already in a bind.
If Auburn continues to look flat on offense against LSU and Mississippi State and is facing a 2-4 record at the halfway point, then things will become clearer for Malzahn’s future.
But Auburn has the talent to beat almost every team on its schedule this season when the offense is clicking and the defense is playing at the standard it’s set through the first three weeks. If Auburn knocks off LSU on Saturday and then beats Mississippi State two weeks later, then the narrative around Malzahn will flip heading into the second half of the year.
@guitarist1984: Besides QB play, what do you see as the biggest issue with AU’s offense, and do you believe Gus can fix it?
Without question, Auburn’s biggest offensive issue outside of the quarterbacks is the offensive line — particularly the offensive tackles.
Auburn has allowed the most tackles for loss of any team in college football so far this season, and a lot of those negative plays have been generated by defensive playmakers on the edges.
The Tigers installed a new offensive line coach this season in Herb Hand and replaced a pair of quality starting tackles in Shon Coleman and Avery Young. Austin Golson moved from center, and Robert Leff had to flip from his reserve spot at left tackle to right tackle.
There’s no question that combination would have to take some time in order to operate at the level Auburn expects from its offensive line. But the play there has been below expectations, even with the grace period of the first couple of games. Pass protection there just hasn’t been good enough.
If Auburn has another bad game along the offensive line, Malzahn and Hand might be forced to make some changes. Starting right guard Braden Smith has the ability to play at tackle, but Auburn will most likely want to keep things stable on the interior. That opens the door for players such as Darius James or Mike Horton to grab a starting job.
So, to answer the question fully, I believe Malzahn can fix it with his good friend Hand. It’s just a matter of making the adjustments and personnel decisions at the right time before the season gets too far away from them.
@CDDubose: Do you know the offensive production in 4-wide sets vs. 3-1-1? Seems like we were/are more productive with no H-back.
@CDDubose here is referring to this week’s edition of Ferg’s Film Room and the specific section where I broke down Auburn’s different formation usage. Against Texas A&M, the Tigers used the 4-wide formation much more than the traditional Malzahn “3-1-1” formation — three wide receivers, one running back and one H-back.
While I haven’t broken down the total yardage for each formation, I can say that the majority of Auburn’s explosive plays against Texas A&M came in the 4-wide sets.
Two of Auburn’s three passes of 15-plus yards were in the 4-wide set, and the lone one that didn’t came in a 3-1-1 with a tight end instead of an H-back. In Auburn’s 10 carries of 10-plus yards against the Aggies, 7 of them came in the 4-wide set.
What sticks out even more about those formation splits is that Auburn rarely went to anything other than a 4-wide set in the fourth quarter when John Franklin III was in the game.
Why? I think a lot of it has to do with Chandler Cox, who is just now adjusting back to playing H-back full-time after getting plenty of practice reps at running back in fall camp. Cox can make some big plays in lead-blocking, but he needs to become much more consistent. When Auburn spreads defenses out with 4 wideouts, it seems to be opening up more lanes for the ground game and the air attack.
Adam Nix: Do you think Rhett Lashlee will get fired during the season if the offense struggles against LSU?
This is a tough question. I get the sense from a sizable portion of Auburn fans that Lashlee is under fire as much as Malzahn.
And while it’s true that Lashlee is the offensive coordinator, he’s not the primary play-caller. That’s Malzahn’s territory. He’s known for being hands-on with that side of the ball since taking over as a head coach, and he even made a point in the offseason that he was going to get more involved with the offense.
“I just kind of went back to my comfort zone of trying to be more hands on in practice, in meetings and everything that goes with that,” Malzahn told reporters in late August. “That has kind of been my approach since spring, and I have been more hands-on. That doesn’t mean I won’t have great confidence in our offensive coach … but that’s what I enjoy doing.”
Every Auburn fan knows that Malzahn and Lashlee have a long history together. Lashlee was a graduate assistant at Arkansas in Malzahn’s one and only year there, and he was a graduate assistant in 2009 and 2010 when Malzahn was the offensive coordinator at Auburn. He’s been Malzahn’s offensive coordinator since his mentor became a head coach in 2012 at Arkansas State.
If Malzahn fired Lashlee this season, I’m not sure it would do anything different for the offense. It might appease some angry fans, but the offense is ultimately Malzahn’s baby.
@Tomas_Verde: Can queso make a taqueria #elite?
(I’ll try to finish on a lighthearted question each week if we have them, so feel free to shoot me any questions you might have for me that don’t necessarily pertain to Auburn sports.)
This question from fellow Auburn beat writer Tom Green is a loaded one. We are both big fans of tacos, although he takes it to a new level of love that I’m not at just yet.
For me, what makes an elite taqueria — a taco place, for those who aren’t familiar with the lingo — is the tacos themselves. One of my favorite places in Auburn, Durango Taqueria, doesn’t have queso like most Mexican restaurants. Queso is an added bonus, but I want to see how great your tacos are, especially your asada and carnitas.
It’s like having a fantastic sixth man off the bench in basketball. It’s not absolutely necessary to win a championship, but it doesn’t hurt at all.