AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome to the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry edition of the Auburn mailbag here at SEC Country. Auburn heads to Georgia on Saturday looking for its first win in Sanford Stadium since 2005, and this week’s mailbag is stuffed with questions about the strengths and weaknesses of these Tigers.
This week, I tackled questions about Auburn’s run-pass strategy, the constant menace that is the quick slant, Auburn’s running back depth for Georgia, a look ahead to 2017, two historical plays in this rivalry and a fundamental question necessary to life itself.
To be a part of the weekly SEC Country Auburn mailbag, tweet your questions to @JFergusonAU or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to get them in by Thursday evening.
@JamesJones_55: Auburn is 7th in Passing S&P+. Should they be passing more, or is this a function of the run game?
First of all, citing and linking S&P+ is the easiest way to get my attention with these questions. I highly encourage anyone who enjoys college football to read Bill Connelly’s work and numbers at Football Study Hall and Football Outsiders. Advanced stats like those make both writers and fans smarter about the sport.
It’s not surprising at all to me that Auburn is ranked so highly in passing S&P+, considering Sean White is one of the most efficient and accurate quarterbacks in the country right now. Whenever the Tigers decide to go to the air, he usually makes the right call and gets it to his target.
But should Auburn pass it more with how efficient White has been? I think White’s stellar run has a lot to do with the way Auburn runs the ball. Whenever the rushing attack is averaging 6 or 7 yards a pop in a game, that draws more defenders into the box and gives more one-on-one opportunities for White to deliver. (Auburn’s love of swings and screens also play into these good-looking numbers.)
The Tigers are quite effective passing the ball on early downs this season, and that’s huge. Instead of facing a 3rd and 5, Auburn is looking at more 3rd-and-short situations and quicker first downs because White gets a chunk of yardage on first or second down. White’s numbers on second down are unreal — 31 of his 65 attempts then move the chains, and he has 6 touchdowns to zero picks.
Rhett Lashlee has done a good job letting White throw it more on early downs, which opens things up more for the running game and vice versa. Auburn’s rushing attack should continue to get the large amount of calls it currently has. Lashlee is picking his spots well, and White is delivering when his number is called.
@6pintsofkramer: Why has AU been so vulnerable to the slant? Guarding against bigger plays? Hurt personnel? OCs exploiting a deficiency?
If you follow my Twitter account during game days — and I hope you do — you might know I’m fond of the phrase “slants kill.” And it’s the gospel truth in football. These quick passes are extremely hard to guard, and the New England Patriots have built a dynasty on them.
Auburn’s pass defense this season has been the definition of bend-don’t-break. Although Auburn is 68th in passing yards allowed per game, it’s 21st in passing yards allowed per attempt. The Tigers rank in the top 20 nationally in fewest allowed passing plays of 30, 40 and 50 yards.
Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson laid that foundation last year. Kevin Steele and Wesley McGriff have continued that. Opposing offenses are focusing more on the quick game to diminish the impact of Auburn’s pass-rushing defensive line, and the Tigers safeties are doing a good job of keeping the top on the coverage to prevent big plays.
To answer the question more directly, I think it’s a combination of two main factors — a prevention of bigger plays and a trend in opposing strategies. Auburn is able to get its hands on a few slants from time to time, but the Tigers don’t seem to want to sell out on those and open themselves up for the big one.
@razor_5599: With AU’s depleted RB situation, any chance Chandler Cox gets any carries this week? Or is he too valuable at H-back?
Kamryn Pettway hasn’t been ruled out for the Georgia game, but I personally wouldn’t expect to see him play in Athens. I could see Auburn not risking further injury with him and trying to get him healthy for the Iron Bowl.
Chandler Cox could see some carries this weekend, and Malzahn talked about that possibility on Tuesday. However, I would expect him to stay at H-back and not carry the ball. The last time the Tigers moved him from that H-back position earlier in the season, his production dropped as a lead blocker.
Playing H-back is all about consistency, and Cox needs to stay there for the Tigers so he can be at his absolute best. Auburn will start Kerryon Johnson — the original starting running back before his injury and Pettway’s huge streak — and it sounds confident in getting some carries to Stanton Truitt and Kam Martin if Pettway can’t go.
@Timothy_Mathis: If AU misses out on playoffs, what does next year’s team look like? Who all’s coming back? Who will replace those leaving? Etc.
The great news for Auburn fans in this 2016 turnaround is that the Tigers are setting themselves up for a strong 2017 season with their play. Here are all the notable players Auburn is expected to lose to graduation or early NFL draft entry this offseason:
- QB: Jeremy Johnson
- WR: Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens
- OL: Alex Kozan, Robert Leff
- DL: Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson (NFL), Devaroe Lawrence, Maurice Swain Jr.
- LB: T.J. Neal
- DB: Josh Holsey, Rudy Ford
Auburn could easily return its top two quarterbacks, all of its running backs, six of its top eight receivers, three starting offensive linemen, two starting defensive linemen and several reserves, its top four linebackers and three starting defensive backs. Daniel Carlson could leave for the NFL early since he’s already graduated, but early-entering kickers are rare.
As for the replacements, I would see Woody Barrett stepping up to a more prominent backup role in 2017. Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers would see their playing time go up at outside wide receiver. Mike Horton is next in line to start at guard, but Leff’s tackle spot is a tough one to call, depending on Auburn’s success at recruiting the position in this cycle.
Defensively, Jeff Holland should be the one to replace Lawson at Buck, and Derrick Brown has the look of a starting defensive tackle. Marlon Davidson might move inside to replace Adams and free up a spot for Byron Cowart. Auburn will be set at linebacker. Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean would battle for Holsey’s cornerback spot. Nickel would be open again, and freshman Daniel Thomas is Ford’s backup there right now.
Auburn will need to rebuild some of its strength on both lines, but the overall team is in fine shape for 2017 after getting plenty of young players valuable experience in 2016.
@grahamcarr2: Better 4th down conversion: David Greene to Michael Johnson in 2002 or the Prayer at Jordan-Hare in 2013?
These two plays are arguably the biggest in the Deep South Oldest Rivalry’s history since 2000. Both fourth-down touchdowns erased last-minute deficits and helped send the winner to the SEC Championship Game.
First, let’s look at Greene-to-Johnson:
This is just a great pass to the corner of the end zone at the perfect time. David Greene delivered a great ball for Michael Johnson to go up and get, and he took advantage of a slight stumble by Auburn’s secondary. In purely football terms, this is a fine play.
But then we have the Prayer in Jordan-Hare:
This is the definition of a Hail Mary — just throw it up into traffic and see what happens. Nick Marshall chunked the ball into double coverage, and it took a miracle deflection and catch from Ricardo Louis to make it happen. (Make sure you read Louis’ first-person account of the catch right here on SEC Country.)
Greene-to-Johnson might have been a better-looking play from a purely football perspective, but this is a play I don’t think we’ll ever see again in college football. The noise that exploded in Jordan-Hare Stadium on the catch was deafening on the field. (You can see me walk around in pure shock around the :37 mark of the video — royal blue jacket, far right side of the sideline.)
Without this play, the Iron Bowl doesn’t become a winner-take-all SEC West game. The Kick Six loses some of its luster. Auburn doesn’t go to the SEC title game or the BCS national championship game. Both plays are historic, but it’s hard for me to rank anything above what I saw that night in 2013.