AUBURN, Ala. — As Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn said last weekend, the Tigers’ current bye week is an important time for evaluation heading into the final month of the season.
This week, SEC Country will do the same for Auburn, breaking down the first eight games of the season in four categories — passing offense, rushing offense, passing defense and rushing defense. What do the numbers say about Auburn heading into a crucial November?
Auburn’s pass defense was once its biggest weakness in the Gus Malzahn era. Now, in the second year under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the Tigers have one of college football’s best defenses when it comes to both attacking the quarterback and preventing completions. The two units with the most turnover — defensive line and secondary — have risen to the occasion in pass defense with new stars.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of Auburn’s passing stats from the first eight games of 2017 and the entire 2016 season, along with individual stat breakdowns for the quarterbacks and receivers. After that, it’s time to jump into four major positives and four major negatives for this area of Auburn’s season so far.
2017 Auburn football team pass defense stats
|CATEGORY||2017 (FBS/SEC RANK)||2016 (FBS RANK)|
|Yards/attempt||5.7 (8th/3rd)||6.4 (17th)|
|Yards/game||178.4 (17th/7th)||229.2 (67th)|
|Completion %||56.8% (51st/6th)||57.9% (58th)|
|TD||7 in 8 games (20th/5th)||14 in 13 games (17th)|
|INT||4 in 8 games (97th/10th)||11 in 13 games (68th)|
|PBU + INT/game||4.38 (61st/8th)||6.15 (6th)|
|QB rating||110.79 (21st/4th)||116.83 (22nd)|
|Sacks/game||3.13 (17th/3rd)||1.92 (75th)|
|20+ yard passes||21 (51st/3rd)||42 (74th)|
|30+ yard passes||8 (36th/4th)||16 (30th)|
|40+ yard passes||2 (7th/2nd)||5 (8th)|
Passing defense positives
Sensei Mud and friends: Auburn entered 2017 with concerns about who would replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams in the pass rush. The answer: Jeff Holland, resoundingly. Holland has 8 sacks in eight games, which ranks among the best in college football. The Tigers have done better getting after the quarterback as a whole, too. Last season, they only had five players with multiple sacks in 13 games. They’ve already hit that mark in eight. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson have provided plenty of pressure, along with Nick Coe, in a strong start to 2017.
Keeping the top on: Auburn isn’t giving up many big plays in the passing game this season, and it’s on pace to improve its already-good numbers in that category from last year. Only a pair of passes have gone for 40-plus yards, which is rare this deep in the season. Even with injuries at the safety position, Auburn has made a concerted effort to keep the top on the coverage and not get beaten deep. That’ll be even more important in November against some talented offenses.
Lots of improvements in Year 2: Even after Auburn lost Rudy Ford and Josh Holsey to graduation, one can tell this defense is much more comfortable in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Auburn is affecting the quarterback more up front, and the defense is thriving with improved numbers in completion percentage, quarterback rating, yards per attempt and yards per game.
Pass defense problems
Less disruption in the air: If there’s a clear-cut issue for Auburn’s pass defense this season, it’s a lack of actual “passes defensed” — a fancy term for interceptions and breakups. Auburn was one of the nation’s best at that last season. This year, the Tigers haven’t generated many turnovers through the air, and the pass breakups are down. As long as Auburn continues to keep passing offenses out of the end zone, the team can live with that. But more of those momentum-changing plays would be huge.
Injuries at defensive back: Auburn’s secondary limped into this bye week, as injuries affected Tray Matthews, Javaris Davis, Carlton Davis and Jeremiah Dinson in the first eight weeks. Getting those players back to 100 percent is paramount during the off date. Auburn has had to rely on younger players to step up with those injury issues, and underclassmen such as Daniel Thomas and Jordyn Peters have done well. But there isn’t a lot of depth at defensive back to begin with, so this is a potential red flag down the stretch.
Letting them off the hook: Opposing offenses are completing 51.2 percent of its pass attempts on third down against Auburn. But 26 of those third-down completions have gone for first downs, which ranks 108th nationally. The Tigers let several opponents off the hook in key moments with third-down pass plays, especially in losses to Clemson and LSU. Auburn needs to tighten up some more on third down and keep everything in front of the sticks.