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 passing attack isn’t the same as it was last season. Jarrett Stidham and Chip Lindsey have brought new life to the Tigers, who are now hitting more big pass plays than ever in the Malzahn era. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement down the stretch, considering the quality of opponents that will come to Jordan-Hare Stadium next month.
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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 passing stats
|CATEGORY||2017 (FBS/SEC RANK)||2016 (FBS RANK)|
|Yards/attempt||8.9 (13th/4th)||7.6 (49th)|
|Yards/game||224.6 (68th/4th)||169.5 (112th)|
|Completion %||66.3% (15th/1st)||61.6% (32nd)|
|TD||10 in 8 games (73rd/9th)||12 in 13 games (110th)|
|INT||3 in 8 games (19th/4th)||6 in 13 games (5th)|
|QB rating||154.44 (19th/4th)||135.17 (54th)|
|Sacks/game||2.75 (107th/12th)||1.46 (27th)|
|30+ yard passes||15 (15th/4th)||17 (77th)|
|40+ yard passes||12 (6th/2nd)||8 (69th)|
|50+ yard passes||8 (2nd/2nd)||2 (97th)|
2017 Auburn football individual quarterback stats
|Jarrett Stidham||127/193 (65.8%)||1,728||9.0||8||3||151.58|
|Malik Willis||5/6 (83.3%)||8||1.3||1||0||149.53|
2017 Auburn football individual receiver stats
(Target – TGT – statistics courtesy of Football Study Hall)
|PLAYER||TGT||REC||YDS||TD||YDS/TGT||TGT RATE||REC RATE|
*no longer on team
Passing offense positives
Explosiveness: Malzahn said Lindsey would bring more of a vertical passing game to the Tigers, and he’s done just that. Auburn is one of the nation’s best at explosive plays through the air this season, one year after barely stretching the field. Auburn already has four times as many 50-plus-yard passes as it did in 2016. While Auburn hasn’t generated a lot of scoring or huge yards with its passing game overall, the arrivals of Stidham and Lindsey — combined with a more experienced receivers group — are making plenty of difference.
Efficiency: Auburn had one of the most efficient passing attacks in college football before Sean White’s late-season injury in 2016. Stidham has improved on those marks of accuracy and efficiency, completing nearly two-thirds of his passes — and that’s with more than a few notable drops from his receivers. He’s on pace to throw a shade less than 5 interceptions on the season, which would’ve tied for fourth-best in college football in 2016. When he has time in the pocket, Stidham is showing why he was a coveted talent.
Red-zone success: Auburn hasn’t gone to the air a lot in the red zone, but when it does it’s putting up ridiculous numbers. The Tigers are 11 for 16 on pass attempts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, with five of them going for touchdowns and three going for 15-plus yards. Auburn has a quarterback rating of 233.83 in the red zone. When the margins are at their tightest, Stidham has proven to be a reliable leader with the ball in his hands. That could prove to be huge in November.
A true go-to leader: Auburn entered 2017 with a lot of unproven talent at wide receiver and no obvious candidate for a statistical leader. That changed quickly, as junior Ryan Davis has emerged as one of the SEC’s best receivers this fall. He’s tied for the SEC lead in receptions (41) and is on pace to break Darvin Adams’ single-season record at Auburn. Davis gets tough yards as a slot receiver and has broken open several huge plays on screens. Auburn needed someone like him, and he’s stepped up.
Passing offense problems
All those sacks: Allowing 11 sacks against Clemson will do some damage to these numbers, and a few of those probably were the result of generous score-keeping by the home team. Nevertheless, Auburn has had a few more mishaps in this category. The Tigers allowed 3 sacks against still-winless Georgia Southern, 3 against LSU, and a pair of long ones against Mississippi State. Auburn’s offensive line has tightened up since the Clemson debacle, and some of these sacks are on Stidham. But pass protection is still an area of concern, especially considering what Auburn has to go up against in November.
Awful games vs. great defenses: Stidham put up some impressive numbers against the likes of Mercer, Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss. But against the only top-20 pass defenses Auburn has faced this season — Clemson and LSU — Stidham completed only 22 of 50 attempts for 244 yards. A lot of that had to do with a departure from quick, rhythm-setting passes and an all-or-nothing approach with deep passes. Still, if that’s how Auburn is going to throw it against elite competition, just know that Georgia and Alabama are tied at fourth nationally in yards allowed per attempt this season.
Not quite the ideal spread: Stidham spreads the ball around, but not quite at the level many expected. For example, Auburn’s top two receivers last fall got 20.1 percent and 13.2 percent of the targets, respectively. This season, those numbers have climbed to 24.3 and 17.2 percent. Only four receivers have had at least 8 percent of the targets this fall, and that number was at six in 2016. Nate Craig-Myers, who is averaging 16.2 yards per target, could use more balls in his direction for a more balanced passing attack.
Remember the tight end?: While Lindsey brought the promised levels of vertical passing to Auburn’s offense, one other area just hasn’t shown up — passes to the tight end, something Malzahn spoke of extensively during the offseason. Auburn has completed 3 three passes to JUCO signee Sal Cannella, and he’s lined up almost exclusively at wide receiver. H-back Chandler Cox has 3 catches for 11 yards. No matter what the coaches said in the offseason, it’s obvious the personnel just isn’t there yet for Auburn.