When Auburn fans have worried this season — and for a team on the verge of completing a 10-2 regular season that could end in a College Football Playoff berth, there’s been a lot of worry — 99.7 percent of that worry has been over the Auburn offense.
But Tigers fans have had good reasons for the one-sidedness of their teeth-gnashing. The “Steele Curtain” silenced any concerns about their ability to reload on the defensive line by the end of the first half of their season opener, then went on to stuff the likes of Clemson, Mississippi State and Georgia in a sack en route to the fourth-lowest yards-per-play allowed mark in the FBS.
The offense, meanwhile, spent its two biggest pre-Georgia games of the season giving up 11 sacks to Clemson and failing to take a single second-half snap inside LSU territory.
With the various offensive meltdowns of 2016 likewise still fresh in the Plains’ collective memory, the assumption entering the Georgia showdown was that the offense of Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey still had everything to prove against the Dawgs, butcherings of Mississippi State, Arkansas, etc. be damned.
But prove everything they did, hanging 40 points and nearly 7 yards a play vs. Kirby Smart’s defense, the best numbers posted against Georgia this season by a sizable distance.
With that performance on the books, it’s time to acknowledge that — in conference play, at least — something special has happened this season for Auburn on both sides of the ball.
·In SEC play, the 2010 AU offense averaged 478.3 YPG and 40.2 PPG and the 2013 offense averaged 485.2 YPG and 38.4 PPG. The 2017 Auburn offense is currently averaging 503.0 YPG and 43.0 PPG.
— StatTiger (@StatTiger) November 12, 2017
The above numbers are the best in the SEC. Unsurprisingly, they’re not a function of Auburn increasing its tempo, either; the Tigers averaged 6.88 yards per SEC play in 2010, 6.65 in 2013, and 7.06 to this point in 2017.
The comparison is distorted to some extent by the current Tigers having not yet played Alabama, but barring total disaster against the Tide, the 2017 offense should still rank directly alongside the 2010 and 2013 editions as the most productive of the Malzahn era.
If that comes as a surprise, consider that Jarrett Stidham, Kerryon Johnson and Co. have played 14 halves of SEC football, dominated for 13 of them, and only collapsed in the other due primarily to its own coaches’ inexplicable conservatism. Whenever Auburn has “kept the hammer down,” to use Malzahn’s own post-LSU terminology, no SEC opponent has been able to keep pace.
Of course, no other SEC opponent is Alabama. It’s arguable no other SEC opponent is the equal of the motivated and healthy Clemson defense that destroyed Auburn in Week 2, either. And for all the things the Tiger offense has done well, it still struggles to complete intermediate passes that can keep the chains moving; against Georgia the Tigers had seven attempts at converting a third down longer than 3 yards, and failed on all seven. It’s safe to assume that against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, Auburn’s going to have a difficult time reaching its established SEC ceiling.
The good news for Auburn fans is if you’re breathing the same rarefied air as the Tigers’ 2010 and 2013 offenses, your ceiling is high enough you don’t have to reach it to win the game. Just ask Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, who played far-from-perfect Iron Bowls and won anyway. Newton and Marshall didn’t have the advantage of playing opposite a defense half as airtight as the current Auburn model, either. There will be a step down against Nick Saban’s defense, sure. But if it’s a step rather than a tumble down the entire staircase, Auburn should be OK.
And there’s no shortage of reasons to think a step will be all it is:
The game’s in Jordan-Hare. Auburn has played three league games at home in 2017, and torched its opponents in all three. The Tigers put up the highest point totals and yards-per-play marks allowed this season by both Mississippi State and Georgia by a wide margin, and while not quite as spectacular against Ole Miss, still posted the second-highest point total and third-highest yardage total allowed by the Rebels.
Kerryon Johnson and the Auburn offensive line have been playing well. Johnson took it relatively easy in his Week 4 return from injury against Missouri, and has been one of the nation’s best running backs since, rushing for 988 yards in just 7 games. Even more impressively, he’s averaged a steady 5.3 yards an attempt in that span despite having not broken off a run longer than 22 yards since Week 6.
Alabama’s injury-stricken front seven has been playing well, just not that well. They’re Alabama, of course. But their previous two SEC games doubled as their season’s worst two SEC performances in rush defense, with LSU and Mississippi State both cracking the 3.5-yards-per-carry mark and the Bulldogs matching the national average for rushing success rate. Based on recent results, Auburn should not have to abandon the ground game to move the ball.
Relative to expectation, Gus Malzahn’s offenses have not struggled against Alabama. Auburn has faced Nick Saban’s defense five times with Malzahn on its sideline and its starting quarterback in the lineup, and only once (in 2011, natch) has it failed to surpass Alabama’s average yards-per-play allowed for the season. Twice Malzahn’s offense gained more per-play than any other Tide opponent that regular season (2009, 2014), and gained more than all but one in 2013.
Stidham might not be Newton or Marshall. But he’s not Jeremy Johnson, either — and Malzahn’s history against the Tide argues that will be enough for the Auburn offense to keep its head above water.
Of course, when that history spans only five games, it may not mean much. When the fourth is against Alabama, what you’ve done in your three previous SEC home games may not mean much. When you’re trying to rush effectively against the Crimson Tide’s front seven, having rushed effectively against Mississippi State’s or Arkansas’s front sevens really may not mean much.
But those same doubts were all in place before Auburn faced Georgia, too. The Tigers showed against the Dawgs that what they’d accomplished against the SEC’s also-rans did say something about what they could accomplish against its heavyweights. The bell was answered.
They’re good enough. Now they just have to answer again. Knowing Johnson’s fire, Malzahn’s — and Lindsey’s — ingenuity, Stidham’s composure, a Jordan-Hare Stadium as electric as it’s ever been demanding they rise to the occasion, why not expect them to do just that?