All of Auburn football’s five losses in 2016 stung, but the Tigers won lessons in each. This week, SEC Country will examine what the Tigers can do to put themselves in a better position to win this season’s rematches.
2016: Alabama 30, Auburn 12 | 2017: at Auburn, Nov. 25
It’s the one game Auburn never wants to lose — especially four years in a row.
Last season’s trip to Tuscaloosa started out better than expected, with coach Gus Malzahn’s team hanging around in the first half.
“You have to hear about the game pretty much 365 days a year,” SEC Country Alabama writer Marq Burnett said, “so there’s really no time for intimidation to set in.”
But the same frustrations that plagued Auburn in three previous losses last season resurfaced in the second half against Alabama, including at quarterback.
More of the same
More than any of Auburn’s three previous losses last season, the third consecutive Iron Bowl loss shined a bright spotlight on the Tigers’ biggest problem — quarterback issues that doomed the offense in November.
“You’ve got to have depth,” Malzahn said after the game. “We’ll go to work on that.”
Auburn did, adding Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham and freshman Malik Willis to compete with Sean White for the starting job this season.
White did not play against Alabama, missing the game with a shoulder injury suffered two weeks earlier against Georgia. With White sidelined, three quarterbacks — John Franklin, Jeremy Johnson and Chandler Cox — combined for 7-of-19 passing. The offense crumbled.
Meanwhile, running back Kamryn Pettway was hampered by a leg injury that sidelined him for two previous games. He was held to 17 yards on 12 carries. The Tigers scored all of their points on four Daniel Carlson field goals, not nearly enough to beat Alabama.
“Auburn was really struggling on offense, but they were able to get in field goal position, and having Daniel Carlson is the ultimate weapon,” Burnett recalled.
Special teams and defense put Auburn in position to score. Stephen Roberts came up with a 58-yard punt return and freshman Daniel Thomas made 2 interceptions. But Auburn didn’t fully capitalize.
“Alabama was obviously making some mistakes. Jalen Hurts was off on some throws, but Auburn always has talent on defense,” Burnett said. “They recruit pretty well and I think it was a situation where guys tend to play above their ability in these big-time rivalry games.
“It was probably a combination of emotion, Alabama making mistakes, and Auburn is a talented team.”
This season, Auburn hopes to close the gap with Stidham at quarterback and a healthy Pettway.
Setting up 2017
Fans of both teams anticipate the game this season will decide the SEC champion and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
“I think Auburn is the most interesting team in the SEC, and probably one of the most interesting teams in the country,” Burnett said. “You have some people who legitimately believe they could make the playoff. You also have some people who believe they could be looking for a new coach after the season.”
If Stidham is the answer at quarterback, Auburn has the other key pieces to compete with Alabama.
“They’re going to have a strong running game with Pettway, and I think the defense is going to be a little bit better this year,” Burnett said. “I think it’s all going to fall on Stidham. It’s going to rely on him and how that offensive staff kind of designs things around him.”
Auburn has national championship hopes heading into this season, and beating Alabama is one of the most important steps in achieving that goal. But it’s not the only step.
“Maybe they get that game against Clemson [on Sept. 2] and they’re riding high after that win — who knows what they could do,” Burnett said. “I think it’s a turning point in Gus Malzahn’s career. If he struggles out of the gate, you’re going to hear those hot seat rumors pretty soon.”
Contributing: Justin Ferguson