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.
2016: Oklahoma 35, Auburn 19
Auburn likely won’t face the Sooners in 2017, but the Sugar Bowl loss in January provided valuable lessons for this season.
Ahead of the Jan. 2 meeting, coach Gus Malzahn addressed the challenges his team had faced and voiced his excitement about turning things around heading into the offseason.
“We had a couple of tough injuries, and we played a tough schedule going down the end. But we are close to 100 precent,” Malzahn said. “That’s really exciting from a coach’s standpoint. You just kind of feel a complete different feel from our players and our coaches ever since the bowl prep started. So, really looking forward to watching our team play.”
And during the first drive, Auburn did look like a different, healthier team. But the celebration in the Superdome didn’t last, however.
The domino effect
Auburn’s offense ran out of the tunnel and had no problem moving the football against Oklahoma. It was as though the downtime leading up to the postseason re-energized the Tigers.
Sean White, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson led the Tigers to a 7-0 lead in less than 6 minutes on Chandler Cox’s 3-yard touchdown run. But White suffered a broken arm on the drive.
Auburn was back to Square 1.
The offense sputtered while John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson alternated at quarterback. Yet the Sugar Bowl was different in other ways from previous losses last season.
Auburn totaled 339 yards of offense, scored 19 points and earned 22 first downs. That was better than the 13-7 loss at Georgia, where Gus Malzahn’s offense couldn’t produce a first down.
But when White went down this time, Auburn’s defense went down, too.
Baker Mayfield, Dede Westbrook and the rest of the Sooners amassed 524 yards of offense and 28 first downs. There was no hesitation from Bob Stoops’ team as Auburn’s defense was visibly frustrated.
Throughout the year, the defense had been good enough to keep Auburn in games — or even win games single-handedly. But when White suffered another injury, it seemed to sap the spirit of a weary defensive unit.
“There was a lot of trash talk going on. I guess we didn’t come into the game like we usually did,” defensive lineman Jeff Holland said after the game. “I guess they fought harder than us.”
Another pattern that emerged as players spoke after the loss was the anticipation for 2017. Even in the midst of disappointment, Auburn’s players could understand the leadership that would be back.
“Pretty much most of our team is coming back,” defensive back Carlton Davis said. “And we have big plans for next year.”
That’s the message going into 2017. Auburn has big plans for this season — on offense, with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at quarterback, and defense, which will return double-digit starters.
“It’s like night and day comparing spring to spring. They have that confidence, they have that edge, they’re playing very physical,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. ” It just feels really different. We’ve got a lot of guys returning. … I really like where our defense is. I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.”