With a week without a game to assess things — Auburn is 4-2 at the season’s midway point — SEC Country turned to its experts in breaking down more from the first half of the Tigers’ season.
Today, they talk about coaching decisions (good and bad) and expectations for the final six games of the regular season.
What is the best coaching decision this season?
Ferguson: It absolutely has to be Gus Malzahn giving play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee. That’s turned around Auburn’s entire season. Auburn is moving the ball better between the 20s and actually finding some success with what was a terrible red-zone offense through the first three games of the year.
Lashlee has built a revamped offense around the strengths of Sean White, and it’s working well so far. There are a lot more passes on earlier downs, which is opening up things even more for a stellar rushing attack. He’s going against some of the tried-and-true tendencies of the Malzahn era in play-calling and adding new wrinkles each week.
Shute: Starting true freshman Marlon Davidson on the defensive line. It’s always a risk to play a true freshman in one way or another, but trusting in Davidson has continued paying off for the Tigers.
Wolk: Implementing freshman Marlon Davidson as a starter on the defensive line. Davidson had to leap a talented group of linemen to get into the starting rotation, but he’s proven to be up to the challenge — and fun to watch.
And the worst?
Ferguson: This is another incredibly easy call. Auburn’s plan to rotate three quarterbacks — or five, if you count Kerryon Johnson in the Wildcat and whatever that spinning single-wing formation it tried with Chandler Cox — against Clemson cost the Tigers the game. The way the defense played, Auburn had a great chance to start the season with a bang and avoid the early 1-2 slump.
Shute: Head coach Gus Malzahn made the right decision when he handed play-calling duties over to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. His only mistake was waiting a few games into the season to make the switch.
Wolk: It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback this deep into the season, but I’m still befuddled by Kamryn Pettway’s lack of playing time against Clemson. Coaches called him the co-No. 1 with Kerryon Johnson in the preseason, but he hardly saw the field in the loss in the opener. Coaches probably wish they had that option back.
What about this team has surprised you most?
Ferguson: Auburn’s ability to keep opponents from scoring so much has to be my biggest surprise this season. The foundation was laid for an improved defense last season under Will Muschamp — the use of young defensive backs such as Carlton Davis in key spots and the building up of more quality depth along the defensive line have been huge for this 2016 success.
Kevin Steele wasn’t the most inspiring hire around the Plains at first, but he’s proven a lot of people wrong through the first six games. That’s because Auburn went with a defensive coordinator that had a similar philosophy to the one Muschamp uses. Auburn’s defensive players were able to hit it off with the new staff early and not worry about learning a brand-new scheme.
Shute: How relaxed the players remained after tough losses to Clemson and Texas A&M. It would have been easy to panic or point fingers, but the players remained positive and united, really showcasing their maturity and chemistry and eventually recovering.
Wolk: Auburn is ranked 12th in the nation in scoring defense. The Tigers might drop to 28th when referring to yards allowed, but they are keeping opponents off the scoreboard. Auburn allows 15.8 points per game. Only Florida (11.6), LSU (14.8) and Alabama (15.6) are better in the SEC.
Predict Auburn’s final record:
Ferguson: 8-4. I think Auburn can take care of business at home from here out — this off week before Arkansas is clutch for the Tigers — and beat a Georgia team in transition away from home.
An 8-4 record with this tough schedule after an incredibly shaky start should be viewed as a success on the Plains. That’s clear improvement from 2015 on both sides of the ball, and potential win No. 9 in a bowl game would create a lot of momentum for a young roster that will return a lot of starters in 2017.
Shute: 9-3. This team has the momentum to win a game that on paper should be a challenge in the second half of its schedule.
Wolk: 9-3. To get there, Auburn needs to win 3 of 4 against Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Georgia (assuming wins over Vanderbilt and Alabama A&M). As tough as 75 percent in that SEC stretch seems, I think the Tigers pull it off.