Auburn may have same record but is better than it was at this point a year ago
If it feels like Auburn has been 4-2 at the midpoint of a season before, it’s because it has been – and recently. At this point last year, the Tigers won four of their first six games (while going 1-2 in the SEC) while they prepared to face Arkansas, coincidentally their next opponent on Saturday night.
Through the first third of 2015, Auburn struggled with its conference slate and began the season 2-2 after suffering losses to both LSU and Mississippi State. But the Tigers rebounded by beating San Jose State at home and winning at Kentucky. Even though this year’s version of Gus Malzahn’s team has mimicked Auburn’s record from a year ago at this point, there have been obvious differences.
For starters, the Tigers have won three straight games, something they haven’t done since opening the 2014 season with 5 consecutive victories. Auburn is also ranked, something it wasn’t for most of last season.
The Tigers were at a turning point entering their home game with LSU on Sept. 24. Starting with the game-ending touchdown that wasn’t against the Bayou Bengals, luck has definitely been on Auburn’s side in 2016.
As you prepare for the final stretch of the season, here is a review of how Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) fared during the first half of the year:
Sean White is making Malzahn’s decision to go with him as Auburn’s starting quarterback look really good. After White threw for just 126 yards on 27 attempts in the Tigers’ 29-16 home loss to Texas A&M on Sept. 17, Malzahn could have given in to the temptation to turn to John Franklin III.
But he stuck with White. And that trust has resulted in the redshirt sophomore becoming the SEC’s top-rated passer.
Another key is that Malzahn decision has worked out in Auburn’s favor as well. The Tigers were already shorthanded at running back before Malzahn chose to dismiss Jovon Robinson in August, but other players have responded in a big way to fill that void.
With Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson in its backfield, Auburn is one of only four FBS teams to have two running backs with 500 or more yards. They’ve helped the Tigers average 262.8 rushing yards per game, good for third in the SEC.
In addition to White, Auburn also has had another success in the passing game. Tony Stevens has become the Tigers’ top wideout, leading AU in catches (24), yards (408) and receiving TDs (3), all career-highs.
Auburn entered fall camp with two major questions: Would Kevin Steele – the Tigers’ third defensive coordinator in three seasons – succeed? And would defensive end Carl Lawson finally overcome his injuries to have a productive year? The answer to both has been a resounding yes.
Under Steele, Auburn is fifth in the SEC in total defense, allowing 346.8 yards per game. The Tigers have been particularly impressive against the pass, yielding 199.7 aerial yards per contest to rank third in the conference.
Meanwhile, not only has Lawson been healthy all season, he has produced like an NFL talent. He’s tied for second in the SEC with 6.0 sacks and is tied for ninth with 7.0 tackles for loss. Lawson and fellow D-linemen Montravius Adams and Marlon Davidson have all stood out.
Another number that jumps out for Auburn has been its scoring defense. The Tigers are allowing 16 points per game, which is 4th in the SEC and 11th in the FBS.
Davidson has been a pleasant surprise on the defensive line. The 6-foot-3, 273-pounder has made 17 tackles – including 3 for a loss – and 2.5 sacks.
Defensive lineman Derrick Brown has appeared in all six games, but the Tigers are looking for more production from him in the second half. Brown has made three stops and has added half a sack and half a tackle for loss.
Malzahn liked the receivers in his 2016 recruiting class, and a few of them have made an impact. Kyle Davis is second on the team with 212 receiving yards on his 9 catches, which include a touchdown. Nate Craig-Myers has 2 receptions for 48 yards and a score. Eli Stove has also made 2 catches for 20 yards.
Pettway is one of two redshirt freshmen who have made a major impact. Two weeks ago against Mississippi State, Pettway rushed 39 times for 169 yards and 3 TDs – all career-highs.
Javaris Davis has appeared in all six games as a reserve defensive back. The Jacksonville, Fla. product has chipped in with 13 tackles, 3 pass breakups and an interception.
With Auburn coming off a 7-6 season, the Tigers didn’t have many returning stars. The list begins with Daniel Carlson, who was a finalist last season for the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the nation’s best kicker.
Carlson, who connected on 85.2 percent of his field goal attempts last season, has been even better this year. The junior from Colorado Springs has missed only one of his 14 tries (92.9 percent) to rank seventh in the FBS.
Marcus Davis, Auburn’s leading returning receiver who had 30 catches for 182 and a touchdown in 2015, is approaching last season’s output. The senior from Boynton Beach, Fla. has 13 receptions for 100 yards.
Nickel back Rudy Ford, Auburn’s leading tackler the last two seasons, tops the Tigers with 37 stops. Cornerback Carlton Davis, who made the freshman All-SEC team last season, leads Auburn with 7 pass breakups and has added 19 tackles.
Offensive linemen Alex Kozan and Braden Smith, named to the preseason All-SEC team, have been instrumental in the running game.