Auburn football: 3 keys to a crucial tilt with Tennessee
It has been nearly 3 weeks since Auburn played a football game, thanks to a scheduled bye week and then a postponement of last weekend’s game with Mississippi State due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Bulldogs’ program.
The bad news about the extended break was that it disrupted Auburn’s chance to immediately build off their best win of the season, a 48-11 drubbing of LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium that saw the Tigers post 506 yards of offense. That’s unfortunate, but as teams around the country have found out in this surreal season, COVID-19 can disrupt any sense of flow and rhythm.
The good news? After as many as 12 positive tests early last week, Auburn had none over the weekend and returned to practice after briefly shutting down operations. The Tigers will be without a few pieces when they take on Tennessee on Saturday (6 p.m. CT, ESPN), according to head coach Gus Malzahn. But the team is getting healthier.
“We have no more positive tests, which is great. We will be getting some of those guys who have been out. We won’t have them all back by the time we play the game,” Malzahn said.
It’s a vital game for Auburn, who enter 4-2, back in the Top 25 at No. 23 and looking to improve their bowl standing ahead of a tough final stretch that includes the Iron Bowl and a home date with No. 5 Texas A&M. The Tigers will face a Volunteers team also coming off a COVID-forced bye but headed very much in the opposite direction, having dropped 4 in a row after starting the season with 2 convincing victories. Despite the Vols’ struggles, Malzahn isn’t buying that Tennessee is what their record says they are.
“When you turn the film on, you can see there’s talent really on both sides of the football,” Malzahn said via Zoom this week. “There’s some really good talent. It’s just a matter of getting things together. Of course, you’ve got to assume they’ve had an off week to prepare just like we have. We’re expecting to get their best, but they’re a talented team.”
Here are 3 keys for Auburn as they look to stretch their 2-game winning streak to 3 Saturday night at home.
Tank vs. To’o To’o
Bo Nix is coming off his best 2 games of the season, including a 300 yard, 3-touchdown performance against LSU in which he threw only 6 incompletions. While growing familiarity with Chad Morris’ schemes has certainly helped, improved balance and an improving offensive line have keyed Nix’s return to SEC Freshman of the Year form.
Tank Bigsby ranks 7th in the SEC in rushing yards with 503 at a 5.65 yard-a-carry clip. That last number is important. In the past 3 games, as Bigsby’s workload has increased, the Tigers’ run game has gotten much better, averaging 5 yards per carry and carrying a 51 percent success rate in those games, per Stats Solutions. In the season’s first 3 games, Auburn averaged only 4.3 yards per carry. The Tigers need to be able to run the football to open things up for Nix, who excels in run-pass option concepts (58 percent success rate on those plays).
In other words, Tank keys everything.
The Vols defense is underperforming, according to their head coach and defensive guru, Jeremy Pruitt. But the Vols have been stingy against the run, ranking 39th in the country in yards allowed per attempt (3.8) and limiting opponents to a 44 percent success rate when running. That’s a respectable number that speaks to the strength of Tennessee’s linebacker corps, led by Henry To’o To’o, a one-man wrecking ball who does a bit of everything but is tremendous in finding the ball in run support.
— Ruscin&Zach (@RuscinZach) November 4, 2020
As the video above demonstrates, To’o To’o is also a really useful spy because of his speed, which makes establishing the run all the more important. If Tennessee can slow the run game, they can make Nix more uncomfortable, and that could make it a tougher Saturday than Auburn wants ahead of the Iron Bowl.
Can Nix build on the past 2 weeks?
Let’s move past the “Is Nix the guy?” question. The talent is there, and over the past 2 games, we’ve seen a kid growing into a new offense. He’s also only a sophomore, which people seem to forget. How much stock you put into back-to-back excellent performances against an LSU secondary that is a shell of its DBU self and an Ole Miss secondary that can’t defend air is up to you. But it’s the way Nix has shown understanding of what Morris is asking him to do that’s encouraging. The numbers below aren’t great, but the success rate is up 8 percent in the past 2 weeks, and Morris has expanded the playbook a bit:
Bo Nix's pass chart Weeks 1-7
71.3% Adj Comp
42.1% Depth Adjusted Accuracy
42.9% Success Rate
9.69% Explosive Pass Rate
7.14% Interceptable Pass Rate
38.8% Screen+RPO Throw Rate
17.4% Uncatchable Pass Rate
7.91 ADOThttps://t.co/5x5mhaj0aj pic.twitter.com/o9hiOTiSRK
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) November 11, 2020
Nix has completed 79 percent of his passes in the past 3 weeks, with a depth-adjusted accuracy of 56 percent. And while 2 of those games were against woeful defenses, the Arkansas game was against a top-20 pass unit that leads the nation in interceptions (13).
Tennessee is adequate up front, with 14 sacks in 6 games, but that’s nothing that should frighten Auburn. If Nix has time to throw and Tennessee spies Nix as expected, there will be holes in the coverage. The Vols have terrific corners, led by Bryce Thompson, one of the nation’s best defensive backs per Pro Football Focus. But the Vols have given up plenty of explosive plays in the pass game this season and rank 98th nationally in pass efficiency defense, a woeful number that speaks to how poorly their safeties have played.
This is a mismatch if “good Bo Nix” shows up, and potentially a huge confidence boost for the young quarterback as he heads toward his second Iron Bowl.
Kevin Steele’s veteran defense seeks revenge vs. Guarantano
Let’s put an asterisk by this one, because we’re not even certain Jarrett Guarantano will start for Tennessee on Saturday.
But the last time Guarantano made the trip to the Loveliest Little Village on the Plains, he had a career day, lighting Auburn up for 328 yards on a staggering 10.9 yards per attempt and tossing 2 touchdowns in Tennessee’s 30-24 win 2 years ago. Was that the high-water mark of the Guarantano era in Knoxville? It’s either that game or last year’s Gator Bowl win, which looks better and better if you’ve paid any attention to Indiana football lately.
Phil Fulmer isn’t paying me. But if I am Pruitt, I’m going Guarantano in this game against a salty Auburn defense that ranks 22nd in S&P+ defensive efficiency, buoyed mainly by a run defense that ranks 34th nationally in limiting yards per attempt (3.8) and 25th in rushing defense but only 47th in pass defense and 54th in yards allowed per pass attempt. In other words, while the Vols will want to establish the run with Eric Gray, that will be difficult. They’ll need to throw to win the game, and against opportunistic Auburn defensive backs like Smoke Monday and Roger McCreary, a veteran under center who has played solid personnel before matters.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might be tempted to be aggressive and load the box against the run in this game. That might be a mistake.
Look for Auburn to keep things simple, especially given Tennessee’s antiquated offensive scheme. Thus far this season, Jim Chaney’s offense has not adjusted to allow for less experienced players, or players with less talent, to succeed. The Vols passing offense is 96th nationally in yards per attempt, and Tennessee has been stolid and predictable on 3rd down, ranking last in 3rd-down conversion percentage. Why blitz or be aggressive when you can simplify your defense and make the Vols execute?
Guarantano can’t be a confident player right now. If Steele trusts his personnel, they shouldn’t have much problem limiting the Vols offensively, which will pay dividends as the Vols defense tires late.