Auburn football: 5 preseason takes on the Tigers that haven't come true
No one’s projections are flawless, especially when dealing with a bunch of 20-year-old kids. There are so many variables to account for on and off the field, let alone the how a pandemic may affect consequences.
Teams like Alabama and Georgia can pretty much be relied upon for a no-brainer, top-10 finish. Others, well there’s a lot more room for error. Auburn is one of those “other” teams. Bringing in a new OC and replacing several defensive stars that made it tough to forecast how the 2020 season would unfold.
So what are 5 things that already seem to not be going as anticipated?
A new explosive offense
Chad Morris was brought in after a failed tenure at Arkansas to overhaul Gus Malzahn’s offense that ranked 3rd in the SEC in scoring (33.2) and 6th in yards per game (406.5) last season but trailed a majority of the conference in explosive plays. Last year’s team averaged just 5.6 yards per play and only produced 55 plays of at least 20 yards, both of which ranked 10th in the conference.
“We want to be the most explosive offense in the country,” Morris said before the season. “That is our goal. We’re going to do everything we can to do that.”
So how exactly has that gone? Not so great.
The Tigers are actually averaging fewer yards per play (5.2), only more than Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Worse, they’ve produced just 11 explosive plays of at least 20 yards, only more than Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Granted, Auburn has played Georgia and the Arkansas game was in a monsoon for 2 quarters, but as the 21.7 scoring average suggests, the new Morris offense isn’t exactly off to the best start.
Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz are the best SEC WR duo
Many had hoped Auburn’s top returning receiver, Seth Williams, capable of making jaw-dropping catches, would pair with one of the conference’s fastest receivers in Anthony Schwartz to be the deadliest duo in the conference.
Seth Williams absolutely Moss’d him 👀
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 26, 2020
Through 3 games, however, Williams and Schwartz are probably more like the 5th-best. They have combined for 413 yards and 3 touchdowns. The SEC’s top duo from a yardage standpoint is Ole Miss’ Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah, who have combined for 817 receiving yards. Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith at Alabama (712), Terrace Marshall and Arik Gilbert (technically a tight end) at LSU (601), Kyle Pitts (a tight end in position name only) and Kadarius Toney at Florida (511), and Shi Smith and Nick Muse at South Carolina (427) all have combined for more yards.
On a scoring front, all of those duos except Smith and Muse have scored at least as many touchdowns as Williams and Schwartz. Florida’s duo leads the way with 11 TD catches.
Bo Nix makes the big leap
We’ve seen it countless times, quarterbacks making their biggest improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. No one embodies that more than Joe Burrow. Pundits weren’t expecting a Burrow-like year out of Auburn’s sophomore QB, but they thought many of the same issues that plagued him last season wouldn’t carry over to 2020.
Instead, it has been more of the same.
Nix’s completion percentage is still below 60% (56.8), a hair lower than it was in 2019, and he’s failed to be much better at creating longer throws with an average of 6.3 yards per attempts, the 12th best in the SEC.
It’s awfully difficult for an OC to produce explosive plays and for a pair of receivers to lead the conference when a QB struggles to create chunk plays downfield.
JaTarvious Whitlow’s replacement
Whitlow was Auburn’s starting RB the past 2 seasons but transferred to FCS-level Western Illinois. It was believed that a running-back-by-committee approach, perhaps spearheaded by D.J. Williams, would be the best bet for Whitlow’s replacement.
Tank Bigsby emerging as the lead workhorse is by no means a shock, as he was the Tigers’ highest-rated recruit in this class, but nobody predicted he’d take over this soon.
Bigsby has more than twice the amount of carries and yardage as the next closest Auburn RB and has only seen his usage increase each week from 7 touches in Week 1, to 19 in Week 2 and then 28 against Arkansas when accounting for receptions and kick returns as well.
Shaun Shivers and Williams have both missed time due to injury, but even when both return to full health, it looks like the Tigers will stick with the true freshman for the majority of carries.
The Iron Bowl is an SEC Championship Game play-in
Depending on where you looked, many had the Tigers finishing 2nd in the West behind Alabama or 3rd behind LSU, rendering the Auburn vs. Alabama game as the deciding factor for which team represents the division. This year’s Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa, where Auburn hasn’t won since the “Cam-back” in 2010.
But will it even matter, beyond typical state pride?
The Tigers are 2-1 but should have lost to Arkansas and are in danger of losing a few more with 4 games against ranked opponents ahead. Maybe the Razorbacks are better than people give them credit for, but it’s hard to see Auburn rolling through the rest of its schedule unscathed for a meaningful matchup with Nick Saban.