Auburn football: Don't let the record fool you, Tigers have major questions
You’re 2-1. You looked a heck of a lot better than a week ago against Georgia. It took some moxie to come back late in the 4th quarter of Saturday’s win over Arkansas.
But other than that, there’s not much to celebrate.
The 2-1 record and Top-25 ranking appears about as fraudulent as the Bo Nix intentional grounding call was to spoil Sam Pittman’s 2nd SEC win as a coach of the Razorbacks. A win is a win, especially in 2020, but there is plenty of reason for skepticism about the Auburn start.
Before one can even begin to knit-pick the enigma that is Chad Morris’ offense, there’s a Tiger defense to talk about. The Tigers made Feleipe Franks look like his successor at Florida.
Auburn scored 30 and that should be good enough for an easier win than what unfolded in Jordan-Hare.
What is more concerning than an Auburn offense still looking to hit its stride is what Kevin Steele’s defense did in almost allowing the unimaginable.
— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) October 10, 2020
Franks is no scrub, but he shouldn’t be torching the Tigers’ defense to the tune of 318 yards and 4 touchdowns. Neither should Arkansas’ 2nd-string running back Trelon Smith, who made his 1st career start because Rakeem Boyd was injured.
Smith not only found modest success carrying the ball for 81 yards on 21 carries, but he was quite a headache for Auburn linebackers as he also caught 6 passes for 78 yards and a score.
Other than a late drive when the Razorbacks were trying to kill the clock, the only time Steele’s defense kept Arkansas off the scoreboard in the 2nd half was when the Hogs made a puzzling decision to pull Franks at the goal line in favor of freshman Malik Hornsby.
The Razorbacks comfortably moved down the field on 3 straight 2nd-half drives. They racked up 437 yards throughout the game, never committing a turnover. Auburn’s defense has now allowed 421 yards of offense a game through 3 contests, which would have ranked 89th in the country last season, right behind Fresno State.
No one expected the Tigers defense to be as formidable as last season after the team lost players like Derrick Brown, Noah Igbinoghene and Marlon Davidson, but Arkansas isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut.
Auburn entered the week with the worst 3rd-down defense in the country, allowing opponents to convert on 63.6 percent of 3rd-down plays. The Tigers appeared to be on the right path early against Arkansas as the Razorbacks failed to convert on their first 6 tries, but the Hogs converted 6 of their last 9 3rd-down tries and were 1-for-1 on 4th down.
The Tigers still have some explosive teams in the SEC looming in the immediate future. Receivers such as Shi Smith and Terrace Marshall are coming in the next 4 games; so are offensive-minded coaches Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach.
And with an offense that won’t be setting any record this year, the Auburn defense may just be this team’s biggest hole.
Pegging Auburn’s defense as its biggest pimple is saying something considering the jury is still out on Morris’ offense. The Tigers entered Week 3 of SEC play averaging just 65 yards rushing a game. Nix led the team in rushing attempts and also had the team’s longest carry of the season of just 13 yards.
A lack of any consistent run-threat forced the Tigers to be a one-dimensional passing team against Georgia. The Bulldogs made life quite difficult for Nix and kept the Tigers out of the end zone.
For the first half against Arkansas, Auburn was one-dimensional, but it was completely by choice. The Tigers easily eclipsed their 39 total rushing yards from Week 2 by midway through their 2nd drive against the Hogs.
Tank Bigsby was the definition of his nickname, averaging over 9 yards a carry on his way to finishing the first two quarters with 106 yards rushing. Nix completed just 4 passes in the first half, but it didn’t matter when the offense ran that well. Of the final 20 offensive plays for Auburn in the 1st half, 17 were carries.
But when the rain stopped at half, the ground game dried up with it.
Auburn mustered just 44 yards rushing in the second half when it seemed all the team had to do was kill the clock and not let a 17-point lead evaporate. Instead of a continuation of what worked in the first 30 minutes, 8 of the Tigers’ first 12 plays of the 2nd half were designed passes. Nix completed 3 of the passes and was sacked twice as Arkansas forced a punt and scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
Game script for the rest of the game necessitated that Morris dial up more passing plays thanks to the Razorbacks’ comeback, but it’s alarming that something so effective in the 1st half was rendered moot in the 2nd.
Nix completed 60 percent of his passes, but just barely (60.7). His 6.4 yards per attempt was better than his season average of 6.1, but still one of the worst in the SEC.
While Seth Williams is averaging just 4 receptions a game, the emergence of Anthony Schwartz as a reliable pass-catching option could help open things up down the road for the Tigers’ struggling aerial plan.
Through 3 games the Auburn offense has failed to live up to any of the expectations head coach Gus Malzahn set for what Morris’ offense. That is a microcosm of the team as a whole.
A number, as in a ranking, is still going to be attached to the Auburn name in the Associated Press poll. But make no mistake: This Auburn team is about as flimsy as the officiating call that allowed its victory on Saturday.