Why didn't Auburn win SEC West? It started on offense
Entering Saturday’s game against Georgia, Auburn still had SEC Championship and national title hopes. But the Bulldogs snuffed out both of those dreams with a 13-7 victory between the hedges that exposed the Tigers’ biggest weakness – their lack of a passing game.
Considering that Sean White has been the SEC’s most accurate and efficient passer for most of the season, that’s a pretty weird assessment, but it’s true. As well as Auburn has run the ball this season – the Tigers’ 282.5 rushing yards per game lead the SEC and rank seventh in the FBS – it’s biggest strength has exacerbated its fatal flaw, which was most apparent against Georgia as White went 6-for-20 for 27 yards.
AU went into the game without the conference’s leading rusher, Kam Pettway, and a compromised White. Both were overcoming injuries, but neither could have imagined Auburn being as bad as it was on offense against the Bulldogs, especially in the second half, when the Tigers produced only 32 yards and no first downs.
Through 10 games, Auburn has run the ball 70 percent of the time (514 rushes, 223 pass attempts) on its way to becoming a one-dimensional team. The Tigers even struggled with that one dimension against Georgia – not exactly Alabama, LSU or Florida against the run – by gaining just 127 yards on 32 attempts in their second-worst rushing performance of the season.
Before the Georgia debacle, Auburn’s most eye-opening game in terms of its woeful passing attack was its 29-16 home loss to Texas A&M on Sept. 17. White was his typically accurate self – completing 18 of-27 passes – but he threw for only 126 yards, 4.7 per attempt, AU’s worst average of the season entering its battle with the Bulldogs.
Sean White says he hasn't thrown in practice in two weeks and his sore shoulder affected passes against Georgia. 'But that's not an excuse'
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) November 14, 2016
A couple of factors have really hurt Auburn’s passing attack. For starters, Tony Stevens, the Tigers’ leader in catches (25), receiving yards (422) and touchdown grabs (3), has missed two of the last four games due to injury and had just one reception for 14 yards against Georgia.
On top of that, senior Marcus Davis – Auburn’s leading returning wideout – hasn’t regressed, but neither has he built upon his freshman season, when he finished with 23 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown. Plus, after Stevens, Auburn’s production at its receiver spots plummets dramatically. Kyle Davis (10 receptions, 221 yards, 1 TD) is having a decent freshman year but has made only one catch for nine yards over his last four games.
White is having a successful season statistically, but does he really scare defenses? Opponents know he’s more game-manager than gunslinger, averaging 20 attempts per game. At that rate, will he ever fully develop as a passer?
Meanwhile, junior-college transfer John Franklin III has shown nothing to indicate he can the throw the ball effectively on the FBS level. Franklin was so ineffective in the first half against Vanderbilt – he was 2-for-4 for 9 yards – Gus Malzahn turned to White to help Auburn pull out a victory even though the redshirt sophomore probably could’ve used the entire game off to rest his injured shoulder.
Another thing to ponder: Nick Marshall, a converted defensive back, ran Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense very smoothly for two years. He wasn’t the best thrower in the world, but for the most part, he got the job done.
Last season, the much-ballyhooed Jeremy Johnson could definitely pass the ball, but he tossed too many picks. White will never be a Chad Kelly, or even an Austin Allen for that matter, but if he’s healthy, he’s got to turn to the air more often to keep defenses honest while giving them a different look from time to time.
With all due respect to Malzahn and offensive coordinator/play-caller Rhett Lashlee, they had to realize Auburn’s 70-30 run-pass ratio wasn’t going to get them on a par with Alabama. Every team in America knows what AU likes to do on offense, and the Crimson Tide – which is allowing only 68.8 rushing yards per game to lead the FBS — will be licking its chops come the Iron Bowl.
Until then, it’s probably in Auburn’s best interest to rest White for this Saturday’s home game against Alabama A&M. And if Franklin happens to start, maybe he can get some experience – albeit against an FCS opponent – throwing the ball.