First and 10: Like it or not, Auburn is more complete than SEC king Alabama
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
It’s time we take Auburn seriously. Not just in the SEC race, but among the select few teams that could win the whole damn thing.
All it took was – I know this is going to shock you — a quarterback who fits what Tigers coach Gus Malzahn wants from the most important position on the field.
And, of course, Malzahn calling plays again.
What made Auburn special in 2010 and 2013 – and what made Malzahn one of the game’s most innovative coaches.
“I’m excited about where we’re going,” Malzahn says.
How could he not be? Before the season began, Malzahn was the coach who would cash $26 million in walking money and Auburn was going to chase its tail once again with another coaching hire while trying to catch big, bad Alabama.
Before the season began, Malzahn could never find the right offensive coordinator and ran off the past two. He was calling plays again, and would do so with a freshman quarterback, who just happened to be a legacy whose dad made the hearts of all things WDE flutter. If anything were ripe for complete and utter failure, this was it.
A funny thing happened along the way to that implosion: QB Bo Nix became exactly what Malzahn needed, and an Auburn team that had every answer except who would play quarterback is suddenly as dangerous as any team in college football.
Like it or not, Auburn is more complete than SEC king Alabama. The Tide has an All-World offense, but the defense is wildly inconsistent (more on that later) despite having played no one of significance – and just gave up 273 rushing yards last weekend to Ole Miss.
Auburn is strong on both sides of the ball — and Gus got his groove back.
“It’s not like Gus forgot how to coach,” one SEC coach told me this weekend. “It’s easy to just say, it’s the coach’s fault. There’s usually a lot more to it.”
Malzahn made smart moves since 2013, when Auburn came within a play or two of winning its 2nd national title in 4 years (one with him as offensive coordinator; one as head coach). He also made some bad decisions.
He hired Kevin Steele after the 2015 season to run his defense, and the Tigers have been among the nation’s elite since. He recruited elite thrower Jarrett Stidham 3 years ago, then failed to mold his offense around Stidham’s talented arm.
He zeroed in on the lines of scrimmage as a recruiter, and now he has the best defensive line in the SEC (and maybe the nation), and 5 seniors on the offensive line (maybe the best line in the SEC) that are absolutely crushing defensive front sevens.
Now look: For the first time since Nick Marshall was his best option running the ball and heaving dewdrop deep balls, Auburn has a quarterback to fit Malzahn’s system. Nix is more of a thrower (more on that later) but is athletic enough to be a legitimate threat in the run game.
When Malzahn has a legitimate threat running the ball at the quarterback spot, and an experienced offensive line complemented by elite skill players, heaven help the defenses in the SEC.
When it’s all clicking, it’s a beautiful symphony of speed and strength, with a dash of dynamic deception. It might look pretty, but it’s devastatingly dangerous.
While the untrained eye sees bells and whistles, the defense receives deadening body blows.
Over and over and over.
Last weekend against Mississippi State – after doing just enough to help Auburn to big wins over Oregon and Texas A&M – Nix ran for 56 yards and a touchdown and threw for 335 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Auburn could have scored 70 on a respectable SEC defense, and made a resounding statement to the rest of the league that 4 teams can win more than the conference championship game in Atlanta.
The Tigers can win it all.
2. Passing is fancy
Auburn has made the jump into the nation’s elite because Nix has quickly picked up Malzahn’s passing offense. And that’s not an easy ask.
It took Stidham nearly a full season to figure it out — the same Stidham who is Tom Brady’s backup with the New England Patriots, and the same Stidham who many believe could be Brady’s eventual successor.
Nix began the season slowly (the Oregon game was painful to watch), but in his past 3 games, he has completed 68 percent of his passes for 596 yards, with 4 TDs and 0 INTs. Proficiency in the passing game isn’t just about offensive balance and taking pressure off the run game.
It’s about getting dynamic receivers Seth Williams, Eli Stove and Anthony Schwartz involved. It’s about stretching the defense with their speed (Schwartz might be the fastest player in college football) and forcing safeties to honor that deep threat instead of creeping closer to the line of scrimmage in run support.
It’s forcing defenses to choose their poison, an enviable position for any play caller.
“They do so many things well,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “They have good players and they’re put in position to be successful. They know how to stress a defense.”
3. Welcome to the race, Aubie, The Epilogue
Auburn has the best combination of wins of any team in college football.
The Tigers’ win at Texas A&M is more impressive than Clemson’s win at home against the Aggies. Auburn’s win against Oregon on a neutral field to begin the season is matched only by LSU (at Texas) and Georgia (home vs. Notre Dame).
Oklahoma and Ohio State, despite the hype, have played no one. Alabama has played no one.
In fact, if all things play out as they should (see: favorites holding serve and winning), the winner of Auburn’s game at LSU on Oct. 26 will likely be the nation’s No. 1 ranked team when the first College Football Playoff poll is released on Nov. 5.
The first step is taking care of this week’s game at Florida. The Gators aren’t a top 10 team (more on that later), and don’t match up well with Auburn (Florida’s run defense has been average).
These are the games that, despite their importance and difficulty, Malzahn’s balanced offenses chew up and spit out. They did it in 2010 and 2013, and have a considerably better defense this season than those two SEC championship seasons.
Of course, Nix isn’t Cam Newton or even Nick Marshall.
He’s just the perfect fit for the system.
4. Defending the indefensible
One is an anomaly, two is a trend. Only we’re not talking games, here. We’re talking seasons.
Lost in the annoyance of Nick Saban with his defense after last weekend’s easy win over Ole Miss is the reality that his pride and joy – the defense, the foundation of his program – hasn’t been right since 2017.
Saban admitted this past offseason that Alabama didn’t play to his “standard” on defense last season. Frankly, it might have been the worst defense of his then-12 seasons.
That is until this season rolled around.
Alabama is average at stopping the run and gives up big plays in the secondary. The run defense, for years the critical wall on defense, has given up 414 yards in 2 SEC games.
No one ever confused South Carolina and Ole Miss with Georgia, Auburn and LSU – teams with a history of running with power and speed.
Alabama is 38th in the nation in total defense, a long way from the typical top 10 they’re accustomed to seeing in Tuscaloosa. If you’re using conference games only (467.5 ypg.), Alabama would be 118th in the nation.
Again, this is Ole Miss and South Carolina. The heavy lifting in the SEC hasn’t even begun.
The Tide loses containment on the edge, and they’re pushed around up the middle. They take poor angles and don’t wrap up when tackling.
Alabama has given up 2 100-yard games this season, including to a backup quarterback (Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee).
Now imagine what Auburn can do with a senior-dominated offensive line and a run game at full throttle. Or LSU with its spread offense. Or Georgia if it lines up and runs right at Alabama.
Trends can be stopped if they’re spotted early. The problem is, this has been going on since last season.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Auburn (-3) at Florida
- Troy at Missouri (-25.5)
- Georgia (-25) at Tennessee
- Vanderbilt at Ole Miss (-7.5)
- Utah State (+25) at LSU
Last week: 3-2 (.600)
Season: 10-16 (.385)
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week an NFL scout breaks down the draft prospects of an SEC player. This week: TE Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt.
“He’s a really intriguing guy. Teams have 1st-round grades on him right now. The only hesitancy is the system he’s playing in – his hand is on the ground a lot (run blocking).
“He’s a big guy, a physical guy, so he’s going to give you that ability to hold the edge. Really soft hands, and uses his body well to shield defenders. He can get down the field, too. A lot of what you want out of your tight end. We just haven’t seen enough of him after the catch with the ball in his hands. I think he can be a guy who’s dynamic after the catch, but I need to see it on a consistent basis this season.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing).
1. LSU: A sleepy, noon kick game against a Group of 5 team (Utah State) that can throw it downfield.
2. Auburn: The idea that Bo Nix will be intimidated by an SEC road game is now officially dead.
3. Georgia: The plan this week vs. Tennessee: get better on the outside on offense with young WRs George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock.
4. Alabama: Imagine being on scholarship and playing defense for Alabama – and having to deal with an unhappy Saban.
5. Florida: These are the games you want to avoid: What you do worst (run defense), the other guy does best (run the ball).
6. Missouri: We’d be in a completely different place with Missouri if the Tigers hadn’t noodled around in the season opener against Wyoming.
7. Texas A&M: Let’s just chalk up last week’s near miss against Arkansas as a natural letdown from the Auburn loss – because the alternative is too hideous to imagine for the $75 million man.
8. Mississippi State: I feel like I’m watching a repeat of last season, when it took the Bulldogs half a season to figure the quarterback spot.
9. South Carolina: Gamecocks are the best 2-3 team … you don’t want me to go there, do you, Cocky?
10. Kentucky: Beginning to think the loss to Florida will linger the entire year for this team. That, and Sawyer Smith is a big step down from Terry Wilson.
11. Ole Miss: Don’t know what to make of the Rebels, other than they’re better than 3 teams beneath them. And Rich Rodriguez is pretty good at scoring points.
12. Vanderbilt: A game that both Vandy and Ole Miss must have to have to reach the postseason and get 15 more practices. Because that’s what 2019 is all about right now.
13. Tennessee: The plan: Show some semblance of fight against Georgia so your team doesn’t completely go into the tank with a winnable game up next (vs. Mississippi State).
14. Arkansas: Two weeks to prepare for a conference game at Kentucky that could break a 13-game SEC losing streak.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t understand why everyone on television says the Gators aren’t a top 10 team. They finished in the top 10 last year, right? They haven’t lost this year, right? What am I missing?
Fort Mill, S.C.
Jenny: Florida’s problem is it’s not good enough on the offensive line to line up and trade blows with the SEC elite. And it’s not strong enough on the inside of the defensive line to not get pushed around in the run game against the SEC elite. Those are two bad places to be with Auburn coming to town, and LSU and Georgia in the near future.
You can get away with a limited run game if you’re flawless in the passing game and the defense can’t zero in on stopping the run. Florida is good enough at receiver to do that, but protecting QB Kyle Trask – and Trask playing nearly flawless ball – is a big ask against the SEC elite.
If the Gators are going to win any of the big 3 games ahead, they must create multiple turnovers on defense with their pass rush. If they can’t, they’ll go from top 10 to the bottom of the top 25 in a month.
9. Numbers: 109
Tennessee’s horrific start to the season can be traced to the regression of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. In 2018, Guarantano threw an interception one out of every 89.3 dropbacks (8th in the nation). This season, it’s one in every 25 (109th). The careless ball security, more than anything, is the difference between a 3-1, we’re making progress start to the season, and a 1-3 start, the coach must be fired start.
10. Quote to note
LSU coach Ed Orgeron on the recent struggles on defense: “The scoring drives are averaging 1:48. That’s not a lot of time on the sidelines (for the defense). So when we have a quick scoring drive, we’re going to have to make sure guys out there are fresh. Substitute. We’re not going to slow down the offense. There may be a time when we have to slow it down, but when you score 66 points, you gotta let ’em go.”