2014 Key Returnees:
Reese Dismukes, Pat Miller, Avery Young, Shon Coleman, Chad Slade
Braden Smith, Xavier Dampeer, DaVante Danzey
Those five returnees? Those were the starters at the beginning of the season. Those newcomers? They had a decent number of reps, too. Particularly Danzey once Pat Miller was injured.
So, how do we measure just how Auburn's offensive line did, this season? I didn't lump in the H-back with the offensive line in my preview, and perhaps I should have. Brandon Fulse performed better than many give him credit for, but he was never going to be Jay Prosch. Prosch may have been the biggest cog that made Auburn's 2013 rushing offense so unstoppable.
I couldn't really use the stats from cfbstats.com that I have been using to measure the defensive numbers. Instead, I turned to footballoutsiders.com for the S&P+ numbers and other facts that they examine there to determine advanced stats. Honestly, a lot of it was way over my head for me to examine in the time I set aside to write this article. So, I'm going to give it the one-over-the-world examination.
Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI)
For an explanation of just what the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) is, go check out Football Outsiders' page. Auburn's offense ranked fairly highly in the FEI in most categories. Auburn's offense was 2nd in the nation in OFEI in 2014. That's an improvement over the 7th position they were in during the 2013 season. In 2012 Auburn was 119th (SCOT. LOEFFLER), 47th in 2011, #1 in 2010, and 25th in 2009.
I went through all of those ranks to highlight the years under Malzahn (and to throw some more shade at Loeffler). Auburn's offenses under Malzahn - when he's allowed to run it however he wants - have been Top 25 every season, and only his very first season with Chris Todd as QB were they not ranked in the Top 10.
The results are similar when you get into the S&P+ that FootballOutsiders is more known for. Auburn always has an effective offense under Malzahn. The 2014 offense was 5th in the nation in S&P+. The 2013 offense was 6th. The offense improved from 2013 to 2014 based on advanced stats.
What does all this have to do with the offensive line?
Unfortunately, the data wasn't there (or at least I couldn't find it) for previous seasons on just the offensive line's stats. The only OL-specific stats I could find were for 2014. That would have greatly aided an assessment of just how Auburn performed in 2014.
The line stats show things we could guess based on the "eye-test," though. Auburn didn't have as many big plays in 2014. The Opportunity Rate (% of carries that gain 5+ yards when 5+ yards are available) was 45.7%. I really wish I had the data on 2013, because I think it would have been higher than that. However, that was still good enough for 13th based in the nation at that statistic. The Power Success Rate (converting to 1st Down on 3rd or 4th with less than 2 yards to go) was 8th best in the nation. I know it didn't feel like that, but Auburn was still pretty good at converting.
So why do I feel like the offensive line just wasn't as good as it was in 2013? Numbers don't bear that out. Sure, Sean Coleman had some holding problems and struggled a bit in pass blocking versus what Greg Robinson did in 2013, but Coleman also faced more pass blocking situations than Robinson did, too. The big runs that we saw Tre Mason break weren't there as much for Cameron Artis-Payne, but Auburn ran different plays and didn't run the Buck Sweep Mason was so good at very much.
I don't think this is all on the offensive line, though. I think lacking that road-paver of an H-back in Jay Prosch is a big deal. Plus, Alex Kozan was a beast in down field run blocking in 2013. 2014's offense was different, but it was still very effective. We're all aware that offense (aside from those really weird fumbles) was not the problem for the 2014 Auburn football team.
So just what are you getting at?
Statistically, Auburn's offense was better in many ways in 2014 than it was in 2013, and in some ways worse. Auburn's offense was different in 2014 than 2013, and that's where the difference lies, I believe. I think 2014 is a great example of how Malzahn works with what he has available and adjusts to fit it.
The run blocking wasn't as great in 2013. Auburn didn't have that bruising H-back to seal off defenders on the edges. So Auburn threw the ball a bit more and had a talent like Duke Williams to throw to. The Tigers ran different types of running plays than 2013.
No, the offensive line of 2014 wasn't quite as good as the offensive line of 2013 in the fan's eye-test. But you know what? It was good enough. They weren't BAD by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I would say that in the grand scheme of things of this beast of college football, they were pretty damned GOOD. They were good enough that Reese Dismukes won the Rimington Trophy for the best center in College Football. Auburn fans were just spoiled by the pure destruction of those five men up front (and 6th on the edge) that made up 2013.
I'd like to apologize to the offensive linemen, honestly. I kept thinking all season long that they just weren't as good in 2014. In some ways they weren't, but they still deserve to be praised for the great work that they did.
Auburn's offensive line will look very different in 2015 without Reese Dismukes snapping the football. Shon Coleman is still there at left tackle. Alex Kozan will be beside him at left guard. The center position is still up in the air, but my best is on Austin Golson. Braden Smith will likely be the right guard, and Avery Young moves back outside to the right tackle position.
Will we miss Reese Dismukes? Absolutely. However, just looking at that line-up, I have to say that I pretty danged good about how this line will look in 2015. If Kozan is 100% healthy and back to his old form, that will increase the line's effectiveness by itself. Hopefully Coleman has improved a bit over his production last season. Avery Young is very good. Braden Smith has a ton of promise.
I believe two factors will play into this season's success: a much more efficient passer and a true H-back. I said it earlier, but Fulse did a better job than many give him credit for. However, he was still thrown into the position without as much practice. 2015 will see Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox in the H-back roll. Cox has a chance to be a Jay Prosch-style fullback (if not quite as JUGGERNAUTish in size). Those two things will increase Auburn's overall numbers and will help the offensive line's stats, as well.
Next Up: Wide Receivers / Tight-ends