Man, that Phil Steele. He's a smart guy.
Over the off season, he wrote about the number of "returning lettermen" for every team in college football for 2015. He noted that some teams who returned the most lettermen from 2013 to 2014 turned their records around completely. Some teams near the bottom saw their records reverse in the bad way from 2013 to 2014. So examining roster turnover from 2014 to 2015 was a possible indicator of which teams MIGHT struggle in 2015.
It's not a perfect metric. Florida was near the bottom of returning lettermen in 2015, and their season worked out nicely overall given their past records. However, they still obviously struggled with depth in a number of areas, which derailed their hot start right in time for the LSU game. They still finished at 10-4 and were the SEC East champions, though. That was partly due to a weak SEC East, too.
Where was Auburn on Phil Steele's list? Well, the Tigers were fifth from the bottom. Just two spots above Florida. Given this, it's not all that surprising that Auburn's record slipped from 8-5 in 2014 to 7-6 in 2015. Perhaps we should have expected it.
I wrote about this back in June when we were all just desperate for some football stuff to talk about. I thought it was an interesting topic worthy of discussion. I did mention that there was cause for concern, but I still thought things would work out for the Tigers.
I Was Wrong About Almost All Of It
I stated in my article about Steele's numbers that where we lost players, we had capable back-ups or saw players primed to step up. Not so much.
Where we lost key players, we saw struggles. Some of that isn't the fault of the players on the field, it was due to depth. Auburn didn't have the luxury of 5-6 defensive tackles, this season. For much of the season it was just two real productive ones in Russell and Adams. Maurice Swain did pick up production somewhat, but not enough. The real bright spot was Devaroe Lawrence during the latter half of the season. That gives us hope for next season.
Lose a QB? Hmm, maybe we didn't appreciate Nick Marshall enough. We struggled there. I definitely didn't see that coming.
A glaring omission in 2015 was the lack of a TE. We really missed CJ Uzomah; although it's not as if we utilized him enough during his career, anyway. This position was also affected by tragedy. Auburn was left with just two scholarship players at tight-end: a redshirt freshman and a true freshman. In terms of experience, it wouldn't have been much different, but the loss of Jakell Mitchell in December of 2014 dealt a huge blow to the team on and off the field. Mitchell was garnering a lot of praise, and I suspect we would have seen a lot more of the tight-end if tragedy hadn't struck.
Who would step up to fill the shoes of Quan Bray and Sammie Coates? Ricardo Louis had a great beginning to the season, but his production disappeared when Auburn's attempts at throwing the ball downfield disappeared. Tony Stevens had a good second half to the season, but not great. Oh, and then there's Duke. We sure could have used a productive Duke Williams this season!
Austin Golson did an admirable job, but we still missed Reese Dismukes. And when Golson got hurt, we had to turn to our third string Center, because our second string center was out due to a brawl involving our former starting wide-receiver (but more on that, later).
The Defensive Backs and Transfers
I thought Auburn would rely on the young defensive backs, and they did. This is one of the few things I was almost right about. Auburn lost so many DBs through graduation or transfers that I was very worried about the defensive backs.
2015 has a lot of bad memories, but I will forever appreciate the work done by Will Muschamp during that year for one thing: snagging Carlton Davis away from Ohio State.
Auburn lost a ton of players in the defensive backfield over the course of the season. With injuries and struggles, Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson played a number of different combinations. I would be willing to bet that around half of the games this season there was a unique starting lineup on defense from the other games.
Three freshmen got a lot of playing time in the backfield: Tim Irvin, Jeremiah Dinson, and Carlton Davis. Unfortunately, Irvin and Dinson suffered injuries that limited or ended their season near the midway point. Carlton Davis, though? Carlton was a bright ray of sunshine.
Auburn suffered because of injuries. Josh Holsey was lost in Game 2. Tray Matthews was limited for a large portion of the season. Auburn didn't have the quality of depth to rotate players enough, although players like Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin did play well in their appearances.
Still, though, where might things have stood if Derrick Moncrief, Kalvarez Bessent, Joe Turner, and Mackenroe Alexander had stayed? Maybe no better, but there would have been more options.
How Did All This Affect 2015?
There's a reason this is my first post on the subject, and that's because it leads in to the others. Auburn lost a ton of production from the 2014 season, and it showed in 2015 as struggles and injuries mounted.
As I said before, I'm not going to use these as "excuses" for 2015. There are no excuses. There are reasons for struggles, and it is reasonable for Auburn fans to question why the team struggled in many of these areas. You could present a reasonable argument that it is frightening for there to be so many different issues.
This one, though, doesn't really fit that mold. Attrition happens in college football through the natural process of players graduating every season. Auburn had a lot of transfers, but that's not uncommon when a new coaching staff takes over. That's particularly true when it appears the new staff is much tougher than the old one. Will Muschamp's style is different from Ellis Johnson's, and Travaris Robinson was different from the previous DB coaches.
Still, though, losing as large a percentage of lettermen as Auburn did from 2014 to 2015 certainly played a big part in setting up troubles Auburn would face. This is something we should have remembered from 2010 to 2011, as well. A team will struggle when so many players - especially key contributors - leave.
What you expect and hope for is that everyone else behind will step up. In terms of the DBs they did. In terms of everyone else? Not so much. Players not stepping up to fill gaps from those departed is something that was always a real risk of going wrong in 2015. Not all of them failed; some weren't even given much opportunity (like the TEs), and one player was removed from the team mid-season. Could the subject of player attrition (natural or otherwise) hurt Auburn in 2015? Yes, and it did.
Next up we'll take on the big shock that hit us right out of the gate: the struggles of Jeremy Johnson.