If you're looking for a fun talking point on a lazy summer day, try this one: in spite of the struggles last season, Auburn is still in the top 5 in the nation when it comes to scoring touchdowns in the red zone since 2013. They only credit Gus Malzahn in this, though, not even mentioning offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. They're intending to focus on play callers, though, which Gus has been the primary play-caller during the games from what we know.
It's convenient for Auburn fans that this list starts with 2013 since that was Gus Malzahn's first year as head coach. It also just goes to show how potent that 2013 offense was. It also shows the necessity to maintain that potency. The Tigers were ranked #2 in red zone touchdown percentages in Gus' first year. Guess who was #1? The team that defeated the Tigers in the BCS Championship Game.
Of course, Auburn's decline in offensive production is clearly visible, here, as well. From #2 in the nation in 2013, the Tigers fell to 22nd in 2014 (I honestly thought it would be much lower than that) and then were unranked last season. Red zone struggles have been the biggest complaint I've read about Gus' offense during that time. Field goals or failing to convert at all instead of touchdowns inside the 20 had a huge effect on multiple games in both 2014 and 2015.
What Gets It Done Inside the 20?
There is one very big takeaway for me in that Top 5. Four of them were run-heavy teams over the last three seasons. Three of them were triple option teams (the Service Academies and Georgia Tech), and Army would be included in the list above Auburn if they'd had a consistent coaching staff (Monken & Company took over in 2014).
It appears from this list that inside the 20, the philosophy of RUN THE DANG BALL is what gets it done. I don't have the stats to see what percentage Western Kentucky at #4 ran vs passed inside the 20, but given that they scored 30 rushing touchdowns to 58 passing touchdowns, I'm guessing they eschewed the pass for the run inside the 20 quite a bit, too.
Conclusion? Ban the fade. No, really, it rarely works. You're wasting a down. Just run the dang ball. Auburn fans can attest to that from last season when the Tigers would ride Barber or Robinson deep into the opponents territory and then for some reason attempt too many passes and have to settle for a Daniel Carlson field goal.
This is likely one reason Gus went with the Wildcat so often in the red zone. Our passing was struggling so much that he wanted the option there to confuse the defense. It worked a few times when the ball was handed off to Jason Smith around the end. However, it allowed the defense to key in on two people with zero threat of a pass. That's why the QB as a rushing threat can be so devastating to a defense in the red zone. Suddenly the run-pass option is there, too.
How Can Auburn Get Back To The Top In Red Zone Touchdowns?
Run. The. Dang. Ball. If there's one major argument for JF3 to win the starting job this fall, it's that threat to run. It's hard to say what really could have happened, last year, though, as Sean White was never really allowed to throw too much in the red zone, and Jeremy Johnson's passes were extremely curtailed once he returned as the starter.
Along with the lack of a running quarterback, there was the fact that the offensive line didn't get as much of a push in 2015 as it had, before. Alex Kozan wasn't back to 100%, Austin Golson got hurt, he had no backup with Xavier Dampeer hurt, and the relative inexperience of the H-backs didn't help, either.
For the Tigers to be successful, the offensive line needs to improve to at least the 2014 level with running the ball, and the running game overall needs to improve (or actually be used) inside the red zone. It doesn't have to be the zone read, either. There are plenty of other running plays that Gus Malzahn can use. Some of them were staples during his time at Tulsa. So, there are multiple ways in which the hiring of Herb Hand could result in the best coaching hire of anyone, this fall.