To start the 2016 football season, Auburn has lost two games to Top 10 football teams in games they competed in and had very real chances to win one of them and could have had chances to win the other, defeated one Sun Belt team handily, and narrowly beaten a team that was in the Top 25 when we played them.
In those games, we saw a near dominant defense limit some very powerful offenses with the exception of a few big plays. The offense struggled at times due to the QB play and at times due to play calling.
If I told you that was how the season would start back in August, I think most Auburn fans - looking through the lens of what we experienced in 2015 and questioning the QB situation and our young skill position players - would have said that's about what they expected. I may even venture so far as to say it's better than expected because I don't think anyone foresaw the defense holding Clemson and Texas A&M's offense to the level that they did.
Yet, with that, Auburn fans aren't happy.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that they should be happy just because the season has started much the way we thought it would back in August. This is a team that should be sitting at 3-1, if not 4-0. I just find it funny that the record is what many thought would be the best-case scenario and yet there's still so much unrest.
I get the unrest. The reason this team isn't 3-1 or undefeated is because of the offense. I didn't think there was any way Gus Malzahn would have two bad years of offense in a row, and yet here we are with an offense struggling again because Malzahn couldn't get out of his own way for the first three games. He finally did just that - literally - in Game 4 when he relinquished play calling to Rhett Lashlee. The result was an offense that actually took advantage of its tendencies and issues for the first time in a while and moved the ball very well. Until they got inside the 20.
My thoughts at the beginning of the year were that we would lose to Clemson and one of the two SEC games. I thought LSU the most likely, as did most, probably. I thought we'd lose to Clemson in a shoot-out and to LSU in a brawl.
I thought the defense would be improved, but not to the level that it has been. I thought Special Teams would continue to be awesome on kickoffs and field goals and decent on punts. That was pretty much right.
I thought the offense would get back to playing fast and trying to call plays like they did against Kentucky and Arkansas last season and like Gus did at Tulsa. That was a bit off base, to say the least.
The grades below are just judging the units as a whole. I don't have the time at the moment to judge position groups or individual players.
Offense - C+
I'm giving them the + only because there were signs of improvement against LSU outside of the red zone and because Gus got over his stubbornness, knew he was in a funk, and turned the play calling over to someone else. I'm giving them a C instead of a D just because they are at least running the football fairly well and Sean White has been accurate when allowed to get into a rhythm. The C also comes because I see potential for it improving over the next weeks and really hitting a stride by the Arkansas game IF the red zone woes are fixed. Ds are disheartening. Cs can make you at least feel like you're going to get better.
Defense - A-
This defense is on the cusp of being a Top 25 scoring defense. They're playing with much better fundamentals, tackling better, covering better, etc. It's been a while (2008) since we've seen an Auburn defense play like this one has. The most points a team has put up on them has been the 29 by Texas A&M, and one of those touchdowns was a late run when they were exhausted and the offense had just given the ball over due to a turnover-on-downs.
So why the - instead of a +? There are still some big plays being given up, and Arkansas State really should not have scored at all on this defense, much less twice. There are things to iron out, but damn if they aren't playing like an Auburn defense should.
Special Teams - A-
The - here is because the punting has just been ok. No team has really gotten a punt return of any type, so that's good. However, there have been some poor punts.
The rest of the special teams have been amazing. Daniel Carlson continues to be absolutely clutch. His kickoffs are flying out of the end zone and not being returned. His field goal kicking has been clutch. They even scored a touchdown on a perfect fake.
The Rest Of The Season
Auburn plays another Sun Belt team this weekend in Louisiana-Monroe. It should be a game that the Tigers win easily. After that comes Auburn's first road trip of the season to play a struggling Mississippi State in Starkville. Then, they get a week off before welcoming Arkansas to town on the 22nd of October.
If I told you that this was a team that would probably go 8-4 with an outside chance of 9-3 at the beginning of the year, would you have taken it? I know I would.
This is how - right now - I could see the rest of the year playing out.
Louisiana-Monroe - Easy victory, but some heartache as the team tries to get some of the red zone woes worked out and tries some new ideas and concepts. Some will work. Some won't. Some will work against the Warhawks, but may not work later against SEC teams.
Mississippi State - A tough road victory because it's always tough for Auburn to win in Starkville, for some reason. The red zone concepts Auburn tried against ULM will be refined against a SEC defense.
Arkansas - The Hawg Hex could come into play here. I see this one as a toss-up, but I think the Tigers' defense will be able to stop Arkansas much better than they did last year, and Sean White has better pass-catching receivers this year, plus the home crowd push Auburn to the win.
Ole Miss - Probably a loss, unfortunately. Ole Miss is a good football team with the best quarterback in the SEC right now. He's mobile and has a great arm and great receivers. If Auburn can pressure him, though, and make them one-dimensional by stopping their iffy rushing offense and Auburn's offense has been able to establish a real identity and fix the red zone issues, then a win is possible. I'm chalking it up as a loss for now.
Vanderbilt - Vandy's D has been strong for the past few seasons, but I think the Tigers' defense will absolutely stifle their offense. It may be another #Legatron special or it may be a blowout, but I think it's an Auburn win.
Georgia - Georgia looks very weak right now. Of course, we always get them when they've managed to figure things out and we have a history of letting young UGA QBs make us look stupid. Still, Gus and Rhett have managed to have success against Kirby's defenses before, and he doesn't have the Alabama defense in this one. I think Auburn finally wins one in Athens.
Alabama A&M - Blowout win.
Alabama - Probably a loss. Jeremy Pruitt has done well at stopping the Auburn offense, it will be in Tuscaloosa, and unless the offense finds a real identity and the line's blocking improves dramatically, it's hard to see the Tigers escaping T-town with a win.
That's 8-4, maybe 9-3, with victories over LSU and Georgia. Someone with good reason to be confident in their statement told me Gus needed 8-4 with a win over one of the Big 3 (LSU, Georgia, Alabama) to survive 2016. I've always thought he deserved to survive it, anyway, but the above scenario would definitely see him back on the Plains for 2017. It is also - and I promise I didn't look at it before writing this; I'm editing this part in - exactly what ESPN's FPI says should happen.
Lose in two weeks in Starkville to the Bulldogs and still have lots of issues on offense, though, and you could see that swinging very quickly back the other direction.
Too Long, Didn't Read: The Tigers are pretty much where we thought they'd be in 2016 given the roster on hand and how young and inexperienced so many of the important skill position players are plus the quarterback questions.
There is potential for them to get better if the play calling and some of the execution improves. There is potential for them to be really good by the end of the season if they can get everything together. There is also potential for lots of struggles. In short, 2016 is a toss-up. It was probably always going to be, and it's looking like that's playing out. We'll see if they continue to go up, stay somewhat stagnant, or collapse. I'm betting somewhere between the first two options, personally.