It’s been a whirlwind of a first half. I don’t know if I ever recall a half of a season where the tenor around a football team has shifted so dramatically in both directions, but here we are. Our Tigers are basically where we expected them to be in October, a top 10 team with more to prove later in the year. What exactly does the rest of the year hold, though, and what all does this team need to do make it to Atlanta in January? Let’s talk.
Since we’re looking forward, let’s talk about where this roster is at. Jarrett Stidham took a few weeks to knock off the rust, but he has been a machine in conference play. The redshirt-sophomore has shown he can make nearly any throw asked of him, and each week he has become more and more comfortable feeling out the pocket and making plays on the move. We’ll have to see how he handles some tougher defenses, but I have the feeling he will do A-okay. No one receiver has made himself the number target in this offense, but a nice combination of guys playing their roles has given opposing defense plenty to worry about. Ryan Davis has led the way in terms of volume with 36 catches, but Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, and fan-favorite Will Hastings have all averaged at least 20 ypc with double-digit receptions. The best part about all of this? Not a single senior has caught a ball this year. That means all of these guys, along with Stidham, are still getting better as the season goes on, and will likely be back in Auburn next season.
Just wanted another reason to put up this gif, thanks AUNerd!
The rushing attack, although not quite as vaunted as we had hoped going into the year, looks to be falling into place as well. It appears the coaching staff is finally accepting that Pettway needs to recover from his injuries, and Kerryon, although also not 100%, is showing again why he was a top 50 recruit three years ago. While he may not have elite physical skills (speed, size, strength), his vision while carrying the ball makes him a major threat in the red zone and gives him the chance to find open space even if play gets blown up by the defense. Meanwhile, guys like Eli Stove, Kam Martin, and Devan Barrett are getting just enough involved rushing the ball in different ways that the defense has to account for several different guys on every snap. Going forward, it’s entirely possible that Auburn has a 1,000-yard rusher and two 500-yard guys this year.
As the offensive line has gone, so has the rest of the team. Although there were early struggles, the addition of Casey Dunn at center and the moving of Golson to tackle has turned a team weakness into a strength. These guys have been dominant the last few weeks, to the point where I’ve said several times every game “How does Stidham have that much time in the pocket??”. This unit has gelled nicely lately, and I would look for them to continue to provide the kind of time for Stidham. The run blocking could use some work, there’s not always the best push, but they’ve come miles since the start of the year there, too. Some of the better defensive lines in the country await in the second half of the schedule, but for now, I think they’ll be able to handle it.
Last year, we thought we were seeing one of the first really good defenses at Auburn since the Tuberville days. Surely that unit would regress after losing guys like Carl Lawson, Montravious Adams, and Rudy Ford, though, right? Apparently not, as this year’s Auburn defense has been even better. Starting up front, the defensive line has been tremendous. Jeff Holland, aka Sensei Mud, picked right up where Lawson left off, as he has put pressure on almost every quarterback this year. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson have also had solid sophomore campaigns, and really, I could name a handful of guys who have made some great plays this year on the defensive line. These guys, like the wide receivers, are only going to get better, and I bet several of this group will be playing on Sundays very soon.
The linebackers may be the most consistent group on the defense, led by senior Tre Williams. Despite missing two games, he still leads the team in tackles with 22.5, and he appears to be getting back healthy at just the right time for this road stretch. I can’t say enough about how solid these guys have been. Sure, there have been a few missed assignments and tackles, but they have mainly been from the younger guys getting their first action in garbage time the last few weeks. With some of the big name running backs we will face the next few games (Guice, Chubb, Scarborough), the play of this unit will be key if the defense wants to keep adding to its reputation.
The secondary has probably been the most satisfying for Auburn fans this year, after seasons of yelling “TURN AROUND!!!” from the stands only to see some three star, 6’0” wide receiver look like Julio Jones* against our corners every week. So far this year, though? These guys have been good. Carlton Davis, Javaris Davis, and Jamel Dean have been lights out in one-on-one coverage, which has allowed the safeties to be aggressive and more active in stopping the run. Carlton Davis has graded out as one of the best defenders in the country several weeks, and if he can keep showing his skillset against some of the big name opponents left on the schedule, he could go to the NFL after this season as an early round draft pick. The Auburn secondary has been getting praise as one of the top secondaries in college football so far, and they’ll get plenty of chances to prove it coming up soon.
Leading up to the season, there was a lot of worry that this October stretch of road games was going to cause a lot of problems. A trip to Death Valley, where Auburn hasn’t won since 1999 (I was four years old!) was originally thought to be one of the hardest games on the schedule, but LSU has fallen off a bit of a cliff this season. I think they are a better team than the one that lost to Troy, but that being said, they’re still a team that is capable of losing to Troy. For a top 10 team that’s hoping to make a playoff push, a strong showing here on the road against a blue-blood would go a long way.
Auburn will play its last two road games of the year against a desolate Arkansas and a potentially tough Texas A&M in the coming weeks. The Razorbacks have no sense of direction, currently standing at 2-3 but coming off a 48-22 beatdown at the hands of South Carolina. They allowed 48 points to Will Muschamp, y’all. If this game is any different than the 56-3 thumping from 2016, I’ll be shocked. Sorry, Bert. Texas A&M should put up a better fight, but even at the loud-as-hell Kyle Field, I’m not sure the freshman quarterback Kellen Mond will be able to keep up with Jarrett Stidham, especially when he has to play against the Auburn defense. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ gives Auburn a 74% chance to win in both of these games, which is a pretty comfortable margin.
Ah, yes, the home stretch. Ever since the SEC expanded a few years ago, Auburn has benefitted (or suffered) from a weird home/away lineup each year. Luckily, like in 2013, we’ve lined up one of our better teams in recent memory with having Georgia and Alabama in Jordan-Hare. Whether it’s Jake Fromm or Jacob Eason leading UGA at quarterback, they look to be a nightmare to deal with this season. They have a defense that looks to be about as good as ours (#4 in S&P+), and a two-headed rushing attack that wears defenses out with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. If Auburn gets through that game (it looks to be a coin flip), another heavy-weight matchup with Alabama would await after a scrimmage (sorry) with ULM. I won’t take this space to drool over Alabama, you can go to AL.com for that**, but rest assured, they’re really good guys. Say what you want about Jalen Hurts as a passer, but he’s one of the best playmakers in the SEC and he just so happens to get 5-star talent all around him. But I digress…
If all three teams win out until the respective matchups, we could see two top five matchups in Auburn over the span of three weeks. Of course, while that’s more than likely not going to happen, it’s not totally absurd. In fact, Bill C’s numbers give it about a 7% chance of happening. A guy can dream, right? It’s going to take everything going *at least* as well as they have the last three weeks for that to happen, but I’ve seen wilder things.
The Big Picture
It seems pretty obvious, after having said Auburn could host two top-five matchups this November, that our boys in blue and orange control their own destiny the rest of the season. Nine undefeated teams remain in the power conferences, and Auburn still gets to play two of them. With the way the defense has played in every game this year, Auburn should at the very least be able to be on the same level as any team in the country. If the offense continues finding its stride against some tougher defenses in the second half of the season, there is no limit as to what this team can do. At best, this team goes 11-1, likely rematches UGA in the SECCG, and goes to playoff as one of the best teams in college football. At worst, they go 9-3 and still likely secure a top-tier bowl, with losses to three top 10 teams.
Enjoy this season, guys. It might just be a good one.
War Eagle, always!
* He’s the best wide receiver in the NFL. @ me
**Actually, take your business here if you really want Bama news.