And so, the 2017 football season has come to a close. The less said about the so-called championship game the better. Let’s instead focus on ourselves. What went right for Auburn this year? What went wrong?
The man from Madison County was the heart and soul of the team in 2017. Coming into the season, it was thought that Johnson and Kamryn Pettway would share the load at running back. Between injuries and a 1-game suspension, Pettway never really figured into the attack; he managed just 305 yards on 76 carries, and 34 of those carries came against Mercer. Kerryon picked up the slack and then some. He finished with 1585 yards from scrimmage (1391 rushing, tied for the 6th highest total in Auburn history; 194 receiving) and 20 total touchdowns. He scored a touchdown in every game he played except one (his gutsy performance while injured in the SEC Championship game). Against opponents that finished the season ranked, Johnson averaged 109.7 rushing yards per game (122.8 if you take out the SECCG where he clearly wasn’t healthy).
After the Peach Bowl, Kerryon decided to forgo his senior season and enter the draft. I certainly can’t blame him, given the lifespan of running backs at the next level. He finishes his Auburn career with 2494 yards and 32 touchdowns on the ground and another 478 yards and 2 touchdowns receiving. He leaves with Auburn’s 11th highest career rushing yardage total and tied for 4th with Tre Mason on the rushing touchdowns list. He also finishes a perfect 4 of 4 passing for 14 yards and 2 touchdowns.
An Improved Passing Game
The number 1 goal on offense for the 2017 season was to improve on a below average passing game from 2015 and 2016. In 2016, Auburn averaged just 169.5 yards per game, 7.6 yards per attempt, and just 12 touchdowns with a 135.2 passer rating. In 2017, those numbers jumped to 233.4 yards per game, 8.6 yards per attempt, and 21 touchdowns with a 153.6 passer rating. There were two major factors behind that jump: a new offensive coordinator, and consistent quarterback play.
New Offensive Coordinator
Chip Lindsey was hired to resurrect Auburn’s passing game. The Malzahn/Lashlee concepts of the past two years had grown a bit stagnant, and quarterback development was not promising. Lindsey was able to leverage Auburn’s already potent running game and a good quarterback (more on that in a moment) into a passing game that actually threatened defenses. A heavy use of RPOs allowed Auburn to attack the weaknesses in a defensive alignment. As a result, Ryan Davis shattered the single season receptions record with 84 catches on the year (the previous record was 60). Davis jumped all the way to 9th on the all-time receptions list, and he is only 45 receptions from passing Courtney Taylor for number one on the list. With defenses forced to respect Davis underneath and the running game, Darius Slayton posted the 4th highest yards per reception number in Auburn history (minimum 20 receptions) with 22.2 yards per catch. Will Hastings averaged 20.2 yards per catch, which put him into the top 10 on that list as well.
Consistent Quarterback Play
The other piece to Auburn’s passing game was getting consistent quarterback play. Sean White was effective in 2015 and 2016 when healthy, but injuries and off-the-field conduct eventually ended his Auburn career just 3 games into the 2017 season. With Jarrett Stidham, Auburn finally had a quarterback they could rely on to move the ball. While he had his ups and downs, Stidham managed to throw for the 2nd most passing yards in a single season in Auburn history (3158 yards; if you use the per-game numbers, it’s 3rd behind Dameyune Craig’s 1997 season and Pat Sullivan’s 1970 season). Considering he was rusty to start the season, next year should be even better for Jarrett.
Auburn’s offense was very good in 2017, but Auburn’s defense was legitimately excellent. In S&P+ they were fifth overall, first on Standard Downs, second on Passing Downs, first against the pass, and second on third downs. They were responsible for the only times the national championship game participants were held under 20 points. Beyond the numbers, they were honestly fun to watch. They were fast, physical, and dominant. The defensive line was 10 players deep. The linebackers were miles ahead of what Auburn was 3 years ago. The safeties kept teams from being able to stretch them horizontally or vertically. Auburn hasn’t had a defense this fun to watch since the Tuberville years.
Not just the greatest kicker in Auburn history, but the greatest kicker in SEC history. He leaves as the SEC’s all-time leader in points*, extra points made, and field goals made. He attempted 198 extra points and made every single one of them. While he had some trouble with blocks this year, those aren’t necessarily his fault. Daniel set a standard that will be tough for future kickers to live up to, especially since his heir apparent is someone that’s been looking up to him for a long time.
The Tigers were a perfect 7-0 at home. Two undefeated top-ranked teams walked into Jordan-Hare as visitors. They both left with a brand new -1 behind their win total. In 4 SEC home games, Auburn scored 40 or more points 3 times. The average margin-of-victory in those 4 SEC home games was almost 24 points. No sequence better encapsulates what playing in Auburn was like for opponents than this one:
Fumbled snap on critical 3rd down, fumbled snap on critical 4th down bailed out because 12-men-on-the-field is reviewable but illegal motion is not, failed fourth down attempt. War Eagle.
Inconsistent Offensive Line Play
In several games, the offensive line was fantastic. In November, they were one of the best units in the country. However, in all 4 losses, they struggled. Against Clemson and UCF, they were unable to generate any push in the running game, and pass protection was awful. Against LSU, they couldn’t open enough holes to keep the offense moving to protect the lead. Given their experience, it was disappointing to see them falter so randomly.
The injuries to Kamryn Pettway really affected the running back rotation. Since the coaching staff didn’t trust other running backs in pass protection, Kerryon Johnson received a heavy workload early in the season as he worked through a hamstring injury. That may have contributed to the injuries that finally took their toll on the SEC Championship Game.
The loss of Carlton Davis during the SEC Championship Game really hurt the defense in the final 6 quarters of the season. Davis was Auburn’s true lockdown corner. Without him, Georgia and Central Florida were able to attack Auburn’s smaller corners before the pass rush could get to the quarterback.
The injury of Casey Dunn during the LSU game may have been what caused the inconsistency referred to in the last section. While Austin Golson was certainly capable of stepping in at center, moving him from tackle meant Prince Tega Wanagho had to step in his place. While Wanagho is a very talented player, there was a definite drop-off when he came in the game.
Auburn’s expected turnover margin this season was 6.6. Meaning that given the number of fumbles and passes defended on each side of the ball, Auburn should have had about a +6 or +7 turnover differential, which is enough to swing a few close games. Instead, Auburn had a -1 turnover differential. The major culprit was not converting passes defended into interceptions on defense. It was really the only negative the defense had all season. Jamel Dean made a play on 8 passes, but didn’t intercept any of them. Carlton Davis made a play on 11, and he only intercepted 1 (and even that was a previously deflected pass against Missouri).
2-4 away from home. The two wins were against teams that finished 7-6. Gross. Personally I blamed myself for the first two losses. I made the trip to the Missouri game, but I didn’t go to Clemson or LSU. I made sure to procure tickets to both games in The Home of Atlanta’s Greatest Professional Sports Team. Well, at least I lucked into a luxury suite for the Peach Bowl.
All in all, it was absolutely a fun season. Don’t let 4 losses distract you from beating Georgia and Alabama. That was fun. It should be celebrated. In Auburn’s season checklist, those are two of the things that have to happen first for greatness to follow. Auburn just came up short past those goals. I still wouldn’t trade the feeling from November 25th. War Eagle!
*-He ended 68 points past Blair Walsh. So close.