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How Would You Fix This Team? Pt. 1

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On the bye week we’re looking at ways to improve Auburn’s fortunes for the final third of the season.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Well, everyone, we’ve hit the two-thirds mark of the season. Raise your hand if you thought that this Auburn team would be 5-3 heading into the bye week, with losses to LSU, Mississippi State, and Tennessee.

No, you didn’t. 99% of us thought that Auburn would be favored in every game leading up to the road trip in Athens, and that there was a great chance that the Tigers had one or fewer losses by that point. Well, the classic Auburn roller coaster hit, and we beat the sixth-ranked Washington Huskies away from Jordan-Hare before losing at home to LSU, getting rolled over in Starkville, and then sleepwalking through a loss to Tennessee.

After the ten-win season last year, we’re all pretty sure that next season is going to be a Playoff-bound affair, but there are a lot of areas that need improvement before that can happen. I will admit that Auburn fans have an alarmist attitude about this type of thing, and we’ve seen this same song and dance before. With the team’s struggles, there are many that want Gus Malzahn out of here and a new coach in the fold. Our own administration got rid of Terry Bowden midway through the year following Auburn’s first division title (with extenuating circumstances, yes), they wanted Tommy Tuberville out after he lost a lofty preseason ranking, and Gene Chizik was given the boot just two years after a national championship.

We’re pretty fickle. So, if Gus wants an extended stay on the Plains, what should he do to bounce back from this rough start? Here are a couple of ideas. We’ll be giving more each day this week.

CONTINUE THE YOUTH MOVEMENT

15 of Auburn’s 28 touchdowns this year have been scored by either true or redshirt freshmen. Jatarvious “Boobee” Whitlow, Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Shaun Shivers have all been mixed into the offense and have become integral parts of the attack. After not having a feature tailback to start the season, it looks like Whitlow’s finally become the guy after his 170-yard effort at Ole Miss over the weekend (nothing like that Rebel D to get an offense on track). Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz have been favored targets for Jarrett Stidham this season, and Shaun Shivers seems to have been given the backup tailback role with the number of carries he got on Saturday.

We’ve even seen guys like Harold Joiner and Asa Martin worked into the offense at times — WHERE’S THE WHEEL ROUTE TO ASA BEEN SINCE THE LSU GAME?? — but with the struggles on offense, there’s honestly not a whole lot of opportunities to get everyone involved as much as we’d like. It’s a bit disappointing to see Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton not quite as reliable as they were last year. Davis has dropped punts and can’t seem to find the same screen game magic that worked so well in 2017, while Slayton and Jarrett Stidham can’t seem to even get on the same page.

We’ve got a certain group that’s going to be the future. Much like the 2007 season, where young guys played on offense and forged the foundation for a championship season, this is a chance to build quite the base for years to come. They’ve been thrown into the fire, let’s unleash them completely down the stretch.

IDENTIFY THE WOES AND AVOID THEM

What led to each of Auburn’s losses? In the LSU game, penalties and turnovers were the name of the game. Against Mississippi State, we couldn’t stop their run game and again, turnovers came at critical times. Then at home with Tennessee, again it was turnovers.

Stidham’s two picks against LSU came on routine plays. There wasn’t pressure, we weren’t running any tricky, he just threw two interceptions. One was a great read by a defensive back, while the other was a miscommunication with Slayton. In Starkville, we couldn’t hold onto the ball, and the main turnover was the goal-line fumble from Whitlow that negated a touchdown and gave MSU the ball. Stidham’s picks against Tennessee stifled good drives for Auburn, and his fumble got returned for a touchdown. All three of those turnovers were the result of pressure.

With out offensive line, we may not be able to prevent those turnovers resulting from Stidham getting out on the run, but the others are totally avoidable. They’re such little fixes that shouldn’t be an issue going forward. The offense looked more crisp in terms of knowing what it wanted to do this past weekend, and while Boobee had trouble holding onto the ball again, he escaped this time and I imagine it’ll be a point of emphasis in practice going forward. It’s all about mental toughness.

LIVE ON THE EDGE

This one builds off of the last point. Aside from turnovers, penalties have killed us this year in certain games, while we’ve also had issues with field goals. Anders Carlson has not been good with lengthy field goals. It’s a fact. He’s got plenty of leg, but he’s struggled with the accuracy. He’s missed pretty much every try on a long kick. He hasn’t been a weapon for the Tigers like his brother was the past couple of seasons. This woe does have a solution. It’s to live on the edge.

When Auburn’s faced with a field goal of 45 yards or longer (which has happened quite a bit this year), I’d be hard-pressed not to go for it. That roughly means if you’re between the 30 and 40, go for it. Just do it. One thing that I’ve noticed is that Auburn has faced an inordinate number of fourth down conversions from the opposing offenses, so it’s time for the Tigers to put that pressure back on the opponent. If Auburn comes out and goes for it in those situations, using pace, knowing ahead of time what they want to do, then it might be a good way to...

BRING BACK OLD GUS

Remember the days of early Gus Malzahn, when Auburn would just keep rolling down the field? Same formation and same personnel, but the entire playbook was a possibility. How many times did an opponent get a substitution penalty, or have to call timeout to settle down and figure things out? How many times were we able to run a simple draw up the middle on first down, and then go with the dipsy doodle on second down because the personnel was the same and we caught the defense napping? Remember when you could actually see the vein in the middle of Saban’s forehead about to burst because of that? It was awesome.

That hasn’t been the case this season. It’s plainly evident what Auburn is going to be doing with certain guys on the field. When Bachelor winner Jordan Rogers can spot it easily, you know that SEC defensive coordinators can.

Old Gus used to find something that you couldn’t stop, and he’d run it until you learned to stop it. He and Chip Lindsey have been just fine for the most part when it comes to analyzing a defense, as Auburn’s opening drives haven’t been bad (when the script is still going). It’s when things have gotten off-script, and we’re trying to think on the fly, that the Tigers have had trouble.

Plus, the pace isn’t nearly as pervasive as it’s been in years past. Gus’ teams were infamous for running quickly and taking little time between snaps. Sure, that was easier with Nick Marshall running the show, where the zone read could burn anyone and the pre-snap reads were a little easier, but it still causes problems for the defense no matter what you’re running. I have to believe that some of these issues come from not really having an offensive identity eight games into the season, so maybe Whitlow’s breakout on Saturday can help Auburn find a base.

Either way, let’s give the offense a 90-degree turn and get it going up the field instead of side to side. Get Gus his old sweater vest (the source of his powers) and let him do the things that turned him into a successful coach in the first place. Run the 2009 Iron Bowl game plan, go all out, trash the old trick plays, and bring back the simple tricks that worked. Man, wouldn’t you love to see Stidham run the Chris Todd/Cam Newton pump fake to a receiver putting a double move on the defender? Where has that been?

Just give me the Gus that so confidently asked Chizik “SO YOU WANNA GO FOR IT” in Tuscaloosa in 2010. That’s the Gus we need right now. If you’re going to face the negativity that’s swirled around recently, face it head on with a smirk. That Gus will make November fun, and may even surprise some folks.

We’ll have more ways that this team can improve as the week rolls on. For now, enjoy the Saturday away from Auburn football. Watch everyone else put it on the line with no risk for us, and then be there at Jordan-Hare Stadium to send Jimbo and his boys out on a rail. War Eagle.