As we near the season, which kicks off in ELEVEN days, predictions for Auburn are all over the place. Now, nobody thinks that Auburn is going to win the West, or that a season like that is even really a possibility. However, Bryan Harsin has been talking like he really thinks this team can do some special things, despite some of the question marks around different position groups. For today’s exercise, we’re going to look at what each position group needs to do for Auburn to win double-digit games in 2022.
First, let’s look at the last few seasons in which Auburn won 10 games or more (2017, 2013, 2010). The Tigers had a few things in common during all of those years, so let’s check it out.
- Reliable rushing attack: I go with “reliable” more than a word like prolific, or punishing, which each of the 2010, 2013, and 2017 offenses also possessed, mainly because the extremely key similarity between those offenses was the ability to convert when needed. Cam Newton, Tre Mason/Nick Marshall, and Kerryon Johnson were money when you had second or third and short, or even a fourth down that needed a conversion. Now, those teams also averaged 284 ypg (2010), 382 ypg (2013) and 218 ypg (2017) in the rushing game, so they were good basically all the time. However, a reliable runner who can keep drives going was part of the key.
- Offensive line experience: The 2010 group was largely made up of the freshmen that Tommy Tuberville signed in the 2007 class. That unit included Lee Ziemba, Ryan Pugh, Mike Berry, and Byron Isom. Brandon Moseley joined asa JUCO transfer and completed the unit, but that group spent a lot of time together. They were good at times, they were bad at times, but experience won out in the end. 2013 was largely the same, with guys from the 2010/2011 classes filling out spots for years on end before it came together in Gus Malzahn’s first season. Chad Slade, Greg Robinson, Reese Dismukes, Alex Kozan, and Avery Young all played for at least a full season with other before the 2013 campaign. Then in 2017, Gus’ line had three seniors in Braden Smith, Austin Golson, and Darius James, as well as Prince Tega Wanogho and Mike Horton with experience. Casey Dunn also stepped in at center that season to provide further experience.
- Even turnover margin: We’re not even saying that this team needs to have ballhawks taking down 20 interceptions and another 20 fumble recoveries. The last three really good Auburn teams just didn’t lose the turnover battle. 2013 and 2017 had even turnover margins, while the 2010 team was a little ahead, forcing 22 turnovers while only giving up 17. They weren’t great, they just weren’t bad.
- Mobile quarterback: Obviously Cam Newton and Nick Marshall were very mobile, both rushing for 1,000+ yards in 2010 and 2013, but Jarrett Stidham was no slouch either, scoring on the ground in both the wins over Georgia and Alabama in November of 2017. It added a different dynamic that just elevated the offense to a slightly higher level and made defenses guess a little more. The receivers in these seasons weren’t really much to write home about either, with Darvin Adams, Sammie Coates, and Ryan Davis/Darius Slayton. Slayton was a coveted prospect and he’s still in the pros, but he’s and Sammie Coates’ brief stint in the NFL were all that came from those groups.
- Dominant pass rusher: Nick Fairley, Dee Ford, Jeff Holland. Those three guys were premier pass rushers in each of these seasons, and they each notched roughly double digits in sacks. Fairley got 11.5, Ford hit 10.5, and Holland got 9.5. They had solid experience around them on the defensive line so that they weren’t constantly double-teamed, but they wreaked havoc in their own rights.
- Old linebackers leading the team: Josh Bynes in 2010 (along with Craig Stevens and Eltoro Freeman), with Kris Frost/Cassanova McKinzy in 2013, and the Deshaun Davis/Tre Williams/Darrell Williams trio in 2017. Auburn has had leadership and experience emanate from the middle of the defense
- Senior kicker: Wes Byrum, Cody Parkey, Daniel Carlson. It helps.
We’re not asking too much here. We’re not saying “Heisman talent at quarterback” and “three All-Americans on the interior lines”. It’s one or two players here and there with experience around the rest of the team. Is that what we might actually be looking at with this Auburn team in 2022? Possibly. So let’s run through this thing position by position to highlight what they need to do.
Based on what we outlined above, it’s going to be a guy who doesn’t turn the ball over and who can make the odd play (at least) with his feet. You’d like to see his mobility worked into the game plan. As of now, the only guy on the team who can legitimately bring that element into the offense is Robby Ashford. While the offenses we’re looking at ended up being fairly different in terms of what the focus ended up being, the quarterback stats for each were below:
Cam Newton: 185-280, 2,854 yards, 30 TDs, 7 INTs; 264 carries, 1,473 yards, 20 TDs
Nick Marshall: 142-239, 1,976 yards, 14 TDs, 6 INTs; 172 carries, 1,068 yards, 12 TDs
Jarrett Stidham: 246-370, 3,158 yards, 18 TDs, 6 INTs; 103 carries, 153 yards, 4 TDs
Average: 64.5% completion, 2,660 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 179 carries, 898 yards, 12 TDs
I’ll go ahead and say that if we have a quarterback posting those numbers this year, we’re winning 10 games minimum. But to get to that point, whoever the quarterback is doesn’t need to have that many rushing attempts if it doesn’t fit in with the Harsin/Kiesau offense. Cut the rushing numbers in half, and keep the completion percentage above 60% and I think that’s adequate.
We had a thousand-yard back each of those three seasons, but that’s nothing outside the norm for Auburn football. Tank Bigsby hit 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021, with Jarquez Hunter adding another 593 yards and and 3 scores. I think if Hunter can grow and become more of an every down back to spell Tank, and both can become reliable in converting short-yardage situations, then we’ll be fine. This team won’t live and die by the tailback’s overall production, it’ll be a function of other areas’ success.
2010 had Darvin Adams, Emory Blake, and Terrell Zachery. 2013 had Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, and Quan Bray/Marcus Davis. 2017 had Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis, Eli Stove/Will Hastings, and Nate Craig-Myers. Each group had roles pretty clearly stated, with one go-to guy (Adams, Coates, Davis) and plenty of secondary options. Obviously, all three of those offenses were Gus offenses, and the quarterback reads in the passing game are different than what Harsin has cooked up.
We’re not asking for a guy to break Terry Beasley’s receiving record of 1,068 yards, but there’s no reason that we can’t get close to it. Is Shedrick Jackson the primary candidate to do that? Not based on what we’ve seen so far. Maybe Camden Brown becomes the go-to receiver. We do have some interesting prospects in Ja’Varrius Johnson and Koy Moore as secondary guys, and obviously the tight ends are going to factor into the passing game quite a bit with John Samuel Shenker returning after a record-setting 2021 campaign.
I don’t really know about numbers, but however we can get a primary guy to fit into the QB numbers above and do so while we’re all confident that he can catch the ball in a tight situation. I’m thinking Darvin Adams in Tuscaloosa in 2010 on 4th down, Marcus Davis in College Station on 3rd and long in 2013, and Darius Slayton/Ryan Davis all throughout November 2017.
An offensive line gelling together after many games played together isn’t really something that you can quantify. Does it take 100 combined starts? 75? 50? Who really knows? The things you can quantify are production numbers from other parts of the offense. Two things that we can see that’ll help with success are rushing yards per carry and sacks allowed. Other items would be how many negative runs we had, which we can also look to explore.
2010 allowed 23 sacks, and gained 4,297 total yards while losing 310 yards for a net of 3,987 total rushing yards with an average of 6.1 yards per carry.
2013 allowed 16 sacks (with throwing the ball much less), and gained 4,860 yards while losing 264 yards for a net of 4,596 total rushing yards and an average of 6.3 yards per carry.
And 2017 allowed 36 sacks but that includes the 11-sack game at Clemson. They ran for 3,406 yards, lost 350 for a total of 3,056 rushing yards. They averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
For this offensive line to be successful, averaging 5.0 yards per carry, with 10% of runs being negative or no gains, and allowing less than 25 sacks likely makes this offense into a very smooth unit.
I think the 2022 unit is good enough to do its part on the way to a 10-win season already, especially with Derick Hall, Colby Wooden, Eku Leota, and a couple of really interesting transfers ready to add to an already solid depth chart.
The three teams mentioned above averaged 34.6 sacks on the year, with one guy on the defense snagging about a third of those. I think Derick Hall will hit roughly 10 sacks this year, so that’s accounted for. As far as run defense, 2010 and 2017 allowed 3.6 yards per rush, while 2013 allowed 4.6 yards per rush. 2021 also allowed just 3.6 yards per rush, so anything close to that (and expecting improvement wouldn’t be insane) works for this bunch.
For this group to achieve the heights needed, they have to stay healthy. We’re pretty thin at linebacker right now, but if we have a full season of Owen Pappoe, Cam Riley, Wesley Steiner, and the rest of the group, then I think they’ll be fine. Pappoe is certainly the leader we need, replacing Zakoby McClain, but also bringing in multiple years of starting experience as well. If they combine with the DL to achieve the numbers I listed above, then they’ll be fine.
In the three seasons highlighted above, the defensive backs were the weakest link each time. We had one season with a true shutdown corner (Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean in 2017), and relied on the ability of the front seven to mitigate any weakness in the back end for the most part otherwise. The one thing they all had was experience. Zac Etheridge, Neiko Thorpe, T Bell, and Mike McNeil all played plenty and finally hit their groove in 2010, while the same can be said for Chris Davis, Robensen Therezie, Ryan Smith, and Jermaine Whitehead did the same in 2013 after taking their lumps in seasons prior. We’ve got some experience in 2022, with Jaylin Simpson returning as a starter, and Nehemiah Pritchett, Zion Puckett, and some transfers like Cayden Bridges and Craig McDonald coming in to bolster the depth. They’ve gotten some pub in fall camp, but who knows how legit that can be when you’re competing with yourself.
To get this team to 10 wins, the defensive backs have to put on the performance they did against Alabama last year. They’re capable of it, and with the front seven they’ve got ahead of them, it’s certainly possible to see that on a regular basis.
Truth be told, neither Wes Byrum or Cody Parkey in 2010 and 2013 were outstanding kickers. They were good, experienced players who didn’t miss easy field goals for the most part (not counting Parkey against Florida State). Daniel Carlson was the best kicker in the country and has turned into one of the best kickers in the NFL. 2017 needed him a little more than 2010/2013 needed their kicker to be reliable offense. That’s what we want from Anders Carlson this year, just be reliable. Make your field goals less than 35 yards, make the overwhelming majority of field goals under 45 yards, and hit more than half of your field goals over 45 yards.
The 2013 special teams were probably better than the other two seasons in terms of return game, with Chris Davis, Corey Grant, and Tre Mason all scoring touchdowns on kick returns, and Davis obviously hitting the Kick Six. 2010 had Onterio McCalebb and Demond Washington, with each guy holding big play capability. We really just want someone who can get Auburn positive starting position on a consistent basis, with maybe 1-2 long kick returns throughout the year. Consistently starting at the 30 does wonders when compared to starting at the 15-20.
Heh. Well, there may be no area that’s got more room for improvement than the coaching. Down the stretch, coaching cost Auburn multiple games with decisions not to make any changes against Mississippi State, throwing the ball on 4th down against South Carolina, and not running the ball against Alabama. They nearly lost to Georgia State because they were sleepwalking through a first half after the trip to Penn State. I will give credit for the win in Death Valley, but the collapse in November was awful and much of it can be placed directly on coaching even with Bo Nix’s injury.
This year, they can’t coach like a team that’s either surprised to be ahead, or some mid-major trying to pull a fast one on a better team. Gus Malzahn had his tricks, but to his credit they were integrated pretty well (whirlybird aside) into his regular offense. You can’t just randomly throw out a fake punt from your own 20 like you’re early Tuberville. He got booed, you know. Be more consistent and lean on your strengths instead of going rogue, and you give this team the best chance to win 10 games.
Does this sound a little too rosy? Perhaps. It’s honestly not that difficult to achieve, and the team might have the talent to win these ballgames. You have to beat Penn State, and you can’t lose a numbskull game to an Arkansas/Ole Miss/Mississippi State, while also stealing one from Georgia, A&M, or Alabama. They competed with each of these teams last season, and didn’t just get thrashed by anyone, so with breaks all going your way, this could be a pretty good team. Just don’t read this article if things go sideways against the Nittany Lions and we’re heading into Athens at 3-2.