The Year That Was
Should have seen it early, but flushed quarterbacks were a theme this year
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody, and happy New Year! Today, I’ll touch on a final look at the 2018 season and ruminate generally on what we might see going forward. I missed a lot of the bowl games due to work. When I did get a night off, I was dialing in whatever bowl was on. It was quite sad tonight to realize that the season is almost over, and all is left is the playoff championship game. That said, I can’t wait for the Auburn basketball SEC season to crank up next Wednesday and plan to be watching that one closely!
I think I speak for most Auburn fans when I say we were expecting another season of fireworks on offense in 2018. Some departed players needed to be replaced, yes, but Auburn has been drawing in top-ten recruiting classes for most of the decade. Younger players would step up. It seemed a given. Instead, we saw lots of shaky offensive line play, and a running game that was going to have to depend on freshman JaTarvious Whitlow and spotty run blocking. The book on quarterback Jarrett Stidham was that he was brilliant and deadly when he had good protection and time to throw. He largely didn’t get it. The misery was compounded by a half-dozen dropped passes per game. Auburn would finally execute a good pass play, then the ball would fall harmlessly to the turf, and another punt was coming.
Defensively, we all expected a dominant team but knew that we were somewhat young in the secondary. This turned into opposing quarterbacks just heaving the ball up the sidelines on back-shoulder-fade routes and hoping for a yellow penalty flag. Auburn lost at least 2 ball games due to repeated flags of that nature. To me, it was a sad time. It’s not just an Auburn problem, and I’ve seen it across the country. Chunk it a little short of the receiver and hope for a pass interference or targeting flag. Teams move the ball that way these days, when it would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
I expected a great special teams performance in 2018 and mostly was not disappointed. Coverage and punting improved dramatically. The only real flaw was team related. Due to offensive failures, Auburn often tried long, 40+ yard field goals. Only a few were good. Freshman kicker Anders Carlson performed most of his duties very well, but when he was asked to score from 40 or more yards out, he hit only 5 of 14 field goals on the season. To me, that’s not a terrible average from that range, but if more than once per game on average you are asking your kicker to nail points from that range, it signifies a stagnant offense.
Game by game recap after the jump!
Auburn opened the season in Atlanta against the sixth-ranked Washington Huskies. It was a tough defensive struggle till the late going. Trailing late, 16–15, an unlikely hero emerged, ramming into the end zone from 10 yards out on a smoke draw. Auburn held on to beat the Huskies, 21–16. Washington would go on to win the PAC-12 conference.
The Tigers returned home to face a team just down I-85 a bit, the Alabama State Hornets. Tiger fans enjoyed a great show from the incredible visiting band. Auburn took the Hornets to the woodshed, winning 63–9, and it could have been worse. ASU finished the season 4–7.
The LSU Tigers came calling the next weekend. LSU dominated the game for much of the first half, building a 10–0 lead. Then Auburn exploded for a couple of touchdowns before the half and another afterwards. The 21–10 lead did not hold, however. LSU kicked a field goal, then moved down the field for a touchdown. A 2-point attempt failed, leaving the score at 21–19 in Auburn’s favor. Auburn was not able to run out the clock, and LSU drove again. A phantom pass interference call set up LSU in scoring position, and the purpoole Tigers connected on a last second field goal to beat Auburn 22–21. Questionable pass interference calls factored into the last couple of LSU drives. LSU would go on to finish 9–3 and held on in the Fiesta Bowl to beat Central Florida.
After the LSU heartbreak, Auburn hosted Arkansas. The Auburn offense did not do much in this game as Auburn was able to accomplish little on the ground and repeatedly allowed big pressure on quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Fortunately, the Tigers had a kick return for a score, a punt return for a score and a fumble returned for a score. Arkansas looked even more inept on offense, and Auburn cruised to a 34–3 win. Arkansas finished last in the SEC with a 2–10 record and no SEC wins.
It was Homecoming the next week, and Auburn hosted Southern Mississippi. The game was a bit more of a struggle than most anticipated. Auburn led 14–3 near the half when the game was delayed for hours due to lightning near the stadium. When the game finally resumed, Auburn had to make play after play to secure what became a 1-possession game. Anders Carlson finally kicked a late field goal to ice the game, and Auburn won, 24–13. Southern Mississippi finished 6–5 on the season but was not selected to play in a bowl game.
Next, Auburn took a 4–1 record into Starkville, Mississippi to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Auburn could not make plays offensively, and Mississippi State punished the Auburn defense by spreading everything out and running the ball. The Bulldogs piled up 349 rushing yards and beat Auburn 23–9. The Bulldogs finished 8–4, and headed to the Outback Bowl and a New Year’s Day appearance. The Bulldogs lost to Iowa 27–22, despite outgaining Iowa by a significant margin. This was the lone SEC West loss in the bowl season.
Next, a wounded Auburn team returned home to host the hapless Tennessee Volunteers. Tennessee proved to be better than anyone thought, and Auburn played uninspired ball for much of the game. Auburn needed to get the ball, but Tennessee was able to kill the clock by holding onto the ball and heaving fade passes up the sideline. Auburn had a tough time stopping those passes, and Tennessee built a 30–17 lead. A late Auburn touchdown pass from Stidham to Seth Williams cut the lead to 30–24, but an onside kick failed, and the Tennessee lead held up. Tennessee finished the season 5–7. Just past the midway point of the Auburn season, the Tigers had fallen to 4–3, and it was looking like Auburn would not earn a bowl trip.
Auburn limped to Oxford, Mississippi and played the probation-ravaged Ole Miss Rebels. The Auburn defense had a good day slowing down the prolific Ole Miss offense, and an injury-ravaged Rebel defense was tonic to the Auburn offense. The Tigers emerged with a 31–16 win and headed into a much-needed bye week. Ole Miss finished the season 5–7.
As November began, Auburn hosted Texas A&M, which was an up and down team this season. For much of the game, the Aggies looked better on both sides of the ball. Texas A&M built a 24–14 lead that seemed insurmountable. Auburn could hardly even get a first down in the 2nd half, and things looked bleak. Midway through the 4th quarter, the Tigers went to a full spread offense and started throwing with authority. The Tigers completed 5 passes to get to the 1-yard line, and Chandler Cox punched in a short run to cut the lead to 24–21. A big sack stopped the Aggies, and Christian Tutt returned a punt out of the late afternoon shadows for 28 yards to the Auburn 42. From there, a trademark screen pass to Ryan Davis turned into a 47-yard gain, and Auburn was in business in the red zone. The next play was an 11-yard touchdown pass from Jarrett Stidham to Seth Williams, and Auburn had a stunning 28–24 lead but with too much time left on the clock. The Aggies had 1:41 left to work with. The Aggies drove past midfield but could not even get a Hail Mary pass off, thanks to a sack by Nick Coe. Auburn prevailed 28–24, and moved to 6–3 heading into Amen Corner. Texas A&M finished the season 8–4 and obliterated North Carolina State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl, 52–13.
Auburn then traveled to Athens, Georgia and was thoroughly dominated, losing 27–10 in a game that did not even seem that close. Georgia finished 11–1, Eastern Division champions. In the SEC title game, Georgia seemed to have things under control until a furious 2nd half Alabama comeback. The Bulldogs fell, 35–28. Georgia followed with a New Year’s night date at the Sugar Bowl where a lackluster effort resulted in a big lead for an inspired Texas Longhorn team. Georgia rallied late but came up short, and Texas won, 28–21. The final Bulldog record was 11–3.
Auburn returned to Jordan-Hare for the final home game of the year, hosting the Liberty Flames. The Flames were making the transition to Bowl Subdivision football and, honestly, had a pretty decent year going. They were not yet SEC-caliber, though. Auburn enjoyed a 53–0 beat down of the Flames. Liberty finished the season 6–6 with no bowl trip.
Next up was the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa. Auburn played toe to toe with the number-one-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide for a half. In the second half, the Auburn defense was torched repeatedly, and Alabama ran away with a 52–21 victory and the Western Division title. Auburn was left with a 7–5 record, 3–5 in the SEC. Alabama went on at 12–0 to the SEC Championship game in Atlanta. The Tide trailed Georgia by a couple of touchdowns when their Heisman-finalist quarterback left with an injury. Jalen Hurts came off the bench and led a stunning Tide comeback. Alabama beat Georgia and won the SEC Championship. Alabama went on to the College Football Playoff semifinal in the Orange Bowl and outraced the Oklahoma Sooners, 45-34. The Tide takes a 14–0 record into Santa Clara and takes on the Clemson Tigers in the national championship game on Monday night.
Auburn received a bid to the Music City Bowl in Nashville. Once upon a time this bowl was played on New Year’s Eve, but it has apparently fallen a long way in the eyes of the TV gods. Despite a long, 4-day New Year’s weekend, this game was scheduled at noon on a work-day Friday before the holiday weekend. Taking on the Purdue Boilermakers, Auburn did not seem fazed by the early start. The Auburn passing game exploded on the day, and Jarrett Stidham finished with a career-high 373 passing yards, 5 scoring passes and no turnovers. Auburn raced out to a 28–7 first quarter lead and held a record-breaking 56–7 lead at halftime. Auburn mostly played backups and walkons in the second half and beat Purdue 63–14. Head coach Gus Malzahn had the Tigers take knees on 4th down in the red zone at the end to avoid running the score up further. Auburn finished the 2018 campaign with an 8–5 record and awaits the final rankings next week. I’d expect something in the 22nd to 25th range. Purdue finished the season with a 6–7 record.