Tinkering Under the Hood.
Where can the Tigers look to improve in 2014?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody. On a cold week with only the Senior Bowl and the Pro Bowl to look forward to, it’s finally starting to sink in that football season is over. It’s going to be a long haul till A-Day. I’m not sure how we’ll survive! Today, I’m going to mention a few news tidbits, then I’m going to look through the SEC team statistics. We’ll look at where Auburn was great, and where improvement is needed if Auburn is to compete again for the SEC Title.
One piece that made me smile was over on the official Auburn website, catching up with former Tiger quarterback Barrett Trotter. He passed up his senior season in 2012, but evidently has not been able to completely give up football. He’s now working as a scouting and operations assistant for the St. Louis Rams. I’m glad to see he’s doing well!
The woes of the Auburn basketball team continue, as they dropped their fifth straight game at Mississippi State last night, 82-74. A look at the box score tells the tale. In an otherwise fairly even game, Auburn was whistled for 30 fouls, compared to just 15 for the Bulldogs. Auburn hit 12 of 13 from the line, while MSU scored 31 of 43. That’s a 19 point swing in an 8 point loss. Auburn’s bench contributed nothing, and was outscored 28-0 by Mississippi State’s bench. Of course, when your reserves only total 34 minutes among 4 players, that’s tough thing. Auburn’s starters have had trouble down the stretch because of fatigue, as much as anything, I think. This problem will only get worse as the season progresses.
So, where do the Tigers need to improve in football, in 2014? I think most folks would start with the defense. Auburn fans grew accustomed during the Dye and Tuberville eras to defenses that gave up less than 20 points per game. The better defenses gave up less than 15. Since Tuberville departed in late 2008, Auburn’s best season was 2010, when Ted Roof’s defense gave up 24. Under Ellis Johnson this past season, Auburn gave up 24.7, which was the second best in the last 5 seasons. That figure ranked 9th in the SEC, with teams like Vanderbilt and Ole Miss ahead of the Tigers.
While a 9th place scoring defense typically won’t win the SEC, Auburn’s 12th place finish in total defense was worse. Auburn finished the season giving up an astounding 420.7 yards per game. Only Texas A&M and Kentucky were worse. The reason Auburn’s high speed offense never really ran the number of plays it wanted was because the defense kept giving up first down after first down. The Tigers gave up 288 first downs on the season, to finish in 12th place. If Auburn could just move up to the middle of the pack in total defense, I think it could make for another 10 points per game on offense.
Rounding out the defensive numbers, Auburn finished 10th in run defense, and 13th in passing defense. Conventional wisdom says that one must stop the run to be successful in the SEC. Auburn gave up 4.6 yards per carry in 2013, good for 10th in the league. That number needs to go down below 4.0. The teams that finished with less than 4.0 yards per carry being given up were Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss.
Things were not all bad for Auburn’s defense, however. Auburn finish first in the league in 3rd down stops, and 2nd in red zone defense. Auburn was also 3rd in the league in 4th down stops, and 3rd in sacks. Last season was a tough year for defenses throughout the SEC. A number of talented quarterbacks have left the league this year, and it will be interesting to see if those numbers decline. Of Auburn’s SEC opponents next fall, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama will have new quarterback starters.
The special teams area that needs the most improvement will be kick coverage. Auburn relied heavily on Cody Parkey to kick touchbacks, and he led the league with 69. When teams had returnable balls, though, Auburn finished 12th in the league, giving up a whopping 25.8 yards per return on 28 returns. The Tigers were pretty good returning kicks, finishing 5th in the league with a 23.7 yard average.
Auburn ranked well in net punting (2nd), and not so great at field goal kicking (9th). Both of these areas will be watched carefully in the coming months, as Auburn will break in new legs that have yet to play a snap in the SEC. Auburn’s punt return game will miss Chris Davis. He was the most electric return man in the SEC last season. If he got his hands on the ball, good things were likely to happen. He dropped a few on the ground, but did not lose a turnover. Quan Bray and Trovon Reed have experience returning punts, but neither has Davis’ knack for getting upfield with the ball.
On offense, it’s tough to complain about a unit that finished first in the league in rushing offense, and second in scoring offense and total offense. Auburn’s 328.3 yards per game running the football is astounding in the modern era. One would have to go back to the wishbone days to find similar numbers. Auburn loses key blockers Greg Robinson and Jay Prosch to the NFL, but there is ample talent on the roster to fill in these spots.
Early in the 2014 season, a lot of folks opined that Nick Marshall was a defensive back taking snaps, but a fair amount of his incompletions were the result of dropped balls. What was really encouraging was that the Tigers dropped fewer and fewer balls as the season progressed. Auburn returns every receiver from the 2013 squad. If these guys can pick up where they left off at the end of the season, Auburn should be very, very good catching the ball in 2014. What was really interesting was that by midseason, everyone knew that Sammie Coates was Auburn’s go-to guy in the receiving corps. Coates still finished tops in the SEC in yards per catch, at 21.5.
Auburn will certainly miss Tre Mason’s league-leading, team record-breaking 1814 rushing yards, but I think Auburn will keep on rolling with the guys coming back. It was telling in the SEC title game, that the coaches had no problem putting Cameron Artis-Payne in the game at a critical juncture, and CAP delivered. Missouri had just scored a TD and two pointer to pull within 3, at 45-42, CAP ripped through the Mizzou defense, and put Auburn right back up by double digits. Corey Grant returns as the speed sweep guy, but he also developed some inside running skills as last year progressed. The first guy rarely gets Grant down.
Offensively, I haven’t been as excited about the returning quarterback situation since Dameyune Craig returned in 1997. Nick Marshall returns as a proven guy in the SEC. He finished 8th in the league in total offense, despite missing one game and most of another. Marshall finished 6th in the league in pass efficiency, and every guy ahead of him leaves. Gone are Manziel, Mettenberger, McCarron, Shaw, and Murray. Marshall threw 14 TD passes vs. only 6 interceptions, and he finished 9th in the league in rushing yards with 1068. With an offseason to work on timing with his receivers, he could be pretty scary in 2014. And there is a solid backup waiting in the wings, too. Jeremy Johnson looked cool, collected and accurate back in the pocket when he was called on in 2013.
In conclusion, Auburn needs to tighten up on defense, re-tool somewhat on special teams, maintain the rushing game, and tweak the passing game a bit. If the Tigers are successful at most of these things, 2014 will be a very special year!