What’s Ailing the Auburn Offense?
The good news: Auburn beat its two biggest rivals for the first time since 2013 and made it to SEC Championship game. The bad news: Auburn was destroyed in the SEC Championship, the two rivals are playing for the National Championship, and Auburn lost to UCF, the first Group of Five loss since 1991. The loss was embarrassing and to some makes Auburn look like the laughing stock of college football. Related items: Gus Malzahn received a massive contract and has virtually nothing to show for it. How does this happen?
Auburn’s last play of the season was a microcosm of the entire season. Clinging to life and needing a touchdown to force overtime, Auburn found rhythm and tempo, driving the field because Jarrett Stidham finally found an intermediate passing game in the form of Will Hastings. This, after turning in the LSU game V2.0 for much of the second half in Atlanta. Then, center Casey Dunn goes down, and coach Herb Hand has to shuffle the line. With a new left tackle in the game and Austin Golson at center, UCF did what any team would do: jailbreak blitz the new player. The line couldn’t hold, Stidham panicked and threw the game-sealing pick. It was the worst possible play call available. Still, that’s just one play. The whole bowl game, Auburn’s offense was lost. Much like the last two games against Clemson. Much like the last bowl game against Oklahoma. As in any game where Malzahn and Co. had time to prepare.
Jarrett Stidham passed for 3,000 yards this season, becoming just the second player in Auburn history behind Dameyune Craig to do so. It was 3,000 meaningless yards as is his solid 151 rating and 70.7 adjusted QBR. Stidham couldn’t win games when needed. He had a total of three touchdowns and four turnovers in Auburn’s four losses. There were certainly moments when Stidham looked the part of the quarterback the Auburn fan base expected. But for the much of the season, he looked completely lost.
Obviously it wasn’t all on him. The offensive line must share the blame. This unit looked poised to be the top unit in the SEC in the preseason, and that thought wasn’t just from my orange tinted glasses. Most talking heads agreed that an all upper-classman line that had two legitimate NFL players (Braden Smith and Austin Golson) seemed like a lock to be one of the country’s top units. After two weeks, Auburn was the worst team in America in sacks allowed. Herb Hand changed the lineup and things got better… for a while. Still, in Auburn’s last two games of the season, this unit was completely dominated.
Auburn landed arguably the best wide-receiver recruiting class in the country in 2015, bolstering an already stellar class from the year before. Malzahn added Noah Igbinoghene and Sal Cannella. Again, this unit pulled down over 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns but struggled mightily to get open against even mediocre coverage units. Was play better than previous years? Absolutely. Was it SEC level? Far from it. The only SEC-type catch was the Darius Slayton catch against UGA. How can Auburn recruit such players but fail to get these athletes to look like SEC caliber players? On a related note, Auburn’s most consistent receiver wasn’t one of the top recruited guys. Will Hastings ended the year fourth in catches, third in yards and completely ignored in the meat of the season.
In addition, Malzahn refused to give other running backs a legitimate chance to provide relief for an oft-injured Kerryon Johnson. Kam Martin ended the year averaging 6.1 yards per carry while rushing for 450 yards on 70 attempts. Yet, there was never any attempt to utilize him to his talent level, even against inferior competition. Even when Martin got Auburn into the red zone, his reward was watching Johnson and Pettway score. Of his three touchdowns, one was a 41-yard reception touchdown and one was a 61-yard run. Even with time to prepare, Malzahn game planned around an injured Johnson and was surprised when things didn’t work.
In summation, except for 2013, Auburn’s offense has struggled finding an identity under Malzahn. In some years, such as 2015, it was never found. After essentially throwing Rhett Lashlee under the Gus Bus and hiring Chip Lindsey, it became apparent that Malzahn simply cannot let the offense out of his control. At times it was Lindsey’s offense. Other times it was the Malzahn offense. But in the really bad loss games, it was a mish-mash of the two: playing behind the line of scrimmage on first down, stubbornly sticking to a running game on second and throwing the ball deep down the field on third with zero outlet passes in the short or intermediate passing game. Ed Orgeron’s staff said it. Scott Frost’s coaching staff said it. Auburn’s offense was predictable. The saving grace was sometimes the opposing defense couldn’t stop it.
Auburn is now at the very top of the board in coaches’ salaries, but the money isn’t getting wins. Auburn struggles on offense in big moments, which is incongruous considering the reputation of the head coach and his staff. There is some method to that. Kodi Burns is an Auburn legend and has been on multiple Malzahn coaching staffs. In no way has his group performed at SEC caliber, much less lived up to its billing. The same can be said with Herb Hand. Malzahn and Hand coached together at Tulsa but coached an absolute sieve of a line at Penn State before coming to Auburn. That line was ranked 124th in the nation, allowing 44 sacks in the 2014 season. Auburn finished 114th in the country this season with 36.
Chip Lindsey began his college coaching career at Auburn under Malzahn. The jury is still out on him, but there hasn’t been any semblance of the type offense fans expected. Add in that no Auburn quarterback has been developed. Auburn’s best hire under Malzhan, by far, is Kevin Steele, the one coach with no Auburn or Malzahn connections. Consider all of that: Auburn’s struggles have been offensive struggles, a far cry from the fan base’s expectation of an offensive genius who only hires his own people on offense.
This might give some perspective about what is ailing the Auburn program. Money doesn’t guarantee wins, and throwing money at coaches doesn’t make them better. Yet, Auburn extended Malzahn’s contract by seven years and 49 million dollars as he anticipated retaining the entire coaching staff. What’s wrong with this picture?