AUBURN, Ala. – Easy, now. Let’s not get too carried away with Auburn. Not just yet, at least.
As impressive as the Tigers were Saturday, beating Ole Miss 44-23 – and it really wasn’t even that close – let’s remember that the Rebels are a train wreck.
At one point, when the Tigers took a 38-3 lead in the third quarter, Ole Miss had been outscored 124-3 in a span of eight-plus quarters by California (20-0), Alabama (66-3) and Auburn.
As horrid as Ole Miss has been, Auburn has been that hot. With that 38-3 lead, the Tigers had outscored their opponents 138-27.
So there’s a lot to like about this Auburn team. The Tigers are 5-1 exactly half way through the regular season. The next three games against LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M – all on the road – will go a long way to defining the Tigers’ season.
“We knew we had a chance to be a pretty good team in the offseason,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We got off to that tough start. We tried to get going in some areas. You could see them come together. Now we haven’t arrived yet. You could see us working to try to improve each week. They’re practicing extremely hard with urgency, and they’re getting up for every game so far. The challenge is we’ve got to continue to do that. Very few teams around the country can do that. And that’s our challenge. That’s our challenge for our coaches. That’s our challenge for our players. Keep the hammer down and we’ll continue to send that message.”
It’s not too early to start believing in Auburn’s defense. One thing that was unequivocally impressive Saturday was how the Tigers held a dangerous Ole Miss passing game in check. Yeah, they did give up 346 yards passing by Shea Patterson. But they kept the Rebels out of the end zone until the third quarter. Ole Miss added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, but that was against mostly second- and third-stringers.
“I think if we would have kept our ones (starters) in there, it would have still been 10 (points),” Malzahn said.
No argument here.
Defense hasn’t been the issue with Auburn the past three seasons. It has been offense, and mostly quarterback. And let’s be honest. Jarrett Stidham remains a work in progress. His numbers look impressive – 99 completions on 139 attempts (71.2 percent), 1,345 yards, seven touchdowns and only two interceptions. The percentage is a bit inflated by so many quick dinks.
One dimension that new offensive coordinate Chip Lindsey has added is the deep passing game. Stidham has a tendency to throw the ball up for grabs at times. But he can connect enough for defenses to respect his arm strength. That opens things for the running game.
So theoretically, Auburn’s offense has a chance to become really dangerous. The Tigers are making big plays and scoring points even though Stidham is still learning and neither Kerryon Johnson nor Kamryn Pettway, Auburn’s two talented running backs, is completely healthy. With Pettway completely shut down, Johnson exploded for 204 yards, including a 48-yard TD run.
“The thing about Kerryon, he’s one of the toughest players we have,” Malzahn said. “I don’t know of a whole lot of players who can be running for a touchdown and pull a hamstring so bad they have to go down, and then be able to come back two weeks later, or whatever, and be playing at the high level he is right now.”
Johnson agreed with Malzahn that he’s still not completely recovered from that hamstring injury. But he’s close enough that he didn’t pull up on that long run as he did the week before against Mississippi State.
“I feel so close to normal that I couldn’t hide it,” Johnson said. “In the open field I was making people miss, and I was able to get up to a faster speed than last week.”
If Pettway can get healthy and Stidham continues to improve, those lofty preseason expectations of Auburn just might prove to be well founded.