It speaks volumes about the difficulty of ninth-ranked Auburn’s schedule that, in late-October, the Tigers are 6-1, ranked in the top-10 and could very well still finish as a four-loss team.
The Tigers have beaten some good teams (Oregon and Texas A&M come to mind), but the road loss to No. 7 Florida on October 5 provided a harsh dose of reality. The Tigers’ final road game of 2019 comes against its best opponent to date, No. 2 LSU, a game that could make or break the Tigers’ season considering LSU and No. 1 Alabama both remain unbeaten in conference play.
Ahead of the Tiger v. Tiger matchup in Baton Rouge, here are five major takeaways from Auburn’s season so far, and how they could shape Auburn’s final five regular-season games.
Gus Malzahn was right about Auburn’s defensive front
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was not short on confidence when asked about his defense at SEC Media Days back in July.
“Defensively, I think we’ve got a chance to be the best defense in my 10 years at Auburn,” Malzahn said in Hoover, Alabama. “That is a really good feeling. It starts with our defensive line, and the three guys (Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Nick Coe) who chose to come back.”
Auburn’s defense ranked No. 38 in total defense in 2018, behind LSU, Georgia, Alabama and other conference foes. The Tigers ranked outside the top 50 nationally in red-zone defense, and tied for 16th in team sacks. This season has shown a much different defense, led by a loaded defensive front.
Derrick Brown has 23 tackles and has forced, and recovered, two fumbles. The Tigers’ defense has allowed an average of 93 rushing yards per game, and held four of its first seven opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards. The Tigers held Texas A&M to just 56 rushing yards.
Davidson finished the Arkansas win with three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble/fumble recovery. Brown and Davidson have each earned two SEC defensive lineman of the week awards.
Auburn opponents aren’t scoring in bunches, either. The Tigers are one of 10 FBS teams that haven’t allowed more than 24 points in a game this season, a list that includes Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State and Wisconsin. That’s good company to be in, especially considering two of the Tigers’ final three games come against two of the nation’s top defenses in Georgia and Alabama.
“We talked before the season about how Nick Fairley had a dominant season, and those two guys right now are in that same category,” Malzahn said on Tuesday. “(Davidson and Brown) are doing it week in and week out. Both of them are dynamic impact players, and they’re both playing at a very high level right now.
“They have the ability to change any game.”
Bo Nix has options, even with Boobee Whitlow sidelined
There was always going to be a learning curve for Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix. Luckily for the Tigers, it’s been relatively smooth sailing for the first-year starter, save for a disastrous three-interception outing in the loss to Florida.
The Florida outing was clearly Nix’s freshman game, and the only time the quarterback has truly looked rattled all season. Maybe that was due to the hit he received on the first snap of the contest, or due to the crowd noise, which gave Auburn fits all afternoon.
Regardless, Nix hasn’t had to step up and win any contest by himself yet. The “yet” is key there, because that might happen soon with the Tigers’ back loaded schedule.
Instead, the Tigers have run the ball well enough, at least for the most part, something Malzahn said numerous times is key to keeping his young quarterback comfortable. Running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow is sidelined for the foreseeable future, but Auburn didn’t miss a beat in its 51-10 win over Arkansas, running for nearly 300 yards in Fayetteville. Eight Tigers, including Nix and backup Joey Gatewood, registered carries against the Razorbacks, and senior Kam Martin led the way with 84 rushing yards and an 8.4 yards-per-rush average.
Receiver Seth Williams emerged early-on as a key target for Nix, but fellow receiver Anthony Schwartz might be the most important key to the offense. The speedy Schwartz scored a rushing touchdown and a receiving score against Arkansas, after being largely left out of Malzahn’s game plan against Florida. It was Schwartz’s 57-yard touchdown run that silenced Kyle Field early against Texas A&M, and the threat of the sophomore taking the ball on a jet sweep adds a massive wrinkle to Malzahn’s offense.
“A freshman quarterback — (the running game) is his best friend,” Malzahn said the Tuesday following the Texas A&M game. “You see that (Nix) is able to get some yards keeping it and that he’s able to open everything else up.”
That said, Auburn might need a better Nix as the season winds down
Nix has largely played OK for most of the season: Not flashy, but good enough. Against better competition, Nix will surely be asked to make plays, and throws, he hasn’t made yet in 2019.
Nix played well against an outmatched Arkansas team, but has struggled in games he hasn’t had a run game to take the pressure away. Against Texas A&M, he threw for 100 yards and one touchdown, averaging just five yards per completed pass (Auburn’s other passing score came from Gatewood).
The three-interception outing against Florida served as the low point, and the Tigers will face similarly-stout defenses in Georgia and Alabama, though they do get the added benefit of those games taking place at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Depending on Whitlow’s health, Auburn’s interior run game could suffer against better defenses than Arkansas’. And there are much better defenses than the Razorbacks’ on Auburn’s remaining schedule. That puts more pressure on Nix, and a repeat of the Florida debacle would likely yield a worse final score than the 24-13 final in Gainesville.
Loss of Whitlow hasn’t been felt yet, but it could be soon
There’s no good time to suffer an injury, but Whitlow’s late-game knee injury against Florida came on the cusp of Auburn’s bye week, softening what Malzahn called a “big blow” to the Tigers’ running game.
Whitlow became Auburn’s 47th career 1,000-yard rusher with his 135-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Tigers’ offensive explosion against Kent State. He scored three first-half rushing touchdowns against Mississippi State in one of the Tigers’ better offensive outings this year. At the time of his injury, Whitlow had 544 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 110 carries on the season.
Whitlow’s absence has not been felt yet, but that time could come fairly soon. Even if he does return on schedule — four-to-six weeks from the Florida game — he likely will not be at 100% speed.
The six-week projection would mean he returns when the Tigers host Georgia on November 16, and the Bulldogs rank fifth nationally in rushing defense. Alabama ranks No. 40 but has only allowed three rushing touchdowns.
“There is no doubt, without having Boobee again obviously is a tough one, but the big thing is that these young guys got some experience last week on the road and we do know it’s going to be louder and everything that goes with it,” Malzahn said. “They got that experience and we got a lot of trust in them. This is why they came to Auburn. They just have to seize the moment.”
Auburn’s goals are still there for the taking
The Florida loss stung, likely because the Tigers were one-to-two plays away from actually winning in The Swamp. They were also one-to-two plays away from being blown out, to be fair. But as Auburn showed in blowing out Arkansas, this is still a dangerous team, and one that still has a very real shot at an SEC Championship appearance.
That all hinges, of course, on whether the Tigers can walk into Death Valley and beat LSU on Saturday. Florida hung with LSU for three-and-a-half quarters before ultimately falling by two scores, but the Tigers’ defense was torched by Gators quarterback Kyle Trask. LSU’s defense is one that Auburn should be able to score on, given it sorts out the communication issues that plagued it in The Swamp.
While Auburn’s season most certainly does not end if it loses at LSU, the Tigers’ goals absolutely hang in the balance.
“We came to Auburn for these types of games,” safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “It is what it is. Burrow’s going to throw the ball in the air. My guys, and myself, when the opportunity comes, they got to take advantage of the opportunity and make plays.”