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Year in review: Heartbreaking defeats, QB struggles define 2015 season for Auburn football team

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn gestures to fans as he walks off the field after they defeated Memphis 31-10 in the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn gestures to fans as he walks off the field after they defeated Memphis 31-10 in the Birmingham Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Birmingham, Ala. AP Photo

The Auburn football team pictured itself hoisting up some shiny new hardware for its fans at the end of the 2015 season.

It never envisioned it would be on a cloudy day at Legion Field for winning the Birmingham Bowl.

The team genuinely celebrated its first bowl win since 2011 last week — coach Gus Malzahn did the ‘dab’ ala Cam Newton in the post game locker room celebration — but the season was defined a few days prior to the 31-10 win over Memphis.

Athletic director Jay Jacobs did a postmortem on the team’s performance and publically laid out his review for coach Malzahn for all to hear in a local radio interview.

“There is no excuse going 6-6 at Auburn even though you lost a couple games by one possession or less,” Jacobs said.

The season wasn’t the outright failure that led Gene Chizik losing his job two years removed from winning a national title, but the program’s turbulent season had far too many disappointments.

Quarterback carousel 

Preseason predictions pegged Auburn as a championship contender with a place in the polls, No. 6, to match.

Auburn fed into those expectations at the SEC Media days when coach Malzahn discussed quarterback Jeremy Johnson and the offense.

“We're hoping to repeat the same performance offensively as we did in 2013,” Malzahn said.

Malzahn gave Johnson a glowing scouting report as a quarterback that “can flat out throw” and be an effective runner out of the backfield.

The Jeremy Johnson fans saw in the first three games didn’t quite fit that description.

Johnson alternated between ineffective and counterproductive thanks to seven turnovers.

After narrowly avoiding an upset against FCS opponent Jacksonville St. at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Malzahn started fielding questions about Johnson’s status as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

The Tigers were forced to acknowledge their quarterback problem following a blowout loss at LSU. Johnson looked completely out of sync and out of confidence in front of a hostile crowd in Baton Rouge.

“It is a little surprising from a coach’s standpoint,'' Malzahn said. ''You have to do what you feel is best for your team and your offense each week.

Auburn’s game of musical chairs at the position was far from over.

Malzahn handed the reigns of the offense to redshirt freshman Sean White. White  showed flashes of potential leading the Tigers to victories San Jose State and Kentucky while earning rave reviews from his teammates in the process.

“That’s our offense right there, big plays and being able to run the ball,” Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis said of a win over Kentucky. “When we do that we have great success.”

White’s progress was derailed by an injury to his left knee in an overtime loss to Arkansas. He showed plenty of grit starting the following week against Ole Miss, but aggravated the injury in the loss and wasn’t the same quarterback in what limited action he saw the reminder of the season.

Johnson had an effective return to the lineup going 13 of 17 for 132 yards with a touchdown in a win over a ranked Texas A&M team at Kyle Field. Following the win, Johnson suggested he was unfairly singled out for Auburn’s offensive struggles.

“It’s my first year starting as a college quarterback, I’m not the only one who played that bad at the beginning of the season, that happens,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to come along as the season went on. Obviously, my number got called.”

Johnson’s bravado faded as he stumbled in losses to Georgia and Alabama. The offense failed to gain 300 yards of total offense against either opponent and only found the end zone once in each loss.

“Great teams they always have rhythm on both sides of the ball especially on offense,” Auburn wide receiver Ricardo Louis said. “Your quarterback has rhythm nobody can stop you. If you don’t have rhythm with your quarterback then you can’t have rhythm in the game.”

Auburn’s excitement over winning the Birmingham Bowl came with an asterisk. The team’s quarterback situation is far from settled. White was tabbed as the starter, but threw a pair of interceptions on poorly thrown attempts.

Johnson flourished in a cameo appearance, but needs to show he can string together success. 

Heartbreakers add up

Auburn shined under pressure in recent years, but that wasn’t the case in 2015.

The Tigers dropped their final three one-possession games — all to conference opponents to finish the season 3-4 in games decided by eight points or less.

It wasn’t a case of bad luck either.

When Auburn needed a clutch first down or defensive stop, the Tigers repeatedly stumbled at the finish line.

Auburn’s defense could have sewn up a victory in overtime over Arkansas on two separate occasions by holding the Razorbacks on fourth down. It allowed game-tying touchdowns in each instance.

When Auburn hosted Ole Miss in November, the Tigers had their SEC West rival on the ropes.

Auburn’s offense had the ball inside the 20-yard line with a chance to take the lead two times, but had to settle for field goals only to see the Rebels pull away with a touchdown pass from Chad Kelly to Laquan Treadwell.

The latest chapter in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry followed a similar script.

Auburn’s defense held Georgia down for the majority of the contest only to see the offense turn the ball over twice in the second half and manage one first down in a decisive third quarter.

The Bulldogs managed to escape Jordan-Hare Stadium with a win despite managing only 243 yards.

Malzahn tried to put a positive spin on the team’s pressure situations failures in his post-game press conference at the Birmingham Bowl. He credited Auburn for sticking together and playing their “tails off” in the face of adversity, but it wasn’t the only time he discussed the subject.

In previewing the Iron Bowl, Malzahn said one of the key differences between Auburn’s run to the National Title game in 2013 versus the team that struggled in 2015 was how they played when the game was on the line.

“This game you’ve got to make plays,” Malzahn said. “The thing that stands out about that year is we made plays in all three phases when really the game was on the line.”

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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