This week, Crimson & Cream Machine did some scouting of Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl opponent, the Auburn Tigers. Normally, CCM scouts the other team in one post before a game based on recent performance. But since we have an entire regular season to work with, this week’s posts looked back on the whole Auburn season in three parts. You can read Part One here and Part Two right here. Today, the home stretch: Vanderbilt, Georgia, Alabama A&M and Alabama.
Following a 40-29 victory over Ole Miss in Oxford, the Auburn Tigers sat at a solid 6-2 with a 4-1 conference record, their only SEC loss coming in Week Three to the upstart A&M Aggies. With Vanderbilt up next on the schedule, it looked like AU would cruise to another win and up its winning streak to six.
But trouble struck before the game. AU starting quarterback Sean White didn’t practice with an undisclosed injury, and the Tigers decided to go with Last Chance U star John Franklin III against the Commodores. Franklin was rarely asked to pass, instead handing the ball to Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson and occasionally taking off himself. That didn’t always work out so well—Franklin lost a fumble to Vanderbilt on the first play of a late-first quarter drive. The Tigers finished the game with 271 yards rushing.
Auburn only mustered 10 first-half points and trailed by three at the break. White, seeing his team in need, decided to give it a go for the second half. The Tigers quickly took the lead with a 21-yard touchdown pass to Darius Slayton.
Ol’ reliable field goal kicker Daniel Carlson hit three field goals in the game, and tried to ice the game in its final minutes by extending AU’s lead to 10. But Zach Cunningham made an incredible athletic play, leaping over the Auburn snapper and stuffing the kick.
Vanderbilt had one last drive to tie or win the game, and looked like it might be the team of destiny when Auburn defenders tipped a pass into the hands of receiver Caleb Scott to convert a fourth and 18. But a Josh Holsey interception sealed the win shortly after.
Mississippi State beat “number four” Texas A&M the same day, meaning that Auburn could win the division outright by running the table and winning the Iron Bowl. But there was little indication that it could do so after barely scraping by a 26-point underdog. Worse, Pettway hurt himself in the middle of a would-have-been touchdown run, limping his way to the sideline with what looked like a pulled hamstring. The team’s best quarterback and running back were both banged up.
The results against Georgia were absolutely devastating. Kirby Smart’s team was one of the more disappointing stories in the SEC with a 3-4 conference record. And indeed, the Bulldogs couldn’t score for the entire first half, trailing 7-0 at the break after a Kerryon Johnson touchdown run.
But without Pettway, the Auburn offense disappeared for the rest of the game. Gus Malzahn refused to relieve the hobbled White, who completed just 6 passes on 20 attempts for 27 yards and an interception.
That pick came on the first drive of the third quarter, as Maurice Smith stepped in front of an Auburn dig route and returned the interception to tie the game. That was the last touchdown for either squad, but Auburn couldn’t muster a single first down in the second half in seven drives. Another excellent day from the Auburn defense didn’t matter.
The loss was disastrous—Georgia was a bad team, and Auburn now had no shot at the SEC title. The AU offense, previously the SEC’s best, managed just 164 yards and 32 in the second half.
Still, Auburn never needs extra reasons to get motivated for the Iron Bowl. The Tigers caught a break with Alabama A&M between the SEC contests, starting the almost-forgotten Jeremy Johnson in White’s place. Pettway remained sidelined, but the Tigers still managed 598 yards and earned their first shutout since 2008. They beat A&M 55-0.
Then it was back to the real world.
In Tuscaloosa, Auburn started Johnson for the second straight game and got Pettway back from his leg injury. But its offensive problems became apparent early. When the Auburn defense forced a ‘Bama punt on its first possession, Stephen Roberts caught the short kick at top speed and returned it all the way to the Crimson Tide 21. Auburn, though, managed to lose three yards and had to settle for a Carlson field goal to take the 3-0 lead.
Carlson’s field goals would be the only offense AU mustered all day. The Tigers trailed by just four points at halftime, but that had more to do with Jalen Hurts’s two interceptions than any success Auburn was having. Between Alabama’s mistakes and AU’s defensive success, it looked like the floodgates were probably about to open. Even though the Tigers tried to mix things up with Franklin in the third quarter, their passing game stayed sluggish and the Crimson Tide pulled away for a 30-12 Iron Bowl win.
Incredibly, Alabama was the SEC only team to finish the regular season with fewer than four losses. After Florida got demolished in the conference title game, Auburn became the conference’s second-best squad in the CFP rankings. The result was an invitation to New Orleans.
Yet any Sooners fan expecting this game to be easy will probably find themselves surprised. White will be back on the field for the Tigers, which will presumably re-open the passing game as Oklahoma tries to stop Pettway and Johnson with a young front seven.
And Auburn’s defense is still elite, much better than the average Big 12 unit. Auburn only allowed 5 rushing touchdowns all season(!), which will make life difficult for Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Defensive end Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams are elite talents and, as our friends at Football Study Hall pointed out, the average Auburn defender was better than a four-star recruit.
The defensive unit is fast, good at tackling and intercepted 11 passes. I don’t think they’ve played an offense like Oklahoma’s all season, but they have all month to prepare.
I don’t think Auburn’s offense can put up more than 34ish points against even a mediocre defense, which OU has on its best days. Taken together, OU should be the favorite heading into this one—but Auburn can’t be overlooked. Momentum, and maybe even a recruit or two, hang in the balance.