This week, Crimson & Cream Machine will do some advance scouting on 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 will look back on the whole Auburn season in three parts. Today, it’s the first four games: Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU.
Coming off a thoroughly mediocre 7-6 campaign in 2015, Gus Malzahn was squarely on the hot seat when his Tigers opened the season. The team’s early-season schedule wasn’t promising—it opened with the defending national runner-up and the SEC West loomed in just Week Three.
Auburn’s was one of several prominent off-season quarterback controversies. Many expected JUCO transfer John Franklin III, of Last Chance U, to win the job. Instead, Malzahn gave the ball to sophomore Sean White, a surprise reminiscent of Trevor Knight’s upset QB victory two years ago (though White had some game-management experience from the bumpy ‘15 campaign).
For the first time in awhile, Auburn’s strength was expected to be its defense, and that definitely panned out when AU opened the season against OU nemesis Clemson. The all-Tiger tussle was a low-scoring affair and went down to the wire. Auburn really got burned by a 3-for-17 3rd-down conversion rate and a lack of established running backs.
See, presumed senior starter Jovon Robinson was kicked off the team in early August. Roc Thomas decided to transfer just months before the season began. The running back defections left Auburn with a pair of sophomores, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, to battle for touches.
But Pettway wasn’t used against Clemson, and Johnson racked up a solid but unspectacular 94 yards on 23 carries. Jeremy Johnson took a few snaps for White, showing off a laser arm that was, unfortunately, not terribly accurate or good at finding the second or third option.
For all the hype, it looked like Franklin wasn’t a big part of the QB equation at all. Auburn dropped that game 19-13 when a last-minute drive couldn’t find the end zone.
Auburn rolled over Arkansas State 51-14 the next week, then faced a home game against the A&M Aggies. The Ags came in ranked 17th, and the game was seen as a vital proving ground for both squads. But Auburn’s offense remained anemic, and the Tigers dropped that contest 29-16. It was a season-opening run that closely mimicked OU’s own, but in reverse—Auburn’s struggle was on offense, while the Sooners quickly realized that defense was going to be their biggest problem of the season.
Auburn’s offense relied heavily on the run, despite the inexperienced backs. Malzahn finally allowed Pettway to earn his keep, and Pettway led the team with 123 yards against A&M. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s offense is one of power runs, with guards and fullbacks sealing the edge and backs waiting patiently for lanes to develop. It’s the kind of offense that works much better with an experienced unit, and the whole backfield’s youth showed up time and again during Auburn’s two early-season losses.
That led the team into a crucial Week Four showdown against LSU at home (Auburn somehow managed to play its first five games at home. Joe C should call Jay Jacobs and figure out how that works). LSU, of course, had dropped a shocking Week One decision to the Wisconsin Badgers that made everyone consider the crazy possibility that they were, in fact, not good. It was yet another Tigers v. Tigers showdown with an added twist—a mutual hot seat. Les Miles’s certainly was hotter, though perhaps the temperature surprised him when the game and his LSU career ended simultaneously.
Auburn held Leonard Fournette to 101 yards in the game, using a 4-3 defense that consistently stacked the box and didn’t show much respect for LSU’s passing game.
Auburn’s offense got more creative, too. The Tigers used tempo, bunched formations, and even a random second-down statue of liberty play in the first quarter (it didn’t work) to keep LSU on its heels.
Auburn wasn’t able to score a single touchdown in that game—instead, the excellent Daniel Carlson nailed six field goals, and AU took a 18-13 lead with just minutes left to play. LSU drove the length of the field and, in a dramatic finish, got a first-and-goal completion in time to give them one final end zone shot. At first it looked like Danny Etling had found D.J. Clark in the corner for a last-second game-winning touchdown pass. But officials reviewed it and decided that LSU hadn’t snapped the ball in time. The game ended 18-13.
Auburn’s early-season woes were disappointing but not completely unexpected. The Tigers were picked to finish in the middle of the SEC West pack and were unranked to start the season. Malzahn’s win against a decent LSU squad helped reset Auburn’s year and got it on a Sugar Bowl path.