You know how this works by now. I spoke with Jack Condon, the lead guy for College and Magnolia, about some of the inside and outside of the of Auburn. You can check out their site for my answers to his questions about Alabama as well.
1) The elephant in the room right now is Gus Malzahn. At about this time last year, it seemed Auburn fans were on the cusp of running him out, and then he toppled Georgia and Alabama in back to back weeks, earning an extension. Now, the rumblings are out again. Are the fans fed up with Gus? Do you think he has another season or is these last two games the determining factor?
What people like to forget is that Gus was on the hotseat at 2015 when he took a preseason top ten team and finished unranked, he was a play away from losing his job in 2016 (instead Les Miles got canned), and he was in danger again last year after the collapse in Baton Rouge. While the November run was special, it certainly didn’t merit the contract extension that he was given. Personally, I thought that if Arkansas wanted to pony up that kind of cash, then they could have him. We could do an entire interview about the intricacies of the Gus Malzahn tenure at Auburn, but the bottom line is that he’s been consistently inconsistent. While Auburn has achieved heights we haven’t had in a long time (national championship/Heisman as a coordinator, title game appearance his first season, etc.) we’ve also had the frustrating ebbs that shouldn’t happen with the kind of talent the Tigers have on the roster.
I think he’s safe barring some sort of outlandish 70-3 defeat this Saturday, and some embarrassing bowl loss as well, but next year will be hot. If Auburn wins the Kelly Bryant sweepstakes, we may see a return to the sort of scheme that got us to two national championships, but there are still legitimate concerns about recruiting certain positions, player development, and stubborn play-calling. A ton of Auburn fans would like to see him become more personable like Bruce Pearl across the street, but that’ll never be Gus’ style. Long story short, he’ll have next year to improve, or we may be on the market. Just don’t know who we would get (that’s likely the biggest obstacle to firing him now aside from the buyout itself).
2) Auburn’s defensive line came into the season with a lot of hype, and backed it up early against Washington. Since then, things seem to have gotten a lot quieter. Are they still a fearsome bunch, or have they regressed?
The defensive performance in certain games has been one of the more disappointing things for this team. Mississippi State and Georgia both ran for over 300 yards, which almost makes me think Ellis Johnson stepped back into the booth to call plays. Auburn’s defensive line has four pros on it right now, but for whatever reason they haven’t produced the pass rush that we saw with Jeff Holland coming off the edge last year. The Tigers haven’t been able to get after the quarterback consistently without blitzing, but there have also been times when they look great. It’s a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde thing. You’d think that the secondary would be the issue, but they’ve arguably been way more consistent than the front seven has been this season. It’ll be infuriating when Derrick Brown is a top-15 pick, Dontavius Russell becomes a mainstay on someone’s line for several years, and Marlon Davidson/Nick Coe develop into upper-crust pass rushers in the NFL, because their production hasn’t matched it this year.
3) Speaking of regression, what happened to the Jarrett Stidham then routinely picked Alabama apart in the 2017 Iron Bowl?
This one’s easier to figure out. We have no offensive line.
If you watched the Clemson game in 2017, you saw skittish Stidham, running for his life and getting sacked 11 times. Then the line came together, and seniors played really well in finally gelling to become a unit that took pride in keeping Stidham clean. Now, we’ve got a ton of young guys and transfers up front, with very few starts together, and everyone kind of glossed over it in the offseason. You wouldn’t think that losing Braden Smith, Casey Dunn, and Austin Golson would be that big of a deal, but it’s crazy how much it affects the quarterback. I watch Tua at times, and he has five clean seconds to throw the ball. Of course someone’s going to get open for an easy pass. Stidham has had barely any of that luxury, and it’s seemed to really wreck him this year.
4) On offense, the Tigers don’t really have that between-the-tackles bellcow back like Kerryon Johnson, Tre Mason, Kamryn Pettway, Cameron Artis-Payne, etc. that really kept a Gus Malzahn offense moving. How has your offensive style shifted this year, and where is it at it’s most dangerous?
It’s bizarre. This year’s edition of the Gus Malzahn attack doesn’t know what it wants to be. In the opener against Washington, we saw some great short and intermediate passing concepts, and we took an early lead on the Huskies because of that. It was the same thing when we took the lead against LSU, and in the comeback against Texas A&M. When Stidham can get into a rhythm, which means he gets at least some protection, this offense can be pretty good. The receivers are the same talented group that tore up Georgia and Alabama last year, but it all comes down to how comfortable the quarterback feels when he’s trying to throw to them. Give Stidham time, let him rip, and that’s when the offense is the most dangerous.
5) What is the weakest position group on defense?
Ooh, consistently I’d say the secondary is vulnerable (they got attacked by UW/LSU and picked up a ton of PI penalties), but we’ve had our biggest breakdowns in the front seven, specifically the defensive line getting pushed around by MSU and Georgia. They haven’t all been bad together, but we really haven’t had a game where every unit plays well at the same time.
6) Based on your knowledge of Alabama, what specific scheme, personnel, on positional matchup do you think Auburn has the best chance of exploiting against the Tide?
I think it comes more based on my knowledge of Auburn. The run game hasn’t worked this year, save for one game against Ole Miss. The Tigers have looked best when Stidham and the rhythm passing game are in sync. Getting the ball to Ryan Davis in space, or Seth Williams on an intermediate route downfield have been the top options. It’s the old Malzahn thing about getting the ball to your playmakers in space, and as long as we don’t try to get too cute, it does still work. There’s still talent on the Auburn offense, but I don’t think running the ball will have success on Saturday. Auburn needs to live and die through the air, and try to make the Bama defense chase around the speedy receivers. We’re just not built to control the clock and churn out first downs with one of those memorable running backs.
7) Finally, what is your prediction on how the game plays out and a final score?
I said in our staff predictions that I thought it would be 34-17 Alabama. Gus does know how to coach against the Tide, and I think this meeting looks very similar to the 2015-16 games. Auburn plays inspired, emotional football for a while, and an early big special teams play may even put the Tigers in position to take a lead. The defense frustrates Alabama early, but eventually a couple touchdowns break through and that’ll be enough to erase the emotional advantage that Auburn may have. It’ll be something like 13-10 at halftime and everyone will be on tenterhooks, but a couple quick touchdowns in the third quarter push it to a comfortable, if not completely safe margin. Both teams get a late score and Auburn covers, but you never really felt like the game was in doubt after about the midway point of the third quarter.