Big thanks to the guys at College and Magnolia for taking the time to talk to us and be willing to discuss Auburn's strengths as well as their weaknesses.
1) Auburn is currently sitting at 5-2, with a really impressive win over Ole Miss and a bad loss to South Carolina. The results of the rest of the schedule are about what I would expect. What's the general fan confidence in the 2020 Auburn Tigers and the job that Gus Malzahn is doing this year?
It's not bad right now. I think in any other year, there'd be some more pressure on Gus (it is an even-numbered "Fire Gus" year after all), but the current climate kind of has all but the craziest of crazies tempered and quiet. We're not going to shell out $21M to get rid of a coach in a pandemic, even though there are probably plenty of private donations that would be able to pass the plate and come up with that cash. While everyone's looking for the next Nick Saban with each hire, it's not going to happen, and you have to ride out the storm while he's still coaching against you. For Auburn, the pressure is even larger, and Gus has ridden it out better than just about any other coach in the land.
Next year, Auburn should be better, and have the favorable home schedule with you guys and Georgia coming to town. If Gus is going to be shown the door, it would likely happen in 2022 at the very earliest, but not if we ended up doing something like winning the West or the SEC in 2021 with a pretty experienced team.
2) Speaking of, how on earth did you guys hold the Fighting Lane Kiffins to less than 200 passing yards and no rushers over 100 yards? If you have any insight, please share with the class.
Kevin Steele is better at his job than 99.9% of humans are at whatever they're paid to do. We may end up answering your question #5 here somewhat, but Steele usually focuses on a team's biggest strength when he comes up with a defensive plan, and he was able to shut down the Ole Miss passing attack, but gave up plenty of rushing yards in return. He's really great at coming up with something special in a quick turnaround as well, like he did with springing the 3-1-7 on LSU last season and holding them to their lowest point total of the year by far.
3) Tank Bigsby has quickly turned into a premiere running back. Can you break down what makes him so good to those of us that can't stand watching orange/blue uniforms? And from what you've seen so far, where would you rank him among the other Auburn starting running backs in the last decade?
To start, it's the balance and strength for now. He's got deceptive speed (had the 100-yard kickoff return that got called back against Ole Miss), but his best work comes in making guys miss and breaking tackles. His first run against Tennessee the other night had no less than five broken tackles, and he's done that regularly all season long. From the early returns, and only really focusing on how different guys have been as freshmen, he reminds a lot of people of a thicker version of his position coach, who was pretty good in his own right.
4) Has Bo Nix progressed on an expected trajectory since his freshman year? And with so many returning skill players from your 2019 squad, has the actual offensive scheme undergone any changes this year?
He definitely hasn't progressed as much as Auburn fans would like, but he's noticeably better than he was last year in several areas. He's bumped his accuracy up from 57% to 61% this year, but his last three games he's completed 72.5% percent of his passes. We've also been able to lean on him more than we were last year at times. Without Tank Bigbsy against Tennessee, he was steady and controlled the offense. LSU was his best overall game with 380 total yards of offense, and the Ole Miss game saw him emerge through the adversity of the South Carolina loss.
The scheme definitely has more intermediate passing, which we've been clamoring for for years over here. Fewer bubble screens, and we're incorporating the backs into the passing game as well. In true Gus fashion, however, we needed to spend four games to figure out what we wanted to do, and recently we leaned into the run game more until Tank got hurt early on Saturday.
5) With you guys losing so much talent to the NFL draft from the defensive front, we all expected a bit of a step back in terms of front-7 dominance. But, uh, nearly 170 yards per game rushing is... not great. Is the new defensive line really playing better than the stats indicate, or is this a problem area for the Auburn defense?
Yeah, we don't really want to talk about it. At best, we'll just let Najee Harris go for 300 yards and Mac Jones won't need to throw the ball, thus losing him a valuable showcase game for the Heisman. Like I mentioned above, Kevin Steele definitely likes to throw more at defending a team's true strength, which will lend itself to more rushing yards when we're thinking about the pass, but it's an issue. We won't pretend that scheme is the problem here. Losing Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson really hurts, and while our defensive front has improved and started making plays at times, the consistency isn't there yet. Missing K.J. Britt over the last several weeks also really stings.
6) Give me one non-household name on each offense and defense that you think will make a big play against Alabama this weekend.
Offensively, we've started trying to figure out the tight end passing attack a little more, and Bo Nix missed Brandon Frazier wide open a couple times on Saturday. He never saw him, and he'll certainly have that pointed out in film this week. We've worked on getting J.J. Pegues into the game, and John Samuel Shenker has made a couple of catches, but Frazier's the guy we really want to get involved in the passing game.
On defense, there's going to be a ton of attention paid to how we defend your receivers, even with Waddle out. Last year, we did a pretty good job on Smith, Jeudy, and Ruggs, but Waddle tore up the extra guy that we'd stick out there. That said, Roger McCreary will likely take Smith most of the game, and so our next cornerback will be Jaylin Simpson. He's a freshman, but he started the season against Kentucky and only missed a little time due to an injury. He's been as solid as can be, and teams haven't had much success throwing at him yet. I'm sure he'll be on Metchie for a good portion of the game, so whoever your third guy is will probably have four touchdown catches.
7) In terms of position matchups, where do you think Auburn has the biggest advantage.... And where do you think Alabama has the biggest advantage?
The biggest advantage for Auburn depends highly on how healthy we are after the bloodbath against Tennessee. We lost our starting tailback and two offensive linemen. If they come back ready to go, then I think our secondary receivers (backs, tight ends, slot guys like Eli Stove) should be able to find success in their matchups.
Alabama's biggest advantage is clearly the running game. You may be able to just pound Najee and Co. for four quarters and end up with a pretty speedy win. I'd be surprised if Bama doesn't end up with 200 yards on the ground. We'll have to see which facet Auburn decides to focus on defending -- the passing or the running game. Both seem equally dangerous.
8) What's your game prediction?
We'll have our full slate of predictions on Saturday morning, but I'll give you mine now (subject to change due to the amount of turkey consumed this week). Even without Nick Saban on the sideline, it won't matter much. Especially if Auburn doesn't get back the hurt offensive linemen and Tank Bigsby, then Alabama should win easily. Gus Malzahn does always have a pretty good plan for the Tide, and Bama has never really blown him out aside from 2018, which was a 17-14 game at half. He does spend time all year long preparing for Alabama, and that'll help, but we don't have the horses this year. It'll be close for about 20 minutes, but I think the Tide hit a late touchdown in the second quarter to establish a double-digit lead going into halftime, and then the second half turns into a rout. I'll say Alabama wins 49-24.