Auburn is 82nd in total defense... but it's playing more like a top-25 unit.
While the Tigers are allowing 5.7 yards/play in 2023, they've got a knack for getting stops. This defense is even better than you think.
(Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
If yardage was the only thing that mattered in football, you would assume that Auburn’s defense had a rough first two months of the season.
Auburn is currently No. 82 nationally in yards allowed per play (5.70), and that ranks No. 10 in the SEC. It’s a step back from where it was last season (5.52), too. On a per-play basis, this is a defense that would be in the bottom half both nationally and inside its own conference.
However, outside of a couple of quarters of subpar effort and execution at LSU, few would watch this Auburn defense in 2023 and say the Tigers are struggling on that side of the ball.
In fact, Auburn is a whole touchdown better on the defensive side of the ball this season. Last year, Auburn ranked No. 97 nationally at 29.5 points allowed per game. This year, Auburn is up 50 spots to No. 47 at 22.5 points allowed per game.
So, even though opponents are moving the ball more on Auburn on average this season, it’s having a harder time putting points on the scoreboard.
“That's what we do,” said Jaylin Simpson, who was named a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award on Tuesday. “That's what we were built on: Just playing great defense — great team defense.”
Auburn’s defense is greater than the sum of its parts in 2023. The Tigers had to revamp a lot of their front two levels this past offseason, including a wholesale change at the edge rusher spots. They’ve also dealt with longterm injuries to two transfers who were brought in to start: inside linebacker Austin Keys and defensive end Mosiah Nasili-Kite. (Keys has made his return, but MNK is out for the season.)
The result is a defensive front that has been susceptible to giving up chunks on the ground — Auburn is 97th nationally in rushing yards allowed per carry — and hasn’t stood out in terms of sacking the quarterback.
Even a secondary that brought back all of its starters from a season ago has seen some regression statistically: Auburn has allowed 7.2 yards per pass attempt (62nd nationally) this season after finishing in the top 25 last season at 6.5 YPA.
But, again, Auburn has been a touchdown better on defense than it was last season — and that’s including three games against the top three offenses in the SEC.
That matters. When looking at opponent-adjusted ratings that take strength of schedule into account, such as SP+ and FEI, Auburn grades out as a top-25 defense this season. This isn’t a dominant defense, but it’s a really effective one.
And a lot of that goes back to the work from defensive coordinator Ron Roberts, who has brought his versatile and havoc-focused scheme to the Plains with good results through eight games.
“He is one of the best in the nation at calling a game,” head coach Hugh Freeze said Monday. “You know, I think we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses, and you wanna play to your strengths. And one of his strengths is definitely game day, calling the football game from a defensive perspective and making adjustments within his system. I think he's really gifted at that.”
How has Roberts’ defense been able to highlight its strengths and minimize its weaknesses so far this season?
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