Can Auburn light up the sky with more fireworks in the passing game?
The Tigers haven't been able to create big plays through the air consistently for a while. That's an early challenge for the new staff.
This is not a picture of an Auburn offensive skill position player, but I’m completely committed to the 4th of July fireworks theme. Focus on that. (Auburn Athletics)
Explosive plays are critical to a modern college football offense. To have a big-time offense, you have to make big-time plays — and make them frequently.
The value of explosiveness has increased over the years. Offensive coaches focus on how many big plays they’re creating. Defensive coaches obsess over limiting them. They’ve often been compared to the all-important 3-point shot in basketball or the extra-base hit in baseball. If you don’t have them, you’re going to have a hard time winning.
Everyone has their own definition of what constitutes an “explosive play.” For the purposes of this newsletter, we’re going to go with a simple one: Plays of 20 or more yards. Whether you’re running the ball or throwing it, getting 20-plus on a play is widely considered to be very successful.
Case in point: Last season, national champion Georgia tied Western Kentucky — which had new Auburn offensive tackle Gunner Britton — for the most 20-plus yard plays in FBS at 98. TCU, which made it to the national title game, was tied at No. 4 with 11-win USC. A 10-win Florida State team was No. 3. Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss were at No. 6. Tulane, which beat USC in a New Year’s Six bowl, was No. 7.
During Auburn’s rough 2022 season, the Tigers actually put together a pretty explosive offense in one aspect. Auburn racked up 31 runs of 20-plus yards last season, ranking No. 6 nationally.
The Tigers’ explosive run rate — 31 explosive runs divided by 488 rushing attempts — came out to be 6.35%, which led the entire SEC. Even behind a lackluster offensive line, the combination of Robby Ashford, Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter created a strong number of big plays on the ground.
The problem, though, is that the running game represents a small portion of a team’s usual explosive output. During the 2021 NFL season, runs made up only 16.8% of all plays that went for 20 or more yards. In the college game, 31 runs of 20-plus yards was good enough for sixth-best. It took 64 passes to get to sixth-best through the air.
And that, ultimately, was a big problem for Auburn’s offense. The Tigers tied for 92nd nationally in passing plays of 20-plus yards, finishing with just 35 for the season.
In terms of explosive pass rate, Auburn got a big play on 11.4% of its pass attempts. That’s not a terrible number — it ranked No. 8 in the SEC — but it’s skewed by the fact that the Tigers went with a real all-or-nothing passing strategy, particularly late in the year when Cadillac Williams took over as the interim head coach.
A year earlier, with Bo Nix at quarterback for most of the season, Auburn ranked 10th in the SEC with an explosive passing rate of just 9.2%. (Nix, by the way, finished tied for 12th nationally in completions of 20-plus yards last season at Oregon.)
Elsewhere in the SEC, Georgia has been at 14.23% and 13.76% over each of the last two seasons — one of the best rates in the entire country. Tennessee has posted rates of 13.03% in back-to-back seasons under Josh Heupel, and that passing game renovation has reignited the Vols’ program. Alabama took a step backwards in 2022, but it led the SEC in explosive pass rate in the 2021 season at 13.84%.
A lot has been made about Auburn’s need to catch up with its biggest rivals on the recruiting trail, and rightfully so. On the field, though, the biggest gap is in the passing game, where the Tigers have struggled to produce explosive plays on a consistent basis for several years now.
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