Aubserver Mailbag 146: How much have the Tigers really improved recently?
This week: Trap games, the future at wide receiver, Payton Thorne as 2024 QB1, Cam Coleman, Mexican restaurant rankings and a lot more
RB Jarquez Hunter (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
NEW YORK CITY — If you do a mailbag like this long enough, you’ll start to notice some themes.
One of the biggest ones is, essentially, “OK, I’m reading and seeing and feeling this way about Auburn. But are those feelings valid? Should I really be thinking this?”
And really is not the best word for a trained writer to use, but I like using it, because it fits the theme of these questions.
Go back to July, when I wrote the mailbag titled “How much hype should Auburn really have for 2023?” Or how about a month later, when I wrote the mailbag titled “How much has Auburn really improved this offseason?”
That brings us to today’s mailbag, which is a day early to compensate for Auburn basketball’s back-to-back matchups in Brooklyn against Notre Dame and either Saint Bonaventure or Oklahoma State.
On the football field, Auburn has reeled off three straight wins, with the latest being an absolute beatdown of Arkansas that few saw coming. You might be excited about how much better the Tigers have looked since their four-game losing streak. But you might also be thinking about how artificial that improvement might be, considering the quality of opponent.
That’s the lead question of this week’s mailbag, and that’s why I’m starting yet another mailbag about this 2023 Auburn football team with a “really” question.
Elsewhere this week, we have questions about Auburn’s wide receivers, Payton Thorne, trap games, future basketball opponents, Mexican restaurant power rankings and a lot more.
I’m looking forward to covering these next two basketball games at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Look for Observations from those on Friday and Saturday mornings at the usual time, followed by some remote Observations and the recap podcast from the New Mexico State game Sunday. (I couldn’t get a flight back to Auburn in time for the football game, unfortunately.)
Thanks, as always, for your continued support of The Auburn Observer. Let’s go.
Auburn football is playing better now than it did a month or two ago.
If you were asked to prove Auburn is playing better by using data (basic or advanced stats), what would you use?
One of the simplest ways to do this is to look at how Auburn did against the spread in its first four Power 5 games compared to its last four. Vegas lines aren’t perfect, but they’re a good measurement of expectation from game to game.
In the first four games, Auburn covered just once (Georgia) and finished -20 against the spread across the matchups. In its last four games, Auburn has covered three straight times and only missed the Ole Miss game by half of a point, sitting at a massive +51 against the spread. Take out the big negative of the LSU game and the big positive of the Arkansas game, and it’s still -1 vs. +10.5, so you can still see growth.
Another way to look at it is how Auburn performed compared to a team’s average against Power 5 competition on offense and defense. Defensively, Auburn held opponents to a combined 144 yards below their yards per game average in their first four matchups, and that number has gone up slightly to 54.5 below over the last four games.
The big change, as you would expect, is on offense. In the first four games, Auburn was a combined 493.2 yards under the averages. Now, it’s actually been 19.5 yards over the averages over the last four games. Even though the opponents have obviously been easier, Auburn is doing a lot better on offense over the past month — even when you take the strength of the matchups into account.
A more advanced way to look at the growth of the Tigers is in SP+ — which rates teams on a per-play basis and weighs it for opponent strength.
After the fourth straight loss, Auburn was +4.1 in SP+, sitting at 27.7 on offense and 23.9 on defense. Now, after the three straight wins, Auburn is +8.7 in SP+, sitting at 28.6 on offense and 20.1 on defense. The advanced numbers definitely say the Tigers have improved on both sides of the ball over the last month.
So, yes, Auburn has won the Power 5 games it was supposed to win this season: Cal, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. Auburn hasn’t beaten a Power 5 team that is currently on track to make it to a bowl game, and that shouldn’t be totally ignored.
But Auburn also was an underdog against Arkansas and still won by 38 points, which says a lot about the growth of the team to this point. The four losses have all been to teams the Tigers were supposed to lose to, and only one of them was by more than a touchdown of the point spread.
In Year 1 of a rebuilding process, meeting expectations isn’t a terrible place to be. The path to 6-4 at this point in the season shouldn’t have been surprising, and it probably could have been expected a little bit, given the imbalanced nature of Auburn’s SEC schedule. But the Tigers that have won three straight aren’t the same exact team that struggled earlier this season.
That’s important, because Auburn has a chance to showcase just how much it’s gotten better next Saturday in a home Iron Bowl — where competitive Tiger teams over the years have found ways to pull off pretty impressive results.
When's the last time Auburn fell for a trap game/got caught looking ahead?
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Auburn Observer to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.