Can Auburn get something going through the air at LSU? (Because, if it can't...)
The Tigers had an off week to self-evaluate their passing game — and their matchup at LSU is, surprisingly, favorable in that department.
QB Payton Thorne (Jamie Holt/Auburn Tigers)
Through the first five games of a new era, Auburn football has basically matched preseason expectations.
The Tigers won the three games in which they were favorites and lost the two games in which they were underdogs. While their 17-point loss at Texas A&M was more lopsided than expected, they gave back-to-back national champion Georgia one of the closest games in its dominant winning streak.
Breaking it down further, Auburn’s defense has arguably exceeded expectations. The Tigers are No. 33 nationally in Defensive SP+, No. 43 in yards allowed per play and No. 25 in points allowed per game. Those are all sizable improvements from 2022, even with a rebuilt front and major injuries to starters at all three levels.
On offense, Auburn isn’t running the ball at will by any means, but it’s No. 39 nationally in yards per carry and is one of just 23 teams in FBS that is averaging 200-plus yards per game on the ground. Before the off week, Auburn became the first team to run for 200 or more yards against Georgia since 2019.
But the passing attack? That’s a completely different story.
Auburn is ranked No. 105 nationally at just 6.5 passing yards per attempt this season. Against Power 5 opponents, that average craters to an abysmal 4.0 — the fourth-worst mark in the FBS and by far the worst of any team in a major conference. According to Game On Paper, Auburn is ranked No. 119 out of 123 FBS teams in EPA per passing play.
Auburn’s passing game was always going to be a work in progress in 2023. Starting quarterback Payton Thorne had a solid track record through the air at Michigan State, but he had to learn a brand-new type of offense in a short amount of time. The Tigers also returned little production at receiver and had to lean on smaller-school transfers to fill out their roster there.
(As LSU head coach Brian Kelly said Monday, Auburn would probably throw the ball more if it had LSU’s talent level at wide receiver. That gap was pretty telling against Texas A&M and Georgia, too.)
Still, it’s more than reasonable to have expected more from a Year 1 passing game under head coach Hugh Freeze and offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, who have been known for their air attacks throughout their college coaching careers.
In 2012, Freeze inherited an Ole Miss team that ranked No. 111 nationally in yards per passing attempt the year before. The Rebels immediately jumped to No. 25 in that category. Under Montgomery, Tulsa went from No. 88 in passing to No. 15 in his first season at the helm.
Auburn hasn’t had that first-year leap under Freeze and Montgomery. In fact, the Tigers have been worse through the air than they were in 2022. Against Texas A&M and Georgia, Auburn was out-gained in passing by a margin of 506-144.
And being that ineffective through the air is putting Auburn at an even greater disadvantage than the one it already faces in the talent department against the likes of Texas A&M, Georgia and its next opponent at LSU.
“The margin of error for us winning and losing right now is so small against teams that probably have a better roster in some spots,” Freeze said Monday. “We can't afford those (mistakes). We have to look at everybody: Coaches, players. Why are we not getting that executed? If we can't do it, personnel-wise, get it out of the plan. If we can do it, but we're not doing it right, then we've gotta coach it better.
“That's what the whole (off) week was about: How do I not go to bed after a game feeling that way?”
Fixing Auburn’s struggling passing game isn’t as simple as replacing the starting quarterback or changing up who calls the plays.
When the results are this consistently rough, it’s on everybody involved to get better.
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