What has happened to Auburn's run defense in 2022?
The Tigers' biggest strength in 2021 was arguably their ability to slow down the ground game. This season, though, they're one of the nation's worst. Why?
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
If you had to pick out the single-best aspect of Auburn football’s on-field performances during the 2021 season, run defense would be the correct answer.
The Tigers allowed just 3.51 yards per carry last season, which ranked No. 21 in FBS. They allowed just eight rushing touchdowns all year long, and only four teams — Georgia, Texas A&M, Clemson and San Diego State — were better. (Somewhat surprisingly, Auburn allowed zero rushing touchdowns during the five-game losing streak to end the 2021 season.) Georgia State and Texas A&M were arguably the only offenses with good ground game success against Auburn, and they were aided by a few gigantic plays.
Auburn had plenty of up-and-downs elsewhere. Pass offense? Absolutely. Run offense? Hot and cold. Pass defense? Quite mistake-prone. But Auburn’s 2021 run defense was, on a per-play basis, the best the program has had since the 2010 national championship season.
Oh, how things have changed in a hurry on the Plains.
Through seven games, Auburn has allowed 4.85 yards per carry and 19 rushing touchdowns this season — almost a yard-and-a-half worse than a year ago, with 11 more scores allowed in six fewer games. Among Power 5 teams, the only worse run defenses this season are three Pac-12 schools (Stanford, Colorado and Arizona) and a team that fired its head coach before everyone else (Nebraska).
Under defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding — who replaced Derek Mason after he resigned and later took the Oklahoma State job in the winter — Auburn has allowed three different teams to rush for more than 6 yards per carry this season: Penn State, Georgia and Ole Miss. Only one team hit that mark in a game against Auburn in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. No one did in 2019.
You have to go back to 2012 for the last time that happened three times in a single year, and Auburn still has five more regular-season games to play.
The final two weeks before the off week were massive low points for the Tigers. Georgia averaged nearly 7.5 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns on the ground, becoming the first offense to hang a half-dozen on Auburn since the infamous Johnny Manziel torching by Texas A&M in, again, 2012.
Then came the Ole Miss game, where Lane Kiffin’s Rebels rushed for 448 yards — the most Auburn has allowed in a game in several decades. The Rebels had three different players run for 100-plus yards.
Ole Miss ran the ball 69 times against Auburn, which could very well be the most rushing attempts the program has faced in the modern era for a single game. The previous high for the last decade was 63 from Mississippi State in 2011, and older games are unlikely to have as many snaps as Kiffin’s up-tempo scheme. The Rebels could do whatever they wanted on the ground.
“We've got to get it corrected,” linebacker Owen Pappoe said after the Ole Miss loss. “We're going into a bye week, and everybody on the team has a chance to look in the mirror and reevaluate what we've been doing. Because, obviously, it hasn't been working.”
Any improvement from the off week is going to have to happen in a hurry. Auburn’s next opponent is Arkansas, which will also be coming off an open weekend. Arkansas averages 48.14 rushing attempts per game this season — the most of any FBS team that isn’t an option-running service academy.
This begs the question: How did Auburn get to this point? Why did a run defense that was objectively good last season immediately become one of the worst of any major college football program? Here are three big differences in the run defense from 2021 to 2022.
There’s a Zakoby McClain-shaped hole in the defense
Anyone who watched Auburn play over the last several seasons knew how important Zakoby McClain was to its defensive success. McClain led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons, including an utterly ridiculous 113-tackle season in a 2020 season that featured an early exit from K.J. Britt.
McClain was a tackle machine all over the field, but run-stopping was where he shined the brightest. He was one of the nation’s best in that category, filling in the vacancy left by “Downhill” Britt at the heart of the Tigers’ defenses.
After four seasons for the Tigers, McClain opted to go to the NFL instead of returning for a super senior season from the COVID waiver. His departure, along with veteran linebacker Chandler Wooten, has loomed rather large.