Aubserver Mailbag 94: What could Auburn football do to fix its on-field problems?
This week: Turnovers, third-down RBs, WR usage, LBs, Johni Broome, Jaylin Williams, Chris Moore, Taylor Swift, Halloween, the Braves and fat bears
(Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Before the season, pretty much everyone who had an opinion on Auburn football felt like the Tigers needed to go 4-1 or 5-0 in their five-game home stand to start the season. Getting momentum before the rest of a brutal schedule was a must.
Well, Auburn fell short of that — and now the trip to defending national champion Georgia looms quite large over Bryan Harsin and his program.
It hasn’t been all bad during the Tigers’ 3-2 start, but they were much closer to 2-3 than they were to 4-1 or 5-0. The offense is 107th nationally in scoring. The defense has had good performances but remains inconsistent on the whole. Auburn is getting torched in the Middle Eight and continues to blow double-digit leads in fruitless second halves.
Now, Georgia weekend is upon Auburn. A rival that has dominated the series for most of the last 15-plus years is a commanding four-touchdown favorite at home. The Tigers are currently projected to be favorites in just one more game the rest of the way.
The outlook is bleak, and the apathy is really starting to stand out in the fan base. But, on the field, the Tigers continue to play hard and have some positive moments. They haven’t looked like they are going to fold like the 2012 squad, and they know that Georgia has spent the last two weeks looking not-so-impressive against even weaker competition.
This week’s Mailbag starts with a simple question that’s tough to answer — what can Auburn actually do to fix its issues at this point in the season? Is there anything to be done? A lot of the other football questions also fit that theme, from the turnover battle to the usage of certain players on offense and defense.
We also spend time tackling some Auburn basketball subjects with the season less than a month away, then get into some end-of-mailbag randomness like the Atlanta Braves, Taylor Swift, Halloween candy and fat bears.
Thanks for your continued support of The Auburn Observer. We’re already at the halfway point of the 2022 football season, but it really feels like the action is just getting started. Let’s go.
You were right that the Tuesday edition was the most depressing thing. There's lots of issues, and lots of them seem to be play-related. I know you said you don't know how to fix it, but... what coaching things, in particular, could be done to fix it?
I mean, this past week, CBH used his timeouts EXTREMELY well, we would have been in good position to score before the half. Is there something else OC/DC/Position coaches need to be doing to fix this misery? Or is CBH just snakebit?
At this point in the season, Auburn’s roster is what it is, for the most part. There could be some tweaks to personnel to capitalize on different players finding good form, but it’s more likely that injuries such as the season-ending one to Eku Leota are going to make bigger impacts than any positive developments.
The offensive line played better against LSU than it did against Penn State and Missouri, but the run-blocking is way too inconsistent, and there’s still a decent amount of pressure being given up against Power 5 opponents. Auburn’s best-case scenario up front in 2022, once it was clear it wasn’t going to get any transfers, was to lean on its experience and make improvements based on continuity. That hasn’t happened, and injuries have further weakened the unit. A lot of Auburn’s offensive issues stem from this.
The main thing that can be fixed for Auburn at this point is all the self-inflicted wounds. Not all the turnovers are on Auburn — the defense has to make those plays a lot of the time — but cutting down those would be a massive first step. The Tigers are also killing their drives by getting behind the chains, whether it’s allowing negative plays or having things like fumbled snaps or meshes on first downs. Play cleaner football, and there’s naturally a better chance that Auburn can look like the offense that has moved the ball well at times in the first half.
Time management decisions like the timeouts before halftime have backfired — maybe don’t be as aggressive, since it’s rarely working out? — and the trend of Auburn giving up a steady stream of touchdowns just before the break makes me wonder if conditioning is an issue for a defense that isn’t leaning on a lot of depth. Teams have adjusted to Auburn’s offense in the second half, and the staff needs to be more proactive in countering whatever teams do after the initial run from the Tigers. And what that looks like is gonna change from game to game.
But the sloppy play and bad finishes before halftime can be fixed. You’re going to get turnovers with a young dual-threat quarterback, and you’re going to get negative plays behind the offensive line. But Auburn has to find ways to limit those errors and not letting them stack up on each other. When a team doesn’t execute well, it’s on the players and the coaches to get it fixed. There’s no simple solution, but if there’s any chance it’s going to get fixed, it’s a total team thing.
Auburn is turning the ball over at an insane pace, while also not turning their opponents over very often. What is the most Auburn has turned the ball over in a season, and what is the worst turnover margin Auburn has had in a season? What were our records in those years?
This one is a little tough to answer because of the way statistics are charted from past seasons. We have reliable, game-by-game online data for Auburn that goes back to the 1996 season. In the Auburn media guide, there are lists of season statistics dating back to 1950 that include lost fumbles and interceptions — but it would take an extremely long time to add all of those together, then compare them to opponent turnovers.
So, since 1996, Auburn’s season-high for turnovers is 33, back in 1998. Terry Bowden resigned during the 1998 season, and Auburn finished that year 3-8. The worst turnover margin for Auburn in a single season since 1996 is 2012, when the Tigers were -12 in that department. Auburn went 3-9.
Auburn currently sits at -9 for the season with 12 turnovers. If the Tigers were to have a repeat performance in the second half of the season, they’d smash the mark for turnover margin but would still be behind the pace for overall turnovers. Going back through the numbers, I don’t think we realize just how many turnovers happened before the 2000s. Auburn’s 1997 team that won 10 games and went to the SEC Championship turned it over 26 times.
A quick glance — not a full add-them-all-up look — at the media guide leads me to believe the most turnovers Auburn has had in a season is 43, back in 1968. The Tigers threw 25 interceptions and lost 18 fumbles that year. To show you just how crazy that is, Auburn has had 25 turnovers in just two seasons (2012 and 2008) since 2000.
Back in the day, teams turned the ball over at insanely high rates. In the modern era, though, Auburn is veering into territory that has only been occupied by its only two losing seasons since 2000. That’s a really bad sign.
In the LSU game last year, Shivers had something like 5-7 receptions and I believe that all of them, however many he had, resulted in clutch third down conversions — some of which were rather lengthy. This is something that I feel like is missing from this year's offense, a back who can swing out into the flat with sure hands and be a good checkdown option to lead to conversions.
On Saturday, it seemed as though there were occasions where that type of play was attempted but for one reason or another — and not always to the fault of the back — it didn't work out.
Do you think this is a potential cause for concern going forward in SEC play, that Auburn doesn't have a back that can be counted on to consistently convert through the receiving game, or for that matter, not having a back who excels in pass blocking, both of which were aspects that made Shivers such a valuable player?
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