Aubserver Mailbag 89: What can we actually learn from a Week 1 game like this one?
This week: The first two opponents in 2022 vs. 2021, T.J. Finley, Robby Ashford, the transfers, Eckel Rate, play-calling, Conecuh sausage, tailgate food and fall weddings
QB T.J. Finley (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
We made it.
After one of the most eventful offseasons that didn’t include a coaching change that I can remember, Auburn football is back this weekend. There will be an actual, real-life, competitive football game that matters inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
There’s been so much talk, so much speculation, so much frustration, so much I’ll-talk-myself-into-it-since-it’s-finally-here hope. Now it’s time for the unpredictable thrill ride that is Auburn football to move from the hypothetical to the real for the 2022 season.
Of course, the matchup for the opener isn’t the most exciting one in the world. Auburn opens with an FCS opponent for the first time in more than two decades, which naturally begs the question — how much can we really take away from a game like this?
That question leads off our first game week mailbag of the season, followed by topics that include: T.J. Finley, Robby Ashford, transfers, advanced stats, offensive play-calling, Conecuh sausage, tailgate food and weddings during football season.
Thanks for sticking with us this offseason. Now it’s time for the real thing.
What kind of conclusions, if any, do you think you can reasonably draw from a game like this? i.e. is it easier to spot a unit that has a real problem performing against lesser competition than it is to say that success will continue into the P5 schedule?
earnest, scared, stupid
This is a question I’ve thought about for a while now, so much so that I wrote a whole newsletter about it this time last year, ahead of the Akron opener.
First, some schedule facts: The Mercer game is the first time Auburn has opened a season with an FCS/1-AA opponent since 1999 against Appalachian State. App State and 1991’s opening opponent, Georgia Southern, have both moved up to FBS in recent years after stretches of dominance at the lower subdivision. So, the last time Auburn has played a team comparable to Mercer to open the season was all the way back in 1990, when the Tigers hosted noted baseball school Cal State Fullerton. (CSF disbanded its football program two years later.)
According to the Sagarin ratings, which combines FBS and FCS teams, Mercer is the preseason No. 151 Division I football team in the country. Auburn is No. 24. The ratings difference here is about 30 points, which somewhat explains the Vegas line for this game.
For that newsletter last year, I went through Auburn’s previous nine non-Power 5 Week 1 opponents, game-by-game, with the benefit of hindsight for the season as a whole. What I found was that offensive numbers can often lie to you — good or bad — but “if an Auburn defense shines early against an overmatched opponent, history suggests there’s a good chance that it’s just going to be a great unit that season.”
Did that hold up last year? Yes, to an extent. Auburn beat the brakes off of Akron, rolling up 613 yards and 60 points on the Zips. Bo Nix barely threw an incompletion. Anyone could score on the ground with ease. A week later, Nix struggled with his accuracy against an even worse Alabama State team, and it took a while for the Tigers’ offense to get going. Auburn’s offense definitely had its moments last year, but it was very inconsistent, and nothing about the Week 1 beatdown really carried over.
Defensively? Auburn demolished Akron on that side of the ball, too. The Tigers’ defense had its bad games in 2022, but that unit carried the team to wins and almost earned a few more down the stretch. Auburn had a great day pass rushing and stifling the run, and it finished the season with good marks in both of those categories nationally. Defense is usually the more stable side of the ball during the early part of the season, so don’t completely brush aside a good performance there if Auburn gets one on Saturday — especially against a Mercer team that put up 63 points in Week 0.
My advice: Don’t put much stock into the offensive performance in Week 1 against Mercer, but be ever-so-slightly encouraged by a good defensive start. History has been a pretty good guide here.
Please compare the first two opponents of this season to the first two opponents of last season and discuss why it might benefit to play the two teams it is playing this year.