Aubserver Mailbag 93: The Adjustment Bureau
This week: Offensive changes, Robby Ashford, the offensive line situation, Bruce Pearl, chicken finger restaurants, Paramore and seasonal Reese's shapes
HC Bryan Harsin (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn plays LSU in football inside Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend. Surely only normal things will happen.
Of course, weird stuff happening would most likely be toward Auburn’s benefit. Auburn is an eight-point home underdog to an LSU team it’s beaten in back-to-back seasons — a blowout at home in 2020, then a wild historic win on the road in 2021. But so much has changed for Auburn and LSU over the last two seasons, and Brian Kelly’s Tigers are the ones trending in the right direction at the moment.
Auburn needed two of the most improbable breaks these eyes have ever seen — a missed chip-shot field goal and an unforced fumble right outside the goal line — to beat Missouri last week. I would say the good fortune has run out for Auburn. But can I guarantee that? No. It’s Jordan-Hare Stadium. It’s an insane asylum for football.
Bryan Harsin’s Auburn team is 3-1 and 1-0 in the SEC. But everyone who has watched the Tigers this season know that record doesn’t perfectly match up with the on-field product or the pressure on Harsin. Auburn has regressed to a brutal level on offense, and the defense hasn’t been nearly as consistent as it needs to be up until this point in the season.
The schedule is only getting tougher from here. Auburn is only projected to be favored one more time all season, and it’s not in an SEC game. The length of Harsin’s remaining tenure on the Plains will ultimately be written by just how much changes about his team from what it showed in September — and how quickly that gets done.
That was the crux of several questions in this week’s mailbag, including our two lengthy openers about the offensive side of the ball. There’s also talk in here about offensive line changes, Robby Ashford, some recruiting chatter and a lot more football topics. We also discuss Auburn basketball’s defense and compare Bruce Pearl to a chicken finger restaurant.
What this mailbag is missing this week, though, is a question from Painter asking about the Employee of the Month award for September. Since he didn’t ask it, he’s automatically taken out of consideration.
This week’s Employee of the Month award goes, collectively, to all of our friends at Homefield Apparel for making our first Observer t-shirts. They’re the best t-shirts that money can buy, even if our logo decreases the value of them slightly. Click the button below to get yours.
Thanks for another loaded mailbag of questions. Like last week, 1) I wasn’t able to get to everybody, and 2) I don’t want to discuss future head coaching candidates while there’s a coach still employed. (I didn’t exactly follow that rule completely in the premium pod this week, though.)
With that out of the way, let’s go.
As a coach (not football), there’s a pretty common saying that goes “Do not implement tactically what you cannot execute technically.” Up to this point, it’s pretty evident the team cannot execute the system being implemented. That brings me to a two-tiered question (feel free to only answer one if this is too long):
1) How did the coaching staff come to the conclusion that the offense could execute their system given how poor the results have been? The only thing I can think of is that the offense looks great in practice against air or the second team defense… in which case, they are not getting game like reps in realistic scenarios.
2) I think the staff WANTS to adjust, but how many changes can they actually make to a system they’ve been practicing all year long? Based on your film review (which was amazing), it seems like installing a spread offense may be an option, since the spread concepts were where they saw the most success. Is this something they could feasibly install as a full system tho given the short time between games?
Can I vent for a second?
Do you remember the 2015 Baylor-Texas game? Baylor was down to its 4th string QB after Stidham (who'd replaced an injured Seth Russell in Week 8) got injured two weeks before. Instead of trying to force their high-flying passing attack, they did everything they could to get the ball in the hands of their athletes through the rushing game and rushed 66 times for 395 yards. They would have won but lost the turnover battle 4-0.
Instead of leaving their chances up to the arm of a 4th stringer (who was painful to watch when he did throw), they gave their talent the most touches and put it on their backs. Baylor had a much better o-line than we currently do, but the coaching staff adapted to minimize their most glaring weakness — the inability to pass. Saturday, I saw no such effort from the coaching staff.
I think what's most frustrating to me about last week's game is the clear evidence that the coaching staff didn't work on focusing on trying to minimize our OL weaknesses and put the ball in the hands of players in space. Sure, we scored on the first two drives, so it's understandable that the offensive game plan might have been to stay the course for a while longer to see if the running game could get going.
But there were no adjustments to try to get the ball in space or to the edges and spread things out. Why no jet sweeps? Why no WRs screens? Why no bubble screens? I know you're not a coach, but it's driving me crazy that our skill guys who have elite juke-ability (not a real stat, just a gut feeling) aren't getting more opportunities in space.
Again, this is more of a vent than anything. I guess my question can be: Am I crazy for hoping the staff gets outside the tackles Saturday?
I believe the multimillion dollar question for Auburn football this week will be what and how much it tweaks its offense following the 217-yard performance against a Missouri defense that isn’t as good as the one LSU is bringing into town.
With the exception of a few Holden Geriner plays, Auburn just got to watch what a full start of Robby Ashford looks like — which is something he hadn’t had at any point in his college career. The staff got to see what worked with him and what didn’t work with him at quarterback. And that’s going to be huge, because T.J. Finley will reportedly be unavailable for the LSU matchup.
“You get to see the good and the bad, so you’re able to tweak throughout the week on those things,” Harsin said Monday. “And for (Ashford) as well — he went back and he studied the film from the game. He knows what he did well, what he has to work on. So now you can build from that going into this week. That’s the plan, right now, is to take what we learned in the last game, apply it to this week and then keep building on some of the positive things that we did, and then try to really correct some of those negatives that we know we can be better at and make sure that happens going into this game.”
It’s just one game, but we know a few things from what happened for Auburn’s offense against Missouri. First, Auburn was at its most effective when it was in 11 personnel, played out of the shotgun, ran the ball outside the tackles and operated in more of a two-minute pace. This doesn’t mean that Auburn should completely abandon multi-tight end sets, under-center formations, downhill rushing attempts and methodical clockwork at all — those things are foundational to this offensive playbook.
But can the play-calling ratios be tweaked even more this weekend? Will Auburn try to run to the outside more often, knowing that the running game between the tackles just isn’t working well? There were times under Gus Malzahn and his offensive coordinators where it was obvious that Bo Nix worked best in a pace-and-space type of attack plan. Yet there was a hesitancy to move to that, especially because it could open yourself up to shorter drives that don’t help your defense and was riskier in general.
Still, something has to change. Auburn is putting up offensive numbers that are below even some of what it did in 2012. This is getting to late-stage Tuberville Era production, and that might has well have happened centuries ago when it comes to the evolution of college football offenses.
For a coaching staff — particularly on the offensive side of the ball — that prides itself on being versatile and adaptable, a lot of that needs to happen against LSU for its own sake. Auburn just doesn’t have the personnel at the moment to be at its best in a more traditional, pro-style offense. Those elements can still remain, but the more modern spread concepts worked the best with Ashford last week.
Why won’t Harsin and Keez realize that leaning into a Zone Read / Option style of game plan gives our current roster (with Ashford as QB) the best chance to succeed?
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