Monday Morning QB: Improving Time For Tigers

Auburn's final bye week of the season comes at a time when there is plenty left to improve on both sides of the ball for the Tigers.

Two days removed from Auburn’s 38-23 loss at Mississippi State and my feelings haven’t changed on this version of the Tigers. Despite the horrendous start with turnovers on the first two offensive plays, the team kept plugging along and had plenty of opportunities to get back in the football game thanks to an opportunistic defensive effort from Coach Ellis Johnson’s bunch.

Even though the Tigers came home with a loss, I feel much the same as I did after last season’s loss to LSU that the better team didn’t win the game. That happens all the time in every sport and there is no doubting Mississippi State was the better team on Saturday, but this 2014 group still has plenty of life left. With a schedule that features games against ranked foes Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn still has a good chance to qualify for the new four-team playoff.

Red Zone Woes

Auburn’s offense moved the football well for much of the game in the loss to Mississippi State, but bogged down in the red zone against the physical Bulldogs. Some of that was Auburn’s own doing and not properly executing the offense, although much of the credit goes to Mississippi State. Settling for field goals on the road is never a good option, especially when you fall behind two touchdowns very early in the contest.

My guess is the Tigers will work plenty during the next two weeks on executing inside the 20-yard line. That was a big reason why Auburn fell to the Bulldogs. Missing an early field goal and settling for two more could have easily been a 17-point swing, the difference between winning and losing even with the turnover problems.

Smell What The Roc Is Cooking?

I think Cameron Artis-Payne is a very good running back and with last year’s offensive line would have put up some huge numbers. He will still have big numbers this season, but this Auburn offense is a different style than the one the Tigers used to pound foes into submission a year ago. Because of that it’s time to get Roc Thomas more touches in the running game. Not only is he capable of ripping off big runs every time he touches the ball, he’s another threat for an offense that has plenty.

While his running skills are his best asset, he also has good hands and can be a receiving threat as well. Giving Thomas and Artis-Payne 10-15 carries each will keep both fresh and make for a tough one-two punch for a defense to contain. Another factor with Thomas in the game could be allowing things to open up more for Corey Grant on the edge. Right now Auburn’s running game is still putting up good numbers, but adding a finisher like Thomas to the mix is always welcome.

Help Wanted: Pass Rusher Needed

While Auburn’s defense has done a solid job of making big plays, the lack of a pass rusher has put the Tigers in a bind at times this season. That was particularly apparent against Mississippi State when Johnson had to call blitzes to try to pressure Dak Prescott. While it worked to force several turnovers, it also meant one-on-one coverage on the outside for big De’Runnya Wilson. That was a huge part of the game as he made several key catches and also forced key pass interference calls on third down. Unless Carl Lawson comes back soon and is his old self, Auburn needs someone else to step up and put consistent pressure on the quarterback. Right now that role is coming from the linebackers, which is not a good sign moving forward with several very capable passing teams still left on Auburn’s schedule.

Big Week For Tigers

With an off-week before South Carolina comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium, this is a good time for the Tigers to do an extensive self-scout on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Auburn has to find a way to run the football consistently between the tackles. While it was sporadic against Mississippi State, the best way is to continue to spread the defense and use Nick Marshall as another tailback at times. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense and continues to open up passing opportunities. While Jeremy Johnson’s time is coming for this team, without Marshall in the game it would be tough sledding for the Tigers on the ground at the moment.

On defense Auburn has to find a way to get to the quarterback. That may require using Cassanova McKinzy as more of a true rush end at times. With Anthony Swain playing well and also having Tre Williams and the emergence of Brandon King, putting McKinzy on the field at defensive end as part of a three-linebacker set may be worth looking at for the Tigers.

Looking Back

At the halfway point of Auburn’s regular season schedule it’s the perfect time to look back on the SEC race. While most are surprised at the starts for Mississippi State and Ole Miss I’m not one of them. I admit I didn’t pick either to win the last two weeks against Auburn and Alabama, but I did think both would win 10 games this season. That looks like it may be on the low side of things before all is said and done. I thought Texas A&M would be the surprise team on the bottom end of the division along with Arkansas. Arkansas has improved greatly, but still can’t get over the hump. I think that time is coming soon. As for the Aggies they are fortunate they got a collapse late from the Razorbacks or they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face.

In the East the Georgia Bulldogs have really surprised me because of the resiliency they’ve shown. Despite losing key members of the secondary and Todd Gurley for the Missouri game, they continue to find ways to make plays and should be the favorite to be in Atlanta even with a second loss. The shocker in the division is South Carolina. A team that was on a roll heading into the season, the Gamecocks are a threat to be looking up to everyone but Vanderbilt by the time this year is done. Even with that you can expect a tough challenge for the Tigers when Steve Spurrier’s team rolls into Auburn in two weeks.

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