During Auburn’s 2013 football season special teams played a pivotal role during the Tigers’ run to the SEC championship. After the losses of their place-kicker (Cody Parkey) and starting punter (Steven Clark), the 2014 special teams play was nowhere close to being as consistent as it was during the proceeding season.
Auburn’s overall national ranking after combining net punting, punt return offense, punt return defense, kick return offense, kick return defense and field goal percentage was 50th during the 2013 campaign. The Tigers’ average ranking dropped to 61st in 2014.
Known as an offensive guru, Coach Gus Malzahn still grasps the importance of special teams performance to the overall success of a team. “Special teams is a third of the game, and I believe you put your best players on the field,” he said. “I think we will have a chance to get better as the year goes on in all aspects.”
In reality, special teams account for only 18 percent of the total number of plays during an average game, but the average of 29 special teams plays per contest can certainly alter the outcome of a game.
From 2000-2014 nearly one-third of all the games played by Southeastern Conference teams have been decided by seven or fewer points. When it comes to conference games that number is up to 40 percent. During these close games special teams performance is magnified. “The sign of a good team is when each group complements each other,” Malzahn noted.
Seventy percent of special teams play occur during kickoffs and punts. From 2011-13 Auburn finished no lower than No. 3 nationally in kickoffs for touchbacks. Last season the Tigers dropped to No. 15.
In punting average Auburn dropped from No. 34 in 2013 to No. 76 in 2014. Net punting is where Auburn struggled the most during 2014, finishing No. 67 nationally. This was a dramatic drop from 2013 when the team was No. 9 in the nation.
During the 2013 season Auburn’s opponents began 27.1 percent of their possessions at least 80 yards away from the Auburn end zone. Last season that percentage dropped to 21.1 percent.
In comparison Auburn’s 2010 opponents began 35.1 percent of their possessions at least 80 yards away from the end zone and the 2004 Auburn team finished at an amazing 64.7 percent.
Special teams can play a major role in field position, which affects scoring probability. Over the past 20 seasons Auburn’s opponents have scored on 30 percent of their possessions when starting from the their side of the 50-yard line. The scoring percentage increases to 65 percent when starting a possession on Auburn’s side of the field. Frequently forcing the opponent to play on a long field will definitely decrease the team’s ability to score.
Being fundamentally sound in all three phases of a game is an important goal for the Auburn coaching staff to reach. It takes the pressure away from one individual unit and gives the team an ability to make impact plays at any moment of the game. This is a primary reason why some coaches place starters from offense and defense in roles involving special teams. An impact play made on special teams could sway the momentum, especially in a closely contested game.
Looking back at Auburn special teams over the past 25 years, the SEC champion 2004, 2010 and 2013 teams had a combined average ranking of No. 6 among the other Auburn teams. Special teams certainly played a major role in those Auburn teams having a championship season.