Coming into the 2015 season many thought the Auburn Tigers were poised to make a run at the SEC Championship and earn a berth into the College Football Playoffs with the addition of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. With Gus Malzahn’s offense expected to again be strong the thought was that just a little improvement on defense could mean big things for the Tigers.
Part of that equation has happened under Muschamp’s guidance as Auburn allowed over 30 points just once in regulation this season compared to seven times in 13 games a year ago. The problem has been on offense as the Tigers scored more than 30 points just four times in regulation this year after doing so 10 of 13 games a season ago.
With inconsistent play at quarterback and a lack of big plays in the running game, Auburn’s offense wasn't consistent enough to take advantage of the improved play on defense. The only positives came on the ground as Peyton Barber and Jovon Robinson combined to rush for 1,489 yards, which makes what happened Saturday even more of a mystery.
Facing its biggest rival with a chance to win the football game Auburn turned to the most inconsistent part of its offense to win against Alabama, the passing game. After rushing for 90 yards in the first half and moving the football solidly on the ground the Tigers all but abandoned that plan in the second half, giving Robinson and Barber just five combined carries. It may not have mattered in the end, but it the two have been Auburn’s best offensive weapons this season and keeping the ball away from Derrick Henry as much as possible sure looked like the best chance for an Auburn win on Saturday.
Normally a second-tier bowl game isn’t a big deal in terms of winning or losing, but this season it’s going to be different for the Tigers because the difference between 7-6 and 6-7 is huge in terms of perception and the feelings heading into the offseason. With just two wins in the second half of the season after going 1-4 to close out the 2014 campaign, Auburn needs to find a way to get a win in the bowl game to salvage some of the wounds from disappointing losses to rivals Georgia and Alabama.
Where the Tigers will be headed is still to be determined, but at this point I would put my money on the destination being Birmingham. Legion Field is definitely not a prime bowl location for Auburn, but with Auburn fans much more likely to watch the Tigers play in person at Birmingham on Dec. 30 as opposed to Shreveport on Dec. 26 and even Charlotte on Dec. 30 it could mean an in-state bowl game for the first time in school history.
Mr. Roberts’ Neighborhood
For two seasons I watched Stephen Roberts patrol the secondary and even play some quarterback at Opelika High School knowing that he had the skills to be a player on this level. It has taken him almost two full seasons, but his development has been one of the bright spots or Auburn’s defense the last three weeks.
Showing the willingness to come up and be physical in the running game while also using his cornerback skills to make plays against the pass, his play has allowed Rudy Ford to move to the nickel in Muschamp’s defense in what looks like a good fit for the junior. Making plays in the backfield against the run using his great speed and surprising strength, Ford has come on strong this season and should be one of the top defenders in the league next year. With Roberts improving and Carlton Davis playing the way he has this year that’s a good start to the secondary in 2016.
No Holds Barred
It has become a running joke around the SEC that when you play Alabama you just have to play through the multiple holds from the offensive line, but Saturday was perhaps the pinnacle of missed holding calls from the Crimson Tide in this series since I have been on the field for this game the last 16 years.
The obvious calls are the ones that are easy to spot such as the mugging of Carl Lawson on the play that eventually ended up being one of the differences in the game as Ford’s late hit combined with a 15-yard penalty of Auburn’s bench led to an Alabama field goal. The holding calls that aren’t so obvious are the ones that make just as much of a difference in the running game with Henry running by defenders who can’t get a full grasp on the big back because they’re being grabbed or in some instances bear-hugged at the point of attack.
Those constant little tugs are just what it takes to get through the hole or get out of the grasp of defenders, enough to add up to a first down here or there and extend drives. That happened time and time again to Auburn’s defense on Saturday and it was too much for the Tigers to overcome. Unfortunately it’s something most SEC teams are having to deal with on a regular basis and until it changes the rest of the league is going to be fighting an uphill battle.