Gus Malzahn (above) is going into his fourth season as head coach of the Tigers.
Auburn's offensive anguish came early and often during the 2015 season, especially when it came to lack of success on first down. Jeremy Johnson might have struggled right out of the gates, but the primary concern could be identified in Auburn’s inability to sustain drives.
The 2015 Auburn offense was No. 101 nationally for yards gained on first down, averaging 5.35 yards per play. Throughout Gus Malzahn's seasons at the collegiate level, his offense averaged more than six yards per play on first downs during seven seasons and under six yards three times. During the seasons with the average better than six yards Malzahn’s offenses averaged 488 yards and 38 points per game. The production dropped to 380 yards and 28 points per game when not reaching the six yards per play average.
Greater production on first down generates more downhill opportunities whereas lack of production leads to obvious passing situations. Auburn found itself in third and at least six yards to convert nearly 54 percent of the time this past season, making first downs in only 23 percent of those situations. Once an offense becomes predictable it is almost destined to failure without superior talent.
Under Malzahn the Auburn offense has run the football 78 percent of the time on first down, primarily with runs through the “A” and “B” gaps. Regarding his offense throwing on first down, it has an average ranking of No. 115 over the past eight seasons. Though Auburn suffered through quarterback issues in 2015, the inevitability in play-calling magnified Auburn’s struggles on first down.
During the 80 games Malzahn has directed the offense, the Tigers are 35-7 in games they averaged at least five yards per rush on first downs. When held to under that average the record is just 22-16. The Tigers have been held to under five yards per rush nearly 48 percent of the time.
Throughout the 42 games Auburn averaged better than five yards per rush on first down, the Tigers had a dual-threat quarterback in place 76 percent of the time. During the 38 games held under five yards per rush on first down, a pocket passer was in place 71 percent of the time. It is no wonder the 2009, 2011 and 2015 seasons were the three years Auburn was held to under six yards per play on first down. Opposing defenses could sell out for an inside run play on first down with a limited threat of a perimeter run or pass attempt.
Securing and developing the quarterback position will be a principle focus in preparing for the 2016 season, but Malzahn must become more resourceful in play-calling to give his quarterback the best opportunity for success. Even during the 38 games Auburn was held to under five yards per rush on first down the offense averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they ran the ball nearly 80 percent of the time despite the success throwing the football on first down. Even with the likelihood of a dual-threat quarterback in place in 2016, an expanded play selection on first down can only make the Auburn offense challenging to defend.
Establishing the run will always be a priority in Malzahn's offense, but consistency and diversity on offense should always come first.
Jovon Robinson could provide punch to the running attack this fall.
Though Malzahn values the running game in his “spread option” offense, teams like Baylor, Oregon and Ohio State fielded top 11 ranked run offenses in 2015 and still managed to throw the ball 34-40 percent of the time on first down. Baylor was No. 8 in pass efficiency on first down, Oregon was No. 10 and Ohio State finished at No. 13. The three teams combined to average 7.4 yards per play on first down.
Last season Auburn had a pass efficiency rating of 152.9, better than the 134.9 rating during 2014. Despite the improvement the Tigers ran the ball on first down 77 percent of the time, averaging 7.9 yards per pass and 4.5 yards per run. Under the direction of Malzahn, Auburn is 40-9 in games with a pass efficiency rating of 120 or better.
With Herb Hand joining the Auburn staff, hopefully, there will be an increase of passing on first down. With Malzahn and Hand in place as co-offensive coordinators at Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane offense averaged 11.5 pass attempts per game on first down. Malzahn's offense since leaving Tulsa averages 7.3 pass attempts per game on first down.
The 2015 Auburn offense lacked “big play” ability, which tends to coincide with offensive achievement on first down. Malzahn's offense has averaged 10 impact plays (15-plus yards) per game when averaging, at least, six yards per play on first down and seven impact plays with under six yards per play. Expanding the variety of plays on first down should allow Auburn to redefine its offensive identity in 2016.