The 2006 Auburn Tigers will be one of the fortunate football teams in the Southeastern Conference that will return its starting quarterback and key running back from the previous season. This is bad news for Auburn opponents when you consider Auburn had the number one scoring offense and the top-rated offense in the Southeastern Conference in 2005.
This included the number two rushing attack and the third most efficient passing game. Auburn was third overall in first downs, third in the red zone and first in third down conversions
In fact, Auburn has been the top offense in the conference over the past two years combined. Under Al Borges, Auburn has the gained more yards per game (415.5) over the past two seasons than any other SEC team. The Tigers have averaged more yards per play (6.18) than any other Southeastern Conference team and no other SEC team has scored touchdowns as frequently as Auburn over the past two years.
Kenny Irons was an All-SEC tailback as a junior.
The triplet combination of Brandon Cox, Kenny Irons and Courtney Taylor should give Auburn an offensive edge if all three players can remain healthy, but there are some concerns, which need to be addressed.
Brandon Cox had a solid first year, but he'll have to take it to another level if Auburn is to win the Southeastern Conference in 2006. Last season, Cox had a quarterback rating of 162.1 against opponents with a losing record and a rating of 115.8 against opponents with a winning record.
In contrast, Jason Campbell posted a QB rating of 178.1 against the weaker opponents and a rating of 166.7 against quality opponents during the 2004 campaign. In fairness to Cox, Campbell was a fifth-year senior in 2004, but it remains a clear indicator of what is needed during a championship season. The quarterback has to step up in the big games.
Two vital areas Cox will need to improve on is the "deep" passing game and obvious third down passing situations. Cox was not born with a cannon for an arm, but timing has more to do with the deep passing game than pure arm strength. Though Campbell had a stronger arm, he too struggled with the deep ball before Borges arrived.
Al Borges discovered Campbell was holding the ball too long in his delivery of the deep ball. Once the adjustment was made, Auburn connected on 29 long pass plays out of 308 attempts in 2004 compared to the 14 in 323 attempts in 2003. Last year, Auburn connected on only 13 long pass plays out of 339 attempts.
Despite leading the Southeastern conference in third down conversions, Auburn actually struggled in the obvious passing situations. Consider the following quarterback ratings on third down since 2001:
2001: Campbell 93.2
2002: Campbell 121.7
2003: Campbell 128.2
2004: Campbell 191.9
2005: Cox 98.1
Campbell improved year by year and he truly blossomed during his one season under Borges. Even though Cox struggled at times, the 2005 Auburn offense was still the top offense in the conference. Should Cox improve his passing numbers on third down, the 2006 Auburn offense could be one of the best in the country.
Jason Campbell improved with age and experience as Auburn's quarterback.
Cox had the luxury of a veteran receiving unit last season, but he will be dependent upon a few new faces in 2006. Taylor will be the veteran of the group and his leadership will be called upon more than ever. Having Taylor return to his 2004 form would boost the 2006 offense.
In the six games Courtney Taylor caught at least five passes, he averaged 84-yards per game. Taylor finished the 2004 season with 15 receptions for 287 yards and two touchdowns in the last three games of the season. He picked up where he left off during the 2005 season opener against Georgia Tech, hauling in six passes for 80 yards before he suffered an ankle injury that would plague him the remainder of the season.
Waiting in the wings behind Taylor is a youthful group of talent. Prechae Rodriguez averaged 18.5 yards per reception in 2005 and Rodgeriqus Smith averaged 18.2 yards per reception during mop up duty. Ulysses Alexander, Montez Billings and Robert Dunn are competing to make the playing rotation and Lee Guess could develop into a "Hicks Poor" type of role as a clutch possession wide receiver. The 2006 group of receivers signed in February just might be one of the better groups in school history. Tim Hawthorne, Terrell Zachery, Alex Rose and Chris Slaughter are all over six foot and possess great athletic ability.
Cole Bennett is the best overall tight end, combining the size and experience the offense will need in 2006. Tommy Trott has "stardom" written all over him and he just might have the best set of hands on the team. If his spring performance is any indication of what to expect this upcoming season, Trott will become a key component of the offense.
Over the past four seasons, Auburn is the second best rushing team in the Southeastern Conference, averaging 191.2 yards per game and 4.56 yards per carry. Kenny Irons was the SEC leading individual rusher in 2005 and returns to build on his 1,293-yard season.
Irons combines speed, quickness and power, establishing himself as one of the premier backs in the country. The only concern might be establishing Brad Lester as a quality relief for Irons. Last season, Lester was injured during the Arkansas game, forcing the coaching staff to play Irons more than they might have wanted to.
Kenny Irons returned to action in 2005 after a redshirt year and had a strong season.
During the last six games of the season, Irons averaged 16 carries per game during the first half alone. Why is this a concern? Irons averaged 5.4 yards per carry in the first half and 4.5 yards during the second half. Keeping Irons fresh for the second half would benefit the offense late in the game. During seven of the nine complete games Irons played last year, his average per carry was higher in the first half than the second half. If Irons is less fatigued during the second half, he's less likely to be injured and would have a higher potential of breaking longer runs in the second half.
Lester is not expected to be the featured back, but his 6.5-yard average per carry demands that he should receive 10 to 15 touches per game. Borges has already commented on Lester becoming more involved in the offense and the passing game could be the remedy. Irons and Lester combined for only 17 receptions in 2005, which is a far cry from the 55 receptions Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown combined for during the 2004 season.
True freshman Benjamin Tate already raised some eyebrows with his play during spring practice and he has a great opportunity to contribute in the loaded Auburn backfield. Tre Smith appears to be back to his 2002 form, when he rushed for 454 yards as a third string running back. Carl Stewart rounds out the group, but his role in the offense could be limited due to the depth at running back.
Last season, Auburn averaged 6.37 yards per play on first down, which was sixth best over the past 14 seasons. Keeping this average up will allow Auburn to sustain more drives and will open up the playbook for offensive coordinator Borges.
The 2005 Auburn offense had at least one play of 30-yards or more every 33 plays, which placed it at sixth best over the past 19 seasons. Twelve of Auburn's 25 "big plays" came via the ground game. The concern comes in the passing game, where the Tiger passing game finished 14th over the last 19 seasons in terms of frequency of "big" pass plays.
Brandon Cox will be a redshirt junior this season.
Overall, the Tiger offense did a great job in converting third down plays, leading the SEC in this category. The 2005 offense made 46 percent of its third down conversions, but the majority came on short yardage situations. The 2006 offense must improve on the third down conversions involving obvious passing situations.
Over the last 13 seasons, the 2005 Auburn offense finished at number three in terms of touchdown percentage (28.0) of possessions starting on Auburn's side of the field. They were number one in terms of possessions starting on the opponent's side of the field (78 percent). Field advantage is such a major factor in the outcome of a game and scoring on a short field is essential. It's good for Auburn that under Borges the offense has done a very good job in this category.
Speaking of success on a short field, the 2005 offense improved from seventh place in 2004 to second place in 2005 in terms of touchdown percentage in the red zone over the past 14 seasons. Only the 1995 and 1994 offenses scored at a higher percentage in the red zone than the 2005 squad over the past 14 seasons.
During the past 14 seasons, only the 1995 offense (39.4 percent) had a higher touchdown percentage than the 2005 offense (33.6). The 2005 offense went "three & out" 25 percent of the time, which was fourth best over the last 13 seasons.
Over the last six seasons, Auburn is 48-2 when leading at halftime and 27-0 over the last three seasons. Based on the percentage of halftime leads, it would appear that Auburn's game planning has improved over the past several years. From 2000 through 2005, Auburn has led at halftime, 67 percent of the time. Over the past three years, it improved to 71 percent and over the past two seasons, 76 percent.
The difference between an average season and a great season will come down to gameday adjustments. From 1999-2001, Auburn was 3-13 when tied or trailing at halftime. Under offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, Auburn improved to 2-2 and Al Borges is now 3-3. Last season, Auburn was 1-3 when trailing at halftime and failed to score very often during the second half except for the Arkansas game. Over the past two seasons, Auburn has averaged only 7.5 points during the second half when trailing against a quality opponent.
Thus far, the trend with Borges has been scoring early on and coasting during the second half. In 2004, Auburn averaged 20 points during the first half alone when the Tigers led at halftime and it improved to 23 points in 2005. The concern in terms of halftime adjustments is when Auburn trails against a quality opponent. Under Borges, Auburn averages only 9.5 points in the second half when held to 10 or less points during the first half, against a quality opponent.
Borges' initial game plan appears to be his strength based on his first half success over the past two seasons. From 1981-2003, Auburn scored at least 14 first half points on an average of 5.4 times per season. Under Borges, Auburn accomplished this feat nine times in 2004 and eight times in 2005.
His offense has averaged 17 points per game during the first half, finishing fifth in 2005 and sixth in 2004 over the past 25 seasons. His strategy of scripting his first 15 offensive snaps has been very successful, but game day adjustments will play a major role in Auburn making another run for a Southeastern Conference Championship.