When head coach Tommy Tuberville made the decision to bring Tony Franklin aboard the Auburn coaching staff, he also made a decision that might change how many fans perceive Auburn football. For as long as I can remember, Auburn football has been renowned for being very physical, which often incorporated a strong running game. The list of great running backs coming out of Auburn is far greater than quarterbacks and wide receivers combined.
There was as much apprehension as excitement when Tony Franklin was named the latest offensive coordinator for the Auburn Tigers. Some of the concern was subsided after the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson. Auburn came away victorious over the 15th-ranked Clemson Tigers, including 423 yards gained against the No. 6 defense in the nation. Auburn fans weren't accustomed to seeing the ball thrown 43 times in one outing and the last time it happened was 37 games ago against Georgia Tech, which resulted in a loss. You had to revisit 82 games ago to see an Auburn victory involving more than 43 pass attempts. Auburn won in overtime against Louisiana Tech during the 2001 season after attempting 48 pass attempts during the game.
For most Auburn fans, achievement on offense has been defined by a successful running game. Since 1961, Auburn has compiled 21 nine-win seasons. Of those 21 triumphant seasons, Auburn averaged more than 170 yards rushing per game in 15 of those seasons and more than 150 yards rushing per game in 17. From 1961-2007, Auburn is 32-64-1 when it is held to less than 100 yards rushing. On the flipside, Auburn is 187-31-5 when it rushes for more than 200 yards. During the history of the football program, Auburn has fielded 16 1,000-yard rushers but only four 2,500-yard passers.
Why the Change?
Tuberville has always believed in a stout running game, good defense and a dependable kicking game. The combination of those three phases of the game has been a successful formula but take just one element away and it meant almost certain defeat in a close ball game. During the Tuberville era, Auburn has been defeated 33 times in the last nine seasons. During those 33 losses, Auburn allowed the opponent to complete 59 percent of its passes for more than 200 yards per game, including 50 touchdown passes to just 20 interceptions. Add to those numbers Auburn was 10-19 in games it was held to less than 100 yards rushing, the necessity for a change was very understandable. During the 10 victories when Auburn was held to less than 100-yards rushing, the passing game accounted for 229 yards per game and a 14-6 touchdown to interception ratio.
It's important that Auburn fans realize Tuberville doesn't wish to abandon the running game, but he simply wants to be more balanced in his approach to offense. In the past, his philosophy was to run to set up the pass. Over the past two seasons it almost felt like Auburn was running the football just to keep the clock running to preserve a low-scoring lead. That philosophy changed on the night of Dec. 31, 2007, when Auburn attempted 15 first down passes against Clemson. Coach Tuberville will always want a strong running game, but a more diverse passing game will keep the running lanes exposed. Despite the 15 pass attempts on first down, Auburn still managed to rush for more than 100 yards on first down against Clemson. Under Tuberville, Auburn is 36-4 when the Tigers rush for more than 100-yards on first down.
Coach Tuberville's staff has always been able to attract celebrated high school running backs but have struggled landing quarterbacks and receivers. The spread offense will attract a variety of skilled players to Auburn and what better spokesman could Auburn have than Franklin. His recent history and success from installing his offense at the high school level could not be a better testimonial, not to mention the immediate success he had at Troy as its offensive coordinator.
Mario Fannin has a tremendous upside in the new offense.
Will it work?
Coach Tuberville gambled by hiring Franklin before the bowl game and installing a completely new offense in less than 10 practices. Consider the Chick-fil-A Bowl as a "test drive," which left many wanting to see more in 2008. Sometimes when you are down, there is nowhere to go but up. After the past two seasons, Auburn's offense has nowhere to go but up. In his debut, Coach Franklin's offense gained more yards against Clemson than any other game during the 2007 season.
Over the past 22 seasons, 18 other Auburn offenses averaged more yards per play than the 2007 offense. Fifteen had a better touchdown ratio and 18 averaged more yards per pass attempt. Thirteen prior Auburn offenses had a better pass completion percentage and 14 averaged more yards per rush attempt than the 2007 Auburn offense. Seventeen previous Auburn offenses since 1986 averaged more yards per game and 16 averaged more yards passing per game.
In regard to the running game, 12 other Auburn teams averaged more yards rushing per game than the 2007 Auburn offense. There should be no reservation; the Auburn offense will improve in 2008.
The talent level at the skilled positions has been questioned over the past several seasons. Though I agree there are valid reasons to question the talent level, I also believe we will see Auburn is more talented than some have come to believe. Take note of the improvement on offense from 1992 to 1993 with virtually the same skilled players. Auburn went from 16 rushing touchdowns in 1992 to 26 in 1993 and six touchdown passes to 15. They also went from scoring 228 points in 1992 to 353 in 1993 and from 317 yards per game to 420 yards in 1993.
Another prime example would be the arrival of Al Borges in 2004 and his immediate impact on the Auburn offense. The change in coordinators will force opposing teams to search for new tendencies, which alone will give Auburn the edge early on.
In the end, Coach Borges was unable to adjust his offense as time elapsed and opposing teams found it easier to defend Auburn's offense by focusing on Auburn's trends and tendencies on offense. In the long run, Coach Franklin may fall under the same scrutiny but for now, I'm looking forward to the first ride in Auburn's brand new offense.