Alright! We’re back. It’s Auburn week. Auburn, let’s go
If you remember the last time Tennessee played Auburn, you remember that it did not go so well. Auburn came into town #9 in the country with the hottest offense in the nation, while Tennessee was 4-5 and starting the Josh Dobbs era prematurely. You remember Tennessee being tied 6-6 after a quarter of play and taking a 13-6 lead on the first play of the second quarter. That fleeting, wonderful moment of “wait a minute, they might hang around here.” Never mind that Auburn would tie it up two plays and 32 seconds later, that Chris Davis (THERE ARE NO FLAGS ON THE FIELD!) would return a Michael Palardy punt 85 yards to the house, or Auburn would get a Nick Marshall touchdown to go up 27-13 in the span of nine minutes – that feeling still exists. It re-lit itself when Jacques Smith picked off one of Nick Marshall’s seven pass attempts that day for a touchdown. 27-20, not bad! Just get to halftime and-
Okay 34-20, fine, you trailed by 14 to Georgia too and they nearly beat Auburn, just make something happen at the start of the second half-
KICK THE BALL OUT OF BOUNDS CHRIST ALMIGHTY HOW HARD CAN IT BE okay so then you left the stadium when Auburn went up 48-20 less than halfway through the third quarter. It’s fine! It’s all fine. Sometimes you serve as the kickstarter for one of the more insane championship runs of all time. It’s okay! It’s not the same Auburn team. Let your guard down.
That Auburn team was incredibly fun to watch despite not having a quarterback that could really throw a ball. They finished second in the nation in Offensive S&P+ (the Cam Newton team is the only better Auburn offense in the last 25 years) and made it to the title game despite the 46th-best defense in America. Yes, it was probably a 9-3 or so team in disguise, but it doesn’t matter when the quarter hits the ground and reads heads seven times in a row.
2018 Auburn, in contrast, could not be anything less like the 2013 Auburn team that came in and razed Tennessee’s defense and special teams to a smoldering heap of sadness. Auburn does have a quarterback that can throw a ball, named Jarrett Stidham. However, he’s significantly behind where he was a year ago. In 2017, Stidham completed 66.5% of his passes (best among SEC starting QBs), had an 18-6 TD/INT ratio, hit 8.5 yards per attempt, and benefited from a typically-stout Auburn rushing attack. It seems that every year, Auburn births a new upperclassman 220-pound back that bounces off of any linebacker you throw at him six times per game. Kerryon Johnson was that last year, he’s with the Lions now, he’s good, folks.
That means Kerryon Johnson is no longer an Auburn Tiger, and with Kamryn Pettway’s bizarre early NFL departure (he went undrafted), Auburn is now employing a backfield timeshare between redshirt freshman Boobie Whitlow (69 carries, 414 yards) and junior Kam Martin (67 carries, 251 yards). Neither has come close to the bell cow territory Johnson employed last year; both have had individual games of 20+ carries (Martin two, Whitlow one), but neither has struck a consistent role (both have at least three games of eight or fewer carries) and Gus Malzahn seems to change his mind on the fly of which one he likes better.
Complicating the issue off the field is Malzahn himself. It seems that every other year, we’re gifted a new story of Malzahn’s internal struggles with consistency and decision-making, and this year is no different. Monday blessed us with a Brandon Marcello expose of how players in the locker room, along with offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, are pretty sick of it. As I said, we get these every other year, so I’m not surprised by any of it, but if you keep hearing these things consistently, you wonder when the bell will toll.
On the field, the offensive line has proven to be no spring chicken. S&P+ only has NCAA offensive line stats dating back to 2014, but no Auburn offensive line has finished lower than 25th in Gus’s tenure (2013, I’m assuming a top 25 finish for obvious reasons). The current line ranks 60th nationally halfway through the season in Adjusted Line Yards (attempts to separate the ability of the running back from the ability of the offensive line), 100th in Sack Rate on passing downs (10.8% of dropbacks are ending in a sack in such instances), and it’s contributing to what’s easily the worst Auburn offense in Gus’s time there, currently ranking 93rd overall, one spot below South Alabama. As for more basic/well-known stats, we’ll talk more about these later, but they’ve given up 13 sacks through six games (gave up 18, 15, 19, and 19 from 2013-2016), are averaging just 4.18 yards per carry (Tennessee averages 4.2), and have given up 32 TFLs in six games. No team in the SEC has lost more yards to TFLs than Auburn (160, or nearly 5 yards lost per play), and only Arkansas and Texas A&M have given up more sacks.
All of this circles back to Stidham himself. As the focal point of the offense with inexperience at RB, it’s on him to elevate an Auburn offense to the level of SEC contender. Auburn’s defense has absolutely held up their end of the bargain, allowing just 14.3 points per game and 4.7 yards per play to go with 49 TFLs. They’ve yet to allow more than 23 points despite playing three Top 25 teams. In 18 red zone opportunites for opponents, they’ve allowed FIVE TOUCHDOWNS. That is an absurd stat, and Alabama would be thrilled with that number.
And yet, Auburn sits here at 4-2, SEC West Division Championship dreams dead, Playoff dreams likely dead (538 says that if they win out, they’d have a 52% chance due to beating Alabama and Georgia on the road), and an offense that has scored more than 24 points against an FBS opponent once in five games (Arkansas, 27 points; the additional seven came from a kickoff return; it’s the second-lowest point total scored by an FBS offense against Arkansas in 2018). Why? Let’s explore.
Jarrett Stidham’s regression
As recently as this summer, pretty much everyone thought of Jarrett Stidham as a good quarterback. PFF had him at a 71.5 his first year at Auburn, which was agreeable, but noted that he was excellent when free from pressure: 74.0% completion rate, 15 TDs to 3 INTs, PFF grade of 89. Under pressure, though, was a different story: a 46.3 grade and an additional three interceptions. Stidham has never appeared purely comfortable as a runner in the traditionally run-heavy Auburn offense, leading to more of a status as a quasi-pocket passer. He still runs, of course, but no one’s mistaking him for Nick Marshall.
Now, in 2018, Stidham has fallen drastically in nearly every statistical area. 2017 vs. 2018:
- Completion rate: 66.5% to 60.1% (-6.4%), 9th-best in the SEC
- Yards per attempt: 8.5 to 7.0 (-1.5 YPA), T-10th best in the SEC
- Touchdowns per game: 1.29 to 0.83 (-0.46)
- Pure QB rating: 150.99 to 126.41 (-24.58), 10th-best in the SEC
- ESPN’s Total QBR: 67.2 to 56.3 (-10.9), 73rd-best in the nation
- Best Total QBR game: 98.5 (2017 Mississippi State) to 82.3 (-16.2, 2018 Alabama State)
- Marginal Efficiency: 5.9% to 1.4% (-4.5%)
- Marginal Explosiveness: 0.34 to 0.05 (-0.29, and below average nationally)
One look at that should tell you all you need to know, which is that Stidham has fallen from an agreed-upon good quarterback – probably at least in the conference’s top half, and maybe fifth behind Tua, Fromm, Fitzgerald, and Lock – to a quarterback who’s getting outpaced by FELEIPE FRANKS in some metrics. How could this happen? Let’s try out some various explanations, starting with:
1. Is it the offensive line?
Stidham has taken 13 sacks through six games, has been pressured on 32.8% of his dropbacks, and generally seems to have a below-average offensive line at best. Plus, it was clear last year that Stidham was significantly worse at throwing the ball when pressured. CFB Film Room notes that he completed just 48.5% of his passes when pressured in 2017, versus the 74% figure seen above when not pressured. If he’s getting pressured more, this has to be it! Wait, what?
Jarrett Stidham's inconsistent season is illustrated perfectly by his passing chart pic.twitter.com/AFpZgweotC
— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) October 3, 2018
HE’S COMPLETING 74% OF HIS PASSES WHEN PRESSURED?!?!? Stepping aside from the fact that that couldn’t be less sustainable, this destroys the idea that it’s the offensive line’s fault. Look at this throw against Mississippi State:
Aside from looking like Kyle Korver about to get dunked on, this throw is placed in a tiny window, and Stidham, whether he intended to or not, places it just about perfectly. He does this with a Mississippi State linebacker boring in on him like a train on a dead car, too. Auburn’s Rivals site says that was one of two Stidham completions on 10+ yard attempts (2 for 10 on the day overall, 17 of 28 all others). I don’t have pressure numbers, but the boxscore shows that Stidham was pressured on at least 12 of his 43 dropbacks. From what I could glean from watching, that number probably wasn’t more than about 17 total, or 40%. That’s still bad, but MSU has a great defensive line and a pair of NFL prospects on it, and Stidham still completed, by my count, four passes under pressure. Prior to this game, he had completed about 65% of his passes when not pressured. That’s fine, but still a 9% drop from 2017. I don’t think it’s entirely on his OL. And, lastly: while Auburn has allowed 32.8% of Stidham’s dropbacks to be pressured, it was actually worse in 2017, allowing about 36% of his dropbacks to be pressured by Power 5 opponents. In the opening game, Washington didn’t record a single QB hurry on Stidham.
2. What about his receivers?
You can lay a bit of the blame here. Auburn’s receivers appear to have dropped 16 of Stidham’s 168 attempts on the season, a brutal 9.5% drop rate. Last year, they dropped 27 passes the entire season. This is despite Auburn returning their top two receivers and most of Stidham’s other favorite options. This, in particular, is a turd:
Woof, dude. Catch that. However, even with those passes added back in as completions (Adjusted Completion Percentage), Stidham still lags behind 2017: a 73.8% ACP in 2017 versus 69.6% in 2018. His receivers aren’t helping, but that’s not the reason Stidham posted a 50.5 grade versus Arkansas and a 48.3 versus Mississippi State. (Also notable: a 61.1 against Washington where he was the second-lowest graded starter.)
3. Is it Gus?
Figuring this equation out is anyone’s guess, as no one ever seems to be truthful about just how much of the playcalls Gus controls. However, there’s three numbers that make me curious:
- Attempts of 20+ yards downfield: 26 through six games, 7 against Mississippi State (16.5% of attempts; 21.4% in 2017)
- Attempts of 10+ yards downfield: 47 through six games, 10 against Mississippi State (29.7% of attempts; 33.3% in 2017)
- Attempts behind the line of scrimmage: 57 through six games, 11 against Mississippi State (36.1% of attempts; 30.1% in 2017)
Undoubtedly, Stidham has become a far more conservative passer. This is despite his favorite deep threat, Darius Slayton (he had twice the amount of 20+ yard targets as second place in 2017), returning. Slayton has just seven 20+ yard targets through six games; he had 24 in 2017. Perhaps this is where the offensive line comes in; shakiness leads towards wanting to get the ball out quicker, which is understandable. However, this drastically shortens the field and ruins what Stidham has always been best at: the deep ball. Gus, and to some extent, Lindsey, are responsible for a good amount of Stidham’s regression. But, lastly, the key:
4. Is Stidham simply not very good?
We need to talk about Jarrett.
Something is very wrong with him. The Stephenville Slinger buoyed the offense last season with his ability to challenge defenses with deep passes. Now Stidham too often looks like a junior-varsity chuck-and-duck guy out there overthrowing guys in a variety of situations — sometimes with absolutely zero pocket pressure.
This has been a taxing season for Stidham because, let’s face it, his offensive line is not performing at a high level. Or even a mediocre level. Defensive ends and edge blitzers are getting into Stidham’s face somewhat frequently this season and it’s clearly having an effect on the quarterback’s confidence. He was timid in Starkville.
All quarterbacks get hit. They all hate it. With that said, an experienced quarterback summons extra resolve and fires up his linemen to step up to the challenge. We didn’t see any of that from Stidham last weekend. I’m not sure how to describe it. Is he cavalier about the whole thing? Is he going too far to show that the pressure doesn’t bother him? Someone needs to do some (mostly metaphorical) chin-checking and Stidham seems like the right guy to do it.
Instead, he comes across as a meek, scared dude. Is he unable or unwilling to say something? Or was he this guy all along and these inadequacies are just now becoming an obstacle?
My verdict: 40% Stidham, 40% Gus, 20% receivers.
Running backs + this OL = a bad time
- 18% of Auburn’s 199 rushing attempts, or 36 attempts, have gone for zero or negative yards.
- Just five of Auburn’s rushing attempts have gone for 20+ yards, dead last in the SEC. Gus’s first five years: 42, 27, 18, 30, 25.
- Auburn ranks 13th in the SEC in yards per carry.
- Boobie Whitlow is beating Kam Martin by a full 2.3 yards per carry, but has fumbled twice.
- Despite all of this, 48.3%, or 96 attempts, have managed to gain five yards or more.
How does one make sense of this? Is Kam Martin simply that bad? Because of the massive amounts of yards lost on negative plays, does that outweigh the gains made on normal downs? Without having watched all six games (I watched all of Washington and LSU, plus highlights of Arkansas and Mississippi State), this seems like an absurdly frustrating offense. I can’t figure out what in the world the right side of the offensive line plus a tight end is doing here:
Whitlow seems like a significantly better back to me, but he has two fewer years of experience than Martin, so I assume that’s why Gus is playing Martin as much as he is. Martin’s longest carry of the year is 13 yards, and 62 of his 67 carries have gone for nine yards or fewer. Whitlow is more boom or bust – 14 carries for 10+ yards. Chandler Cox plays fullback and is in on probably ~60% of snaps, but he’s exclusively a receiving back.
Receivers aren’t getting enough downfield opportunities to stand out
As mentioned earlier, Stidham’s throwing it downfield at a lower rate than ever before. This is a problem, not least because it plays against his strengths. It also happens to be wasting Darius Slayton’s talents:
That’s from last year, but it serves as a reminder that of Slayton’s 74 targets, an astounding 24 were 20 yards or deeper downfield. He only caught eight of those, but it’s clear that he was Auburn’s premier deep threat. Losing Will Hastings to a season-long injury hurts here too – he caught eight of his 12 deep targets – but it’s still bizarre that Stidham isn’t sending it deep to Slayton way more (seven 20+ yard targets through six games).
Senior Ryan Davis is the name you’ll hear most on Saturday. Davis leads the team in targets (36), catches (29), yards (252), and, just barely, marginal efficiency (though way down from 2017). That insane catch rate comes from a 2017 trend that’s carried over to 2018: being the Stidham safety valve. Of Davis’s 103 2017 targets, 89 were nine yards or shorter. Rarely, if ever, will he be asked to make a catch deep downfield. Heck, Davis got targeted behind the line of scrimmage more than twice as much (44 to 21) as the actual starting running back in 2017. There’s a decent chance he gets like seven receptions for 49 yards.
Others: Seth Williams is third on the team in targets at 17 and is on the field for about ~75% of snaps; Sal Cannella, the tight end who sounds like one of the Impractical Jokers, has 16 targets and very rarely has to go further than ten yards downfield; the two main running backs have combined for 19 targets on the year, almost all of them behind the line of scrimmage.
Auburn runs a ton of them. Tennessee should be prepared for this.
The Wildcat-type thing
They use Kam Martin in this a bit. They’ve run this cool trick play a couple times now, but it would probably be overkill if they ran it against Tennessee:
Auburn's now ran this play two years in a row against Mississippi State, and it's been just as open both times down the field (Stidham just misses the throw here) pic.twitter.com/IO7MngBIx5
— Richard🎅🏿Johnson (@RJ_Writes) October 9, 2018
Also, backup Malik Willis, who probably 60% of Auburn fans want to see start, comes out and runs in this sometimes. He’s fast. Please do not let him run all over you.
Questionably the best Auburn defense since 2004
Jake Browning, who plays for Washington, is a pretty good quarterback. Most people think Browning is, if nothing else, a quality game manager. Rarely, if ever, does he appear flustered. When he played Auburn’s defensive line, he uncorked one of the worst passes I’ve ever seen:
The pure numbers may not impress you much – 15 sacks through six games, 20 20+ yard passing plays allowed, and only the fourth-best yards per play defense in the SEC. To that, I say: WHOOOOO CAAAAARES. Auburn has 49 (!) tackles for loss through six games, hasn’t allowed more than 23 points in a game yet, ranks sixth nationally in Defensive Success Rate, fourth in the nation in points allowed per drive, and allows a 28.1% conversion rate on third downs. S&P+ ranks them first in the nation, which is a debatable take at very best, but I’d comfortably spot them as one of the ten best defenses in America, just like last year.
Mississippi State, so far, is the only team to beat 3.9 yards per carry on them, and they did it in part because Auburn’s defense spent 41 minutes on the field Saturday. Stidham’s offense couldn’t get anything going, and his defense simply wore down. I can forgive it, though it ain’t gonna help them against Georgia or Alabama.
In order, the names you’ll hear and remember, from front to back:
- DE Marlon Davidson. His pressure above. Has 12 pressures of opposing quarterbacks on the season, 1.5 sacks, five run stuffs, and, on plays that end with you being slammed to the ground by him, allows 2.7 yards per.
- DT Derrick Brown. Don’t know how much Tennessee runs up the middle in this game, but he’s huge and has 7.5 run stuffs on the year. Average play allowed: 0.2 yards.
- DE Nick Coe. Not as well known because he splits snaps with Big Kat Bryant (one of the greatest names in football), but six of his 10.5 tackles on the season are for a loss. Incredibly effective in run defense.
- BUCK/DE Big Kat Bryant. 11 pressures of his own, including a critical third-down sack of Jake Browning in the opener. Somehow only the second-best name on the team.
- MLB Deshaun Davis. Leader of the defense, golden God. 37.5 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 10.5 of them run stuffs, somehow manages to make 5’11”, 235 pounds look in shape. Suffered what looked like a knee injury Saturday and then came back a drive later because he is Auburn’s Al Wilson. #57 below:
- SLB Darrell Williams. Less well known, but has 28 tackles, 5 for loss, plus a pair of pass breakups.
- CB Noah Igbinoghene. Converted receiver that ended up playing so well at CB they’re keeping him there. Wait, that’s a thing that can happen for the team you root for?
- FS Jeremiah Dinson. Kevin Steele loves to use him aggressively, especially in run packages. Has a pair of interceptions and 3.5 run stuffs.
- BS Daniel Thomas. Best cover safety on the team; already has a pair of interceptions and three pass breakups.
- Backup FS Smoke Monday. SMOKE MONDAY.
As for the defense itself, you know what they look like: 3-4 base, aggressive run defense, the defensive line itself being so good that they don’t normally have to blitz that often. Auburn’s linebackers past Davis haven’t been as good at creating havoc, but the secondary and defensive line have covered from them just fine. It goes without saying that to have any chance at all in this game, Tennessee has to figure out how to give Jarrett Guarantano time. Considering Tennessee’s passing game currently extends to about nine yards for everyone not named Josh Palmer, they shouldn’t need much, but Tyson Helton needs to figure out how to get Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings at least 15 targets, if not 20. They’re the only two receivers on the roster that can physically go toe-to-toe with Auburn’s secondary. Until I see it from Dominick Wood-Anderson, I’m not gonna believe he’ll be much of a factor in this game; no tight end has caught more than two passes for 26 yards in a game against Auburn this year.
Hey wait a minute this might matter
Want to talk about a critical failure in the worst possible spot? Show me what’s bad here.
- Punt efficiency (per S&P+): 8th nationally
- Kickoff efficiency: 1st
- Punt return efficiency: 31st
- Kick return efficiency: 19th
- Field goal value per kick: 91st
Freshman Anders Carlson (you know the last name because his older brother, Daniel, was the Auburn kicker recently, and you know Daniel from getting cut by Minnesota a couple weeks back) is just 9 of 16 on his field goal attempts so far. That’s…terrible. Carlson has missed at least one attempt in every game he’s tried a field goal, and Southern Miss blocked one of his two attempts. Now, some context:
- Every Anders Carlson kick from 49 yards or shorter: 8 of 9
- Every Anders Carlson kick of 50 yards or longer: 1 of 7
The Aaron Medley Zone of Leg Strength Annoyance is what we call this. Why Gus has sent Carlson out seven times in six games to kick a ball from the 33 yard line or further back, I have no clue. Carlson missed from 33 yards out in the opener and hasn’t since, so he may actually be fine, but if Gus sends Carlson out from 52, relax and live a little.
The basic story: Tennessee, barring a lapse of preparation or an outburst of Kongbo-esque failures, should be able to limit the Auburn offense pretty well. Finding their own offense…well, boys, that’s the power of prayer.
Key matchups: Jarrett Guarantano Versus Pressure. Any of it, all of it, each of it. Guarantano against basic pressure in 2018: 10 of 22, 59 yards (2.7 YPA), six sacks. Guarantano against Literally Anything Else: 49 of 71, 742 yards (10.5 YPA), 4 TDs and a pick. Because of the nature of Tennessee’s offense, they’ve actually been one of the league’s best in preventing QB pressure, though it doesn’t often feel that way and didn’t the last two weeks.
Any Offensive Lineman Willing to Stand in the Winds of Battle Versus the Auburn Front Seven. This is the nastiest front seven Tennessee will play until next week. Likewise, this is maybe the nastiest (in the bad way) offensive line in the SEC. (I do have a comment on this: you guys really need to see the Texas A&M and Arkansas offensive lines. They are 2017 Tennessee levels of porous.) The basic goal is to gain positive yardage, even if it’s 1-2 yards. That at least means you’re moving forward, and in a game where the opponent’s offense looks like an extremely wet meal, field position will play a critical role.
Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings Versus Auburn’s Secondary. Wild guess: Tennessee isn’t going to get much done on the ground. Auburn speeds up the pace, so Tennessee should be able to get about ~66 plays in this game. If Tennessee decides to keep their same run/pass split they’ve had all season, the box score will read 38 rushes for 123 yards. It is critical that Tennessee gets the ball into Callaway and Jennings’ hands (and Josh Palmer, if you can figure out how to get him open downfield) and keep it out of Brandon Johnson’s, as he has been very bad.
Random Interior Lineman Generator of the Week Versus Deshaun Davis. Will end poorly, but limit the TFLs.
Tennessee’s Dumb Bad Idiot Pass Rush Versus Jarrett Stidham Running Into Sacks. Of Auburn’s 13 sacks surrendered, I think PFF blames Stidham for a solid four or five of these. Dude just loves running into fat guys. Cal Ashley, who started at right tackle last week, allowed three sacks against Mississippi State. All three sacks were from standard four-man rushes. Maybe match up your one decent pass rusher (Darrell Taylor) on him as much as possible?
Shy Tuttle (and Emmit Gooden and Daniel Bituli) Versus Auburn’s Bad Interior Line. Make the bacon here, because this is where most of the issues have laid. Auburn is having to run off of the tackles as much as possible because their guards, outside of RG Mike Horton, haven’t proven their worth.
Young Secondary Versus Safety Valves. I like the young players in the secondary quite a bit. You do too. We can both easily envision a bubble screen going for 47 yards. Don’t let it happen.
Safeties Versus Deep Balls. After the opener when Tennessee played one of the ten best quarterbacks in the nation, they’ve only allowed two deep passes to be completed (the Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland touchdowns). Not that Stidham has exactly had many opportunities to throw it deep this year, but when he has in the past, he’s been excellent. You can get away with leaving Baylen Buchanan on Ryan Davis, but you can’t do that with Darius Slayton.
Tennessee Offense Versus Avoiding Third and Long. Look, getting two yards on both first and second down in this game is okay, simply because third and six is a lot better than third and ten. 57 of the 96 third downs Auburn has forced have been of seven yards or longer, and their average third down distance is 8.3. Of those 57 third downs, just 10 (17.5%) have been converted. All others: 17 of 39 (43.6%), which is dealable-with.
Tennessee Defense Versus Creating Third and Long. About 42% of Auburn’s 83 third downs have come in the Murky Middle (2-6 yards). They’ve converted 48.6% of those third downs. Move it back to seven yards or further, and they’ve converted just 9 of 39 opportunities. First and second downs win the game.
Jeremy Pruitt Versus Gus Malzahn. Duh.
Your Eyes Versus the Rockfight Unfolding. The total of 47.5 seems absurd. Auburn fans were universally giggling at the idea that they could score 19 points in any game the rest of the way. I know we’re all ready for them to unleash the Secret (Team Name) Playbook that seemingly everyone has on Tennessee, but this doesn’t seem like it. Massey and Atomic Football say the total should be 45, I would’ve said 43.5. Either way, the winner topping 28 seems like it would be a surprise barring turnovers. You could talk me into betting the under on 39.5 if it existed.
CHANGE THE CHANNEL AND GO OUTSIDE IF:
- Jarrett Stidham hits multiple deep balls.
- Auburn gets eight or more 10+ yard gains on the ground.
- Tennessee fails to hit two yards per carry, sacks included, by halftime.
- Jauan Jennings has two catches for nine yards.
DO THE MR. BURNS FINGER THING IF:
- Guarantano’s able to get most of what he wants under 10 yards.
- Auburn’s at 60 rushing yards or fewer at halftime.
- Trey Smith pancakes someone. Anyone.
- Anders Carlson lines up for a 57-yard field goal.
2018 Auburn is the most baffling version of Auburn yet. The offense has a ton of talent, yet Gus is starting a former two-star recruit at right tackle and a low three-star at right guard. Stidham was pretty good a year ago; it would now be the populist move to bench him. It’s the Auburn defense that carries the team’s back. There may not be a good running back on the roster. The best deep threat has been held silent most of the season. Honestly, I’m most comforted by the fact that the defense boasts a Big Kat, a Smoke, and an Igbinoghene. That’s Auburn.
Tennessee probably won’t have time to drop back and toss it deep for Josh Palmer much, so making the most of small opportunities is critical. It would behoove Tyson Helton to develop the Wildcat package used sparingly over the last few weeks; I humbly request Jauan Jennings to take a few snaps. Jarrett Guarantano may be the third-best quarterback Auburn has faced, which is largely meaningless, but it could provide an interesting test.
A Tennessee win probably means they held Auburn to 17 points or less in regulation. This occurs if Darrell Taylor plus any other defensive lineman has a big game, the secondary is able to force multiple turnovers, and Tennessee avoids any critical mistakes of their own. Stidham has been lucky to have only thrown two interceptions so far; look for Alontae Taylor to make a play. Auburn’s fumbled the ball 12 times on the year, just dive at it and see what happens.
A good amount of stuff has to go right for Tennessee to win this game. They’ve already got a couple of non-game breaks going their way: Auburn’s best defender is battling an injury, the game kicks off at 11 AM local time, it’s fall break for Auburn students, and fan apathy is rapidly growing towards Gus. Gus himself is just 7-14-2 against the spread in his last 23 home games as a favorite, yet he’s still 19-4 overall – as Auburn a stat as one could imagine.
I think Tennessee covers the spread and has a respectable performance a good amount of fans will be proud of. I also have a hard time imagining Tennessee winning enough coin-flips in a row to win this game. Auburn 24, Tennessee 16.