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At this year's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I went out to dinner with some fellow writers and bloggers one night. Among them was a basketball blogger with whom I had this exchange once he found out what I do for a living.
Him: So you're a college football guy? I have a friend who's a big Auburn fan. How do you think they'll do this year?
That was the most succinct way I could think to put it. No, not this year.
In hiring Gus Malzahn to replace his former boss Gene Chizik, Auburn found a way to both bring in a good, relatively proven coach with tactical prowess and a high ceiling for recruiting. The school also found a pretty clear way to acknowledge where things went awry.
When virtually the entire starting offense departed after 2010, however, head coach Gene Chizik seemed to choose the stars over the system. He allegedly reined in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn a bit and, a year later, replaced him altogether with more of a pro-style coordinator.
According to the narrative, after all, you can draw more blue-chippers with a "pro-style" system. Strong recruiting continued apace; Auburn's 2011 class ranked seventh according to Rivals.com, its 2012 class ranked 10th, and its 2013 class currently ranks 10th despite some defections following Chizik's firing. But the identity vanished. Auburn seemingly had no idea what it wanted to be offensively.
Out of grave necessity, Auburn was a run-first, run-second team last season. This was the case mostly because the Tigers couldn't pass to save their collective lives. The personnel wasn't meant for a pro-style attack (whatever that term really even means at this point), and the complete and total lack of experience didn't help.
And by the end of 2012, just two years removed from a national title, with a defense that was only average and an offense that fell apart the moment it fell behind schedule, Auburn ranked 105th in the F/+ rankings. That's one spot behind 1-11 Kansas, two behind 2-11 UNLV, and only one spot ahead of 2-10 Army. Auburn was bad last season, so bad, in fact, that it is difficult for me to believe that Malzahn -- who seems like a wonderful hire and has strong long-term prospects -- will be able to engineer any sort of major turnaround in just one season.
What I said about Kentucky on Monday applies here, too. In the F/+ rankings, Auburn ranked 43 spots below Mississippi State and 45 below Arkansas. Even if Malzahn makes all of the right moves in his first year, asking him to make up more ground than that seems a bit unfair.
2. One hell of an outlier
If you completely remove 2010 from the chart above, you get a pretty clearly defined, seven-year downward trend. That Auburn not only bucked its trend and played at an elite level in 2010, but won a national title, is still just the damnedest thing.
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk: 105|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||vs. Clemson||19-26||L||29.0 - 27.1||W|
|8-Sep||at Mississippi State||10-28||L||14.5 - 32.2||L|
|15-Sep||UL-Monroe||31-28||W||36.3 - 19.9||W|
|22-Sep||LSU||10-12||L||18.7 - 22.9||L|
|6-Oct||Arkansas||7-24||L||20.2 - 29.7||L|
|13-Oct||at Ole Miss||20-41||L||22.3 - 35.9||L|
|20-Oct||at Vanderbilt||13-17||L||22.4 - 27.3||L|
|27-Oct||Texas A&M||21-63||L||36.0 - 40.5||L|
|3-Nov||New Mexico State||42-7||W||33.8 - 23.9||W|
|10-Nov||Georgia||0-38||L||18.6 - 31.8||L|
|17-Nov||Alabama A&M||51-7||W||30.5 - 35.8||L|
|24-Nov||at Alabama||0-49||L||14.5 - 32.8||L|
|Points Per Game||18.7||114||28.3||66|
|Adj. Points Per Game||24.7||95||30.0||81|
3. The (less-un)friendly confines
I would really like to blame most of Gene Chizik's failures on strange schematic decision-making and poor development. But a large portion of Auburn's problem in 2012 was pure youth. There was just too much of it to succeed, and it was particularly evident in Auburn's home-road splits. It stands to reason that more experienced teams are able to avoid terrible drop-offs on the road. Auburn could not.
Adj. Points Per Game (at home/neutral): Opponent 29.0, Auburn 27.9 (minus-1.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (on the road): Opponent 32.1, Auburn 18.4 (minus-13.7)
Now, Auburn was still mediocre at best, even at home. A negative average margin in Adj. Points means you were worse than an average team. But Auburn was also one of the worst teams in the country on the road. That points to poor experience and poor leadership, issues that could begin to naturally rectify themselves in 2013.
|Q1 Rk||53||1st Down Rk||59|
|Q2 Rk||41||2nd Down Rk||45|
|Q3 Rk||41||3rd Down Rk||112|
4. Dead last
Auburn had a truly strong running game in 2012, one that Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, his O.C. at Arkansas State last year, should be able to fully utilize. The Tigers were in the top 25 in both Rushing Success Rate+ and Rushing PPP+, with a solid line blocking for good backs. Onterio McCalebb, the most explosive back of the bunch, is gone, but junior Tre Mason and incoming junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne should find a ton of success in Malzahn's system this season. SB Nation's research and analytics intern, Chris A. Brown, attended Auburn's ridiculously well-attended spring game and was knocked out by Artis-Payne's play. He said the offense had a tremendous amount of explosiveness overall; the change in pace and potential was evident.
Oh, but that passing game. Auburn ranked 124th -- dead last in FBS -- in Passing Success Rate+ in 2012. Dead last! Worse than UMass, worse than New Mexico State, worse than Idaho. Dead last. Auburn quarterbacks completed 50 of 81 passes for 789 yards to Emory Blake in 2012 (9.7 per pass), and 97 of 175 for 1,090 yards (6.2 per pass) to everybody else. And that doesn't even factor into the equation an incredibly bad sack rate. Auburn was 123rd, second-worst in FBS, in Adj. Sack Rate. Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier took 29 sacks in just 205 pass attempts. The only thing that kept Auburn under 50 sacks for the year was the simple fact that they didn't pass much.
Now, it does bear mentioning that most of the main contributors for Auburn's offense in 2012 were recruited for Malzahn's attack but were stuck in an attempted pro-style mish-mash under a new offensive coordinator. Malzahn's return alone could result in higher comfort and effectiveness. But again, when you are this bad in a given year, it is difficult to imagine a complete, 180-degree turnaround in one offseason. It is possible, but not likely, especially when the only effective receiver (Blake) has now graduated, and the four-year safety valve (Philip Lutzenkirchen) has too.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Kiehl Frazier||6'2, 234||Jr.||**** (5.9)||62||116||753||53.4%||2||8||18||13.4%||4.8|
|Jonathan Wallace||6'2, 209||So.||*** (5.6)||46||80||720||57.5%||4||4||7||8.0%||7.9|
|Nick Marshall||6'2, 190||Jr.||*** (5.7)|
|Jeremy Johnson||6'6, 215||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Jason Smith||6'1, 180||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
5. Getting somewhere with Wallace
Late in the season, during the Texas A&M game, Chizik turned to true freshman Jonathan Wallace in a desperate attempt to get something going on offense. While his overall numbers were padded by starts against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M (against those two teams, he was 19-for-34 for 335 yards, two scores, and an interception), and while his sack and interception rates were still too high, he produced at a level that neither Frazier nor Moseley could match.
Adj. Points Per Game (with Jonathan Wallace): Opponent 33.0, Auburn 26.7 (minus-7.3)
Adj. Points Per Game (with Frazier/Moseley): Opponent 27.8, Auburn 23.3 (minus-4.5)
Even accounting for opponent, Auburn's offense was better in Wallace's hands than in anybody else's. Of course, he didn't finish the spring as the clear-cut starter. Frazier, a highly touted recruit who came to Auburn to run Malzahn's offense in 2011 and serve as Cam Newton's successor, is back in his run-pass comfort zone; he has not shown anything even slightly resembling four-star potential in his first two years on the Plains (not even on the ground), but whatever his ceiling is, he is more likely to reach it under Malzahn.
Spring practice ended in what Malzahn called a "dead heat" between the two, and junior college transfer Nick Marshall, an explosive, pick-prone junior college quarterback and former Georgia defensive back, will enter the race this summer.
Jonathan Wallace. John David Mercer, USA Today.
|Tre Mason||RB||5'10, 196||Jr.||**** (5.8)||171||1,002||5.9||5.3||8||+14.9|
|Jonathan Wallace||QB||6'2, 209||So.||*** (5.6)||44||186||4.2||2.5||0||-1.9|
|Kiehl Frazier||QB||6'2, 234||Jr.||**** (5.9)||24||74||3.1||2.0||0||-3.8|
|Jay Prosch||HB||6'0, 247||Sr.||** (5.2)||12||38||3.2||0.5||2||-2.1|
|Corey Grant||RB||5'11, 201||Jr.||**** (5.8)||9||29||3.2||1.2||0||-2.4|
|Cameron Artis-Payne||RB||5'11, 208||Jr.||**** (5.8)|
|Johnathan "Ruby" Ford||RB||5'11, 190||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
6. Carving out yards on the ground
Again, the passing game was the problem in 2012. The ground game had loads of potential, and if Malzahn can figure out ways to maneuver through passing downs without complete disasters, the run can get even better. Chris A. Brown also told me that all indications are for Johnathan Ford to become a McCalebb-style back, "running the sweeps and catching screens out of the backfield."
If Ford is able to make an immediate contribution -- never a given for a true freshman -- then that would give Auburn as strong a backfield as you'll find in the SEC, at least outside of Tuscaloosa and Athens. Mason, Artis-Payne, Ford, the winner of the QB derby, and perhaps Corey Grant will give Auburn depth and high-end potential. All the Tigers need is general competence in the passing game, but there's no guarantee they'll get it.
|Quan Bray||SLOT||5'10, 183||Jr.||**** (5.8)||19||14||94||73.7%||4.9||8.0%||52.6%||5.1||12.0|
|Sammie Coates||WR-X||6'2, 201||So.||*** (5.7)||18||6||114||33.3%||6.3||7.6%||66.7%||6.5||14.5|
|Trovon Reed||WR-F||6'0, 190||Jr.||**** (6.0)||16||9||122||56.3%||7.6||6.7%||31.3%||12.4||15.6|
|C.J. Uzomah||TE||6'4, 253||Jr.||*** (5.7)||11||7||136||63.6%||12.4||4.6%||63.6%||12.0||17.3|
|Tre Mason||RB||5'10, 196||Jr.||**** (5.8)||10||7||86||70.0%||8.6||4.2%||80.0%||6.5||11.0|
|Jay Prosch||HB||6'0, 247||Sr.||** (5.2)||6||5||19||83.3%||3.2||2.5%||50.0%||2.8||2.4|
|Ricardo Louis||WR-F||6'2, 217||So.||**** (5.8)||4||3||36||75.0%||9.0||1.7%||50.0%||9.7||4.6|
|Ricky Parks||HB||6'4, 257||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Melvin Ray||TE||6'3, 218||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Earnest Robinson||WR||6'3, 200||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|Tony Stephens||WR||6'3, 175||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
|John Sullen||LG||24 career starts|
|Reese Dismukes||C||6'3, 290||Jr.||**** (5.9)||23 career starts|
|Chad Slade||RG||6'5, 308||Jr.||*** (5.5)||22 career starts|
|Greg Robinson||LT||6'5, 314||So.||**** (5.8)||11 career starts|
|Patrick Miller||RT||6'7, 283||So.||**** (5.8)||9 career starts|
|Avery Young||RT||6'6, 314||So.||**** (5.9)||3 career starts|
|Tunde Fariyike||C||6'2, 307||Jr.||** (5.3)||2 career starts|
|Christian Westerman||LG||1 career start|
|Shon Coleman||LT||6'6, 294||RSFr.||***** (6.1)|
|Alex Kozan||LG||6'4, 292||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Jordan Diamond||RG||6'6, 314||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Shane Callahan||OL||6'6, 290||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Devonte Danzey||LG||6'4, 284||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Deon Mix||OL||6'4, 305||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Q1 Rk||72||1st Down Rk||76|
|Q2 Rk||55||2nd Down Rk||45|
|Q3 Rk||61||3rd Down Rk||42|
7. The defense wasn't the problem, but…
...it wasn't really a strength, either. While offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler was unable to find the right buttons to push on offense, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was at least able to hold the fort with a terribly inexperienced D. Auburn prevented big plays in the passing game and was at least above average on passing downs and in the red zone, but it was difficult to overcome general deficiencies in the run defense. Auburn couldn't make many plays in the backfield and couldn't force nearly enough passing downs overall.
To the extent that this was an experience problem, well, it should no longer be a problem in 2013. Eight of the top nine defensive linemen, six of the top eight linebackers, and eight of the top nine defensive backs all return this fall. There is a strong upperclassman presence, especially at the front and back of the defense, and new coordinator Ellis Johnson should find plenty of ways to be aggressive.
Johnson, one of college football's more successful defensive coordinators (who, yes, bombed as a head coach at Southern Miss last year), has a track record for maximizing a D's athleticism and showing some tactical creativity and flexibility. Between seasoned veterans and extremely high-upside youngsters, he's got some toys in the toy box this year.
It is not a given that he'll find the right mix, of course, but the odds are at least decent.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dee Ford||DE||6'2, 238||Sr.||*** (5.6)||11||28.5||4.3%||6.5||6||0||1||1||0|
|Angelo Blackson||DT||6'4, 312||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||19.0||2.9%||7||1||0||2||2||1|
|Nosa Eguae||DE||6'3, 268||Sr.||*** (5.7)||12||18.5||2.8%||2||1||0||0||0||0|
|Gabe Wright||DT||6'3, 300||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||15.5||2.3%||4.5||1||0||2||0||0|
|Kenneth Carter||DE||6'4, 287||Sr.||**** (5.8)||12||12.5||1.9%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jeffrey Whitaker||DT||6'4, 307||Sr.||**** (5.9)||9||8.5||1.3%||1||0.5||0||0||0||1|
|Craig Sanders||DE||6'4, 242||Sr.||**** (5.8)||9||7.5||1.1%||1.5||0||0||0||0||0|
|Keymiya Harrell||DE||6'4, 262||So.||*** (5.7)||4||2.0||0.3%||1||1||0||0||0||0|
|Tyler Nero||DL||6'2, 266||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Ben Bradley||DT||6'1, 310||So.||**** (5.9)|
|Montravius Adams||DT||6'3, 290||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Carl Lawson||DE||6'2, 253||Fr.||***** (6.1)|
|Elijah Daniel||DE||6'3, 249||Fr.||**** (5.9)|
8. Bringing in the reinforcements
Most of the aforementioned precocious youth will line up in the front four. Five-star freshmen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, junior college blue-chipper Ben Bradley, and four-star freshman Elijah Daniel join a rotation that probably needs them. End Dee Ford was a strong pass rusher, and tackle Angelo Blackson was basically the line's only play-maker against the run, but depth was an issue in 2013.
Despite the loss of end Corey Lemonier, the depth could improve dramatically this fall. We'll see how long it takes for the new pieces to get established -- even South Carolina's all-world recruit/end Jadeveon Clowney took a while to find consistency -- but it's safe to say the upside is higher now than it was 12 months ago. And it will possibly be even higher 12 months from now. When you barely ranked in the top 80 in either Adj. Line Yards or Adj. Sack Rate, you should probably be happy with improvement even just into the Top 50-60. Aim higher in 2014, but stay conservative this time around.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jake Holland||MLB||6'1, 243||Sr.||**** (5.8)||11||52.5||7.9%||3||0||0||2||0||0|
|Cassanova McKinzy||WILL||6'3, 245||So.||**** (5.8)||8||18.0||2.7%||0.5||0||0||0||1||1|
|Justin Garrett||STAR||6'1, 214||Jr.||*** (5.6)||6||9.0||1.4%||0.5||0||0||0||1||0|
|LaDarius Owens||MLB||6'2, 248||Jr.||**** (5.9)||11||8.5||1.3%||3||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kris Frost||MLB||6'2, 231||So.||***** (6.1)||9||4.0||0.6%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Robenson Therezie||STAR||5'9, 202||Jr.||**** (5.8)||10||3.0||0.5%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony Swain||LB||6'2, 235||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Kenny Flowers||LB||6'2, 225||So.||*** (5.6)|
|JaViere Mitchell||WILL||6'2, 211||RSFr.||**** (5.8)|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Demetruce McNeal||BS||6'2, 194||Sr.||*** (5.6)||12||71.5||10.8%||7||1||0||4||1||1|
|Jermaine Whitehead||FS||5'11, 198||Jr.||**** (5.8)||12||63.0||9.5%||4||1||0||5||0||1|
|Jonathon Mincy||CB||5'10, 191||Jr.||*** (5.7)||12||49.0||7.4%||4||1||0||4||1||0|
|Chris Davis||CB||5'11, 198||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||35.5||5.4%||1.5||0||0||3||0||0|
|Joshua Holsey||BS||5'11, 195||So.||**** (5.8)||11||26.0||3.9%||2||0||0||6||0||0|
|Ryan Smith||FS||6'2, 197||Sr.||*** (5.5)||4||21.5||3.2%||0.5||0||0||0||0||1|
|Trent Fisher||BS||6'1, 200||Jr.||NR||11||13.5||2.0%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Jonathan Jones||CB||5'10, 172||So.||*** (5.7)||10||10.5||1.6%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Ryan White||CB||5'11, 196||Sr.||*** (5.5)||9||9.0||1.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|T.J. Davis||BS||6'1, 194||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
|Steven Clark||6'5, 232||Sr.||70||39.8||4||37||15||74.3%|
|Cody Parkey||6'0, 186||Sr.||48||65.1||33||68.8%|
|Cody Parkey||6'0, 186||Sr.||27-27||8-8||100.0%||3-6||50.0%|
|Quan Bray||KR||5'10, 183||Jr.||6||20.2||0|
|Tre Mason||KR||5'10, 196||Jr.||3||26.3||0|
|Quan Bray||PR||5'10, 183||Jr.||16||8.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||21|
|Field Goal Pct||33|
|Kick Returns Avg||48|
|Punt Returns Avg||59|
9. Cody Parkey is awesome
For all of Auburn's deficiencies last year, special teams was not one of them. The return game was decent (and should remain so despite the loss of Onterio McCalebb), the punting game was strong, and kicker/kickoffs guy Cody Parkey was great. He was perfect on all kicks inside of 40 yards, and he booted touchbacks more than two-thirds of the time on kickoffs. Granted, Auburn didn't have nearly enough reasons to kick off (or even kick field goals) in 2012, but Auburn should be stout in the field position battle in 2013, especially if its offense can improve by at least a little bit.
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|19-Oct||at Texas A&M||13|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||41|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||6|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-12 / -5.3|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (6, 9)|
10. Year Zero
Auburn fans aren't necessarily known for their extreme patience, but they should probably try to take a lot of deep breaths this fall.
Like Kentucky, the Tigers are likely starting from too far back to make up serious ground in 2013, but the schedule is as favorable as it gets in the SEC. That will help. Auburn begins with three home games versus teams projected worse than 50th and welcomes Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic to town in October. Win those five games, and the Tigers would need only one more win -- Ole Miss at home? Tennessee or Arkansas on the road? -- to secure bowl eligibility. I would set the bar closer to five wins, but considering how far Auburn fell in 2012, and how consistently they've been heading downhill through the years (spectacular outlier aside), even that would represent demonstrable progress.
The Gus Malzahn hire really does make sense in so many ways. He brings an identity to an offense that needs one, and while he has only been a head coach for one season, he pushed a lot of the right buttons in that one year at Arkansas State. He is a known entity in the SEC, he will keep recruiting going awfully strong, and even if he doesn't reach a bowl in his first season, he should have this team deep, experienced, competitive and fun pretty quickly.