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3 reasons Auburn’s suddenly looked awesome in 2016

Auburn destroyed Arkansas on Saturday, but the Tigers have been looking really good for a while now.

Arkansas v Auburn Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Auburn’s 56-3 win over Arkansas seemed downright easy. There were no sudden bursts, no return scores. Just one touchdown, then another, then another. The base plays worked, and the counters — a jet sweep here, a QB keeper there — really worked. It seemed like it easily could have ended up even worse.

This was one of the bigger statements of intent we’ve seen this year. Auburn took an opponent that beat TCU and Ole Miss, that stayed within 19 points of Alabama (a margin boosted by Bama’s return touchdowns), and humiliated it. Rushing yards: 543-25. Tackles for loss: 11-0.

That it came from a team that had only crept into the AP top 25, a team that we began to ignore after a strange season-opening loss to Clemson, made it even more jarring.

But while the margin of victory on Saturday was a surprise, that Auburn looked like a top-10 team was not — per the numbers, they were already a top-10 team. We were the ones playing catch up.

How did we get here? This was supposed to be the year Gus Malzahn faded into the night.

After beginning with 19 wins in 22 games, Malzahn entered 2016 having gone just 8-10 since. The loser of Week 3’s A&M-Auburn Hot Seat Bowl was supposed to end up fired, and Auburn lost. That was that, right?

But even during a 1-2 start, Auburn looked decent. And beginning with a win over LSU that ended Les Miles’ tenure, the Tigers have been downright awesome.

Per S&P+, Auburn has hit the 87th percentile or higher in five of seven games this year and even hit the 79th in the loss to Clemson. We got distracted by Malzahn’s panicky shuffling of QBs against Clemson, but looking back, the primary story of that game was how well the Auburn defense played — it now ranks 10th in Def. S&P+. And over the past four games, the offense has surged to 13th in Off. S&P+.

The Tigers have been consistently good; Saturday was more of a culmination than an out-of-nowhere blowout. Now they have a 55 percent chance of winning out until the Iron Bowl, a game that could once again decide the SEC West.

There are three primary reasons the Tigers are where they are. None should feel that surprising.

1. Dominance in the trenches

LSU v Auburn
Montravius Adams & Carl Lawson
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Auburn has one of seven defenses that ranks in the top 20 in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate. The others: Alabama, Boston College, Clemson, Florida, Michigan, and Washington.

The Tigers are deep and ruthless up front, with a mix of healthy veterans (Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, who have combined for 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks) and a deep set of hungry youngsters; among them: freshman Marlon Davidson, with four TFLs and two pass breakups.

Arkansas’ offensive line might be big and meaty, but Auburn’s speed and athleticism overwhelmed the Razorbacks. Ten different players recorded a tackle for loss, and Davidson combined one TFL with two batted passes, a fumble recovery, and two QB hurries. It seemed like Auburn had 13 defenders on the field.

Coordinator Kevin Steele didn’t make much of an impact in the same role at LSU in 2015, but he has found the personnel to his liking on the Plains. It has experience and massive upside.

It’s the same story on the other side. Auburn is one of just four offenses to rank in the top 20 in Adj. Line Yards and the opponent-unadjusted opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) and stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). The others: rushing juggernauts Louisville and Ohio State, and pass-happy California.

Braden Smith and Austin Golson, a pair of four-star recruits from the 2014 class, have combined to start 39 games and are anchoring this solid line. The Tigers aren’t protecting quarterback Sean White incredibly well, though he has had a role to play in that. Regardless, this has developed into a run-first offense that blocks for the runners well. That tends to work out.

Of course, Auburn should be good in the trenches, considering how well the Tigers have recruited there, especially on defense.

2. Star recruits becoming star players

Auburn v Texas A&M
Tony Stevens
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

In the three full cycles since Malzahn returned to Auburn, he has signed classes ranked sixth, eighth, and ninth according to the 247Sports Composite.

If you sign three four-stars per year, you need all of them to become stars. If you sign 47 in three years, however, you can afford some misfires.

Auburn has benefited greatly from late-career breakthroughs. Lawson is finally healthy and dominant, and Adams looks great. Plus, after catching just 20 balls in three seasons, former four-star Tony Stevens leads the Tigers in receiving with 24 catches for and 408 yards.

Members of the 2014 and 2015 classes have come into their own this fall. White, Smith, and Golson were four-star signees in 2014, as were linebacker Tre’ Williams (3.5 TFLs), defensive lineman Andrew Williams (2.5 sacks), and DBs Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts.

Meanwhile, the 2015 class has produced four- or five-star breakthroughs in the secondary (Carlton and Javaris Davis have combined for two TFLs, two interceptions, and 12 breakups), at linebacker (Montavious Atkinson, Jeff Holland, and Darrell Williams have 5.5 tackles for loss), in the receiving corps (Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton have 28 catches for 285 yards), and at running back (Kerryon Johnson has 538 rushing yards, and fullback Chandler Cox has found a niche, as well).

The 2016 class is already having an impact, too. Receiver Kyle Davis is averaging 15.1 yards per target, running back Kam Martin is averaging 6.3 yards per carry, Davidson has been awesome, and reserves Derrick Brown (lineman) and Paul James III (linebacker) have made plays.

While plenty of four- and five-star signees from those classes haven’t worked, signing blue-chippers is as much about margin for error as anything. And sometimes those star prospects need a year or two to turn into stars.

3. White is figuring things out

Arkansas v Auburn
Sean White
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The run game has been mostly good against teams not named Clemson or LSU. The Tigers have averaged 6.4 yards per carry in other games and averaged 9.5 against Arkansas. Defending Auburn requires ultimate eye discipline; no one uses motion and fakes more prominently than Malzahn, and when the line is blocking this well, the run game clicks.

White’s development has made a difference. He isn’t a significant run threat, averaging barely four non-sack carries per game, but while that makes his keepers a surprise — his 41-yard run set up Auburn’s second TD on Saturday — it forces him to make up the difference with his arm.

White only throws about 20 times per game but is completing 69 percent of his passes (72 percent since the season opener) with a 156.1 passer rating.

More importantly, he is making up ground when he needs to. Auburn ranks third in Passing Downs S&P+ (second-and-long or third-and-medium or longer), and while the run game has had a role in that, so has White. On third-and-4 or longer, he’s completing 66 percent of his passes with a 136.4 passer rating. On third-and-10 or longer, he’s 11 for 15 for 116 yards.

Marcus Davis is an efficiency weapon on passing downs (he’s caught 10 of 13 passes for 88 yards on such downs), while Stevens and Kyle Davis have provided explosiveness (combined: 26 passing downs targets, 15 catches, 306 yards). White is spreading the ball beautifully, as eight players have at least four passing downs targets.

White’s still taking too many sacks, and his minimal presence in the run game hurts against excellent defenses (it’s one less thing defenders have to worry about). But he’s just a sophomore, and he’s quickly figured out how to make a positive impact.

What’s left for Auburn? Not much until Thanksgiving.

Maybe AU is due a setback. Maybe it’s this weekend against a volatile Ole Miss. But the Rebels are struggling in run defense, and if the Tigers survive (with their high S&P+ rating, they are given a 64 percent chance in Oxford), only Vanderbilt (97 percent win probability), Georgia (89 percent), and a tuneup against Alabama A&M stand in between Auburn and a 9-2 record heading into the Iron Bowl.

This may not be what we expected from Auburn in 2016, but it shouldn’t be that surprising. When you boast this many former blue-chippers, there’s always a chance they begin to realize their ceiling. And when you’ve got an offensive mind as restless as Malzahn’s, you might eventually find a rhythm.

Auburn is closer to its peak than it has been since its last trip to Oxford two years ago. We’ll see if the Tigers can keep it up, but they have been a pleasant surprise through two months.