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Gus Malzahn has gone from Nick Saban's nemesis to the hot seat. Will Auburn rebound?

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The Tigers' last few years have involved just about every result imaginable. Against 2016's schedule, a winning record might feel like an accomplishment.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. The butt snap that changed it all

It feels like Gus Malzahn has been Auburn's head coach for about eight years, doesn't it?

In his tenure, he pulled off a massive turnaround, came within a play of winning the Tigers' second national title of the 2010s (he was Auburn's OC during the first), and got AU to No. 2 in the rankings the following season.

He has also churned through defensive coordinators and watched his program slide back into the unranked.

It's all happened in three years.

Auburn rose from 3-9 before Malzahn came back, to 12-2 in his first year, to 7-6 in his third. Malzahn has gone from The Future of College Football to firmly on the hot seat. At a school like Auburn, you're always only about two steps from getting fired, but the change in fortune has been as fascinating as it has been swift. The defense has remained roughly the same, but the offense plummeted in 2015, suffering from quarterback mistakes and a sudden lack of big plays.

Considering the constantly ridiculous schedule strength (top-10 per S&P+ for three straight years) the fact that Malzahn has gone 27-13 is pretty good. The Tigers have been in the S&P+ top 10 twice -- also good!

But Auburn completely lost its close-game mojo.

Stats are designed, in part, to strip away the poetry, the use of terms like "mojo." They tell you Auburn was destined for some serious regression to the mean after the blessed run of 2013. But it's incredible how much everything about this program's trajectory changed with, basically, a single play.

On November 8, 2014, a week after pulling off a staggering escape at Ole Miss (the game in which the Rebels' Laquon Treadwell injured his leg and fumbled just shy of the go-ahead touchdown), Auburn hosted Texas A&M, another suddenly flagging program. The Tigers were 24-point favorites, and even though they trailed 35-17 at halftime, it felt like only a matter of time until the inevitable comeback. They had won nine of 10 one-possession games under Malzahn. They would find a way.

Indeed, the score was just 41-38 in the final minute, and Auburn was driving. But a miscommunication between quarterback Nick Marshall and center Reese Dismukes resulted in an errant snap, and A&M recovered it to seal the upset.

Since that moment, they have lost six of nine one-possession games and are 8-10 overall. And two of their three close wins averted upsets; they played not to lose against Kentucky last year and just barely succeeded, and they needed overtime to take down FCS' Jacksonville State.

Mojo ... karma ... regression to the mean ... whatever your term, Auburn has suffered. Malzahn lost confidence in his offense in 2015, and despite a wealth of blue-chippers, the offense has only once topped 31st in Def. S&P+ in three seasons.

And now he enters 2016 with question marks at quarterback and a sudden lack of running backs. Can he right the ship? And what does "righting the ship" look like when facing a schedule that not only features eight projected top-25 teams but also, incredibly, games against each of the projected top three (Clemson on September 3, LSU on September 24, Alabama on November 26)?

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 33 | Final S&P+ Rk: 35
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep vs. Louisville 39 31-24 W 85% 83% +1.2 -4.0
12-Sep Jacksonville State N/A 27-20 W 69% 84% -32.3
19-Sep at LSU 10 21-45 L 14% 0% -18.3 -17.0
26-Sep Mississippi State 16 9-17 L 44% 9% -7.0 -9.5
3-Oct San Jose State 89 35-21 W 91% 98% +1.3 -6.0
15-Oct at Kentucky 91 30-27 W 53% 42% +2.4 +1.0
24-Oct at Arkansas 11 46-54 L 52% 14% +6.3 -2.0
31-Oct Ole Miss 5 19-27 L 63% 17% +6.8 -0.5
7-Nov at Texas A&M 34 26-10 W 94% 98% +30.7 +23.5
14-Nov Georgia 30 13-20 L 59% 22% -4.8 -9.0
21-Nov Idaho 114 56-34 W 84% 96% +3.2 -12.0
28-Nov Alabama 1 13-29 L 42% 2% +1.3 -2.0
30-Dec vs. Memphis 41 31-10 W 98% 100% +24.5 +18.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 32.6 44 22.9 31
Points Per Game 27.5 75 26.0 54

2. A litmus test

In 2013, Auburn beat the teams that finished Nos. 2, 14, 22, 23, 28, and 33 in F/+. The Tigers lost only to No. 1 and, early in the season, No. 17.

In 2014, they were still pretty unpredictable, beating Nos. 5, 9, 22, and 26 and losing to Nos. 2, 4, 13, and 25.

In 2015, the unpredictability was gone, and Auburn provided a pretty clear test for its opponents. If you beat AU, you were top-30 caliber. If you didn't, you weren't.

  • Auburn vs. Top 30:
    Record: 0-6 | Average percentile performance: 46% (~top 70) | Yards per play: Opp 5.8, AU 4.9 (-0.9) | Average score: Opp 32, AU 20
  • Auburn vs. everyone else:
    Record: 7-0 | Average percentile performance: 82% (~top 25) | Yards per play: AU 5.9, Opp 5.0 (+0.9) | Average score: AU 34, Opp 21

Against good teams, Auburn's defense was average, and its offense was outmanned. Against decent and bad teams, the defense performed well, and the offense was at least above average. And after two of the wildest seasons in recent football history, Auburn's 2015 was ... predictable. Never thought I'd see the day.

The biggest cause was the offense. it just didn't have the juice. After ranking second in Off. S&P+ in 2013 and fourth in 2014, the Tigers fell to 44th. They were still mostly efficient, but their mistakes were costly, and their big-play totals wilted to nothing.

In 2013, they pulled off 45 gains of 30-plus yards, second in the country; in 2015, they had just 22 (93rd). In 2014, they had 228 gains of 10-plus yards (18th); in 2015, they had 164 (85th). You can live off of five-yard gains if you avoid mistakes.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.10 123 IsoPPP+ 99.4 69
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.3% 36 Succ. Rt. + 113.6 22
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.4 83 Def. FP+ 29.4 58
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.7 45 Redzone S&P+ 108.0 43
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 20.6 ACTUAL 17 -3.6
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 94 48 22 69
RUSHING 35 38 9 71
PASSING 111 42 63 40
Standard Downs 73 30 100
Passing Downs 23 26 23
Q1 Rk 19 1st Down Rk 44
Q2 Rk 102 2nd Down Rk 84
Q3 Rk 26 3rd Down Rk 49
Q4 Rk 69

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Jeremy Johnson 6'5, 234 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9274 95 157 1054 10 7 60.5% 9 5.4% 5.9
Sean White 6'0, 200 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9342 83 143 1167 1 4 58.0% 9 5.9% 7.1
John Franklin III 6'1, 186 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8885
Woody Barrett 6'2, 238 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9147

3. Got a QB?

Malzahn set the bar high when he took a converted defensive back, put him behind center, and nearly won the national title. Marshall rushed for 1,193 yards in 2013 (not including sacks), then threw for more than 2,500 in 2014. In his two years as Auburn starter, he completed 60 percent of his passes with a 2.4 percent interception rate, a 5.8 percent sack rate, and a 7.1 yards per (non-sack) carry average.

As opponents began to adjust for the threat of his legs, Marshall got a little better with his arm. He averaged 8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) as a senior, and Auburn ranked first in Passing S&P+.

It was easy to assume Malzahn would find what he needed in Jeremy Johnson. The 6'5 specimen was tremendous in a backup role in 2014 (10.3 yards per pass attempt, 5.4 yards per non-sack rush) and even saw a little bit of Heisman hype heading into last fall. That's how much faith we had in Malzahn.

But Johnson struggled with interceptions early in 2015, throwing three against Louisville and two against Jacksonville State. His pick rate was 8 percent through three games, about four times higher than it should be, and he was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Sean White. When he got another shot, he was scarred -- he only threw one interception in his final 85 passes, but if you take out his performance against hapless Idaho, he averaged only 10.7 yards per completion in that span.

White wasn't much of a runner, and when he was in the game, it seemed like Auburn was down one weapon. He's relatively mobile, but while Marshall's ratio of pass attempts to rush attempts in 2013-14 was 1.5, and Johnson's was 4.4 in 2015, White's was 7.2. With White, Auburn's zone read threat was minimal.

Naturally, Auburn fans have cast their hopes on a newcomer. John Franklin III was lost in the shuffle at Florida State and split time on the first string at East Mississippi Community College, but he's fast. Ergo, he's the new savior.

We'll see. Johnson still has plenty of upside if another year of practice irons out the wrinkles between too many interceptions and too little risk. White hinted at efficiency in completing 64 percent of his passes in his first four games. (Last three games: 46 percent.)

Regardless, we found in 2015 that not even Malzahn can thrive with anybody at QB.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Peyton Barber RB 237 1016 13 4.3 3.1 34.2% 3 0
Jovon Robinson RB 117 639 3 5.5 4.1 45.3% 1 0
Kerryon Johnson RB 6'0, 211 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9807 52 208 3 4.0 2.3 40.4% 0 0
Roc Thomas RB 43 261 1 6.1 7.4 39.5% 1 1
Jeremy Johnson QB 6'5, 234 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9274 38 208 6 5.5 7.0 42.1% 2 1
Ricardo Louis WR 29 158 1 5.4 3.2 51.7% 3 1
Sean White QB 6'0, 200 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9342 21 116 0 5.5 5.1 42.9% 4 1
Jason Smith WR 6'1, 188 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9084 6 37 1 6.2 7.0 50.0% 0 0
Stanton Truitt WR 5'9, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8899 6 28 0 4.7 4.4 66.7% 0 0
Lawyer Tillman RB 5 24 0 4.8 0.9 80.0% 0 0
Kamryn Pettway RB 6'0, 240 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8774
Kam Martin RB 5'10, 177 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9040
Stephen Davis Jr. RB 6'3, 206 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8802
Malik Miller RB 5'11, 229 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8752

4. Got running backs?

Whoever wins the QB job should have a solid line in front of him. Auburn's line thrived in the most necessary categories in 2015 -- fifth in power success rate, ninth in stuff rate, 24th in passing downs sack rate -- and returns three starters, including all-SEC guard Braden Smith and two-year starting guard Alex Kozan. There appears to be nice balance between experience (seven juniors and seniors) and high-upside youngsters.

There do not appear to be many options at running back. Former blue-chippers Roc Thomas (transfer) and Jovon Robinson (recently booted) are gone, leaving sophomore Kerryon Johnson (yet another former blue-chipper), converted fullback Kamryn Pettway, and a trio of true freshmen to fill out the depth chart. Four backs split 35 carries per game, and while Johnson appears to be built from durable stock, he probably won't fill more than 20-25 of those even in the most favorable scenario. That means freshmen will absolutely have to contribute.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Ricardo Louis WR 83 46 716 55.4% 28.9% 8.6 49.4% 43.4% 1.82
Marcus Davis WR 5'9, 180 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8302 37 30 182 81.1% 12.9% 4.9 67.6% 35.1% 1.27
Melvin Ray WR 35 20 279 57.1% 12.2% 8.0 31.4% 45.7% 1.54
Tony Stevens WR 6'4, 212 Sr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9352 25 14 177 56.0% 8.7% 7.1 36.0% 44.0% 1.57
D'haquille Williams WR 22 12 147 54.5% 7.7% 6.7 27.3% 50.0% 1.16
Jason Smith SLOT 6'1, 188 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9084 21 13 203 61.9% 7.3% 9.7 28.6% 47.6% 2.02
Kerryon Johnson RB 6'0, 211 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9807 21 14 159 66.7% 7.3% 7.6 61.9% 38.1% 1.86
Peyton Barber RB 16 11 112 68.8% 5.6% 7.0 43.8% 43.8% 1.42
Roc Thomas RB
15 11 200 73.3% 5.2% 13.3 40.0% 53.3% 2.32
Chandler Cox HB 6'1, 236 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8913 5 3 25 60.0% 1.7% 5.0 80.0% 40.0% 0.94
Stanton Truitt SLOT 5'9, 185 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8899 3 1 13 33.3% 1.0% 4.3 0.0% 33.3% 0.94
Ryan Davis SLOT 5'9, 172 So. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9192
Jalen Harris HB 6'4, 259 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8615
Darius Slayton WR 6'2, 191 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9347
Nate Craig-Myers WR 6'2, 204 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9761
Kyle Davis WR 6'2, 219 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9632
Eli Stove SLOT 6'0, 177 Fr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9413
Landon Rice TE 6'5, 253 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9134
Marquis McClain WR 6'2, 208 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8772

5. Almost no proven big-play guys

Johnson was reasonably efficient for a freshman last fall, but he offered almost nothing from a big-play perspective. That doesn't mean he can't, but of last year's foursome, only Thomas provided even the slightest flash of explosiveness. The Auburn run game was limited to four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust in 2015.

That put pressure on the passing game to get vertical. That's a problem when you're oscillating between a pick-prone junior and a redshirt freshman at QB, but thanks mostly to Ricardo Louis, the receiving corps occasionally delivered.

Louis is gone. The top two returning wideouts -- seniors Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens -- combined to gain just 359 yards in 44 receptions last year.

So where do the big plays come from? Jason Smith showed promise in averaging 15.6 yards per catch last year, but that came mostly from a 77-yard catch and run against Alabama. He also had a 46-yarder against Arkansas, which means his other 11 catches gained just 80 yards. But he at least has potential.

So do four-star youngsters like sophomore slot receivers Stanton Truitt and Ryan Davis; redshirt freshman Darius Slayton; true freshmen Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis, and Eli Stove; and freshman running backs Kam Martin, Malik Miller, and Stephen Davis Jr.

Auburn severely lacked in firepower last fall. There's no guarantee that will change.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 111.5 3.12 3.17 40.6% 78.7% 15.4% 126.2 4.3% 5.3%
Rank 20 28 72 43 5 9 37 52 24
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Braden Smith RG 6'6, 300 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9678 13 13 2015 2nd All-SEC
Avery Young RT 12 37
Alex Kozan LG 6'4, 310 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8861 13 27
Shon Coleman LT
12 25
Austin Golson LT 6'5, 314 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9553 12 12
Devonte Danzey LG 2 10
Robert Leff RT 6'6, 299 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8388 1 1
Will Adams RG 0 0
Xavier Dampeer C 6'2, 310 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8113 0 0
Darius James RT 6'4, 320 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9834 0 0
Deon Mix LG 6'4, 315 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8718 0 0
Prince Tega Wanogho LT 6'8, 282 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9481

Tyler Carr OL 6'5, 318 RSFr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9088

Marquel Harrell LG 6'3, 318 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9078

Mike Horton RG 6'4, 331 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8560

Prince Michael Sammons LT 6'7, 289 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9163


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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.11 7 IsoPPP+ 115.1 25
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.6% 97 Succ. Rt. + 106.6 44
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 31.1 43 Off. FP+ 31.8 27
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.0 33 Redzone S&P+ 114.3 22
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 23.3 ACTUAL 19.0 -4.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 71 33 44 25
RUSHING 80 49 43 56
PASSING 63 26 49 17
Standard Downs 30 43 25
Passing Downs 29 28 29
Q1 Rk 63 1st Down Rk 45
Q2 Rk 21 2nd Down Rk 27
Q3 Rk 62 3rd Down Rk 28
Q4 Rk 17

6. A Kevin Steele defense

In his last two years as a coordinator, Steele's units have crumpled. In 2011 at Clemson, his Tiger defense plummeted from sixth in Def. S&P+ to 65th; in 2015 at LSU, the Tigers fell from ninth to 27th.

This ignores mountains of context, obviously. Still, it's hard to be inspired by Malzahn's latest coordinator change. He replaced Ellis Johnson with former Florida head coach Will Muschamp last fall, then took Steele from LSU when Muschamp took the South Carolina head coaching job. (LSU didn't appear to put up a ton of fight.)

Steele's only LSU defense struggled a bit up front. The Tigers ranked 83rd in power success rate, 89th in stuff rate, and 40th in passing downs sack rate; they swarmed to the ball reasonably well (17th in Rushing Success Rate+) but suffered quite a few glitches (51st in Rushing IsoPPP+). They boasted a ferocious secondary (seventh in Passing S&P+), but opponents were comfortable enough running the ball that LSU couldn't take total advantage of its strengths.

At Auburn, he inherits a unit with similar strengths and weaknesses. AU ranked 26th in Passing S&P+ but 49th in Rushing S&P+, and the Tigers' biggest issue was a total lack of disruptiveness up front (99th in stuff rate, 123rd in Adj. Sack Rate). Former blue-chip end Carl Lawson is supposedly finally healthy, and goodness knows there are plenty of other former stud recruits up front.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 100.6 3.14 3.62 42.3% 65.6% 16.9% 59.1 2.9% 5.4%
Rank 58 99 107 106 62 99 123 112 99
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Cassanova McKinzy BUCK 13 55.5 7.7% 10.0 5.0 0 1 1 0
Montravius Adams NT 6'4, 309 Sr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9945 13 30.0 4.1% 3.0 2.5 0 1 2 0
Dontavius Russell DT 6'3, 308 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9311 13 28.0 3.9% 4.5 1.5 0 1 0 0
Devaroe Lawrence DT 6'2, 303 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8366 13 22.0 3.0% 2.0 0.5 0 0 0 0
DaVonte Lambert DE 12 16.0 2.2% 2.5 1.0 0 1 0 0
Carl Lawson BUCK 6'2, 253 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9897 7 11.0 1.5% 3.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Jeff Holland BUCK 6'2, 250 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9443 13 10.0 1.4% 2.5 1.0 0 0 1 0
Gimel President DE
10 10.0 1.4% 2.0 2.0 0 0 0 0
Maurice Swain NT 6'5, 314 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8650 13 5.5 0.8% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Raashed Kennion BUCK 6'6, 237
3 stars (5.5) 0.8154 8 5.0 0.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Byron Cowart DE 6'3, 276 So. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9987 13 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Andrew Williams DT 6'4, 289 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9076 13 2.5 0.3% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Paul James III DE 6'4, 271 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8954
Derrick Brown DT 6'5, 330 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9963
Marlon Davidson DE 6'3, 273 Fr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9807
Antwuan Jackson Jr. NT 6'2, 303 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9736
Nick Coe DE 6'6, 255 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9034








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
T.J. Neal
(Illinois)
MLB 6'0, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8514 12 76.0 11.2% 14.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Kris Frost MLB 13 66.0 9.1% 3.0 0.0 2 2 1 0
Tre' Williams SLB 6'2, 240 Jr. 5 stars (6.1) 0.9856 12 41.0 5.7% 4.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Justin Garrett WLB 12 37.5 5.2% 2.5 1.0 2 0 1 1
JaViere Mitchell LB
13 9.0 1.2% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Deshaun Davis WLB 5'11, 239 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8707 12 3.0 0.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Cameron Toney SLB 6'1, 244 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8747 1 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Darrell Williams WLB 6'2, 231 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9225
Montavious Atkinson LB 6'1, 211 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9010
Richard McBryde LB 6'1, 223 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9184
Tre' Threat WLB 6'1, 240 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8777








7. Wanted: Havoc

Lawson managed 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks as a backup in 2013, then missed 2014 with an ACL tear. He managed just three TFLs in seven games last year but missed half the year with a hip injury.

Lawson's potential is obvious, and he's apparently giving his offensive linemen fits right now. A 2016 breakout isn't optional for him. If Auburn is going to improve, it needs far more disruption up front, and he's by far the Tigers' most important player.

The tackle position appears well-stocked with last year's top five returning (including Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell) and getting joined by the latest five-star freshman, Derrick Brown. But ends produced only 20 tackles for loss last year (for a frame of reference, seven FBS players managed that by themselves), and if Lawson doesn't dominate, pressure will go to youngsters like sophomores Jeff Holland and Byron Cowart and freshman Marlon Davidson.

If the line delivers, the linebacking corps should be fine despite losing three of last year's top four. Tre' Williams is solid, and Illinois transfer T.J. Neal combines the "tackling machine" instincts of departed Kris Frost with a strong level of play-making. Assuming the tackle position is a strength, Neal should find space to make a lot of plays.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Johnathan Ford NB 6'0, 204 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8950 13 93.0 12.8% 3 1 2 2 2 0
Blake Countess S 13 57.5 7.9% 2.5 0 2 11 0 0
Jonathan Jones CB 13 57.0 7.9% 1.5 0 1 13 1 0
Carlton Davis CB 6'1, 195 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8904 13 47.0 6.5% 1.5 0.5 3 8 1 0
Joshua Holsey
(2014)
S 5'11, 195 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9342 12 38.5 5.4% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Tray Matthews S 6'1, 207 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9632 10 36.0 5.0% 1.5 0 2 2 1 0
Marshall Taylor
(Miami-OH)
CB 6'3, 191 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7300 11 34.5 4.9% 0 0 2 2 0 0
Nick Ruffin S 6'0, 203 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9432 10 21.0 2.9% 0.5 0 0 4 0 0
Stephen Roberts S 5'11, 183 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9415 13 21.0 2.9% 0 0 0 3 0 0
Tim Irvin NB
10 13.0 1.8% 0 0 0 2 0 0
Jeremiah Dinson DB 6'0, 177 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8376 9 12.0 1.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Michael Sherwood CB 5'9, 175 Jr. NR NR 3 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 1 0 0
T.J. Davis S 6'0, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8789
Markell Boston S 6'0, 200 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8320
Javaris Davis CB 5'10, 182 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8988
Jamel Dean CB 6'2, 209 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8906
John Broussard Jr. CB 5'11, 168 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.9035
Marlon Character Jr. S 6'0, 181 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8883
Daniel Thomas DB 5'11, 192 Fr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8233

8. Plenty of options in the back

There are two ways to look at Auburn's secondary. The pessimist's view notes that the Tigers have to replace their two best playmakers, corner Jonathan Jones and safety Blake Countess. The secondary had 10.5 tackles for loss and 59 passes defensed in 2015, and Jones and Countess combined for four and 24, respectively, nearly half of both totals.

The optimist's view: Countess and Jones are almost the only missing pieces, and Auburn now gets Josh Holsey (2014 starter) back from injury and adds Miami (Ohio) transfer Marshall Taylor for depth. Holsey should be a steadying presence in the back -- which is important, as big-pass prevention was Auburn's greatest strength last year -- and in nickel Johnathan Ford, corner Carlton Davis, and safeties Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin, and Stephen Roberts, Auburn boasts a few other solid pieces.

The Tigers are much deeper at safety than cornerback, but it does appear they're pretty sturdy in the back. If the pass rush goes from horrible to at least mediocre, the pass defense as a whole should crack the top 20 in Passing S&P+.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Kevin Phillips 6'0, 185 Sr. 55 41.0 5 24 16 72.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Daniel Carlson 6'4, 218 Jr. 69 64.0 49 3 71.0%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Daniel Carlson 6'4, 218 Jr. 40-40 15-17 88.2% 8-10 80.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Johnathan Ford KR 6'0, 204 Sr. 15 28.7 0
Kerryon Johnson KR 6'0, 211 So. 14 27.6 0
Marcus Davis PR 5'9, 180 Sr. 15 11.5 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 14
Field Goal Efficiency 13
Punt Return Success Rate 12
Kick Return Success Rate 2
Punt Success Rate 99
Kickoff Success Rate 29

9. Special teams are a weapon

Auburn should absolutely have special teams in its favor again. Daniel Carlson is tremendous in both place-kicking and kickoffs, the return team is awesome, and in theory, if the offense bounces back a bit, that will limit the effect of the Tigers' least efficient area (punting). AU ranked 14th in Special Teams S&P+ last year and returns everybody. Probably not a bad thing.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Clemson 3 -8.2 32%
10-Sep Arkansas State 89 19.6 87%
17-Sep Texas A&M 25 3.5 58%
24-Sep LSU 2 -8.4 31%
1-Oct UL-Monroe 125 32.4 97%
8-Oct at Mississippi State 21 -4.6 40%
22-Oct Arkansas 17 0.8 52%
29-Oct at Ole Miss 7 -9.9 28%
5-Nov Vanderbilt 69 14.2 79%
12-Nov at Georgia 15 -7.1 34%
19-Nov Alabama A&M NR 59.3 100%
26-Nov at Alabama 1 -17.8 15%
Projected wins: 6.5
Five-Year F/+ Rk 19.8% (30)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 4 / 5
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 2 / 2.7
2015 TO Luck/Game -0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 62% (64%, 61%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 6.7 (0.3)

10. This could go in so many different directions

The Tigers have a 79 percent win probability or higher in five games and are below 28 percent in just one (at Alabama).

That leaves four games between 28 and 34 percent and three between 40 and 58. If the Tigers are indeed the 24th-best team in the country, they will labor to find six wins.

But if the offense and defense both bounce back a bit, that could flip some of those 30s and 40s in AU's favor. (And if Auburn again goes 0-fer against top-30 teams, then the team might be home for the holidays.)

Only one game is probably unwinnable, but up to nine or so are losable. That could make for another wild ride, and it could create about three or four plot twists in the "Malzahn's Hot Seat" soap opera.