Auburn football mailbag: Are Tigers for real or products of poor opponents?

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s time for this week’s SEC Country Auburn football mailbag, where the tone is cautious optimism ahead of the Tigers’ trip to LSU — where they haven’t won in 18 years.

The questions this week focus on the odd challenge of facing this year’s LSU team, a barometer on just how good Auburn actually is at the halfway point, and the improvements that still need to be made on an impressive offense. There’s also a question concerning one of the best hypotheticals in modern Auburn football alternate history.

Thanks to all who sent in questions this week @JFergusonAU and through Facebook. Let’s get to it.

SOUND OFF:  Will Auburn’s offense stay hot at LSU in Week 7?

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is in the midst of an impressive 3-0 start to SEC play. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Gaston van Wiltenburg: How good is Auburn? Have the past few weeks simply been a product of playing the bottom feeders of a top-heavy conference, or is this team actually for real?

(You never know what kind of names pop up in these messages.)

Looking at the rest of college football, I think Auburn is in a great spot. It’s definitely a top-10 team. Yes, the last three wins have come against bad SEC teams. But there’s a huge gulf right now between the best in college football and the rest of the pack. There doesn’t seem to be a good middle tier of ranked teams, especially in the SEC.

And I’m not completely sold on a couple of the undefeated teams ahead of Auburn. If Georgia and Auburn flip road games in Week 2, the Tigers are the ones with a top-five ranking right now. Teams we thought were surefire contenders such as Oklahoma, Michigan and Oklahoma State have taken uglier losses than a 8-point one against Clemson.

Auburn has a legitimate top-1o defense and an offense that has been humming with balance over the last few weeks while others have stumbled. Yes, the competition has been bad, but it hasn’t lost to a team it wasn’t supposed to lose to yet this season.

I think the LSU game is the next road marker in how “for real” this team is. If it can take care of business and win by double-digits in a place it hasn’t won since 1999, that’s an even better sign for the future. Auburn won’t get tested by a fellow contender until Georgia on Nov. 11, but that shouldn’t discount the level it’s been playing at — and could continue to play at. This Auburn team is right where I expected it to be as a fringe contender for an SEC/playoff run.

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Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson was the difference in a weird LSU win last season. What’s in store for the rematch? (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

@DanInNC_Ohrly21: Seems like LSU is a weird team this year. How concerned should fans be with this LSU team on a scale 1-10 10=Panic 1=Send in the scout team?

What’s a 5 in your scale, Dan? Because that’s where I’m landing on with this matchup between Auburn and LSU. Auburn should win, but it won’t be a walk in the park.

Look, LSU clearly has a lot of top-level talent, because it’s recruited so well in recent seasons. Derrius Guice is a danger man when he has the right blocking. However, LSU just isn’t deep, especially in the trenches. It’s had a lot of turnover there due to transfers, dismissals and injuries. The Bayou Bengals are getting healthier up front, but the quality is still not what we’re used to seeing.

If Auburn plays up to its potential, it can beat LSU rather comfortably. A lot of that will hinge on whether Auburn can get off to another fast start offensively. LSU’s best shot at this game is to drag Auburn down into an ugly, defensive matchup and rally around its home-field advantage late.

I see Auburn winning this by 10 or 14 points, but I’m not confident in saying it’s more than that. LSU will put up a lot of fight, but this Auburn team is built to attack LSU’s biggest weakness (run defense). I think Auburn’s greater depth and momentum from recent weeks will be the difference.

@elcarg: Is Stidham going to make the needed leap to handling the rush calmly and not take the sack or turn it over?

Jarrett Stidham has done a much better job looking comfortable in the pocket. He’s trusted his protection more, and he’s got the awareness and mobility to keep plays alive. Stidham did that several times against Ole Miss and converted third downs. That’s going to be huge against LSU’s pass rush, led by Arden Key, this weekend.

Stidham can stand to improve in the area of throwing the ball away and not trying to keep the play alive too long. He’s taken a couple of sacks in recent weeks where the best option would be to chuck it to the sidelines. That will come with more experience.

However, it’s safe to say Stidham is improving in this area. His line has gotten better in front of him, and the LSU game will be a good test of just how far he’s come against legitimate pass rushes. It’s not a “leap” yet, but let’s call it an encouraging hop.

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Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has gotten his quarterback room to produce over the last few weeks. (Benjamin Wolk/SEC Country)

@cpennewill: Does Chip not like the up-tempo style offense? Seems that was the hallmark of our offense.

Alright, let’s run some numbers here. The best way to measure offensive pace using stats is average time between plays — that is, total time of possession divided by number of plays run. This is how that looks so far in the Gus Malzahn era:

2013 425:14 1,014 25.2 seconds
2014 388:25 939 24.8 seconds
2015 368:43 892 24.8 seconds
2016 379:21 934 24.4 seconds
2017 182:57 (6 games) 427 25.7 seconds

So while it may seem like Auburn isn’t going as quickly as it used to, the difference between this year’s team and others under Malzahn is thin — 1.3 between 2016 and 2017 being the biggest gap. Auburn is only a half-second slower this season than it was in 2013.

For comparison, according to Football Study Hall, 1.3 seconds was the difference between the 10th-fastest (Oregon) and 17th-fastest (Clemson) last season. Those are two of the most well-known no-huddle offenses in college football.

One of the aspects of Lindsey’s offense that stood out to me in the first half of the season was how the Tigers immediately went tempo after a big play. That’s been a hallmark of this attack, no matter if the huge yards came through the air or on the ground.

I think Auburn might be slightly more prone to changing up personnel packages after minimal gains this season than it was last season. Lindsey likes to keep defenses on its toes, and part of that comes with rotating different sets. But when Auburn is moving the ball effectively this season, it’s still up-tempo.

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Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is coming off a career game in his second shot at LSU. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

@_RCB3: How many 14-play drives will AU give Kerryon 11 touches on this Saturday?

While the premise is a little tongue-in-cheek, I know Auburn fans are worried about this, so I did some math.

Since Kerryon Johnson’s return, Auburn has had only three non-garbage time drives of 10-plus plays, and all three of them came against Ole Miss. It had three of them against Mercer as well, with Kamryn Pettway running the ball. Here’s how their carries broke down in those possessions:

  • 10 plays vs. Mercer: 5 carries for Pettway
  • 10 plays vs. Mercer: 5 carries for Pettway
  • 13 plays vs. Mercer: 5 carries for Pettway
  • 10 plays vs. Ole Miss: 6 carries for Johnson
  • 14 plays vs. Ole Miss: 10 carries for Johnson
  • 10 plays vs. Ole Miss: 3 carries for Kam Martin, 2 for Malik Miller

So Auburn has only had one of those types of drives all season. It leaned a little more to the run against Ole Miss, and it probably will do the same against LSU. That defense hasn’t been great in defending on the ground. LSU also has done a good job of preventing long plays — it ranks No. 2 nationally in fewest plays allowed of 30-plus yards.

I think Auburn is going to have some long, grind-it-out types of drives against LSU this weekend. I don’t think Johnson will carry the ball that many times, because Auburn’s improved passing game and rushing threat of players such as Martin, Miller, Devan Barrett and even Eli Stove will be there.

That scenario might happen in the second half if Auburn is trying to melt some clock with a decent lead. But I’ll say the Tigers are going to be smart with their No. 1 back in Death Valley.

Frank Munford Jr.: Could not allowing Malik Willis to pass the ball in backup duty come back to hurt Auburn like in previous years with backups?

Great question. Malik Willis has mostly played in run-out-the-clock situations this season, so he hasn’t had many opportunities to throw the ball. (Keep in mind that he had a touchdown pass on a run-pass option called back against Missouri.)

In those situations, Auburn isn’t going to pass the ball. Willis is there to get snaps, chew the clock and get everybody out healthy. But if something happened to Jarrett Stidham, Auburn would rather have Willis get in-game reps throwing the ball.

I think the Tigers could stand to let Willis run the full offense late in games, even if it means he comes in with slightly slimmer leads. Some work throwing in certain packages with the first-team offense couldn’t hurt, either. As long as it doesn’t hurt the rhythm of the offense, I think it’s worth getting Willis some passing opportunities.

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Auburn wide receiver Will Hastings leads the team with 270 yards through six games. (Dakota Sumpter/Auburn Athletics)

@Timothy_Mathis: Which Auburn WR has the best shot at being a good NFL receiver?

The first name that popped into my head was Nate Craig-Myers. I think he has the best blend of size, speed and catch radius. He also works hard as a blocker, which will only help him out at the next level.

Craig-Myers hasn’t had as many chances as his teammates to make the big play, but his skill set is massive. If NFL franchises are looking for prototype receivers from this Auburn roster, Craig-Myers stands out the most. He just needs more experience in the offense after an injury-filled freshman season.

I’ll also throw in a note here about Will Hastings. No, I’m not going to make the typical “future Patriots receiver” joke, but Hastings would test out extremely well at a combine with his speed and agility. Plenty of NFL teams have a player like him on their rosters — undersized, but virtually impossible to cover in small spaces. If guys like that can get chances out of small schools, Hastings could do the same from a big-time program.

@grahamcarr2: Cam comes back for his senior year. What is Auburn’s record in 2011? And if the 2011 team repeated as champ, does the 2012 debacle happen?

As deadly as a second season of Cam Newton in college football sounds, I hesitate to say Auburn repeats as national champion in 2011. Newton had the greatest single season in college football history. He’s one of the most gifted athletes to ever play the game.

However, if he came back in 2011, he wouldn’t be playing on the same Auburn team that won it all. That roster lost three of its top five receivers from 2010, all but one starting offensive lineman, and six defensive starters — including Nick Fairley, Josh Bynes and Zach Etheridge.

Also, keep in mind that half of Auburn’s 14 wins in 2010 came by a single possession. Do they play at that same level with all that missing talent in 2011, even with a more experienced Newton? Between that and the fact it’s so hard to repeat as champion in any sport, I’d lean toward the under here.

But what would the 2011 season look like? I say Auburn flips a couple of those losses from 2011 thanks to Newton, but it probably doesn’t knock off either LSU or Alabama, who both had unreal defenses en route to the national championship game. Auburn wins 10 games that year and makes it to a great bowl game.

The positive momentum from playing with Newton in a better-looking 2011 season probably helps Auburn even more in 2012. I don’t think Auburn is a great team in 2012 by any stretch, but I’ll say it isn’t 3-9 bad.

The post Auburn football mailbag: Are Tigers for real or products of poor opponents? appeared first on SEC Country.

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