Bo Nix has played well but there's room for improvement as the Tigers have their eyes on an SEC West title
After an 8-5 (3-5 SEC) season a year ago, it took a lot of time to quiet the "boo-bird" Auburn fans who had rallied against head coach Gus Malzahn entering the 2019 campaign, but an opening 27-21 win over then- No. 11 Oregon in AT&T Stadium went a long way in restoring faith among the loyalists.
The Tigers have been rolling this season with two wins on the road against ranked teams and climbed all the way up to No. 7 in the AP poll. But Auburn suffered its first setback this past Saturday, losing 24-13 to No. 10 Florida in the Swamp. The Tigers head into their bye week at the midpoint of their season 5-1 (2-1) resting up before meeting with three more teams currently ranked in the top 10.
There is no mystery in how Auburn is getting after it this season, relying on a strong running game and a nasty defense. The ground game was producing 251 rushing yards per game before facing the Gators in Gainesville, but still managed 157 yards against the nation's 16th-ranked run defense. The Tigers' run defense has been salty in their own right, holding squads to 95 yards a game while the pass defense has been just as solid (225 ypg). Where Auburn needs a lift is the play in the pocket. With true freshman Bo Nix running the offense, the passing game has been anemic with just 203 yards through the air per contest.
At the midway point of the season, it is time to hand out some awards and time to look ahead to see how the six remaining games on the schedule may shake out.
Offensive MVP: RB JaTarvious Whitlow
Whitlow has easily been Auburn's top performer on offense over the first half of the season. Whitlow is second in the SEC in rushing yards (544) while leading the conference in both carries (110) and rushing scores (7). With teams loading the box daring true freshman quarterback Bo Nix to throw the ball, finding running room has been tough but the sophomore has been a consistent force. Whitlow has a pair of 100-yard games this season (Oregon, Kent State), and also scored three times on just 10 carries (55 yards) against Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, Whitlow suffered a knee injury in Saturday's loss to Florida and is expected to miss four to six weeks after undergoing surgery. In his absence, expect the Tigers to turn to Kam Martin, Shaun Shivers, and DJ Williams to carry the load.
Defensive MVP: DT Derrick Brown
Picking out a defensive MVP for Auburn is not easy, especially with all the future NFL talent on the roster. An argument can be made for safety Jeremiah Dinson and his team-high 43 tackles, but it all starts up front with Brown. Brown sets the tone for the defense as he's collected 17 tackles, four for a loss, three sacks, three pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and a pair of fumble recoveries. Brown has done it all and is a big reason why the Tigers currently rank 40th in the nation in total defense (333.2 ypg) and are tied for 22nd in scoring defense (18.3 ppg).
Best Moment of the First Half: Bo Nix's Game-Winning TD Pass vs. Oregon
Gus Malzahn might not have the title of head coach at this point in the season if it were not for a 26-yard touchdown pass from his true freshman quarterback to wide receiver Seth Williams with nine seconds left in the opener against Oregon in AT&T Stadium. The 27-21 win pushed Auburn from No. 16 in the AP poll into the top 10, where the Tigers stayed until this past Saturday's loss to Florida.
Best Newcomer: QB Bo Nix
Nix is the easy pick here. After all, he has a game-winning touchdown pass, posted 335 passing yards in the big win over Mississippi State, is fifth in the SEC in total passing yards (1,125), and is the future of the program. But another five-star true freshman is making noise and that is linebacker Owen Pappoe. Pappoe deserves a little bit of the spotlight from the other side of the ball, working his way into a role as a starter at outside linebacker. Through six games, he has recorded 17 tackles, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Bo Nix's development
How Nix grows as a passer will determine how far this team goes in 2019. The Florida game has to be a learning tool for the freshman after completing just 41 percent of his passes for 145 yards with three interceptions. The final six games break down in a potential win one, lose one scenario. At some point, Malzahn will have to call upon a quarterback who can consistently move the ball downfield against tough defenses, if one is on the roster, instead of potentially preparing for the future.
2. Fixing the little things
Giving Auburn's struggles throwing the ball, the thought would be the Tigers' ground-oriented attack was eating up clock. That's not necessarily the case, however, as they are a middle-of-the-road offense in that respect, holding onto the ball less than half of the time (29:36), which ranks 76th in the FBS. That means the defense has been on the field longer than the offense. It's not a huge gap necessarily, but if the Tigers can find a way to sustain their drivers that will help keep the defense fresh for the big games coming up.
Auburn also is averaging more than seven penalties per game and currently has a minus-two turnover differential. Cleaning some things up execution-wise and putting more of a focus on ball security will be paramount as giving extra opportunities to the likes of Alabama, Georgia, and LSU will likely lead to losses.
3. Can the defense hold up down the stretch?
As challenging as the first six contests were, three of the next six will be harder on the defense. To date, the best offense Auburn has seen is Oregon's, ranked 40th in yards per game. LSU (second), Alabama (third), and Georgia (11th) have been the three best offenses in the SEC thus far. Even if the defense plays its best, the Tigers will have to find a way to score some points to keep up and also help keep these offenses on the sidelines as long as possible.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 26 at LSU
LSU's offense has been eye-opening this season, leading the nation in scoring at 55 points per game. LSU is a hair better statistically on defense than Auburn but has played just one ranked team so far, then-No. 9 Texas. LSU has been dealing with several key injuries, especially on defense, but could have all of its top players back in time for this battle royal. The Tigers vs. Tigers tussle gets top billing here because it's taking place in Baton Rouge.
2. Nov. 30 Alabama
The last time Auburn faced Alabama when it was not the No. 1 team in the nation was 2015, when the Crimson Tide were ranked second. If all holds true from Week 6, for the fourth consecutive season the Tigers will go into the Iron Bowl against the top-rated team in the country. Alabama's offense is fantastic, especially the passing attack. The defense has dropped into ordinary territory for a Nick Saban team, tied for 35th nationally in total defense, and has yet to face a ranked opponent. This is a winnable game for Auburn in Jordan-Hare Stadium if the defense holds up.
3. Nov. 16 Georgia
Not only can the Bulldogs put points on the board with their running and passing games, but the defense also is nasty, entering this week ranked 12th in the nation in yards and seventh in points allowed per game. Georgia kept Auburn at bay a year ago in Athens winning 27-10. This one could be a thriller.
4. Nov. 2 Ole Miss
The Rebels (3-3, 2-1 SEC) have enough offense to hang with most teams but their defense is a liability. Ole Miss lost 59-31 to Alabama despite putting up 476 yards on offense. Auburn should romp at home.
5. Oct. 19 at Arkansas
The Razorbacks are struggling once again with a 2-3 record thus far, including a road loss to Ole Miss and a discouraging home loss to San Jose State. There is a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to the Razorbacks, as they could potentially be dangerous at home if everything happens to click. But Auburn has a bye to prepare and has too much firepower as long as the Tigers are not caught looking ahead to LSU.
6. Nov. 23 Samford
The Bulldogs are 3-3 this season going against fellow FCS competition. Any Auburn freshmen who are under the four-game limit before using up their redshirt should get plenty of action in this one.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.
(Top photo courtesy of @AuburnFootball)