The preseason hype regarding Auburn as a dark horse challenger in the SEC West is starting to come to fruition. The Tigers are 5-1 overall and 3-0 in SEC play, but have a tough schedule to navigate the rest of the way.
The good news for the War Eagle faithful is that Auburn has one of the nation’s best defenses and an offense that can both ground and pound as well as exploit the opposition with an effective aerial assault.
The Tigers have already surpassed some of the expectations placed on them entering this season. Outside of a 14-6 Week 2 loss at Clemson, Auburn has crushed its opponents to the tune an average of 32 points in conference wins over Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss.
The defense is nasty and the offense is improving week by week. As the competition level rises starting now through the Iron Bowl, the challenge for head coach Gus Malzahn is to keep his team sharp on both sides of the ball. One slip up in the SEC is all that’s needed to take the Tigers from contenders to pretenders.
Offensive MVP: QB Jarrett Stidham
Perhaps the toughest call to make is picking Auburn’s first half offensive MVP, but the honors go to Stidham. The junior college transfer by way of Baylor won the starting job under intense pressure and after a slow start, the sophomore has steadily improved. Stidham leads the SEC with a QB rating of 166.2 and also is tops in completion rate (71.2). He has just seven touchdown passes (and two interceptions) and has already been sacked 18 times, but is looking more and more comfortable in this offense every week.
Defensive MVP: LB Tre’ Williams
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele deserves credit for what he has done with his unit entering his second season and one of his standout pupils has been Williams. When healthy, Williams has been a beast in the middle. Despite missing two games, he is tied with Deshaun Davis for the team lead in total tackles (29). The play of junior end Jeff Holland and junior corner Carlton Davis deserves to be recognized as well. Holland has a team-high six tackles for a loss and four sacks with 10 quarterback hurries while Davis has 16 tackles, a pick, and eight passes defended.
Best Moment of the First Half: Kerryon Johnson’s big game against Ole Miss
Johnson was unstoppable against the Rebels last week, going for a career-high 204 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. After missing some time and being limited because of a hamstring issue, the junior could give Auburn’s offense a big boost as the Tigers enter the heart of their SEC schedule. For the season, Johnson currently has 504 yards on 85 carries and a FBS-leading 12 rushing touchdowns. And this is despite missing both the Clemson and Mercer games.
Best Newcomer: DB Jordyn Peters/DL Markaviest “Big Kat” Bryant
Stidham would make perfect sense here too, but in the interest of spreading the wealth, the nod goes to a pair of young defenders. Both a part of the 2017 recruiting class, Peters (9 tackles, TFL, pass breakup) has made his mark in the secondary while Bryant (four tackles, 1.5 TFL, sack) has made his presence felt up front.
Biggest Surprise: DE Derrick Brown
Somewhat unheralded entering the season, the sophomore has been one of Auburn’s most productive players. He has already recorded 21 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can the entire offense come together?
As imposing as Auburn’s offense has been, one has to wonder what the Tigers may have been able to do if running back Kerryon Jonson was healthy against Clemson. And who would have thought that Kamryn Pettway would only have 61 carries for 208 yards at the halfway point? Injuries have limited Pettway to just two full games – Clemson and Mercer. If Jarrett Stidham can continue his upward trend and Johnson and Pettway can stay healthy, this offense could give any team left on the schedule fits. All cylinders will need to be firing for Georgia and Alabama if a SEC Championship Game berth is desired.
2. How will the defense hold up against the SEC’s top teams?
Until Auburn loses a game, or until the Tigers play Georgia on Nov. 11, Clemson will be the measuring stick for this defense’s potential. The Tigers from the ACC are tied for 25th in the FBS for total offense (471.0 yards per game). Auburn held the defending national champions to 281 yards on their home turf. The only offense left on the schedule that is better statistically than Clemson is Alabama (483.0 ypg, 19th).
3. Shoring up weaknesses
While it’s tough to find holes on this Auburn team, two areas that need to be improved upon are time of possession and red zone defense. Outside of Clemson, one can argue that Auburn hasn’t played that tough of a schedule yet the Tigers hold just a slight edge in time of possession – 30:30 vs. 29:30. Putting together longer, sustained drives should not only result in more scoring opportunities but also help keep the defense fresh.
Likewise, the defense needs to do a better of job when an opponent reaches the red zone. While Auburn has limited teams to just 12 such trips, they have been able to cash in on them 10 times (83.3 percent). The Tigers have limited the damage somewhat (7 TDs, 3 FGs) but this may become more of a concern with the level of competition set to increase.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 25 Alabama
Alabama is once again Alabama. The toughest game for the Crimson Tide to start the season turned into a comfortable 24-7 win against then- No. 3 Florida State. Getting yards against Alabama is always tough, as the Tide are holding teams to 259 yards and only 10 points per game. If both teams are healthy, this is shaping up to be another classic Iron Bowl with a potential SEC West title (and much more) on the line.
2. Nov. 11 Georgia
The Bulldogs, at 6-0, are getting a lot of love, but it’s tough to tell just how good they are yet. The big wins have come against Notre Dame (20-19), Mississippi State (31-3), and Tennessee (41-0) but is that a reflection of Georgia or its competition? The defense is nasty and the ground game is very good. The quarterback position – and whether it’s true freshman Jake Fromm or sophomore Jacob Eason at the helm – could swing the Bulldogs’ season one way or the other.
3. Nov. 4 at Texas A&M
The Aggies’ offense, statistically speaking, is merely a middle-of-the-road unit, at least for now. With true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond running the show, A&M started off the season slow on offense, but has shown signs of improvement. By November, Kevin Sumlin’s team could be clicking on all cylinders or primed for another late-season collapse. Running backs Keith Ford and Trayveon Williams should be able to keep the Aggies in every game.
4. Oct. 14 at LSU
Two things that make this game dangerous – LSU is coming off a big road win over Florida and Auburn has to come to Baton Rouge to play in Death Valley. If the visiting Tigers can put some points on the board early, the home Tigers may have a hard time answering. But LSU’s defense should never be overlooked, even with Auburn entering this game on a roll.
5. Oct. 21 at Arkansas
The Razorbacks are still looking for their identity on offense and will have just faced Alabama in Tuscaloosa. If the Hogs have any gas left in the tank, they will do their best to at least try and prevent the Tigers from running all over them (SEC-record 543 rushing yards allowed last season) again.
6. Nov. 18 ULM
The Warhawks (3-2) are currently leading the Sun Belt with a 3-0 record, but these wins have come against teams (Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Texas State) that are a collective 4-12. This is the game before the Iron Bowl but all that means is that Gus Malzahn may turn it over to his second string a little earlier than usual.
— 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.