JaTarvious Whitlow has emerged as the Tigers' leading rusher as a redshirt freshman
After winning the SEC West title due to a tie-breaker over Alabama in 2017, the Auburn Tigers have earned the distinction of college football’s mystery wrapped in a riddle in 2018. Loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, 13 total starters back, and a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate in junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the War Eagles slide into the halfway point of their season at 4-2, 1-2 in the SEC, with a freefall from a preseason No. 9 ranking to No. 21. With very tough conference games left on the schedule, Auburn looks to regroup hoping for a strong finish.
From spring practices and through fall camp, two of the big questions about Auburn’s 2018 team were the offensive line and the running backs. Dynamic backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway both entered the NFL draft early, leaving a gaping hole of offensive production. In addition to the tailbacks, the offensive line lost Darius James, Austin Golson and Braden Smith, a deficit Auburn has struggled to mask through the first six games. The run game has fallen off dramatically from 218 yards per game to 164, which is showing wear and tear in the passing game.
Statistically, the defense is on par with a year ago, allowing just five more yards per game on average (324) and ranked No. 20 in the nation among FBS programs. In frustrating losses to LSU and Mississippi State, the offense turned the ball over twice in each contest, putting the War Eagles defense in difficult positions. If the defense is to be lauded for anything, it is doing a better job of keeping the opposition off the board, dropping the scoring average from 19 last year to 14 points per game this year.
With a half season left to be played, it is time to award some midseason MVP honors with a breakdown of Auburn’s toughest games on the schedule.
Offensive MVP: RB JaTarvious Whitlow
Of all the high-profile recruits Auburn pulls in year after year, few would have guessed that three-star Class of 2017 running back would be the savior of the offense this season. After a redshirt season in 2017, Whitlow has surpassed Kam Martin as the go-to tailback, rushing for 414 yards off 69 attempts with four scores on the ground.
Defensive MVP: LB Deshaun Davis
After leading Auburn with 82 tackles during his junior year, Davis is once again ruling the line of scrimmage with team-highs in stops (53) and tackles for a loss (7.5). Davis is among the most active in the SEC in tackles tied with LSU linebacker Devin White for second behind Arkansas’ De’Jon Harris.
Best Moment: JaTarvious Whitlow’s TD vs. Washington
Auburn earned a 21-16 statement win in the season opener against No. 16 Washington but not without some suspense. Early in the fourth quarter, the Huskies pulled ahead 16-15 on a Peyton Henry 30-yard field goal. With 6:15 left to play in the game, Auburn put together a 10-play, 76-yard drive, ending with a 10-yard Whitlow touchdown run on 3rd-and-7 for the winning score.
Best Newcomer: DB Noah Igbinoghene
Although a contributor to Auburn’s offense and special teams as a true freshman last season, Igbinoghene is now applying his athleticism as a newcomer on defense. On a roster lined with upperclassmen, Igbinoghene is making a name for himself coming up with 23 tackles, 16 solo, 1.5 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and four passes broken up while playing in all six games. He also leads the team with 141 kick return yards off three attempts with a 96-yard score.
For a true freshman making an impact, take a look at speedy receiver Anthony Schwartz. Schwartz is third on the team in receptions (8), receiving yards (163), and is in a five-way tie for most receiving touchdowns with one.
Biggest Surprise: QB Jarret Stidham
After showing signs of improvement throughout his sophomore season, big expectations were laid upon Stidham's right arm entering the 2018 campaign, and those expectations have not been met yet. Stidham has dropped from completing 67 percent of his passes to 60 and is on pace to finish with 2,550 passing yards through a 13-game season, far below his 3,158 yards last season.
The big-game ability is there for Stidham; he connected on 26-of-36 passes for 273 yards with a touchdown against Washington. But in losses to LSU and Mississippi State, Stidham underperformed.
Three Things to Watch in Second Half
1. Needed improvement on the offensive line
Everyone knew that replacing three seniors on the offensive line would be difficult, but the drop off in production has been dramatic. If one goes by season stats only, Auburn is hanging in there with the run game averaging 164 yards per game, but that is an illusion. In Week 2, the War Eagles compiled 429 rushing yards against Alabama State. Take that game out, the ground game is averaging just 111 yards per game. To clarify, that is a difference of 107 yards per game on the ground.
Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes has his work cut out against stout defenses in Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia left on the schedule.
2. Increased production in the passing attack
Before the season began, if forced to guess which SEC teams would statistically have a better passing attack than Auburn at the midpoint of the schedule, few would have guessed LSU and Arkansas; yet here we are. There are match-up nightmares at the skill positions for opposing defenses with Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton and the emerging Anthony Schwartz, yet something is not clicking with the play calling matching the talent on the field.
Between co-offensive coordinators Kodi Burns and Chip Lindsay something needs to change — and quickly before it is too late.
3. Managing physical and mental fatigue
Losses to LSU and Mississippi State are upsetting for Auburn fans, but from a broad college football landscape look, those are two talented teams. Still, the schedule arguably gets tougher down the backstretch with road games to Georgia and Alabama and a visit from an improving Texas A&M team.
If the offense continues to stall without a running game and Stidham cannot carry the team with his arm, how long before the players start looking ahead to next season? How can head coach Gus Malzahn and staff continue to motivate the team when seemingly already out of the hunt for a SEC West title?
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 24 at Alabama
Auburn shocked the nation last season, winning the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium 26-14. Even then the Crimson Tide seemed unbeatable and they look that way again this season. Alabama’s defense is not as strong as last year, but Auburn’s offense is not at the level to take advantage of it right now.
2. Nov. 10 at Georgia
The good news for Auburn fans, players and coaching staff alike, Georgia is about to be put to the test. After only facing one ranked team through their first six games, then-No. 24 South Carolina, consecutive games against LSU, Florida and Kentucky should wear them out and expose weaknesses.
3. Nov. 3 Texas A&M
At 4-2, 2-1, the Aggies may not seem like world beaters, but their two losses have come at the hands of the No. 1 and then- No. 2 ranked teams in the nation, Alabama and Clemson respectively. The Aggies have close wins over Arkansas (24-17) and Kentucky (20-14 OT) and go on a football quest of their own with a three-game road trip that starts in South Carolina, followed by Mississippi State, and ends in Jordan-Hare. Watch out, this defense is improving.
4. Oct. 20 at Ole Miss
Even though Ole Miss is 4-2, 0-2, with losses to Alabama and LSU, the Rebels have the feel of underperforming this season, especially on offense in big games. Senior quarterback Jordan Ta’amu still helms one of the nation’s best aerial attacks, fifth in the FBS at 348 passing yards per game. But, this offense can stall out against teams that bring the defensive pressure.
5. Oct. 13 Tennessee
The Volunteers are in rebuilding mode under first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt. The defense has played tough this year especially against the likes of West Virginia, Florida and Georgia. Statistically, Tennessee is one of the worst offenses in the nation averaging 360 yards per game, or a feast for Auburn’s defense at home.
No. 6 Nov. 17 Liberty
A needed break after a road trip to Georgia and before facing Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Flames are 2-3 this season with losses to Army (38-14), North Texas (47-7), and New Mexico State (49-41), as they are making the transition to the FBS ranks.
— 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.