From national title contender to fringe bowl team. That’s a realistic possibility facing Auburn as it enters Week 4. The Tigers are 2-1 and reeling after a loss to LSU last Saturday.
Needless to say, Auburn hasn’t lived up to its preseason hype and doesn’t look anything like a team pegged by the SEC media as the favorite to win the West Division.
Even though the Tigers are just three games into 2015, coach Gus Malzahn is attempting to hit the reset button. Jeremy Johnson was considered one of the top rising stars in college football prior to this season, but the junior was benched on Tuesday in favor of redshirt freshman Sean White.
Related: 10 Stats to Know From Week 3
What happened to Johnson? A variety of factors are likely to blame. Was there too much pressure placed on the junior’s shoulders? It certainly seems that way. Additionally, the Tigers lost starting center Reese Dismukes, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates to the NFL, leaving three voids on offense this season. Johnson also seemed to have trouble reading defenses through the first three games. That’s a huge problem for any quarterback. Perhaps there was a lack of confidence after the early struggles?
Through three games, Auburn’s offense hasn’t been explosive or as productive as the previous versions under Malzahn.
Here’s some key numbers to know from the Tigers’ offense so far:
26.3 (10th in SEC)
329.3 (13th in SEC)
Yards Per Play
5.3 (13th in SEC)
Plays of 30+ Yards
3 (12th in SEC)
Plays of 40+ Yards
2 (T-9th in SEC)
Passing Plays of 20+
4 (13th in SEC)
Passing Plays of 30+
2 (13th in SEC)
Passing Plays of 40+
1 (10th in SEC)
Rushing Plays of 20+
2 (T-12th in SEC)
Rushing Plays of 30+
1 (T-10th in SEC)
After looking at this table, one thing is very clear: Auburn wasn’t producing big plays and was near the bottom of the SEC in scoring offense. Additionally, the offensive line has already allowed five sacks after giving up 15 in 2014.
And looking at Johnson specifically, he had just two passes of 30 yards or more and only one of 40 yards or longer. His two passes of 30 yards or more ranked ninth in the SEC.
But the problems for Auburn aren’t related strictly to the offense. New coordinator Will Muschamp was supposed to fix a defense that ranked ninth in the SEC in points allowed in 2013 and 10th in 2014.
However, the defense is giving up 29.7 points per game, 5.7 yards per play and is tied for ninth in the SEC with 13 plays of 20 yards or more allowed.
An injury to end Carl Lawson has impacted the performance of the defensive line. Auburn ranks last in the SEC in rush defense (270 yards per game), and this unit did not record a sack against LSU and picked up just one tackle for a loss.
Turnovers are also to blame for Auburn’s early struggles. The Tigers have a minus-five margin, with eight lost turnovers through three games.
Taking better care of the ball has to be a priority for White in his first start against Mississippi State this Saturday.
Where Does Auburn Go From Here?
Barring chaos in the rest of the college football world and an impressive run through the rest of its schedule, Auburn is not going to be a factor for one of the top bowl games at the end of the year. Contests against San Jose State and Idaho should be easy wins, but there’s still seven SEC matchups remaining on the schedule, including a crossover game against Georgia and road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M. White has to stabilize the quarterback spot and play mistake-free ball for the Tigers to take a step forward on offense over the next few weeks. On defense, getting Lawson at full strength and back on the field would help, but Auburn also has to do a better job against the run.
Until there’s more tape on White in SEC games, it’s hard to set a reasonable expectation for this team. However, considering the debacle at LSU and the sluggish performance against Jacksonville State, getting to 8-4 and .500 in the SEC would be a good start.