AUBURN’S DEFENSE PUTS THEM BACK IN CONTENTION
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has been on the hot seat all year, with rumors early on that he might not even survive the season. A win over LSU back on September 24 probably ended that talk and instead got then-LSU coach Les Miles an early pink slip. In the cutthroat world of the SEC, Malzhan’s seat isn’t much cooler, but Auburn has started to make some noise and represents a potential value buy on the college football futures market.
The Tigers are 5-2 and because one of those losses was a non-conference defeat to Clemson, Auburn still controls its destiny to win the SEC West. And given the quality and reputation of this conference, a two-loss team making the College Football Playoff is more than reasonable, particularly because in this case it presumes a head-to-head win over top-ranked Alabama.
Defense has been the key to rescuing Auburn’s season to this point. They rank fourth nationally in points allowed, consistently holding good opponents to point totals well below their season average. And the Tiger D has established a clear pattern of forcing quarterbacks into spotty efficiency. Consider these five games, the toughest Auburn has played in 2016…
Sept 3: vs. Clemson (13-19): Auburn didn’t lose this game because Clemson’s great quarterback DeShaun Watson beat them. Watson was forced into a pedestrian 19/34 for 248 yards and one interception performance. Clemson has gone on to average 36 points per game for the season.
Sept 17: vs. Texas A&M (16-29): It was the loss that really turned up the heat on Malzahn, but there was a silver lining—Trevor Knight was forced into a 20/40 passing game and only produced 247 yards. The Aggies are another offense that averages 36ppg.
Sept 24: vs. LSU (18-13): No one will ever call the LSU offense high-powered, but Auburn’s D still kept them two touchdowns below the season average and did it because Danny Etling only completed 15/27 passes for 118 yards.
Oct 8: at Mississippi State (38-14): Bulldog quarterback Nick Fitzgerald goes 17/34 and a Mississippi State offense that averages 27ppg comes up well short of their norm.
Oct 22: vs. Arkansas (56-3): The ultimate statement came Saturday night in a battle of ranked teams that turned into a Tiger rout. Arkansas came in averaging 31 ppg. The final score shows that Auburn did everything well, but for our purposes here, we’ll note that Austin Allen only completed 17/30 passes for 187 yards.
If defense wins championships—and even in this day of spread offenses and higher-scoring games, it still does—then Auburn presents substantial value at 12-1 to win the SEC West and then 40-1 to win the conference championship. It’s a testament to how much this league is respected that Auburn is also 40-1 to win the national title. The West is clearly the stronger side of the conference and Auburn would be a favorite in a potential SEC Championship Game, so if you’re willing to take the 12-1 price tag on the division, the jump to 40-1 to capture the league overall makes even more sense.
But...there are some cautionary notes that have to be raised. The first is that Auburn’s schedule has been home-heavy. That won’t be the case coming down the stretch when they visit Ole Miss on Saturday, Georgia on November 12 and Alabama on November 26.
Furthermore, if you dig into the results of the Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU games a little deeper, you find that those teams were able to get good performances out of their running backs—Wayne Gallman, Traveyon Williams and Leonard Fournette all went over 100 yards. Auburn’s defense played much more complete games against Mississippi State and Arkansas, but was that due to defensive improvement or easier opposition?
Finally, one thing we do know is that if there’s anyone in the country that can run the football in a conventional way to the backs it’s the Alabama Crimson Tide, who remain quite literally the elephant in the room in any conversation about Auburn’s SEC championship chances.
The good news is that the necessity of Auburn beating Alabama to cash any futures tickets means that those prices aren’t likely to change dramatically, at least in the immediate future. There’s at least time to watch Auburn play Ole Miss. To see how they handle the road. To see the defense match up against another very good offensive team. And ultimately to see if this Tiger team has the 2013 magic in them, or if they’re simply a nice team that will end up in a bowl like the Outback or Music City.