1. So. $30 million. Obviously Gus is on the hot seat, but is he really? Is Auburn really prepared to bite that bullet? What has made the change so drastic in fan sentiment since last season’s huge extension?
First of all, this is the third time that Gus Malzahn has taken a preseason top-10 team that should be very good and taken it into bust territory. We’ll be lucky to finish with less than five losses and that’s not the kind of performance that $7M every year buys. It’s really complicated, and there are a bunch of different variables that go into this, but I’ll try to lay it out fairly succinctly.
The contract apparently wasn’t drawn by our last AD, Jay Jacobs, who was already on his way out of office. It wasn’t drawn by our new AD, Allen Greene, either, since he was just on his way in. The conventional wisdom is that the new president Steven Leath had a ton to do with it, and there were concerns with his hiring in the first place.
So, from the top, the deal was done by people that didn’t understand Auburn’s intricacies and may not have had the best interests in mind. There are plenty of people that could scrape together the millions of dollars it would take for the buyout, and the biggest hesitation (at least in my mind) is the public perception, where people will start to list out all of the things that could have been done with that money instead.
On the field, the wild inconsistency is pretty evident, and recency bias is a huge thing. Gus may have set the bar high with the 2013 season, but we had the same team in 2014 and went 8-5. We had a top ten team to start 2015, and guess what? Birmingham Bowl. 2016 he won the death-match with Les Miles early on, and Les got fired. Last year, there were plenty of people who dropped support after the collapse in Baton Rouge and only got back on board when he beat Georgia and Alabama. Gus has never had a long leash of support, and there were plenty of fans who thought that if Arkansas wanted to pony up fifty million dollars, then we should’ve let him go.
When you see the monster that continues to grow across the state, and things aren’t getting any better here even with returning starters all over the field, it makes a lot of people hit the panic button. It’s tough, and I don’t personally think we should get rid of Gus yet (barring complete meltdown and losing the locker room), because who else are we going to hire? There are no sure candidates out there. It would set the program back if we got rid of him.
2. Jarrett Stidham was a quarterback to be feared entering the year. What happened? Is he just playing poorly? Does he have no support? Is he being asked to do very different things?
It’s a process to get where he is now. It starts with a new offensive line that’s actually regressed over the course of the season. Stidham has been pressured plenty in each game, and in the LSU game, he really had trouble looking downfield because there were guys in his face all game long. We saw the skittish nature that emerged last year in the Clemson game (11 sacks).
So, offensive line is bad. He starts seeing pressure when it’s not there. He starts anticipating pressure when it’s not there. That means he’ll roll left INTO pressure. He’s creating it on his own. He never was great with protecting the ball, and we’ve seen a couple fumbles this year. Against Tennessee he had two really bad interceptions that ended promising drives. With the receivers he’s got, he should be slinging the ball all over the place, but it hasn’t happened.
The run game is nonexistent, and it feels like Gus keeps trying to make it happen when it’s definitely not a thing. It’s not going to happen. Plus, Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis haven’t been exactly the most reliable receivers after great 2017 seasons.
3. Defense, on the other hand, hasn’t been too big of a problem (other than maybe the past two weeks). What style does Auburn employ on defense? Are you blitzing a lot? Dropping a lot into coverage? Who is a key cog that makes things work?
The defense was playing like the best group in the country up until the Mississippi State game. Kevin Steele got out-schemed and MSU ran nothing but power run and dominated. That should’ve been our bread and butter on defense.
Then last weekend, Tennessee threw up the jump balls to big receivers against young DBs. It worked. Washington had success doing the same, but we’d fixed it for the most part.
Auburn’s defense doesn’t bring a ton of pressure (we’re counting on the front four to get it for us, and they haven’t done it with great success), and it’s burned us when the DBs have to cover as long as they’ve had to. When things are working, it’s Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson crashing the ends and getting into the quarterback’s face, while Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell clog the middle. Deshaun Davis is a very good linebacker in the middle, and he’s the leader of our defense, but he’s been banged up the past couple of weeks.
In short, if the line plays well, the defense plays well.
4. Freshman tailback JaTarvious Whitlow started the year with a bang, compiling over 200 yards against Alabama State and LSU. Then his usage dropped. What gives? What does Whitlow do well? Where does he struggle?
The man’s name isn’t JaTarvious ... it’s Boobee. He was turning into our feature back after a good spring game and the winning touchdown against Washington, but in the Southern Miss game he hurt his shoulder. Then he hurt himself again last week. He’s a guy that bounces around well and has enough (not elite) speed to where he won’t be caught in the open field.
It’s honestly difficult to see where a lot of the backs struggle since the run blocking by the offensive line has been poor at best. It’s also tough to see what they’re successful at. Boobee may not even play this week, and we’ll be going with Malik Miller (not fleet of foot), or Kam Martin (just not great right now) to shoulder the load in the run game. It’s my hope that we won’t have to do that ...
5. What’s your prediction on the game? Give a score and how it gets there.
... and that we just go with the air raid.
This is going to be a strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness type of game. Auburn’s good defense against Ole Miss’ good offense, we’ll have to see who wins more battles.
On the other side, it could be even more important. Auburn’s struggling offense against Ole Miss’ struggling defense. I’m going to say that Auburn gets it done on the road, but it’s going to be tight. We’re going to see more passing from the Tigers (we had 45 attempts last week -- most in a while), and Stidham finally connects with his guys downfield. I think the defense plucks a couple turnovers, and Auburn holds on for a win that turns the heat down on Gus just a little bit. Tigers 38, Rebels 34.