Auburn began the 2017 season ranked number 12 in the AP poll and in an interesting position. With new quarterback Jarrett Stidham leading the way, the Tigers have been picked by some as the main challenger to Alabama in the SEC, but some are limiting the amount of preseason hype surrounding the team given the team’s failure to reach double digit wins in each of the last three seasons.
Heading into Saturday’s season opener against Georgia Southern, coach Gus Malzahn praised the Eagles’ option attack as an offense that could give the Tigers fits. But the Tiger defense was dominant from the opening snap, as Auburn rolled to a 41-7 victory at Jordan Hare Stadium.
The Tigers played well enough to beat Georgia Southern, a team they should never lose to, especially at home, but they will need a much better effort next week if they hope to upset defending champion Clemson in Death Valley.
Let’s hand out some grades for what was a decent season-opening win for the Tigers:
Not much to complain about from the coaching staff in this one. Georgia Southern tried everything on offense in this one, as their option attack threw lots of different looks at the Auburn defense. But defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s defensive gameplan was a masterpiece. Steele wasn’t afraid to send pressure and it paid off, as the Tigers recorded five sacks and 12 tackles for loss.
Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey was not afraid to mix things up in his first game calling plays for Auburn. He used Stidham’s athleticism to his advantage, allowing the sophomore quarterback to get outside the pocket and make plays with his legs. Lindsey kept things simple for Stidham, sometimes isolating one side of the field with a rollout play and giving his quarterback a simple progression. He also used the wildcat formation, sometimes lining up the running back by himself in the backfield and snapping it directly to him.
I give Stidham a bit of a break here, as it was his first game in nearly two years, but he will need to be better if the Tigers hope to compete with the Alabamas and the Clemsons of the world. Overall, his numbers weren’t too bad—14/24, 1 TD, 1 INT—especially considering the long layoff. The interception was a bad read, Will Hastings was covered the whole way, and it looked like Stidham never saw the defender as he undercut the route for the easy pick. Stidham’s athleticism was on full display throughout. He consistently got out of the pocket and bought himself time to throw, and his accuracy on the run were impressive. He also added 29 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Stidham certainly showed flashes of brilliance, and Malzahn was adamant that he thought his quarterback would be outstanding down the road. I don’t disagree, but Stidham will need to improve quickly if the Tigers are to stand any chance against Clemson.
Running Backs: A+
With starting running back Kamryn Pettway suspended for Saturday’s game, most were unsure of how well the Tigers would be able to run the ball. Johnson averaged 8.5 yards per carry and was not afraid to run between the tackles. He also showed his speed late in the first quarter when he took a sweep play 60 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Johnson appeared headed for another touchdown run when he pulled up and went down with a leg injury in the second quarter. He finished with 139 yards on 16 carries. After Johnson went down, leaving the Tigers without their top two backs, they needed Martin to step up and help preserve the lead down the stretch. Martin certainly answered the bell, putting up 139 yards and a touchdown. Despite his smaller size at just 182 pounds, Martin also showed a willingness to run between the tackles. His breakaway speed was impressive on his 36-yard touchdown run, as he raced around the outside untouched.
In all, Auburn rushed for 351 yards in all, well above last season’s average of 271. The strong rushing attack was an encouraging sign for the Tigers, who will need a similar performance on the ground if they hope to beat Clemson next week.
Wide Receivers: C
This was an up and down game for the receivers. The game began with a few quick completions to help Stidham get into rhythm and slowly opened up as the game went on. Darius Slayton had three receptions for 45 yards, but dropped what would’ve been a touchdown on a perfect pass from Stidham on the second possession of the game. He also lost a fumble late in the first half on what would’ve been a first down catch. It was a bit of a rough night for Slayton, but he did make one of the most underrated plays of the game with an excellent edge sealing block on Ryan Davis’ touchdown catch. Ryan Davis caught two passes for 23 yards and a touchdown. The touchdown came on a perfect pitch and catch on a crossing route and Davis put his determination on display as he dove inside the pylon. But at least for one game, it’s clear that Will Hastings is Stidham’s favorite target. Hastings, who recently was awarded a scholarship, had four receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown on the night. He ran a perfect corner route early in the fourth quarter and caught what was Stidham’s best pass for the night for his first touchdown of the season.
It was a decent night for the wide receivers, but the drops and turnovers need to be cleaned up for next week.
Offensive Line: A-
The offensive line did a good job protecting Stidham, the three sacks were due in large part to Stidham’s hesitancy to get rid of the football. Where they excelled however was in the run game. The backs did a great job Saturday night, but you don’t rack up 351 rushing yards without some help from the big guys up front.
Defensive Line/Linebackers: A+
This was the unit that stood out for the Tigers on Saturday. Georgia Southern presented them with lots of different formations and different ball carriers, but the Auburn front seven was dominant throughout. Tre Williams led the way with ten tackles and two sacks, Jeff Holland added five tackles, a sack, and two tackles for loss, and Marlon Davidson had four tackles and two sacks. Clemson is considered to have one of the best front sevens in the country, but if Auburn can play the way they did Saturday night, Kelly Bryant could have a lot to worry about.
Hard not to give a grade of A+ when you give up just 8 passing yards all night. They didn’t see much action Saturday, but that is certain to change next week.
Special Teams: C
Daniel Carlson had a bit of a rough night Saturday, going just 2/4 on field goals. He nailed a 50 yarder on Auburn’s first possession, but missed from 53 and 46 yards later in the game. Carlson went 5/5 on extra points and became Auburn’s all-time leading scorer in the process. While he wasn’t his usual self, expect the two-time Lou Gorza Award finalist to bounce back and have an outstanding season.
The front seven stole the show for the Tigers, and Stidham showed flashes of the quarterback everyone hopes he can become. But they will need a much more consistent effort across the board if they hope to live up to the high expectations the rest of the season.