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A spirit that is not afraid

Bye-week breakdown: An analysis of Auburn football's early-season performance

A quick rest stop for Auburn finally arrived this week as the team's bye came in week six of the season. The Tigers look to recharge this weekend before continuing the gauntlet of their SEC schedule.

Auburn, which started 3-2 for the second straight year, took down its first three opponents of the season before entering the SEC battlefield, in which it lost two equally tough games.

The record currently sits the men in the orange and blue unranked in the national polls and sixth in the SEC West. 

Auburn’s team as a whole looked powerful to start the season when it handled UMass 59-14, but has since looked very stagnant in different areas, raising questions as to what the team’s game plans are moving forward. 

In the three games in which the Tigers played Power Five opponents in September, they scored no more than 20 in any one of them. Both facets of the offense have combined for a total of four touchdowns, each contributing equally to the production on the scoreboard.

The Auburn offense finds itself ranked 13th in the SEC in total yardage at 1,791 yards, placing only in front of Arkansas. The passing game makes up almost 44% of those at 781 yards, which ranks last in the conference. 

Jay Fair leads the team in both receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. The sophomore has accumulated 196 yards through the first five weeks of the season to go along with the two touchdowns he scored in the first two weeks. He has not seen the end zone since. 

The rushing game, however, is making up for the lack of air attack, as it ranks second with 1,010 yards — only Tennessee is in front of the Auburn rush game. The Tigers are led in that category by junior standout Jarquez Hunter, who has put up 202 yards so far.

While Hunter has been the clear starter since returning in week two, Auburn has used six running backs, three of whom have posted over 100 yards. Both Damari Alston and transfer Brian Battie have emerged as the backups to Hunter by committee.

“I think [Battie] is a guy we got to get his touches for sure,” said head coach Hugh Freeze. “The stage doesn’t seem too big for him. He can make people miss, he’s shifty, he’s got good hands and we can use him in a lot of ways. Really proud of how he’s progressing.”

Despite the strengths in the running game, the red zone offense has not been rolling for the Tigers. They sit 13th in the SEC and tied for 90th nationally in that category, converting just 78% of the time in these scoring opportunities.

On the other side of the ball, the defense has proven to be the factor that has kept Auburn in games, as it has kept opponents from scoring and pulling away in close games.

The Tigers are giving up an average of 18.2 points a game to the opposition, good for sixth in the conference and 28th in the country. This is largely due to the late-down defensive pressure the unit has imposed.

Auburn finds itself ranked sixth in the SEC in third-down defense and fourth in fourth-down defense. This extra pressure has forced opponents into sending out the punt team, giving the offense chances to drive down the field. 

The red zone defense has also played a large role in limiting points, as Auburn’s opponents have converted just 69% of red zone opportunities into scores. The defense finds itself at the top of the conference when in the red zone, a category that is crucial in order to do well in the SEC, which has proven well in the first five games.

To go along with this, the turnover game has been equally as potent for the Tiger defenders. The team as a whole has forced 10 turnovers this season, placing them second in the SEC only behind Arkansas, as well as tied for 16th nationally. 

Certain individuals have played a large role in this ranking. Senior cornerback Jaylin Simpson is tied for first in the country with four interceptions as of Auburn's bye week. Junior safety Donovan Kaufman has also been dangerous, putting up two forced fumbles so far, tied for eighth in the country. 

Many questions have surrounded the health of the team though, as some key players found themselves missing game action through these first five weeks. 

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“Hopefully we’ll take the positives from it when we watch the film and go through Monday and get healthy in an open week, somewhat healthy, and get ready for some more difficult SEC games,” Freeze said.

Most notably, Freeze says that he hopes Jaylin Simpson will be healthy and ready in time for LSU following his late exit against Georgia last week.

On the offensive side, the staff is also very hopeful that both Ja’Varrius Johnson and Damari Alston will be back in time for LSU with more time to rest during this off week. Johnson is dealing with a hamstring issue, while Alston is recovering from the separated shoulder suffered at Texas A&M.

Following their week off, the Tigers will travel to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the last annual Tiger Bowl before the expansion of the SEC and removal of divisions. Auburn ended its losing streak in "Death Valley" in 2021 and looks to make it two straight against at the home of Bayou Bengals this year.

Auburn will kick off this game at either 6 or 6:30 p.m. CST on Oct. 14, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN or SEC Network, respectively. Auburn is 1-1 on the road this season, beating California but falling to Texas A&M.

Tyler Raley | Sports Writer

Tyler Raley is a junior from Birmingham, Alabama, majoring in journalism.

Twitter: @traley34

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