It’s Q&A time again! With less than two weeks until he Music City Bowl in Nashville we sit down with Jack Condon of SB Nation’s Auburn site, College and Magnolia. Earlier this week I answered Jack’s questions about the Boilermakers, but now it is his turn to talk about the Tigers.
T-Mill: Given the preseason expectations this has to be a disappointing season for Auburn. What went wrong?
Jack: If you want to boil it down, everything stems from the offensive line not being the unit we thought it was going to be (or at least overlooking the problem completely in the offseason). Auburn lost some really good, experienced players from the 2017 unit, and nobody voiced any concerns in the offseason because “Auburn’s always been able to run the ball”. Then, you beat Washington in the opener and you think you’re on the way, but the run game failed to get the key short-yardage conversions and keep the pressure off of Jarrett Stidham once defenses realized that we were no threat to pound it.
After that, front sevens were getting a bunch of sacks and hassling Stidham, which forced him to feel pressure that really wasn’t there. He started to anticipate it, and would duck out of a clean pocket. Add in the fact that our deep passing game went in the garbage can this year, and some of our wide receivers regressed, that’s where the fault lies. It was a disappointing season, and it almost made people value canning Gus Malzahn over the PR disaster that a $32 million buyout would have been.
T-Mill: The Auburn defensive front looks quite fearsome. Who should we be concerned about with an offensive line that has been “serviceable” but not great?
Jack: Short answer: all of them.
Auburn’s defensive front is comprised of some really talented guys who actually underachieved this season. We didn’t get the pressure on quarterbacks that we had last season unless we blitzed (which wasn’t all that often). Derrick Brown in the middle will be a first-round pick, and Dontavius Russell is the kind of defensive tackle that I can see lasting for years in the league because he does a ton of the little things and dirty work. On the edges, Marlon Davidson is a good guy at getting to the quarterback and stopping the run, while Nick Coe might end up being the best of all the linemen in the end. He may not play in the bowl game, though, so you might not have to worry about him.
After that, Big Kat Bryant (yes, official roster name) has shown flashes this year with his speed rush, and Andrew Williams in the middle has come in to spell the main guys at times as well. Again, this isn’t the most fearsome front seven since they haven’t played up to their potential this season, but if they do they can rack up the sacks in a hurry.
T-Mill: On the other side, Purdue will be missing its top defensive lineman. What must the Boilers do to generate any pressure?
Jack: Honestly, not much. I mentioned the offensive line struggles already, and if the Boilers can get any pressure without blitzing, then things may end up pretty easy for your guys. Auburn will likely end up throwing the kitchen sink at Purdue with Gus Malzahn calling plays again, so maybe some pre-snap looks alleviate blitzes and pressure from the front seven, but I would say just bringing an extra guy pretty much every time would be a great start. Watch to see if Auburn can get the run game going at all in the early going of this one, because if they can’t, then the offense may get a “here we go again” mindset about it. That’s when things really started to fall apart this season.
T-Mill: I see you guys are tracking teams you have never played before like we are. What are your impressions of Purdue before the first game?
Jack: Just based on this season, everyone saw the Ohio State game, so we know that the Boilers can run by you in a hurry. The potential is there for this to be a really good team, but it looks like inconsistency has been an issue. Now, I’m not sure what kinds of things contributed to the poor start on the year, or the flip to a team that beat three ranked opponents in the middle of the year, but it looks like Purdue just had trouble putting it together week to week. What I do know is that we can’t let Rondale Moore catch a pass with just one guy guarding him, because that’ll end poorly for us. Some times teams tend to think that if they let the star player get his yards, but try to prevent anyone else from beating you, it probably leads to a win. In this situation, I don’t think letting Moore go wild would be a good thing at all, so Kevin Steele and the defensive staff will have to find a way to neutralize him and the rest of the quick skill position players out of the gate. I think Auburn’s key to this game stands with keeping Purdue off the scoreboard, because we don’t really know what we’re going to see from the offense at all.
T-Mill: The Auburn offense didn’t drop a ton of points outside of Liberty and Alabama State. What are the top weapons?
Jack: So, first of all there’s Jarrett Stidham. This is his last game as an Auburn Tiger before he heads to the Draft. He led an offense that scored a ton of points last year, but it all fell apart this season because of the offensive line struggles. However, his receivers are pretty solid. Two freshmen kind of morphed into his new top targets over the course of the year -- Anthony Schwartz (maybe the fastest player in college football) and Seth Williams (highest yards-per-catch in the SEC this year) -- but they’ll be coupled with some experienced guys playing for Auburn as well. Darius Slayton was our main deep ball threat last year before he had some issues with drops this season, and Ryan Davis became the all-time receptions leader in just two years thanks to his prowess in the bubble screen game. They’re both huge threats, and we could see them make an impact in Nashville.
At running back, it’s getting thin. JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow started the season off well with the game-winning touchdown against Washington, and then ended up being the leading rusher, but he had some fumble problems and didn’t benefit from any help up front. He’ll be helped out by Shaun Shivers, who’s a little running back that’ll end up getting 6-8 touches and can take it the distance on any play, and Kam Martin, who came into the year as the starter, but he never really established himself as the dominant rusher. Bottom line is that Auburn doesn’t have a guy that can make things happen on his own in the backfield, and that really hurt the team this season.
T-Mill: Who has the better astronaut alumni, Purdue or Auburn?
Jack: Look, you can have your glory boys in Neil Armstrong, but all I know is that when Apollo 13 was in trouble, it was Auburn grad Ken Mattingly coming up with a solution while Neil was comforting the women-folk. So, obviously it’s us when you look past the headlines.