2018 Auburn Football Review: Part 3
The 2018 Auburn football season began with high hopes and expectations. Fresh off a 2017 campaign that saw 10 victories, including two against No. 1 teams in Georgia and Alabama, the 2018 team was expected to accomplish something similar. Obviously, things didn’t go to plan. In this three-part series, we’ll look at how the offense, defense, and special teams performed, as well as assessing what the overall record probably should have looked like given the strength of Auburn’s opponents. We’ll look at the good, the bad, and the ugly, maintaining focus on 2018, but keeping in mind some of the underclassman’s performances with an eye toward the future.
Part 3: Final Breakdown
There are high expectations for Auburn football pretty much every year. It was no different in 2018. But there were obvious question marks, and they turned out to be Auburn’s downfall. Auburn’s projected record, depending on who was asked, would have been as low as 8-4 and as high as 11-1 with a return trip to Atlanta for an SEC championship game. There looked to be three very tough games -- the traditional Alabama and Georgia games at the end of the season and a tough season opener in Atlanta against top-10 Washington. Add to those a couple of losable games -- at Mississippi State, who came in with possibly the most talent in their history, and a home game against rival LSU. Still, Auburn was anticipated to win those two games and then put their best foot forward against the former three teams.
Things started out well for Auburn, as it beat Washington using a combination of clutch offense and very good defense. But something felt off about it. An offense that was supposed to click with returning quarterback Jarrett Stidham started the game strong, but then struggled until the final drive of the game.
This was the first warning sign in what would be a disappointing campaign for Auburn.
The first realization of this would be against LSU. Yes, there were obviously poor calls made by the referees at the end that aided LSU, but Auburn should have put themselves in a position where they didn’t matter.
Just 328 yards of offense, numerous missed opportunities to extend the lead and two Jarrett Stidham interceptions all set up what was to come in the end. It’s not that LSU was inherently a bad loss -- they would wind up winning a New Year’s Six bowl game at season’s end -- but it was the way Auburn lost that was so shocking and maddening.
Auburn would continue to fail the eye test the next week against Arkansas, a game in which they gained just 225 yards. Not 225 yards rushing, not 225 yards in a half. 225 yards total, for the game. This is just simply not acceptable. Even playing the best defense in the country, which Arkansas by no means was, it’s not good enough.
It somehow got even worse against Mississippi State two weeks later. A fumble at the half-yard line, a wide-open trick play pass missed, and just over 18 minutes of possession spelled doom for Auburn as they lost to a Mississippi State team who at that time had struggled to find themselves on offense just like Auburn. It should be said that Mississippi State had an excellent defense all season long, but the time of possession stat in particular just can’t fly if you’re trying to win a conference game.
But it would once again get worse for Auburn.
The following week against, in my opinion, the worst team in the SEC outside of Arkansas, Auburn would suffer an embarrassing home loss to Tennessee. I can make the argument Mississippi State was better than people give them credit for, and I have done the same for LSU. But there’s just no way around this one.
The loss to Tennessee was awful and unacceptable. Once again, the offense had plenty to do with it, mainly in the turnover department with three costly Jarrett Stidham turnovers. But this time the defense wasn’t great either. Jarrett Guarantano was the best Jarrett in the game, largely due to the Auburn secondary struggling. If championship hopes weren’t dashed the week before in Starkville, they officially fell off the ledge against the Volunteers. In fact, now Auburn needed to make sure they even made a bowl game before worrying about how to be competitive against Georgia and Alabama.
Auburn finally found a good running game against a terrible Ole Miss defense and indeed all but locked itself into bowl eligibility. But even that game wasn’t special, as Auburn scored the fewest points any SEC team put up on Ole Miss all season with 31. Even when the offense appeared to be getting better, it really wasn’t.
Maybe the most impressive win of the year for Auburn (and possibly the only impressive win for Auburn in actuality) came against Texas A&M the following week. Look, Auburn still didn’t play overly well, but it demonstrated a very important quality in a team that had underachieved -- a desire to compete and an unwillingness to quit. The fourth-quarter comeback for Auburn in the scheme of things wasn’t too significant -- it did officially make them bowl eligible with Liberty as an anticipated victory remaining -- but it was a much needed relief to a team and a coaching staff that just couldn’t seem to get a break. Of course, the pure joy that was seen from the players after the dramatic comeback against Texas A&M would not last long, as a trip to Athens loomed the next week.
I’ll actually lump the Georgia game and the Iron Bowl together and start off with, yikes. Neither game was out of hand at halftime. Auburn showed its talent, and the game plans were decent. But the second halves are where both games got away. Auburn was shut out in the second half against Georgia and surrendered 35 points to Alabama in the second half after trailing by just three at the half. In a way it was symbolism for the whole season. Auburn was there talent-wise, but struggled to show any sort of adjustments or improvement in their deficiencies. Ultimately, Auburn would finish the regular season 7-5, short of pretty much every expectation entering the season.
I’ve stayed away from the subject thus far, and I won’t go into it with great detail here, but I can’t summarize the season properly without briefly talking about and grading the coaching staff, in particular Gus Malzahn.
Obviously, with Auburn underachieving in 2018, it can’t be considered a good job by the head coach. However, I think there is something to be said for getting the team to stay together, and for exhibiting an extreme amount of focus leading up the Music City Bowl thrashing of Purdue. I think Malzahn did a quality job in that game as the play caller, and his coaching in the days leading up to the game proved to be effective. This to say, I think some of the struggles this year aren’t all on his shoulders. Therefore, I almost split the middle and give him a C- for 2018.
As I just mentioned, I don’t blame Gus Malzahn for all of the offensive struggles. I personally blame Chip Lindsey.
I think Malzahn truly had his hands in large part off the offense this year, and Lindsey was the one doing the play calling. Play calling was an issue all year long, largely due to a lack of creativity, and the inability to find ways to cover up a sub-par offensive line. For this, because it was Chip Lindsey’s primary responsibility, I give him a D- for the 2018 campaign.
The defense did continue to be a bright spot for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele as the Tigers still had, by all accounts, a solid defense in 2018. Despite a lapse or two, the defense was fairly consistent and pretty much what it was expected to be. Because the defense performed as expected, but wasn’t necessarily elite, I give Kevin Steele a B+ for 2018.
Auburn clearly didn’t have the season it wanted to in 2018. That has been well-established. But there are some positives as the team heads into 2019. Many freshmen played on both sides of the ball in 2018. Auburn has receivers to build around in Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, and a healthy JaTarvious Whitlow figures to be a threat at running back next year. Defensively, the stout defensive line will be as good as ever next year, with Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, and Nick Coe all returning. The secondary will also mostly be in tact with just Jamel Dean leaving for the NFL draft.
The biggest obstacle for Auburn in 2019 will very likely be figuring out who the quarterback should be. It could be Joey Gatewood, who looked good in mop up time in the Music City Bowl. Malik Willis will have a chance, as he maintained backup quarterback status throughout the year. Maybe it’s the old man of the group Cord Sandberg, or maybe it’s the hotshot freshman Bo Nix, who will carry with him the hope of an entire fan base.
The quarterback position is the million-dollar question Auburn will have to answer in 2019. Or $49 million question, if you will.