Monday, September 15, 2008

The offense: how bad was it, really?

There have been, as you might have noticed, several different reactions to Auburn's offensive output against Mississippi St. These have ranged from "Tony Franklin should be torn apart by wild jackals" (certain Auburn fans on the interwebs) to "Boy, that completely, utterly, totally sucked, but maybe it'll get better" (probably the majority of Auburn fans) to "actually ... okay" (Will Collier) to "Not good enough to win in the SEC? No offense ... we just did win in the SEC" (TWER). But, even assuming there is such a thing, what's the right way to respond? Is there a way to see an accurate picture of how poorly or how "well" Auburn's offense actually played Saturday?

If it's possible at all, I'd figure the way to do it would be to look at the MSU box score and compare what Auburn's offense accomplished there with what they've done in their other games under Tony Franklin and over the course of 2007.

I'm going to to take what might be a slightly controversial approach to these comparisons, namely that total yards and, more importantly, yards-per-play are better indicators of offensive performance than the final score. Blasphemy, I know, and I will readily admit it's a particularly dangerous assumption when we're talking about an offense that has to this point displayed some serious structural flaws when it comes to converting yards into points inside the 20. Nonetheless, not to take issue with my blog-colleagues at the Auburner, the score's simply not everything--if Derek Pegues had run an Auburn punt back to the 1-yard line, State had punched it in from there, and the final had been 9-3, would that mean you'd rather face LSU this week with the Bulldog offense rather than Auburn's? I didn't think so. The more yards you rack up, the more scoring opportunities you generate and the better the odds get you put some points up; this was the first time since 2000 Auburn posted more than 300 total yards and managed to not score a TD.

Obviously, game conditions and opponent strength and other wanky stuff can affect those numbers--for instance, Auburn's total yardage from Saturday is likely a little misleading, since the Auburn defense was able to give the Tiger offense possessions that a competent opposing offense would have time-of-possessed out of the game. Nonetheless: they're worth looking at.

And so I have, and this is what I've found:

It's the worst offensive performance yet this season, not much doubt about that. No surprise there, of course, but even taking into account how much better State's defense than UL-Monroe's or Southern Miss's, you have to say it's almost as disappointing as it looked. After averaging 5.6 a play and 5.1 a play in their first two games, Auburn sank to 4.4 against MSU, with a corresponding drop from 406 and 380 total yards to 315--despite only running two fewer plays than against ULM and four fewer than against USM.

It's worth pointing out that the passing game blew against ULM (3.1 an attempt ... eesh) and the running game was pretty well absent against Southern Miss (3.2 a carry) but the offenses stayed well afloat thanks to their success in the other half of the gameplan. Against Miss. St, not so much: 3.6 a carry and a full yard drop in yards-per-pass-attempt to 5.9. You didn't imagine the occasional downfield success: yards-per-completion stayed relatively high at 11.0. But that just illustrates how rarely Auburn actually completed one of their passes.

Now, if you take away all the penalties, the turnovers, and the failure to penetrate the end zone, you could chalk the problems up to adjusting to a defense of State's caliber and call it, eh, "passable." But add in the penalties, turnovers, and red zone issues? This was ugly. Not ugly, but ugly.

For better, for worse, it's not all that different from last year. Auburn's numbers for the 2007 season--where, if you need the reminding, they finished 97th overall in total offense--remain embarrassing: averages of 4.8 yards a play and just 335 yards a game. In SEC play, things got even worse: the Tigers averaged 319.6 yards an outing. So, essentially, the apocalyptically bad clunker the Tigers turned in last weekend was, in fact, almost par for the 2007 course in terms of total yards. Somewhere on the Auburn interwebs (I can't find where) someone mentioned that Auburn's yardage output was better than six Tiger performances from last year; that's correct, as Borges' bunch finished with less than 300 yards against Kansas St., South Florida, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. And even with that level of offensive struggle, buckets of turnovers against USF, and a certain throw into the end zone in the dying seconds in the sweat of Baton Rouge, Auburn finished 3-3 in those games. If Auburn manages to keep their head above that 300-yard waterline, perhaps they'll fare even better with what appears to be an even-better-defense-than-before-even-if-it-seemed-impossible, yesno?

Well, maybe No. The total yards thing is fun, but again, the yards-per-play stat is illuminating: the only games in which Auburn slid below the 4.4 posted Saturday were K-St. (4.3), USF (4.1), Arkansas (3.8), and UGA (3.3). Even when looking at the avalanche of suck that was the Auburn offense in '07, the performance against Miss. St would still stand out in this metric as particularly sucky. Again: consider all the extra mistakes that don't show up in yardage totals and it gets even worse. Also consider that even with Kodi Burns playing most of the game with an eight-play playbook, Auburn averaged nearly a half-yard better per play last year against State--4.8 to 4.4--than they did this year. Ewwwww. (Just for reference's sake: the 5.6 and 5.1 a play probably represent some form of improvement from 2007, but it's hard to say: Auburn didn't play any teams with equivalent defenses to ULM's or Southern Miss's. New Mexico St.'s the closest analogue, but they're coached by Hal Mumme; I'm thinking the 5.9-a-play Auburn posted against the Aggies is less impressive than the marks against ULM or USM.)

So at the bottom line of this comparison, we're forced to say: No, the 3-2 game doesn't truly represent the bottoming out of Auburn's offensive struggles the last two seasons. (That would be the UGA game last November and its 216 total yards. Three seasons? Try the 171 total yards and pick-a-palooza against Georgia the year before. Stupid Dawgs.) But it sure as hell isn't enough to be encouraging, either. In short: even on the basis on Saturday's game, Auburn's offense hasn't noticeably regressed from Borges to Franklin. But it hasn't taken the slightest meaningful step forward as of yet, either.

In conclusion: When you look at the Auburn defense and the scorched-earth, leave-none-alive policies its adopted in spite of the protocols laid out by the Geneva Convention, it's just plain silly to say the Tigers can't win the big games on their schedule with their current offensive scheme. During Week 2 of last year the offense was, without question, an even larger train wreck than it was Saturday: five turnovers, 290 yards, 4.1 a play. Three games later they were beating Florida in the Swamp. It can be done, particularly with the team still learning the offense and the coaching staff still feeling their way around.

Yes, Byrum has to make his kicks, the backs have to stop fumbling, and Franklin has to find a way to get the ball in the end zone--if none of that happens, Auburn could roll up 600 yards a game and it wouldn't matter a whit. But if they can manage that, 3-2 will continue to be the fluky fluke it was and is. With a softer schedule, one close call already safely notched in the win column, and what I'm just about ready to already declare the best defense of Tubby's Auburn tenure, I think it's perfectly safe to say that not only is the Mississippi State game not a sign of impending season disaster, but that Auburn is on track to raise themselves back up onto the 10-win plateau.

But alas and alack, with this defense available, I'm not sure if even 10 wins is going to feel genuinely outright satisfying. (Depends on the Iron Bowl. And while we're on the subject, stop me if I've told you this one before, but I'd much rather have my team's worst performance of the season involve outgaining an SEC team by 200 yards on the road rather than being outgained by 140 yards by a CUSA team at home.) That might be the most entitled, spoiled-brat-of-an-ungrateful-fan statement I've made on this blog, but it's true: with this defense and this schedule, even an average offense could get Auburn to Atlanta and beyond. The offense we saw Saturday wasn't "average," though. Good enough to eke out a win in Starkville? Yep. Good enough to beat the likes of Vandy or Arkansas? Probably. Good enough to beat any other team on the schedule you'd care to name, if the breaks go Auburn's way and the red zone stuff is mostly sorted out? I'd say yes.

But an SEC title isn't going to be won on breaks. A BCS bowl berth out of this conference isn't going to be earned one 13-7 victory at a time. That Auburn's offense was 3-2 bad was bad luck and easily correctable mistakes; that it looked bad, period--2006/2007 bad--was not. It will have to improve to get the defense where its ferocity deserves to go, and if we don't see that improvement Saturday, it'll be time to start asking if we'll see it at all this season.


Anonymous said...

I've been waiting for such analysis, good work, mister. Also, I might have found two LSU tickets for you, not set in stone, but no joke either, are you still looking?

Anonymous said...

I forgot -- WAR DAMN EAGLE.

A united method said...

might I add that I am sure I will regret not going to the LSU/Auburn game because I think (if your conspiracy theories hold true) the offense will really explode. Even if Todd remains in, how freakin crazy would it be if he RAN the ball? Totally unexpected and totally possible since we've been "holding back" - what do you think is the most possibly hidden talent of our yet-discovered offense? I can only hope it involves more Montez Billings, less Ryan Pugh. More Walter McFadden, less Lee Ziemba. In both of these, big plays vs. big penalties (and yes, McFadden is not even a part of this yet-discovered offense, but who knows...maybe a returned interception?)

drive safe Friday night.

jrsuicide said...

is it just me, or isn't scoring zero point worse than 3?

still it was truly the worst/best shitty game i have ever forced myself to watch.

Anonymous said...

"...and if we don't see that improvement Saturday, it'll be time to start asking if we'll see it at all this season."

I am with you up until this statement. I don't think facing the defending BCS champ in the 4th game of this offense's history is a reliable pass/fail predictor for the rest of the season.

LeakBrewerGator said...

I think you should look at the bright side.

Auburn's defense is scary good (as usual). So what if they only scored 3 points? As long as they hold opponents to 2 every game, they'll be just fine.

Jerry Hinnen said...

TWER: War Eagle.

UM: Actually, it would be nice if the D came up with a big points-scorin' turnover. There's no complaints to be made about their performance the other night, but Hatch has apparently tossed up a couple of ducks--if we could take something like that back into the LSU red zone (or to paydirt) it would change the game. Not outside the realm of reality. As for the big offensive "reveal," um, I dunno ... a direct snap to Robert Dunn?

Anon: Depends. If Franklin shows some of the ingenuity he showed during the Clemson game and it just doesn't work, OK, I'll keep the hope. If it's the same failed set of standard-issue runs and pass routes we saw Saturday, I'll be seriously troubled.

LBG: Auburn's not holding Georgia to 2 points, I'd wager. As I said in the post, Auburn can have a damn good season with the offense we saw Saturday, but it won't have a championship one.