The past month hadn’t been kind to Auburn. COVID-19 testing wiped out almost an entire week of football practice at one point in late August. In preseason camp, there wasn’t a single week when the Tigers were able to keep the same five offensive linemen together, and this was a group that was already behind the eight ball with only one returning starter, Nick Brahms (who didn’t even start the whole year).
Auburn was a team with modest expectations by SEC standards, ranked No. 11 in the preseason but not a popular choice to reach the College Football Playoff. No one knew how the Tigers would fare on defense without star linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. They’d added former Arkansas head coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator, but he didn’t have the benefit of spring practice or a normal offseason to get up to speed. Auburn didn’t land a single player on the SEC preseason first- or second-team offense.
Starting off against a rock-solid Kentucky program with an early 11 a.m. local kickoff Saturday, things looked a little dicey.
But by the time the Auburn Tigers left the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium that afternoon, having beaten the No. 23 Wildcats 29-13, it was as if the entire outlook for the season had changed. With a suddenly shaky Georgia squad coming up next, you had to wonder whether a 2-0 start was possible. And if it was, how about going 5-0 since the next three games would include conference cellar dwellers Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss?
Might Auburn be better than anyone predicted?
On Sunday morning, coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN Radio that the 10-game, conference-only gauntlet wouldn’t be the thing that derailed this group. Auburn faced seven top 20 teams last season, including Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida and LSU away from The Plains before the calendar had flipped to November,
“It’s not going to be a shock to our system,” he said. “I think the grind of it will be for some of the teams in our league.”
It wasn’t just that they’d beaten Kentucky that gave Malzahn confidence, but how they’d done it. The defense showed up in a big way, racking up eight tackles for loss and forcing three turnovers. They gave up just 3.6 yards per rush, and if not for a pick-six that was wiped off the board by an iffy personal foul penalty, the margin of victory might have been even greater.
The retooled offensive line held up fairly well despite its inexperience, and quarterback Bo Nix looked more comfortable and assertive than he did as a freshman last season. Malzahn said, “He made some outstanding throws,” calling his pass to Eli Stove on an out-and-up route “perfect.”
Nix said he’d lost some of his “swag” last season as the team finished 9-4, but he didn’t look that way in his first game as a sophomore. Malzahn said the biggest difference is that Nix looks like a veteran now.
“Just the confidence,” Malzahn said. “And being a leader. There’s no doubt. There’s no wondering. He knows what he wants.”
Another difference: Chad Morris.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix drops the perfect punt inside the 2-yard line.
Morris’ fingerprints were everywhere on offense, whether it was the more complex routes the receivers were running that forced the defense to cover all levels of the field, or the way the tight ends suddenly came out of hiding. At one point, Morris dialed up a screen pass that sent 300-pound tight end J.J. Pegues into the flat to block for maybe the fastest man in college football, wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, who raced 23 yards downfield before being stopped just short of the goal line.
After D.J. Williams pushed ahead for six points, the Tigers ran their version of the “swinging gate” for a rare 2-point conversion.
The running game, which for so long has been the make-or-break point of Auburn’s offense, never really found its rhythm, and yet the passing game was solid. Seth Williams, who struggled to find the end zone the second half of last season, finished with 112 yards receiving and two touchdowns, drawing comparisons to Randy Moss with the way he was able come down with every 50-50 ball.
“It felt good to play in this type of passing offense,” Williams said. He grinned and added later: “We’ve got a lot of things to come.”
Kentucky’s defense ranked 20th in the FBS in yards per game in 2019. Up next is a Georgia defense that ranked third last season.
Bo Nix throws a dart to wide receiver Seth Williams, who goes up and snags it, extending Auburn’s lead.
That defense lived up to the hype Saturday, limiting Arkansas to fewer than 300 yards of offense in a 37-10 win, but it was maybe the only bright spot. The Bulldogs have serious questions to answer at the quarterback position after D’Wan Mathis was pulled in the second quarter in favor of Stetson Bennett IV, with USC transfer J.T. Daniels cleared Monday to return after a knee injury. New coordinator Todd Monken was supposed to revitalize the offense, but that didn’t happen against the Razorbacks. If anything, it looked like Georgia was going backward.
One thing is certain, though: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry will have a different feel when it’s played in Athens this weekend.
Auburn-Georgia has long been a feature of the final month of the regular season, but this year it was moved up to give the Tigers a break from having to face Georgia and Alabama in the same three-week span.
Instead of a hurdle on the way to the finish line, this year’s game could determine who has momentum early.
“Honestly, to me it doesn’t matter when we play them,” a confident Schwartz said Sunday. “We could play them early. We could play them late. Shoot, we could play them after the season is over. … We just know we have to turn it up.”