It sounds as cliché as a Hallmark movie. You know how it starts and how it will end. Girl is looking for something, finds it, there’s an “unexpected” twist, guy wins the girl over, and they live happily ever after. Football is very similar with its own clichés; whether it’s how the game is played or how it is viewed. Tell me if you’ve heard these cliché “coach phrases.”
“The games are won in the trenches.”
“Low man wins.”
“Execution triumphs style.”
“Do your job.”
The big question for me on offense isn’t the quarterback, wide receiver, or even the running back… It’s the expectation for the offensive line. Stressing the importance of offensive line production may be cliché, but it is no doubt a huge mystery for the 2019 Tigers. In 2018, the offensive line took a step back. It’s obvious that the step back was on display specifically against two teams: Southern Miss & Alabama.
I don’t have to remind many about Southern Miss. It was a hideous win. When you don’t eclipse 100 yards RUSHING against inferior schools that is cloudy horizon for things to come. I won’t get into the points aspect. Sometimes a win is a win. But is it always?
In the NFL a win is a win. The best of the best are usually on display and any given Sunday comes into effect. But in college, it’s not quite the same playing field. When you play against an inferior school, it’s a cupcake game. Crush them. Regardless, averaging 2.7 yards a rush and not eclipsing 100 yards is underwhelming.
It’s easy to evaluate the Southern Miss game and look at the stats and say it was just an underwhelming performance. Then I really dig deep and open the wound up. In 2017, the offensive line had lost 4 starters. The only returning starter was a left tackle converted to center—you might as well say they lost all 5 starters. I have only seen one offensive lineman in my entire life play all 3 positions and be effective (Chris Hubbard of the Cleveland Browns.) This group had no continuity. It’s very difficult to maintain chemistry at the college level due to the turnover. To have 5 new starters is an incredible task to take on. You know what though? They performed well. I can honestly say they performed ABOVE expectations. The mirror between 2017 and 2018 for me were the Iron Bowls.
In 2017, Auburn controlled the game. Alabama hung in there, but on top of home field advantage Auburn’s offensive line controlled everything. They played Alabama’s own game against them: control the clock with an effective ground game, cash in on possessions, and wear your opponent down. It was a very impressive offensive line showing as well as an all-around team win.
Fast forward to 2018. Three starters gone along with, yes, a new running back. Don’t get me wrong, Kerryon was a good running back, however, the offensive line was perfect for him. There’s no denying the step back was on display in Tuscaloosa. They were dominated in the trenches. The exposure of the scheme was on display as it was in the SEC Championship—when you cannot control the line of scrimmage, the scheme cannot flourish. When Auburn can’t win in the trenches on early downs, it puts them behind the sticks. When Auburn’s offensive line was behind the sticks in 2018, they ranked 90th in sack rate in the nation. Compare that to the National Title Contenders Alabama and Clemson and you
have 38th & 30th respectively.
It is especially important to have a well performing offensive line in the SEC. FootballOutsiders.com puts it all in perspective. In 2017, Auburn’s offensive line graded 25th overall in yards generated by the offensive line. In a similar statistic in 2018, they dropped to 42nd. That’s a fair dip. To compare to 2018’s
SEC Division winners, Alabama and Georgia finished 2nd and 7th respectively. It’s incredible how big of a difference there is. This all happened within a matter of a year with 3 different starters vs in essence 5 the year before.
Here is where, despite the underwhelming performance, Auburn has something positive. First, a full year of tape to evaluate and correct mistakes. The biggest positive to me is the fact that all five return this year; there’s continuity. There’s a chance that year 2 together could bring good results. That is the challenge for Auburn’s offense this year. If the offensive line can get back to the grit and determination of 2017 and build this chemistry, we can expect a very good year.
Time will tell how the offensive line fares. I can’t say there’s a guarantee that all five will all start as there is more competition with new 4-star recruits on the roster. I can say that if the offensive line’s body of work does not improve, there will be concern. If the concern translates to another disappointing year, the cloudy horizon only gets darker for the future.