In terms of time of possession per play, Auburn was exactly where it needed to be last season. At 24.8 seconds per play, the Tigers ranked fifth in the SEC and were actually five-tenths of a second quicker than the year before.
But that doesn’t mean they were fast. They weren’t.
The simple arithmetic of taking Auburn’s total time of possession and dividing it by the total number of plays doesn’t work well to Gus Malzahn’s offense. It seems like it should tell you the speed with which they operate, but it doesn’t paint a full picture. It’s not nearly nuanced enough, failing to factor in what Malzahn calls “rhythm.”
There is no metric for that. Nor is there one for pace. Nor is there one for momentum.
Because when Auburn is on a roll, Malzahn has all of that going for him, and he’s able to toy with the clock. Sometimes he’ll have the offense rush to the line of scrimmage, catch the defense off guard and go for a quick snap. Other times the defense will be ready, and he’ll have the offense get in formation and stop. He might call an audible then, rearranging the pieces on the board without giving the defense the ability to substitute. With enough time, he might check again if he doesn’t like the look he’s given.
But last season there wasn’t much of that gamesmanship. Auburn’s mojo disappeared. The tempo and big plays that made Malzahn’s offense dazzling to watch and terrifying to defend went by the wayside. The Tigers barley finished above .500 and scored the ninth-fewest points in league play.
So why couldn’t Auburn go fast? Why did the explosive plays dwindle? It’s simple: execution. The back-and-forth between Jeremy Johnson and Sean White at quarterback meant a lack of chemistry on offense. Meanwhile, the receiving corps struggled without Sammie Coates and Duke Williams, dropping a higher percentage of passes in league play (6.6) than all but two teams. Three-and-outs occurred at an alarming rate, up 7.1 percent from the year before.
When the chains didn’t move, the offense couldn’t get on a roll, use tempo to their advantage and wear out the defense. Auburn’s 68.7 plays per game were its fewest since 2012. Its rate of plays gaining 10 or more yards hit the lowest mark since prior to 2011.
“You can put the hammer down after a big play,” Malzahn said. “That’s what we were missing from the year before.”
He told ESPN: “It all comes back to executing at a high level, which we’ve always prided ourselves in, and we’ve got to get back to doing that.”
Receiver Marcus Davis, for his part, was optimistic about a return to form. He said that “operating faster” was something the team worked on this spring and summer, hustling in practice and in the weight room.
When they’re doing that, he explained, is “when our offense is at its best.”
Who will be in the driver's seat under center is unclear, however. Johnson and White are both back, and they’re joined by junior college transfer John Franklin III, a small, speedy QB who could work his way into the starting lineup despite a less-than-impressive spring.
According to Davis, all of the quarterbacks are showing more comfort in the offense. What’s more, he has high expectations for the receiving corps after a new crop of recruits. Nate Craig-Myers and Kyle Davis are the top-five prospects on everyone’s radar, of course. Marcus Davis described Craig-Myers as a seasoned vet and Kyle Davis as similar to Duke Williams in terms of his ability to attack the ball. But four-star Eli Stove and three-star Marquis McClain have grabbed his attention as well, calling McClain “the biggest surprise” because “He’s so big, I didn’t expect him to move the way he’s moving.”
“Given the opportunity, you can tell they can help us out,” Davis said of the young receivers.
But given their youth, what can we expect? Will the dropped passes that stunted the offense last season continue? Auburn can’t afford to go through that again.
Whether it’s the receivers or running backs, someone needs to start moving the chains again.
Maybe then they can create some momentum.
Maybe then we’ll see more pace.
Maybe then the tempo and “rhythm” of Malzahn’s offense will return.