Monday, June 27, 2011

Why Auburn won't suck

One of the reasons I posted those Golden Nugget lines the other day was to help establish a couple weird memes I've noticed over the course of the offseason. One of the popular ones (as you probably figured out from the headline): Auburn relied so heavily on Cam Newton that his loss -- and that of Nick Fairley, to a lesser extent -- equals instant suckiness.

This isn't a completely baseless assumption. Since a lot of predictions (especially in Vegas) are primarily stat-based, these numbers from last season are pretty terrifying:

Auburn: 6,989 total yards, 72 touchdowns
Cam Newton: 4,327 total yards, 50 touchdowns

I'll do that calculations for you: Newton accounted for about 62 percent of their total yards and just a hair under 70 percent of their touchdowns. So yeah ... that's, like, a lot. And given that the offense was basically tailored around Newton and his absurd athleticism -- veer read option, veer read option, veer read option play action, etc. -- it sort of makes sense that he singlehandedly accounted for 500 more yards than UCLA last season (lol).

Also significant: Auburn returns seven starters this season. Not seven on offense -- seven total. That's allegedly the fewest in the country. Between Vegas and stat-obsessed K.C. Joyner over at ESPN, the so-called experts are snuggling these numbers like a teddy bear as the justification for Auburn's pending demise. And that's not an exaggeration: Based on current lines, Auburn should lose no fewer than seven games this season, which obviously would mean no bowl game and a pretty quick reversal of opinion on the Gene Chizik era.

HOWEVA ... I have a few (three, to be specific) beefs with the experts on this one. I'll start with the nerdiest-looking and most important one.

1. Gus Malzahn. Shortly after Chizik was hired and Auburn fans everywhere were filling the message boards with deep thoughts like "WTF," he somewhat quietly hired Malzahn as O-coordinator and former Duke coach Ted Roof as D-coordinator. They were both unquestionably among the best in the country, and getting them on his staff was the first in many brilliant moves by a guy who had a not-so-sparkling head coaching resume to that point.

Malzahn came from Tulsa but was mostly remembered for his role as OC on the drama-filled 2006 Arkansas team that included Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and (briefly) Mitch Mustain. This was the team that popularized the Wildcat, and between that and Newton, the perception of Malzahn is one of a Rich Rodriguez-type read-option advocate who needs a mobile QB to run his offense. To anyone who says/writes this, I respond: Did you ever watch Tulsa?

Malzahn made a name for himself as a dominant prep coach in Arkansas with an air-it-out offense (led by Mustain, not coincidentally), and in places where he's had complete control of the playcalling and someone other than Cam Newton at quarterback, he's actually been pretty balanced. He has just one real constant: a mind-blowing tempo. Like RichRod, Chip Kelly, et al, Malzahn likes it fast -- the faster the better.

Here's a breakdown of Malzahn's run-pass ratio each year along with the QB's rushing yardage and the team's national rank in rushing and passing yardage.
  • '06 Arkansas: 539 rushes, 302 passes, -32 QB rush yards, fourth in rushing, 109th in passing (Malzahn won several national coordinator of the year awards after the '06 season but left for Tulsa, which wasn't exactly a big step up in the world but did get him playcalling autonomy)
  • '07 Tulsa: 562 rushes, 564 passes, 119 QB rush yards, 41st in rushing, third in passing
  • '08 Tulsa: 674 rushes, 428 passes, 186 QB rush yards, fifth in rushing, ninth in passing
  • '09 Auburn: 550 rushes, 364 passes, -116 QB rush yards, 13th in rushing, 56th in passing
  • '10 Auburn: 652 rushes, 296 passes, 1,473 QB rush yards, fifth in rushing, 66th in passing
Last season was a serious outlier, yes? Before Cam Newton came along, Malzahn's average starting quarterback ran for about 39 yards per season yet led an offense that finished 13th overall in total yardage.

Cam Newton did not make Gus Malzahn -- the guy just understands offense. I know this is going way back into the archives, but circa 2009, Auburn had noodle-armed and immobile Chris Todd at QB, no dominant receivers, a good running back (Ben Tate) and one standout lineman (center Ryan Pugh) ... and that team finished 16th in total offense and went 8-4 despite having a defense that was 68th and 79th in the two most meaningful categories (yardage and scoring).

More video:

Malzahn is like the MacGyver of O-coordinators: No matter what you give him, the result will be something awesome.

2. Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb. Outside of Cam Newton's superhuman athleticism, one of the biggest factors in the success of Auburn's call-it-until-they-stop-it veer option last year was the threat of the uber-fast McCalebb getting the corner.

Neither that play nor that threat will cease to exist, especially since presumptive starting QB Barrett Trotter (a redshirt junior who might have started in '09 had he not torn his ACL in spring ball) is more comparable physically to Newton than Todd. Trotter actually averaged 13.6 yards per carry last season, which would be amazing and some kind of record if it had come on more than five runs. And if Trotter doesn't work out, incoming freshman Kiehl Frazier will immediately be the most athletic QB on the roster when he shows up and could also fill a Newton-type role (if Malzahn decides that's what he wants), albeit probably not very consistently since, you know, he'll be a freshman.

Dyer was a big-time recruit who wasn't asked to do much early but ended up (a) giving Malzahn the powerful feature-type back he'd lost in Tate and (b) breaking Bo Jackson's freshman school record with 1,093 yards on just 182 carries (that's 6.0 a pop). The guess here is that he gets 20-plus carries more than the three times he did last season and picks up a significant portion of Newton's slack -- he's probably one of the 10 best running backs in the country.

The graduation-decimated offensive line is a little more concerning -- right tackle Brandon Mosley is the only true returning starter -- but going back to Malzahn and his absurd track record (no worse than 35th nationally in total yardage), we're probably talking about the difference between good and excellent.

If Dyer can be the 2009 version of Tate (very plausible), McCalebb and Trotter can combine for another 1,500-ish rushing yards (also very plausible) and the defense can just be average, there's no reason Auburn can't go 8-4 again, which might not be "WOOOOO NATIONAL CHAMPIONS" but also won't be "FIRE CHIZIK AND BURN IT ALL DOWN" (like 5-7 would be).

Which brings me to ...

3. Ted Roof. One of Auburn's coordinators used to be a D-I head coach, and it wasn't Gus Malzahn. Roof had an epically terrible stint at Duke (6-45 in four-plus seasons), but that shouldn't detract from his ability as a D-coordinator: He was awesome in that role at Georgia Tech, made Duke's consistently abysmal defenses respectable, went to Minnesota and oversaw a walking-on-water-esque transformation in one year and then was offered the job at Auburn. Seeing as how Auburn >>> Minnesota, that was probably an easy decision.

It hasn't been all candy and unicorns and puppy dogs at Auburn, though. The 2009 defense was pretty bad -- the worst statistically in school history -- and last year's wasn't a ton better despite having Nick Fairley crushing people's skulls in the middle of it. Auburn was 60th in total defense and 53rd in scoring defense last year ... but they were pretty good at one not-so-insignificant thing (the one thing Roof's teams are almost always good at): stopping the run. Auburn was ninth nationally in rushing defense, and that was pretty much the difference between the crappy 2009 unit (78th in rush D) and the good-enough-to-win-a-BCS-title 2010 one.

Roof's high-variance strategy is a big part of both the consistently excellent rush defenses and the less-than-thrilling numbers so far at Auburn. He'll blitz a lot, get a lot of sacks, stuff a lot of running plays, force a lot of turners and give up a substantial number of big plays, with the damage of those big plays pretty much being the determining factor in the overall success of the defense. I believe this is called "The Jon Tenuta School of Let's Blitz." It's a good system except when it's not.

But Roof is probably doing a better job than he's getting credit for. I was wondering when I started putting this post together about how much Malzahn's hair-on-fire offensive tempo skews the total number of plays (and therefore yards and points) in a typical Auburn game -- thankfully this requires no effort on my part other than summoning the FEI index over at Football Outsiders (BTW, if you don't read Football Outsiders, start now). The basic premise of FEI is that it's a tempo-free, schedule-adjusted rating system -- it strips out all the variables, runs the raw data (yards per play, points per possession, etc.) through a formula and spits out some numbers that essentially tell you which teams are the most productive/effective on both sides of the ball.

In 2009, that worst-ever Auburn defense was 53rd in FEI (not great but not terrible after finishing 25th in '08). Last year, it was sixth. Those numbers look just a little better than the raw ones and paint a slightly more accurate picture of the quality of those defenses, even if the average Auburn fan understands them about as much as they'd understand a Boeing technical manual or a toothbrush (zing!).

But anyway ... what I'm trying to get at with Roof is this: He's gonna do his thing, and he might shut down LSU one week and give up 45 to Arkansas the next. But if he just puts together a defense that's statistically somewhere between the 2009 and '10 ones -- maybe 30th in FEI and a little below average nationally in scoring and total defense -- that product plus an average Malzahn offense should still yield a pretty good team.

This is the proper spot for a caveat: The schedule is a freakin' slaughterhouse. It's entirely within the realm of possibility that Auburn could be a really good team and still end up about 7-5 just because of the pure volume of terrifying games (especially road ones). Insert Gary Danielson reference here about how the SEC rulez and everyone else droolz. It's also possible that my assumptions here are overly optimistic and Auburn will just be an average team, in which case there's not a single SEC game (other than maybe Ole Miss at home) that's not losable.

But all things considered, I'd feel pretty comfortable putting a few bucks on the under if the baseline of expectations at this point is seven losses. A drop-off is one thing; a bowl-less detonation is another.


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