How Tennessee turned Auburn’s embarrassing 2018 into a debacle


There was only one way for Auburn’s 30-24 loss to Tennessee to effectively end: with a sack. On a vital fourth-and-4 with six and a half minutes left in regulation, Deandre Johnson quickly took Jarrett Stidham down with a blitz up the middle.

The Vols recorded their first SEC win since 2016 and their first win over AU since 1999 by blowing up Auburn’s offensive line, just as most opponents have this fall.

Auburn came into the game ranked a shocking 93rd in Off. S&P+. In terms of marginal efficiency, the Tigers were 100th rushing, 77th passing, 87th on standard downs, and 100th on passing downs.

In losses to LSU and MSU, Jarrett Stidham was 7-for-24 passing on passing downs, with two interceptions and two sacks. It felt like he was facing almost immediate pressure in those situations, which was particularly bad considering he was in those situations almost non-stop.

Against Tennessee, the Tigers did a solid job of avoiding passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more) for a while and took a 17-10 first-half lead as a result. And to his credit, Stidham was better on passing downs themselves, going 8-for-13 for 77 yards and no sacks.

The mistakes the Tigers did make, however, were catastrophic.

Stidham was sacked and stripped on a second-and-5 attempt late in the third quarter, and Tennessee recovered the fumble for a touchdown and a 27-17 lead. Then came the fourth-down sack.

How did we get here?

Auburn was a preseason top-10 team and began the season with a win over another top-10 team, Washington, in Atlanta.

But even in that game, Stidham was harassed pretty constantly. And it really hasn’t stopped since.

When you return enough talent overall, we’ll overlook some potential red flags.

In my 2018 Auburn season preview, I clearly noted what would become the Tigers’ biggest weakness.

Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway are gone, as are those responsible for 50 of 70 starts up front.

When push came to shove, though, I still named them the sixth-best team in the country. I talked myself into players like Scott and Whitlow, and it appeared the line still had enough pieces to form something cohesive. It did not.

And over the last couple of weeks, a previously untouchable defense has begun to spring some leaks as well.

A week ago, a terribly one-dimensional Mississippi State offense, held to just 13 combined points by Kentucky and Florida, scored 23 points and rushed for more than 300 yards on the Tigers.

And on Saturday, Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, harried and rushed for most of his 1.5-year career, went 21-for-32 for 328 yards, two touchdowns, and a 172.4 passer rating. Auburn made 10 tackles for loss and sacked Guarantano three times, but the downfield glitches are starting to add up for a defense that had to be perfect to keep its team in position for wins.

Even with a top-10 projection, I figured the Tigers were till going to struggle to stay in the national title race because of their schedule. And sure enough, they’ve already played three S&P+ top-20 teams with three more on deck.

But now they’re 4-3 and facing trips to mighty Georgia and Alabama.

They also have to host Texas A&M and play at an Ole Miss team that can’t stop anybody but knows how to operate in a track meet.

They already had, per S&P+, a 23 percent chance of finishing 6-6 or worse before Saturday’s loss. That number will rise considerably when the ratings are updated.

If there’s positive spin here — and it’s hard to find any — it’s that Auburn’s offense is almost entirely senior-free.

Malzahn is a successful enough recruiter that, even with iffy experience, you’d have figured the Tigers’ offensive floor was a lot higher than it has turned out to be. But there are only three seniors on the two-deep: blocking back Chandler Cox, tight end Tucker Brown, and receiver Ryan Davis. Whitlow, Seth Williams, and Anthony Schwartz have been by far the Tigers’ most exciting offensive players, and they’re all freshmen.

This doesn’t have to be seen as the beginning of the end for Malzahn, in other words.

But that is the smallest of consolations when you’ve gone from “Maybe we can contend for the SEC again” to “Maybe we can eke out a Birmingham Bowl bid” in under two months.

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