By the numbers: Auburn football playing worst defense of Kevin Steele’s tenure
AUBURN — It looked like Kevin Steele made the necessary adjustment at halftime, as he has so many times throughout his tenure as Auburn’s defensive coordinator.
The Tigers took the lead over No. 5 Texas A&M on their first drive of the third quarter, and the defense held it, forcing the Aggies offense off the field after just six plays and 18 yards.
But that proved the only time that Steele’s defense kept Texas A&M’s offense from crossing midfield. The visitors' other seven drives (not including a kneel-down to end the game) reached at least the Auburn 35. Six reached the red zone. Four resulted in touchdowns.
And it wasn’t a matter of poor field position – every one of those drives started inside the Aggies’ 30.
“We couldn't stop them,” coach Gus Malzahn said after the 31-20 loss.
Texas A&M’s 509 total yards and 31 points against Auburn aren’t the worst totals of Steele’s five-season tenure that begin in 2016, but this defense overall is, at least statistically.
The Tigers rank fifth in the SEC allowing 25.2 points per game and ninth allowing 5.9 yards per play. It hasn’t allowed more than that against conference opponents since 2015 and 2014, respectively.
Here are three numbers that stand out as reasons why:
That’s how many yards per rush Auburn is allowing, which marks its most in conference games since it surrendered more than 4.8 in 2015.
Texas A&M averaged 6.7 on its way to 313 yards Saturday. Running backs Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane rushed for 120 and 99 yards, respectively, and quarterback Kellen Mond chipped in 60. Fourteen of 39 carries gained 10 or more yards.
“We always pride ourselves with stopping the run first,” senior safety Jordyn Peters said. “When they're busting out runs like that, it's a red flag.”
The Aggies were the third consecutive team to average more than 5 yards per carry against Auburn (and fourth in the last five games) after Tennessee averaged 5.4 and Alabama 5.3. That’s the first time that has happened since before 2000.
No team averaged more than 4.8 yards per carry against the Tigers last season.
The efficiency rating of opposing quarterbacks, which ranks eighth in the SEC and is the highest Auburn’s defense has allowed since a disastrous 2012 campaign (164.3). They’re averaging 65.1% completion, 7.8 yards per attempt and have thrown 16 touchdowns against the Tigers, which are the defense’s worst marks against conference opponents since at least 2014.
The Tigers did have a strong midseason stretch through games against South Carolina, Ole Miss and LSU (the first three quarters), when they held Collin Hill, Matt Corral and TJ Finley/Max Johnson to 57.8% completion, 161 yards, shut down two of the SEC’s best receivers in Elijah Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. and had more interceptions (five) than touchdowns allowed (two).
But against Alabama and Texas A&M the past two weeks, Auburn’s defense looked more like the one Arkansas’ Feleipe Franks shredded for 318 yards and four touchdowns in Week 3. Alabama’s Mac Jones threw five touchdowns (four of 24 or more yards) and Mond completed 78.3% of his passes.
That’s the percentage of third downs that Auburn’s defense has allowed opponents to convert. Texas A&M converted 7 of 11, which makes it the fifth opponent in nine games to reach the 60% mark. The Tigers have held only one team – LSU (5 of 17) – below 40%.
That’s a massive drop-off from last season, when Auburn tied for first in the SEC allowing conference opponents to convert just 30.8% of their third downs. Only one team – national-champion LSU – recorded a mark better than 43%. Five of eight were held under 30%.
It’s the first time since 2015 that the Tigers have allowed opponents to convert more than 40% of their third downs. They haven’t allowed more than 50% since at least before 2004.
Auburn has been able to hide some of those issues with red-zone stops and timely turnovers, specifically in the wins over Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee. It had a chance to do the same Saturday when linebacker Zakoby McClain came ever so close to picking off Mond early in the fourth quarter, but ultimately, that’s not a repeatable recipe.
Maybe this type of drop-off should have been expected. The Tigers have done a great job reloading throughout Steele’s tenure, but they’ve never had to replace as much talent and production as they did this season – Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas departed for the NFL; Chandler Wooten opted out due to COVID-19 concerns and first-team All-SEC pick K.J. Britt has been out due to injury since Week 2.
Seven of the 18 players who played double-digit snaps on defense against the Aggies are new to the rotation this season. The top eight defensive linemen have struggled to make the same impact as their predecessors, combining for just 20½ tackles for loss and nine sacks through nine games. Brown and Davidson had 15½ and 9½ by themselves at this point last year.
The result is a defense that has given up 28 or more points five times in nine games this year. That happened only six times over Auburn’s previous three seasons under Steele combined.