The 3-2-1: Mercer Week

Jay G. Tate, Publisher
Auburn Sports

Auburn's lightly anticipated clash with the Mercer Bears is one day away — a game that surely will allow the Tigers to rehabilitate themselves ahead of the more challenging contests ahead. Before we get to that, however, let's consolidate what's been a reasonably eventful week.

In this 3-2-1 piece, we'll discuss three things we've learned, two questions that remain and make one fearless prediction.

And away we go ...

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Robin Conn/AuburnSports.com

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THREE THINGS WE LEARNED THIS WEEK

1.) This offense needs an identity.

It's odd that we keep making that statement two, three, four weeks into a season — every season. Gus Malzahn has said himself many times that he needs a few games to understand his team's strengths and weaknesses, which then allows him (and presumably the offensive coordinator) to cater the offense toward those strengths.

That's reasonable in a sense. Scrimmaging against the Auburn defense is great from an individual perspective, but it doesn't yield a lot of insight from a strategic perspective. This defense knows what to expect. Clemson's defense wasn't far behind last weekend, though, cutting off this Auburn offense before it could get started in Death Valley.

We know the coaching staff is confused. The play-calling last weekend told the story of a braintrust that still is unsure how to maximize available resources. Auburn featured a balanced attack while running scripted plays early, then it went heavy on the run, then it went heavy on the pass. It was as if the team's compass was spinning, leaving the coaches naked and afraid — metaphorically speaking.

Can that problem be solved? A solution exists -- at least in theory. Kam Pettway still is a good back, Jarrett Stidham still has a strong and reasonably accurate arm, the wideouts probably have some untapped play-making ability and the offensive line has played fairly well from guard to guard.

Still, time is running out for this coaching staff to diagnose personnel and determine a course of action. They had 15 spring practices and at least 25 fall practices to assess everything, to formulate a plan. Other teams don't seem to have this problem year in and year out. Auburn can't seem to shake the trend.

2..) Chip Lindsey and Herb Hand will be seeing things differently.

Malzahn announced Tuesday that Lindsey will begin working from the press box this weekend while offensive line coach Herb Hand will begin working from the sideline. The two men have flipped spots.

This move could make a lot of sense. Sitting high above the field will allow Lindsey to have a better feel for how opponents attack the Tigers' run plays and pass protections in addition to their coverage tendencies. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been working from the press box for years and has said that vantage point yields clues he'd never notice from field level.

The bad news? Hand has been Malzahn's eyes in the sky throughout their years of collaboration at both Tulsa and Auburn. Now that Lindsey will be the guy gathering that data and interpreting it for everyone plugged into an offensive headset, the information itself will be different. Will it be better? Will it be worse? That's impossible to discern at this stage.

With that said, at least Auburn is changing something in response to the Clemson debacle. Even if this coaching swap doesn't have much real effect on how plays are called, the mere existence of this change could yield a placebo effect that spurns better attention, better communication, improved play-calling.

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Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com

3.) Kevin Steele is this team's Most Valuable Coach — by some distance.

Auburn's defense has become its calling card and Steele is the reason. He's been able to pick up where Will Muschamp left off and continue building a top-tier Southeastern Conference defense. They have arrived.

Steele will argue that point because, well, that's just him. He never allows himself or his players to feel like they've accomplished anything until the season ends, but those rules don't apply to me. These Tigers are stout against the run, they rush the passer like mad off the edge and their remarkable utility on the back end — four cornerbacks and four safeties are worthy of a starting spot — give this team a chance to win every night out.

What's interesting to me is that Steele did it by earning players' respect in a much different manner. Though Steele will yell at times and he'll get terse at times, he much prefers to converse with players about things rather than berate them. Players almost universally respect that about Steele; they feel like he has their best interests at heart rather than his own desire to rage like a lunatic.

In that sense, the cerebral Steele was the perfect man to follow Muschamp. And don't think for a minute that his ability to win his players' respect hasn't made a huge difference. In fact, I'd say it's the secret to Auburn's success.

Well, that and a roster loaded with good players. That helps a lot, too.

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Jay G. Tate/AuburnSports.com

TWO QUESTIONS REMAINING

1.) Did we all jump the gun on Stidham?

It's still very early and he's still inexperienced and this coaching staff still doesn't seem to understand how it wants to proceed strategically, but the Tigers' new quarterback hasn't exactly been a revelation this season.

He's completed 56 percent of his passes, has two touchdowns and one interception in 48 attempts. The sophomore also has proven himself to be a decent runner in the open field, though he also tends to flee the pocket in situations where sticking around another second or two could yield a meaningful pass attempt.

It's odd; the thought last season was that Auburn needed a big upgrade at quarterback to turn a messy offense into something much better. So along comes Stidham and the offense once again sputtered when facing a proper, top-tier opponent. Understanding those problems is a complicated endeavor, of course, but Stidham hasn't made much of a difference so far. That's a big surprise.

2.) Can this offense be rehabilitated?

That's the real question right now. The confusion seen at Clemson is a bad sign. With that said, it's within the realm of possibility that Lindsey or Malzahn or both will find a way to make sense of the mess.

Will that actually happen? Skepticism seems appropriate given what has occurred during the past two seasons, but Lindsey represents a new variable in the equation. If he's allowed to provide real guidance to help craft a unified offensive paradigm, there's a chance his input will make the difference.

Malzahn's desire to control all aspects of the offensive operation is well-documented. Can he actually cede control and let Lindsey put his stamp on an offense that needs freshening? I'm skeptical considering pressure tends to make coaches more involved. You should be as well.

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Robin Conn/AuburnSports.com

ONE FEARLESS PREDICTION

Three Auburn backs will crack the 100-yard plateau this weekend.

I know what you're thinking: Why would Auburn want to get three tailbacks over the 100-yard mark against a team like Mercer? And that's exactly why it'll happen. The Tigers need to improve dramatically in the passing game, no doubt, but the run game didn't look particularly healthy against Clemson last week.

Always remember that Malzahn's primary concern always is his team's ability to run the ball. He'll want to see this offense run inside zones, powers, counters and perhaps even a buck sweep at a good clip before putting much thought into perfecting the passing game.

Is that a mistake? Maybe.

Will it happen? I say BOOK IT.

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