Auburn Football: 5 Stats Tigers Must Improve in 2014

Justin FergusonCFB National AnalystJuly 9, 2014

Auburn Football: 5 Stats Tigers Must Improve in 2014

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    HC Gus Malzahn
    HC Gus MalzahnUSA TODAY Sports

    Although Auburn is returning most of its starters from a team that was seconds away from a national championship, widespread progress must be made over the long offseason.

    The Tigers took the college football world by storm in 2013 with their run to an SEC title after one of the worst seasons in program history and a complete coaching overhaul. 

    Just like their run to Pasadena, they were also a surprise in the numbers of the sport—compared to other elite teams in recent seasons. Auburn's unorthodox style of a devastating run-heavy offense with an up-and-down defense made the team a statistical anomaly.

    Here is a look at five statistics where the Tigers were lacking compared to several of the last national championship squads, including an Auburn team with a defense that was below average in several traditional stats but raised some eyebrows in other areas.

    While the 2013 Tigers proved that a team does not need to be excellent in these areas in order to be in the mix for the title, improvement could make them even more dangerous, well-rounded opponents as they push for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Total Yards Per Play Allowed vs. Ranked Opponents

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    Texas A&M WR Mike Evans vs. Auburn
    Texas A&M WR Mike Evans vs. AuburnThomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    2013 Auburn: 7.09 in 5 games (70th in NCAA)

    Recent National Champions

    2013 Florida State: 4.24 in 3 games (2nd)

    2012 Alabama: 5.41 in 5 games (23rd)

    2011 Alabama: 3.46 in 3 games (1st)

    2010 Auburn: 5.64 in 7 games (24th)

    2009 Alabama: 4.35 in 5 games (5th)

    2008 Florida: 5.19 in 5 games (17th)

    How Auburn Plans to Improve

    Total yardage statistics for defenses can sometimes be misleading, as a team with a successful hurry-up offense is more likely to face a higher number of plays than the average defense. Yards per play, on the other hand, provides a more complete look at the play of a team's defense, no matter what kind of offensive system it runs. 

    While Auburn's defense made several improvements in key statistics such as opponent red-zone scoring percentage and third-down stops, allowing big plays was still one of the unit's biggest weaknesses. This was especially true for the Tigers against the high-profile offenses of their ranked opponents.

    Fortunately, Auburn returns most of its starters in all areas of a defense that is still adjusting to a new, unique system and an offense that wants to score as fast as possible.

    More familiarity with defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's style and more practice time should create improvement for a defense in a conference that will have a lot of new faces on offense.

    "If you look at our first-team defense, they didn’t give up many plays period, much less deep balls," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after the annual A-Day Game. "That has been an emphasis—trying to keep away from the big play. I think our first-team defense has improved greatly this spring from last fall."

Turnover Margin

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    QB Nick Marshall
    QB Nick MarshallKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2013 Auburn: 0 (61st)

    Recent National Champions

    2013 Florida State: +17 (2nd)

    2012 Alabama: +14 (10th)

    2011 Alabama: +8 (20th)

    2010 Auburn: +5 (31st)

    2009 Alabama: +19 (4th)

    2008 Florida: +22 (2nd)

    How Auburn Plans to Improve

    While quarterback Nick Marshall avoided the interception woes that plagued him in junior college and his defensive teammates showed drastic improvement in takeaways, Auburn finished with an even 19 turnovers forced and lost in 2013.

    To tilt this margin closer to the big advantages that recent championship teams have enjoyed, Auburn needs to see improvement in both areas. While the gradually improving defense should have more chances to create turnovers, a cutdown on fumbles would be the easiest and quickest fix.

    Auburn was dangerously close to being on the negative side of the turnover battle. The Tigers coughed up the ball 30 times—third most nationally—but a sizable portion of "turnover luck" resulted in only 11 giveaways via fumble.

    The Auburn staff broke down the Tigers' alarming fumble rate over the offseason and made ball security a bigger priority for Marshall and the rest of the offensive playmakers.

    "The reality of it is, we studied our fumbles; it's when they're making a move or they're in traffic—you spin, you make a cut, that ball leaves your body," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said in March. "There's just a lot of little things that we're really, really emphasizing."

Opponent Rushing Plays of 10-Plus Yards

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    LSU RB Jeremy Hill vs. Auburn
    LSU RB Jeremy Hill vs. AuburnUSA TODAY Sports

    2013 Auburn: 81 (106th in NCAA)

    Recent National Champions

    2013 Florida State: 48 (15th)

    2012 Alabama: 28 (1st)

    2011 Alabama: 22 (1st)

    2010 Auburn: 52 (26th)

    How Auburn Plans to Improve

    As much as the Auburn offense hit opposing defenses for monster yardage on the ground, the Auburn defense struggled to contain opposing backs such as Dak Prescott, Jeremy Hill and Henry Josey from repeatedly getting into the next level.

    "The things that we do during the course of games to create the problems [big plays], that's got to stop or we're not going to win a championship," Johnson said last December, per AL.com's Brandon Marcello.

    Auburn is returning several key starters from the spine of its defense, and the front four has the depth it needs in the battle to control the line of scrimmage like the elite championship teams of recent seasons.

    Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner have also installed the much talked-about "Rhino package," a four-tackle look that seeks to give the defense added muscle against power-running teams such as Arkansas, LSU and Alabama.

    The Tigers, who are gradually getting bigger and stronger all across their 4-2-5 look, are also putting an emphasis on harder hits that will hopefully bring opposing playmakers' plans of a huge gain to a quick end.

Opponent Red-Zone Attempts

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    Former Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham vs. Auburn
    Former Missouri WR Dorial Green-Beckham vs. AuburnKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    2013 Auburn: 52 (95th in NCAA)

    Recent National Champions

    2013 Florida State: 30 (4th)

    2012 Alabama: 29 (3rd)

    2011 Alabama: 17 (1st)

    2010 Auburn: 45 (54th)

    2009 Alabama: 24 (1st)

    2008 Florida: 39 (27th)

    How Auburn Plans to Improve

    Auburn's defense finished 10th nationally last season in preventing offenses from scoring when they knocked on the door. 

    However, the Tigers need to take the next step and prevent their opponents from knocking in the first place.

    The Auburn defense finished close to the bottom nationally in allowing trips to its own red zone thanks to struggles in slowing down offenses "between the 20s." For Auburn to become a well-rounded national title contender in 2014, the defense must cut down on giving the competition more scoring chances in the red zone.

    Auburn's attack mentality and aggressiveness inside its own 20-yard line needs to carry over to the middle of the field. Fixing the specific mistakes that led to constant red-zone visits was a key goal for Johnson in the offseason.

    "It would be one of these stupid first-down plays a lot of times, turning a guy loose in man coverage, somebody running out of a zone, run-fit on a one-back zone play," Johnson told Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com. "We’d do stuff like that and give up a 25-yard play and somehow hang on and make a stop. A lot of that seems to be cleaned up now."

Passing S&P+

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    QB Nick Marshall
    QB Nick MarshallDanny Johnston/Associated Press

    2013 Auburn: 123.1 (16th in NCAA)

    Recent National Champions

    2013 Florida State: 156.7 (1st)

    2012 Alabama: 132.0 (6th)

    2011 Alabama: 142.4 (2nd)

    2010 Auburn: 153.0 (1st)

    2009 Alabama: 134.2 (6th)

    2008 Florida: 153.6 (3rd)

    How Auburn Plans to Improve

    Malzahn wants the Tigers to have more offensive balance in 2014, even if last season's run-dominated championship season showed that they did not necessarily have to air it out a lot to be title contenders.

    But if Auburn is going to pass more with Marshall this season, the offense will need to become more efficient through the air.

    Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders has a schedule-adjusted ratings system called S&P+ that combines an offense's success rate and an advanced measurement of explosive plays. According to the S&P+ pass rating from 2014, the Tigers need to create bigger gains through the air to join the ranks of the recent national champions.

    Between Marshall's success with better accuracy this spring and the new attack mentality of the veteran wide receivers, Auburn should continue to show improvement in Malzahn's offense, which will look to hit defenses vertically whenever it elects to pass. 

    "We can get real scary," Marshall said. "We know we can run the ball. We're just focusing on throwing the ball down the field. That's the emphasis this year."

     

    Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com