Where Auburn Must Improve
By BJ Bennett
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Five specific areas where the Auburn Tigers need to get better.
Auburn's run to the BCS National Championship Game last season was a magical one. If the Tigers are going to contend once again, here are five areas where they must show improvement.
1. Limiting Big Pass Plays
Even with a veteran secondary, the Tigers were beat downfield a significant number of times. Auburn ranked 120th in the country, allowing 28 pass plays of 30 yards or more; that's twice as many as Kentucky. If it wasn't for a successful pass rush, that total could have been considerably higher. To their credit, the Tigers did face quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Better communication and open-field tackling, in addition to, simply, better coverage, is needed in the defensive backfield.
2. First and Second Down Defense
Situationally, Auburn's defense was actually quite strong a year ago. The Tigers led the SEC in third down defense and ranked second in red zone defense. On the whole, however, Auburn ranked 12th in the league by giving up over 420 yards per game. Success on early downs must start with stopping the run. As good as the Tigers were up front last season, they allowed opponents to rush for 4.6 yards per carry. Of the four teams in the conference who were worse, two of them didn't win a single SEC game. With multiple proven pass rushers, Auburn can be very effective in third down and long situations. Getting opponents to that point is the key.
3. Playing Better With the Lead
Auburn had a 20-point fourth quarter lead over Georgia and needed a late miracle play to win. The Tigers held an 18-point second quarter margin over Florida State before losing in the game's final moments. Though victory ultimately came in less dramatic fashion, Auburn also let Ole Miss come back from a large deficit. Mishaps on offense, defense and special teams all contributed. It sometimes seemed as if the Tigers weren't completely comfortable while holding the advantage.
4. Pass Protection
Though the Tigers allowed just 18 sacks last fall, they actually surrendered one sack every 15.8 pass attempts. For point of reference, Ole Miss, who gave up the most sacks in the division, was beaten once every 18.1 pass attempts. Auburn's offensive line is one of the best in the country at run blocking. The unit, minus star tackle Greg Robinson, must get more comfortable protecting quarterback Nick Marshall. With a full year of experience under his belt, Marshall may be asked to throw the football a little more in 2014.
5. Kick Coverage
The Tigers ranked 123rd in the nation in kick coverage this past season, allowing an average of 25.8 yards per return. Kermit Whitfield's 100-yard fourth quarter burst in the BCS National Championship Game may have cost Auburn a title. That aside, sub-par coverage consistently gave opponents good field position. Especially as the Tiger defense continues to develop, those extra yards can be very important.