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Alabama Football vs Auburn Preview: When the Tigers have the Ball

It’s the Jarquez Hunter show in the Plains

Syndication: The Tennessean Andrew Nelles / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

In Hugh Freeze’s first year, Auburn’s offense is, at times, a competent seeming group with a strong rushing attack that can really move the ball down the field. But when those rushes eventually get bottled up, the Tigers have no semblance of a downfield passing game, and things just kind of fall apart for them.

The Freeze offense was once innovative with its plethora of pre-snap motions to mesh with outside zone and zone read hand handoffs all at warp speed with RPOs making up the bulk of the passing game. The rest of college football jumped onto the good parts of this offense about 7 years ago, though, and now it looks indistinguishable from most anyone’s offense out there these days.

All in all, the Tigers are scoring 27.5 points per game, which is good for... 69th in the country. Again, they’re a legitimately upper-half rushing team, but are in competition with Mississippi State for the worst passing attack in the SEC with only 164 yards per game.

The entire offense goes with RB Jarquez Hunter. The junior has been a standout player for the last two seasons, and has jumped into the clear-cut #1 role for the Tigers this year. His yards per attempt have dropped a little this year after his absurd efficiency in 2021-2022, but he’s still getting 5.8 yards per carry. Hunter is a bit of a do-it-all back, but he’s absolutely excellent in small spaces with his elite short-area explosiveness and can make guys miss or run through them.

His backup, USF transfer Brian Battie, is a true change-of-pace player. At 5’7” 170, the former All-American kick returner is a blazer out of the backfield, and Auburn often uses him as a jet sweep guy to mix in with his normal RB carries. He’s small, sure, but he has 227 yards on the season and is someone that always has to be accounted for or he can take a ball for 50 yards in a blink.

And with all of that, the Auburn OL is quite adept at Freeze’s zone blocking, often getting Hunter and Battie those first three yards with a little bit of breathing room.

But enough talking up Tiger players... On to the passing game.

QB Payton Thorne is.... underwhelming. The former Michigan State starter isn’t a disaster or anything. He’s a pretty decent runner, seems to be a good leader, and isn’t mistake prone. He also has a noodle arm for anything over about 7 yards. Essentially, he’s, at best, 2023 Greg McElroy. He could be an okay enough QB for a team with good players that could keep things moving... But that’s a really big caveat.

Auburn’s receiving group is the biggest group of no-names in the SEC. There’s Jar Fair, who has 30 catches for all of 300 yards as the slot receiver - mostly quick underneath stuff. Then senior Ja’Varrius Johnson has 15 catches for 271 yards, which is at least a decent average per catch. Past that? Shane Hooks has 9 catches, and Caleb Burton has 10... cool, I guess?

The only real threat in the passing game for the Tigers is TE Rivaldo Fairweather. The FIU transfer leads the team with 33 catches for 349 yards. He’s not particularly dangerous after the catch or anything, but he is an elite hands guy that can make some really impressive contested catches when called upon.

Overall, the Tiger passing game can occasionally make some plays getting the ball to someone quickly off of playaction or on an RPO or screen or something, but when asked to any real drop back passing, things generally fall apart. They’re not a great pass blocking unit, either, giving up 27 sacks on the year... but they’re not awful. There’s a lot of parts of this Auburn offense that make you think they should be better than they are, but they just don’t score very much, and its ultimately a function of a lack of any sort of downfield passing game.

Honestly, this is a horrid matchup for the Tigers. The only two times the Tide’s defense has given up more than 21 points were against Texas and LSU - both of which were able to hit some deep passes against the Tide to get scores. Alabama held Tennessee — a similarly styled but much better offense— to only 20 points by shutting down Jaylen Wright and forcing Joe Milton to pass the ball to win the game.

I don’t really see any way Auburn’s offense scores more than 16 points in this one, unless it’s a garbage time thing, or it comes off of some Alabama turnovers.