This year could be rough for Auburn. They return only six starters, have to rebuild their offensive and defensive lines, play an extremely tough schedule and will play all year with a bullseye on their backs. You’ve heard all that before.
The toughest thing about this year, though, will be replacing Cam Newton and there is one statistic in particular that points this out.
In the off-season before last year, there was quite a bit of talk about Newton. Auburn kept Newton under wraps in the 2010 spring game and, I’ll admit, I was somewhat skeptical that a junior college transfer could step right in as a starter in the SEC and be successful. I didn’t watch him much as the season began, and, like the rest of the country, began to tune in as the Tigers’ roll continued. As I watched the Auburn-Kentucky game, hoping to see Auburn get beat, a sick, sick feeling began to move over me as the game wound down: Auburn could not be stopped on third down. Auburn systematically marched down the field to win the game three and four yards at a time. Third and three or third and four? It didn’t matter. Three and four yards at a time, Newton could not be stopped. He just could not be stopped.
Now, as the 2011 season begins, Auburn, replace Newton and we all try to guess how much of a drop off they will have. Most Auburn fans I know or hear on the radio think Auburn will win seven, eight, or nine games. I’m on record saying they will win four. My reason? Well, there are the reasons above, but the main reason is they can’t replace Newton. Newton kept their offense on the field and that kept their dreadful defense on the sideline – a dreadful defense that had experience and the top defender in the country, Nick Fairley.
One statistic that can best describe Auburn’s magical 2010 season is their third down conversion percentage. Consider this: in 2010, Auburn converted an amazing 53.09% of their third downs. In their nine conference games, they converted an amazing 54.72%.
By comparison, in Alabama’s 2009 championship season, they converted only 39.18% in all14 games and 38.46% in nine conference games. In 2010, with an offensive hyped to be the best in school history before the season began, the conversion percentage was only 41.75%.
In Florida’s championship season of 2008, they converted an incredible 51.55% with Tim Tebow, one of the best players in college football history. In their near miss season of 2009, they converted 49.15%, again with Tebow. In 2007, Tebow’s Heisman season, Florida actually led the nation with a conversion rate of 53.42%.
The Alabama and Florida numbers serve to point out what an incredible season Auburn had offensively last year. Their offense stayed on the field and protected their horrible defense. Some have said that Gus Malzahn worked miracles with Chris Todd in 2009. Well, Todd had very good numbers and even broke some Auburn records. But at the same time, they converted only 34.78% of third downs in conference games, good for seventh in the league. If Malzahn’s offense can’t stay on the field and converts at the same rate as 2009, it will indeed be a long season for Auburn.