AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn had just completed a 40-17 dismantling of Georgia, which entered last weekend ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff poll, when Coach Gus Malzahn stepped onto the dais to address the circumstances behind yet another Tigers offensive masterpiece.
It didn’t take him long to acknowledge the one player most responsible for elevating Auburn’s attack from pedestrian in recent years to prolific this season.
“Kerryon Johnson, I’ve been saying it for a couple weeks, he’s one of the best running backs in the country, if not the best,” Malzahn said Saturday after the junior rushed for 167 yards on 32 carries against the No. 5 run defense in major college football. “He proved it tonight. He needs to be in the Heisman talk.”
Johnson added a 55-yard touchdown reception in the second half in amassing 233 yards from scrimmage, vaulting Auburn into the playoff picture despite two losses. The Tigers, who moved up four spots to No. 6 in the latest playoff rankings released Tuesday night, can further fortify their profile against Alabama, the new No. 1, on Nov. 25 to determine the Southeastern Conference’s West Division champion.
The winner of that game will advance to the SEC championship game against Georgia, which has locked up the East Division, Dec. 2 in Atlanta. The SEC champion is all but certain to be awarded one of the four berths in the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers (8-2, 6-1) would not be in position for a potential national championship run without Johnson, whose 1,035 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns lead the SEC. Free from nagging injuries that hindered him over the last two seasons, Johnson is averaging an SEC-best 128.4 yards per game against conference opponents and needs 190 yards to surpass Kamryn Pettway’s team-leading total from last season.
Johnson is on track for the most rushing yards at Auburn in three years. With two regular season games left and the possibility of three more — the SEC championship game and the two-round playoff — he also would be within reach of moving into the top five for single-season rushing in program history.
In that case, he’d be in rarefied statistical company with the likes of Bo Jackson and Cam Newton, both Heisman Trophy winners.
“I appreciate it from him, seeing as he’s Coach,” Johnson said of Malzahn promoting him for college football’s most prestigious individual award. “Just a few guys in that conversation and guys that have won it, so I appreciate that from him, but until it’s in there it’s not in there, so I’ll just keep going out, and I’ll run, and if it gets in there, it’s pretty cool.
“It’s always been a dream of mine. I never thought I’d get to that level, but it’d be pretty awesome.”
In addition to Johnson’s production, the offense has benefited considerably from the developing relationship between first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The sophomore leads the SEC in completion percentage (67.08), and his three interceptions are the fewest in the conference among those with at least 200 passing attempts.
Stidham has six touchdown passes and no interceptions in his past two games. Against the Bulldogs, the transfer from Baylor completed 16 of 23 attempts for 214 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another on a seven-yard keeper out of the read option, helping Auburn win for just the fifth time in the past 16 installments of the Deep South’s longest-standing rivalry.
His decision-making and attention to ball security have allowed Lindsey to open the playbook to keep defenses off-balance. The result has been Auburn averaging an SEC-best 40 points per game in-conference, including hanging 52 and 51, respectively, on Arkansas and Missouri.
“Obviously last year I took that year off and missed out on a lot of time, but this year every week I really feel like I’ve made some strides,” said Stidham, who sat out 2016 per NCAA transfer rules. “Got a long way to go, but that’s why you practice, and that’s why you play.”
The Tigers are 22nd among 129 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total offense (468.3 yards per game) under Lindsey, who replaced Rhett Lashlee after the Malzahn understudy departed for Connecticut to become its offensive coordinator. The Tigers are averaging 231.6 passing yards per game this season — hardly elite, but their most through the air in Malzahn’s five seasons. Their scoring average of 37.2 points is their most since 2013, when they advanced to the BCS national title game in Malzahn’s first season.
Auburn’s offensive numbers stand to increase this weekend against Louisiana-Monroe, which is ranked 113th in total defense and allowing 37.9 points per game, 11th most in the country.
Then comes bitter in-state rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Crimson Tide is yielding the fewest points per game (11.2) nationally and ranks second in total defense, but the injury-riddled unit allowed 330 total yards in this past weekend’s 31-24 victory over Mississippi State.
Auburn has lost three in a row to Alabama and five out of the past six.
“We have a great opportunity right now,” said Malzahn, who cited a 27-23 loss to Louisiana State on Oct. 14 as a turning point. “Our goal was to win the SEC championship, and here we are right in the middle of it. All the dreams we have are still alive. That LSU game I said, “It’s not the end of the world,’ and what I meant by that is we still control our own destiny.
“And we still do now.”