Going into the season, no SEC favorite appeared to be completely settled; unsettled quarterback battles at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and LSU left question marks going into the season, but the issue was different at Auburn. Coming off a 2014 season with a defense that struggled to stop teams the second half of the season and an offense with seven new starters including quarterback, running back and several positions on the offensive line, there were reasons to be skeptical of the Tigers while at the same time holding optimism that they could be really good.
Based on the small sample sizes of one game, it appears both of those points of view could still be viable as the Tigers beat Louisville 31-24 this afternoon in Atlanta at the Georgia Dome.
At times through the first half, the Gus Malzahn led Tigers looked less than comfortable and more like a Will Muschamp coached Florida Team. Jeremy Johnson struggled throughout the first half going only 6/12 for 67 yards and two terrible interceptions--one into triple coverage and the other to a wide open Louisville defender--as well as a one yard rushing touchdown. But the Auburn defense played well in the first half under new defensive coordinator Muschamp and helped out with an 82 yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Justin Garrett.
Johnson seemed to settle early in the second half and completed a pretty touchdown pass to Ricardo Louis for a 24 yard touchdown on the opening drive of the second half to stretch Auburn's lead to 24-0. The Cardinals got on the board with a field goal on their next drive, but Auburn's strong start to the second half faded after a holding penalty chalked off a long Johnson touchdown pass and was followed by the third Auburn interception.
This time, the Cardinals capitalized on the mistake and Lamar Jackson ran ten yards for a touchdown to cut the deficit to 24-10 and spark some life in to Louisville towards the end of the third quarter. Auburn responded with their most complete drive of the day capped by a seven yard touchdown run on a jet sweep by Ricardo Louis. The drive extended the lead back to 21 points and, of the 12 plays, 10 were runs as Malzahn apparently decided to calm Johnson by going back to more of the power running game Auburn has featured the past few seasons.
With the return of the power running game, the 2014 Auburn defense seemingly returned also. The defense that mainly controlled the first three quarters ended up giving up four consecutive scoring drives including three straight touchdown drives to lower the Tigers' lead to seven points.
Auburn recovered an onside kick, but Louisville forced Auburn to a fourth down. Bizarre, Les Miles-esque time management by Petrino ran the Cardinals off into the ditch. They were not able to get their hands back on the ball and Auburn escaped with an at times dominating, at times mistake filled and at times anxious victory to start the season.
Auburn hosts in-state FCS foe Jacksonville State next week before traveling to LSU on Sept. 19.