AUBURN — The hiring of Carnell "Cadillac" Williams has seemingly breathed life into a program that was looking for direction during the final weeks of the Bryan Harsin era. A fanbase that was checked out and ready for a fresh start has been rejuvenated and there is some excitement surrounding the program.
A lot of that could be credited to Williams, who was beloved during his playing days with the Tigers and has been one of Auburn’s best position coaches since arriving in 2019.
When promoted to interim head coach, Williams became the first African-American head coach in program history, a significant moment for Williams and the program as a whole.
“I had the opportunity to play in the National Football League. That was one of my greatest accomplishments,” said Williams. “But getting this opportunity, it has been heavy on me. Because there are so many people that have paved the way for myself to have this opportunity. It's almost unexplainable, like somebody needs to wake me up.”
As for what he plans to do with this opportunity, Williams’ goals are simple.
“We’re going to play Auburn football, and that’s getting back to running the football and playing relentlessly on defense. We’re going to have fun with it and these guys are going to play hard," he outlined.
That will be put to the test on Saturday, as Auburn travels to the home of the cowbell, Starkville, Mississippi, to take on the Bulldogs.
Williams will have to outduel an experienced coach and one of the best offensive minds in college football, Mike Leach.
The energy might be back for Auburn in part, but the problems from before still exist. Jeff Schmedding is still handling defensive coordinator duties for a unit that is one of the worst in program history, and while the Tigers have been gashed on the ground in four straight games, the Bulldogs and Leach will challenge the defense through the air.
The Bulldogs average 48.3 pass attempts per game, which is the second-most in the country. More importantly, Leach’s offense completes 67.9% of its passes, giving the Bulldogs an efficient and relentless attack led by veteran quarterback Will Rogers, one of the best and most efficient quarterbacks in the SEC.
Rogers has 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions so far this season, with 2,555 yards through the first eight games.
Behind Rogers, Leach has leaned on the running game slightly more than a year ago, wracking up 89.3 yards per game on the ground, nearly 30 more than last season. Dillon Johnson in limited action averages a solid 6 yards per carry and Jo’quavious Marks is not far behind with 4.5 yards per carry.
This talented group will provide a host of challenges for a defense that has been on its heels in recent weeks, but the real question marks for Auburn are on the offensive end. Bryan Harsin and Eric Kiesau are gone, with offensive line coach Will Friend and wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard taking over play-calling duties.
Despite the many issues on offense, the unit has been able to rush for 484 yards in the last two games, the most in a two-game SEC span since 2017. Tank Bigsby is finally getting into a rhythm after the offense sputtered in the first few contests, and with Cadillac Williams at the helm, it seems likely Auburn could go back to the ground-and-pound identity that has been synonymous with the program for decades.
Mississippi State has been poor against the run all year, giving up 137.4 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, so this could be an opportunity for the Auburn offense to get back on track following the last few weeks, which could only be described as inconsistent.
This is also a test for the team’s resolve, which has already been tested a few times this year, and will be tested again on Saturday.
“One thing that is going to make me happy is that we play good football and hard Auburn football. That is what I want to get these kids to do. Play hard, compete,” Williams said. “If we do that, we'll make ourselves proud. I know the Auburn Family will be proud, too.”
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