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2019 SEC Preview: Auburn Tigers

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 Auburn Tigers.

Head Coach: Gus Malzahn – seventh year at Auburn, eighth year overall (62-30 overall, 28-20 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Kenny Dillingham (first season)

Defensive Coordinator: Kevin Steele (fourth season)

2018 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC); defeated Purdue in Music City Bowl

Returning Starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – vs. Oregon (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Sept. 7 – TULANE (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Sept. 14 – KENT STATE (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Sept. 21 – at Texas A&M

Oct. 5 – at Florida
Oct. 19 – at Arkansas
Oct. 26 – at LSU

Nov. 2 – OLE MISS
Nov. 16 – GEORGIA
Nov. 23 – SAMFORD
Nov. 30 – ALABAMA

What We Know

-The nation’s best defensive line isn’t in Tuscaloosa or Athens or either Death Valley. It’s on The Plains. Auburn received fantastic and perhaps surprising news in the winter when tackle Derrick Brown and end Marlon Davidson both decided to return to the Tigers for their senior seasons. Add in junior edge rusher Nick Coe, and this unit has the makings of one of the great defensive lines in recent SEC history. There’s one hole to fill in the middle with the departure of Dontavius Russell, but that’s it for question marks up front.

-Auburn has always had depth at running back, but last year was a bit of a struggle for the ground game without a mobile quarterback. This season, the Tigers return their top four running backs from 2018, led by sophomore JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow, who was banged up late in the season. Sophomore Shaun Shivers is more of a scat back, while senior Kam Martin is a mix of the stocky Whitlow and shifty Shivers. Add in a more mobile quarterback along with Malzahn reassuming play-calling duties, and this running game should be much more effective after posting its lowest yards per carry average under Gus Malzahn last year.

-The secondary is a veteran group with plenty of potential. The safety combination of seniors Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas might be the best in the SEC, while cornerback Javaris Davis has 21 career starts under his belt. The other projected starter, Noah Igbinoghene, split time with Davis last season at the spot opposite Jamal Dean, who is the only notable loss from this group. The Tigers will face Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, and Florida’s Feleipe Franks in the first six weeks, with Joe Burrow, Jake Fromm, and Tua Tagavailoa to come later in the season, so this unit will see plenty of tough tests.

What We Don’t Know

-Is this the year that a true freshman SEC quarterback will start a season opener for the first time since 2004? Auburn legacy Bo Nix enrolled in January to battle redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood in the fight to replace Jarrett Stidham. Gatewood has the stature of Tigers legend Cam Newton, but that’s where the comparisons need to end, at least until he throws more than his one career college pass attempt. Nix has more polish than most true freshmen, but I expect Gatewood to take the first snap against Oregon.

-If Auburn’s defense is a sandwich, the bread is fantastic, but the meats and cheeses, in this case the linebackers, are questionable. The Tigers lose their top three linebackers from last season, led by leading tackler Deshaun Davis. Junior K.J. Britt, the projected starter at middle linebacker, may be the most important player on the Auburn defense this season. He’s seen plenty of time in his first two years, but he’s now not only a starter, but also the one making pre-snap calls. He couldn’t ask for more than he has around him, but the attrition requires him to take a major step forward for this defense to reach its potential.

-Will a year of experience help this offensive line gel? The Tigers were a mess up front last season, which had even more of an impact on the running game failures than the inexperienced backfield did. Normally, a line with five senior starters would be the least of a team’s concerns, but for Auburn, these are the same players that couldn’t put it all together in last year’s disappointing 8-5 season. Will experience be the difference? Or are these guys simply not good enough to handle the usual gauntlet Auburn has to face this fall?
Ranking The Units

1. Defensive Line
2. Defensive Backs
3. Running Backs
4. Quarterbacks
5. Receivers
6. Offensive Line
7. Linebackers

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 4
SEC Ranking: 2
Swing Game: Sept. 21 at Texas A&M
Trap Game: Sept. 28 vs. Mississippi State

The Tigers have a challenging but also quirky schedule. There are the usual heavyweights, but this year has Florida roll on to the schedule in place of Tennessee. The former annual rivals haven’t met since 2011. Auburn has three home games in September and four in November, but will not play in Jordan-Hare Stadium in October. That means the Tigers need to start fast, which includes remaining perfect in SEC games at Texas A&M. With four of the preseason top eight still to come, a loss in College Station could lead to a second straight losing season in conference play.

Season Prediction

Because I’m an idiot and don’t learn lessons, I’m picking Auburn to lose to the five best teams on its schedule and win the other seven games, including a sizzler of an opener against Oregon. That’s never the case with the most unpredictable program in the SEC, but I’m sticking with another 7-5 campaign for the Tigers. Will that lead to a coaching change? Again, it’s Auburn, so who knows. They’d owe Malazhn a ton of money, but that rarely is the deciding factor in this conference with coaching decisions. At least there will be a reasonably attractive bowl opponent.

Overall Record: 7-5
SEC Record: 3-5
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Gator Bowl vs. Nebraska

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.