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SEC Preview: Auburn

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Auburn Tigers.

AUBURN TIGERS
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (eighth season at Auburn, ninth overall); 62-31 overall, 33-23 SEC
Offensive Coordinator: Chad Morris (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Kevin Steele (fifth season)
2019 Recap: 9-4 (5-3 SEC); lost to Minnesota in Outback Bowl
It was a typical rollercoaster of a season for Auburn, filled with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Much of that was due to having a talented but inexperienced quarterback in true freshman Bo Nix. The Tigers bookended the regular season with a comeback win over Pac-12 champion Oregon and a wild shootout victory over rival Alabama. In between came some hiccups, including a couple of ugly offensive performances in losses to Florida and Georgia. The defensive line was a terror, while a veteran offensive line helped Nix grow. The losses are many heading into 2020, but Auburn now has a quarterback it believes in.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – KENTUCKY (Noon ET, ESPN)
Oct. 3 – at Georgia (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Oct. 10 – ARKANSAS
Oct. 17 – at South Carolina
Oct. 24 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 31 – LSU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Nov. 7 – Idle
Nov. 14 – at Mississippi State
Nov. 21 – TENNESSEE
Nov. 28 – at Alabama
Dec. 5 – TEXAS A&M

Under Center
Nix will almost certainly become Auburn’s first three-year starting quarterback since Brandon Cox from 2005-07. Gus Malzahn has raved about his sophomore starter in ways that the normally measured head coach tends to shy away from. Nix played like a talented true freshman in 2019, guiding comeback wins over Oregon and Alabama, but suffering through too many lulls in the team’s three conference losses.

With just six interceptions as a freshman, Nix quickly showed that he can be trusted to protect the football. The next step is keeping more plays alive, which cost the Tigers in losses to Florida and LSU in which Nix misfired on more than 50 percent of this throws. Nix is mobile enough for Malzahn’s offense to still show some of the elements that it did with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. He’s not yet what Jarrett Stidham was a passer, but the capability well within his reach as he enters his second season.

In The Trenches
Well, Auburn will field an offensive and defensive line this season. That’s about all I can say regarding two units that have been completely turned over from 2019. Gone are standout defenders Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe, leaving savvy defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to reinvent his pressures knowing a four-man rush won’t be as effective this season. Big Kat Bryant is a veteran edge presence, as is Tyrone Truesdell at tackle, but it’s mostly new faces beyond that pair. Senior middle linebacker K.J. Britt leads a pretty good group at the second level of the defense.

It’s five starters and five departures along the offensive line, in addition to a new position coach – Jack Bicknell Jr., previously at Ole Miss. Auburn’s running game was pretty average last year, but Nix was protected well. As Nix’s progressions become more involved as a sophomore, he may need some extra time in the pocket. Opening with a pair of salty front sevens in Kentucky and Georgia won’t allow for much time for this unit to gel.

On The Edge
Nix’s top three targets all return, led by combative catcher Seth Williams and speedster Anthony Schwartz. The question on offense is who takes over for Boobie Whitlow at running back after he surprisingly left the program after last season. Sophomore D.J. Williams and junior Shaun Shivers are both familiar names to Tigers fans, while true freshman Tank Bigsby provides the highest upside.

The secondary is rebuilt after a slew of losses from a year ago, most notably first-round NFL Draft pick Noah Igbinoghene at cornerback. Safety Smoke Monday, one of the heroes of the Alabama win, and cornerback Christian Tutt are known commodities, but there’s a lack of proven experience here. Steele routinely produces elite defenses, so he gets the benefit of the doubt despite some obvious red flags.

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

Schedule Analysis
Auburn’s two added games were Tennessee and South Carolina, which seems pretty equitable, to go along with scheduled crossover games with Georgia and Kentucky. Catching both LSU and Texas A&M on The Plains may give the Tigers a leg up for second place in the SEC West, as the Aggies’ huge scheduling break was minimized with the additional games. After a tricky start with Kentucky and Georgia, there’s a light stretch before a tough back half against LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi State, Alabama and Texas A&M. The Tigers need to be sitting at 4-1 at the turn, or it could become a long season.

Season Prediction
There’s no more maddening team in the SEC to predict than Auburn. Add onto that the complications of a truncated offseason and reworked schedule, and it’s a total dart throw with the Tigers. Most of the swing games are at home at least. The Tigers will come up empty in Athens and Tuscaloosa for the seventh and fifth straight time respectively, and go 4-1 against a pretty formidable home schedule that has only one certain victory (Arkansas). An ugly loss at South Carolina will help turn this season from good to mediocre.

Record: 6-4
CFP Ranking: 14

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.