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SEC Season Preview: Auburn

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the Auburn Tigers, ahead of the 2018 season.

Head Coach: Gus Malzahn – sixth year at Auburn, seventh year overall (54-25 overall, 25-15 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Chip Lindsey (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Kevin Steele (third season)

2017 Record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC); lost to UCF in Peach Bowl

Returning Starters: 12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

 

2018 Schedule

Sept. 1 – vs. Washington (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

Sept. 8 – ALABAMA STATE (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network Alt.)

Sept. 15 – LSU (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)

Sept. 22 – ARKANSAS

Sept. 29 – SOUTHERN MISS

 

Oct. 6 – at Mississippi State

Oct. 13 – TENNESSEE

Oct. 20 – at Ole Miss

 

Nov. 3 – TEXAS A&M

Nov. 10 – at Georgia

Nov. 17 – LIBERTY

Nov. 24 – at Alabama

What We Know

-Auburn has a rare established quarterback returning. Outside of Nick Marshall in 2014, the Tigers haven’t had an effective returning quarterback since Brandon Cox in 2007. That changes this year with All-SEC candidate Jarrett Stidham, who was brilliant in late-season upsets of No. 1 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama. Stidham’s accuracy is his biggest asset, but he also has NFL arm strength. Throw in his four rushing touchdowns last season, including one in the Iron Bowl, and you have easily the most talented Tigers quarterback since Cam Newton. Missouri’s Drew Lock might put up better numbers this season, but if I’m an NFL scout, Stidham is my guy.

-Gus Malzahn made defensive line a priority when he returned to Auburn, and it’s paying off. Hiring Rodney Garner from Georgia was a coup, and the Tigers, after allowing about 4.5 yards per carry in 2013-15, have dropped that number to 3.7 and 3.6 in 2016 and 2017 respectively. This year’s unit brings back three starters – tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell and end Marlon Davidson who combined for 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss, easing the loss of edge rusher Jeff Holland and his 10 sacks to the NFL. Sophomore TD Moultry had a nice true freshman season, but he’ll have big shoes to fill is he is indeed the guy at Holland’s old Buck position.

-The top five wide receivers are all back, and they’re all upperclassmen. It would be nice to have Kyle Davis as well, who left the program last season, but he’s the only receiver who topped 100 yards last season that isn’t back. Ryan Davis and Eli Stove are the possession receivers, while Darius Slayton, Will Hastings and Nate Craig-Myers are the deep threats for Stidham. Slayton averaged an eye-popping 22.2 yards per catch last season.

What We Don’t Know

-How much of a drop-off will the running game experience? Kerryon Johnson moves on after 1,391 yards and eight touchdowns, as do four offensive line starters. Offensive line coach Herb Hand also departed, but Malzahn brought back J.B. Grimes, who was his first hire as offensive line coach in 2013. The Tigers added in Massachusetts graduate transfer Jack Driscoll, who accounts for half of the 40 combined starts returning up front. That’s a very low number, so Grimes has some work to do this month. Kam Martin and Malik Miller should adequately replace Johnson, but I’m less confident in the new faces in the trenches.

-The secondary took a sizable hit after last season, with both starting safeties and the No. 1 cornerback departing. The revamped secondary is the J-squad, with juniors Javaris Davis, Jamel  Dean and Jeremiah Dinson the most experienced returning players. Auburn had a Malzahn era-low 54.2% completion percentage last season. Ensuring that number doesn’t creep into the sixties is a must for coordinator Kevin Steele if the Tigers hope to repeat as SEC West champions.

-How will Auburn handle a nasty schedule? The opener with Washington in Atlanta is a huge test, with Huskies head coach Chris Petersen an experienced veteran in neutral-site kickoff games after defeating Virginia Tech and Georgia in similar de facto road games while at Boise State. The three toughest SEC games are all away from home, including Georgia and Alabama in November. The good news? If Auburn finds itself in Alabama’s shoes last year – finishing 11-1 but not winning the SEC West – the Tigers are a virtual lock to make the College Football Playoff.

Ranking The Units

1. Quarterbacks

2. Defensive Line

3. Linebackers

4. Wide Receivers

5. Running Backs

6. Defensive Backs

7. Offensive Line

Quick Hitters

Swing Game: Nov. 24 at Alabama

Trap Game: Oct. 20 at Ole Miss

Offensive MVP: QB Jarrett Stidham

Defensive MVP: DE Marlon Davidson

Floor: 8-4

Ceiling: 11-1

Season Prediction

Auburn has more than enough talent to make its first College Football Playoff appearance, and the schedule would allow the Tigers to drop two games, say, Washington and Georgia, and still finish in the top four with an SEC title. I’m calling for a 5-0 start to SEC play after a loss to the Huskies, but an upset home loss to Texas A&M, which has won all three SEC games in Jordan-Hare Stadium, will be costly. Revenge against Georgia will be sweet, but a loss to Alabama in another winner-take-all Iron Bowl will leave the 9-3 Tigers as a fringe New Year’s Six bowl contender by season’s end.

Overall Record: 9-3

SEC Record: 6-2

Final CFP Ranking: 11

Bowl: Peach Bowl vs. Penn State

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.