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Spring Football 2017: Redemption on the Plains

Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
There may not ever be as magical of a season by a single college football team than the 2013 Auburn Tigers. Despite the fact the Tigers had managed to bring on their former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on as their next head coach, not much was expected of them coming into the season. A 3-0 start was soon followed by a sobering loss to LSU by two touchdowns, but Auburn's season didn't end there. Over the next nine weeks, the Tigers put together one of the craziest runs in college football history. They had an insane, Hail Mary reception by receiver Ricardo Louis to stun Georgia and then followed it up a week later by beating archrival Alabama in one of the most improbable endings in the sport's history. They capped things off by running all over Missouri in the SEC Championship, setting up a matchup with Jameis Winston and Florida State in the final BCS National Championship Game. Even though the Tigers would eventually lose in a heartbreaker it seemed Auburn was back to being a national power, and Malzahn was leading the charge. However, sports don't always work that way, and the winds of fate once again shifted. Auburn was the victim of a number of close losses in 2014 and struggled defensively, amounting to a disappointing 8-5 mark. 2015 was supposed to be their year, but nearly everything that could go wrong did and the Tigers went 7-6, finishing dead last in the ultra-competitive SEC West. This past season, Auburn showed plenty of promise, even starting off 8-2, but fell back to Earth. They lost their last three games to finish off 8-5, and looked overmatched against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. That means since that National Championship Game appearance, the Tigers are 23-16 and have suffered three consecutive losses to Alabama. Yet, things appear to be changing once more for Auburn. Led by a new transfer at quarterback, and a running back on the cusp of superstardom, this Tigers team seems truly ready for a return to the national stage and a shot at redemption for the past three disappointing years.

Gus Malzahn has long been hailed as a genius offensive mind, and his achievements certainly seem to back that up. As offensive coordinator for Auburn in 2010, Malzahn worked wonders with Cam Newton, and Auburn had one of the nation's most explosive offenses in the nation. Upon his return in '13, Malzahn once more worked some magic, transforming former JUCO recruit Nick Marshall into a successful QB and opening up lanes for Tre Mason to gauge defenses through. Unfortunately, that offensive success has lacked one big thing: a true, dangerous vertical passing game. Newton proved he could get the ball down the field, but outside of him, the Tigers have yet to find any signal-caller to really open things up and keep defensive backfields honest. That could be changing with the addition of Jarrett Stidham, who arrives from Baylor. Stidham wowed in four games with the Bears in 2015 but was quickly lost to injury. When scandal rocked Baylor and he learned he would not overcome incumbent starter Seth Russell for the quarterback gig, Stidham opted to transfer. He was considered one of the best "free agents" in college football before Malzahn managed to convince him to head East and take over the reigns of the offense. Stidham has astounding arm strength and is a fearless quarterback; he was definitely helped by Baylor's weapons at times but that shouldn't overshadow what he was able to achieve there despite being so young. Stidham will certainly have to adjust to SEC defenses, which will vary completely in their coverage packages and blitzes, versus the wide-open Big 12, but Malzahn and company will be creative with how they use their new dazzling arm. If he is able to adjust quickly, the Tigers almost certainly have their best quarterback since Newton, and should finally have the balance they covet offensively, which should absolutely strike fear into opposing defenses.

Even if Stidham adjusts quickly and greatly improves the Auburn passing attack, he is far from the only piece ready to make some serious noise in 2017. If you don't know him already, acquaint yourself with Kamryn Pettway. The junior from Montgomery, Alabama, had an absolutely breakout 2016, going from zero carries the year previously to first team All-SEC. He rushed for 1,224 yards (124.8 per game) and had seven touchdowns, absolutely bullying opponents along the way with his physical style of play. What was truly amazing about it was that Pettway did those things despite splitting time. He played in just ten games and started just six, while splitting snaps with Kerryon Johnson and Stanton Truitt. Truitt has transferred to North Carolina, while Johnson is expected to play a reduced role, opening the door up for Pettway to do even bigger things this season. While he doesn't quite have the flash or speed of past Auburn star backs such as Ronnie Brown, Michael Dyer or Tre Mason, Pettway's tenacity and excellent vision have helped him evolve into a real playmaker. With another off-season of workouts under his belt and a quarterback that can stretch the field, in turn giving him more room to operate, I expect Pettway to run absolutely wild and perhaps even put his name on the Heisman short list.

Those two are ready to put on a show in '17, but that doesn't necessarily mean Auburn is going to be fully ready to dominate. This team still definitely has other pieces that they need to figure out to really take the next step. Second year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele did a good job remaking the Tigers' defense last season, but loses some significant pieces, namely defensive tackle Montravious Adams and end Carl Lawson. Yet, Malzahn has recruited well enough that depth should not be much of an issue and other breakout stars are ready to step up (keep a close eye on junior end Byron Cowart). The Tigers must also find some new playmakers at receiver and make some tweaks on a good, not great offensive line. Then there is the the tough schedule they have to contend with. Auburn has to go on the road in week two against defending champs Clemson and will have to endure a brutal three-game stretch in late October and early November that includes road trips to LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas all in a row. Those things will certainly play a huge role in Auburn's success this season, but even if those questions, it is time to get excited about this football team. They may have finally unearthed the secret to their success (Stidham) and have enough weapons to cause some serious damage. If things work out, this team should be able to finally meet the enormous expectations that always come out of their football-crazed college town, and maybe, just maybe, take down the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide.

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