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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 11. Auburn Tigers

11. Auburn Tigers

Is Stidham the missing piece to a championship team?

  • Location: Auburn, AL.
  • Conference: SEC (West)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Gus Malzahn (fifth year)
  • Last Years Record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
  • Bowl Result: Loss in Sugar Bowl


After a magical debut season that saw Auburn go 12-2 and come within seconds of a National Title in 2013, head coach Gus Malzahn has struggled to have a true encore. He's overseen three talented teams since then but has had two 8-5 years and one rocky 7-6 campaign that started with the Tigers ranked sixth in the country. That has left the offensive-minded coach with plenty of pressure and there is a wide belief around Auburn that another mediocre finish in the middle-of-the-pack in the SEC West could result in Malzahn's firing. The good news is that Malzahn has likely his best team since that '13 team, with a deep backfield, physical offensive line and experienced defense. He also adds arguably the top transfer in the land, former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham. Will the new acquisition be the missing piece the Tigers need to compete again for championships?

Kerryon Johnson
Offense: Since Malzahn returned to Auburn (he was offensive coordinator on the Cam Newton National Championship team) one thing he has really lacked is a top-flight quarterback. He has good runners like Nick Marshall and incumbent starter Sean White, but the passing game has still lagged behind for years. The hope is that the addition of Stidham will finally change that, as the former Baylor signal-caller displayed impressive poise and a huge arm in three starts with the Bears, in which he threw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns before tearing his ACL. The hype surrounding the transfer is so insane there have been whispers of the Heisman, but the sophomore will still need time to learn the tougher parts of Malzahn's offense and going from Big 12 defenses to SEC defenses is a huge difference. If he struggles, Malzahn should feel confident turning to junior Sean White, who emerged from a three-person QB race to win the job in 2016. White doesn't have a great arm but he still managed 1,679 yards and nine touchdowns and runs the offense very well. Auburn's offense also brings back it's top four rushers from last season, including junior Kamryn Pettway, who also may be a name to watch in the Heisman race. Pettway took advantage of an injury to veteran Kerryon Johnson to take over the feature back job and did not disappoint, managing over 150 yards in four consecutive games. He ended up finishing with 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns, and at nearly 240 pounds, he absolutely runs people over. The Auburn offense is great at getting their rushers the ball in creative ways, so expect Pettway to get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in '17. Johnson is also back after finishing last year with 895 yards and 11 touchdowns. He isn't the physical runner that Pettway is but has a little bit more shiftiness and wiggle to him. Sophomore Kam Martin didn't see a ton of action being buried on the depth chart last season but did show out when he got the carries, with 320 yards on 44 carries, averaging an extremely impressive 7.3 yards per carry. He will be a nice option for the offense with his speed and explosiveness. At receiver, Auburn is still looking for their No. 1 target for Stidham to pass to. Tony Stevens led the team with 31 catches for 487 yards a year ago but has now departed, leaving sophomore Darius Slayton as the team's top returning pass-catcher, managing 292 yards on 15 catches in 2016. Slayton has terrific speed and can really take the top off the defense, and could be a perfect fit for Stidham's huge arm. Fellow sophomores Eli Stove and Nate Craig-Myers are both likely to breakout after showing flashes of brilliance last season. Craig-Myers was one of the top newcomers in the team's 2016 recruiting class but was hampered by injuries and had just four receptions. Now fully healthy the speed and versatile wide out should be put to good use. The Tigers also add John Franklin III to their receiver corps, after he spent last season at the quarterback position. Franklin III has undeniable speed and playmaking ability but has very erratic passing the football. The move to receiver certainly comes with some learning curve, but the former JUCO transfer has all the physical gifts to still be a major factor. Junior Chandler Cox is the likely starter at the tight end spot. Cox is a former half back who isn't super athletic but finds a way to make an impact and could be a nice security blanket for Stidham underneath. Up front, Auburn returns three starters and will be very experienced overall. The tackle spots are especially strong with senior Braden Smith slated in at right tackle, while former Texas transfer Darius James should handle the left tackle spot. Former Ole Miss center Austin Golson is also back to be the team's anchor at center.

Tray Matthews
Defense: Kevin Steele took over at defensive coordinator for Will Muschamp, who left to take over the South Carolina head coaching job, and the results were very impressive. Auburn allowed just 17.1 points per game, which was seventh nationally, and had the 28th-ranked total defense. Considering how much the unit struggled at times in 2014 and 2015, that performance has many excited about what Steele can do in Year 2 running the D. He'll have a very stout defensive line, even with the departures of All-Americans Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Sophomore Marlon Davidson is expected to put together a huge season after recording six tackles for loss and six quarterback hurries in 2016. He's not quite the athlete that Lawson was but has tremendous instincts and a nose for the ball. Junior defensive tackle Dontavius Russell also has All-Conference potential after recording 29 tackles last year. With Adams gone,  he'll have to take much more responsibility in the interior of the unit. Another name to watch is junior Byron Cowart, who was once a five-star recruit. Nobody questions Cowart's talent and potential, but the linemen has yet to really produce on the field, with just six tackles in ten games a year ago. Auburn coaches are hoping a move from end to tackle can really bring out his vast potential. In the linebacker corps, the Tigers return one of their top defenders, junior Deshaun Davis. Davis finished third on the team with 63 tackles last season, while also adding on seven tackles for loss and three pass breakups. Starting at the middle linebacker spot, Steele will lean on the junior to make plenty of big plays again for the defense. Also returning is junior Darrell Williams who added 52 tackles himself. With senior Tre Williams on the other side (six starters last season), Auburn has three very experienced players in the group, and they should have no troubles shutting down the run once more in 2017. At the "Buck" linebacker spot, junior Jeff Holland is competing with senior Paul James III, who missed all of last season with injuries, and others for the starting job. While the Tigers return enough in their front seven for that to certainly be a strength, the secondary most likely will be the top unit on the defense, as six of the top seven in the secondary are returning. The leader of the unit has got to be Georgia transfer Tray Matthews, an extremely versatile and skilled safety. Matthews became an Auburn legend in an unfortunate way in 2013, colliding with fellow Georgia Bulldog Josh Harvey-Clemons on an attempted deflection that bounced back to Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis and gave Auburn a miraculous last-second win in what is now known as "The Miracle at Jordan-Hare". However, since arriving at Auburn, Matthews has proven he's a top-flight defender, leading the team in tackles with 76 last season. He will be joined in the defensive backfield by senior safety Stephen Roberts and junior cornerback Carlton Davis. Roberts is a rangy, hard-hitting defender in the back, while Davis has the size (6'1", 200 pounds) and quickness to cover some of the SEC's top wide receivers. It's unclear who will start at the corner spot opposite of Davis, but there are a wide range of candidates competing for the starting gig.

Special Teams: There is few bigger advantages in college football than having a top-notch kicker and luckily for Auburn, they have just that. Senior Daniel Carlson knocked down 28 of 32 field goals last year, including a wonderful long of 53. Punter isn't quite a strength, but sophomore Ian Shannon should still have a good year. In the return game, Stephen Roberts and Kerryon Johnson should likely field a majority of the returns.

There aren't a lot of head coaches on hotter seats in the country than Malzahn, and there will be plenty of pressure on him and the team as a whole. While that may be a slight distraction, he looks like he has a team fully equipped to challenge for an SEC West title. With Stidham leading the charge, a deep backfield, and a talented defense, this team has no excuses not to put together an impressive year. Trips to Clemson, LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M are certainly daunting, but the Tigers fare pretty well on the road under Malzahn and they get their toughest opponent, Alabama, at home. It may be unreasonable to assume the Tigers are ready to overtake the mighty Tide in the division just yet, but if things go as planned they certainly have a chance to do just that, and possibly contend for a Playoff berth.

Player to Watch
Nate Craig-Myers, WR
Auburn really hasn't had a go-to, elite-caliber receiver in years, which has obviously hurt their overall offense. There is a chance Darius Slayton or somebody else could step up, but my money has to be on Craig-Myers to emerge as their top target in 2017. The sophomore has terrific speed and athleticism, and looked 100 percent in the spring after missing all of '16 with multiple injuries.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
2013: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)*
2014: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)*
2015: 7-6 (2-6 SEC)*
2016: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)*

*= Bowl appearance

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