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College Football Preview 2019: 18. Auburn Tigers

18. Auburn Tigers

Can the offense take a major leap forward in 2019? Gus Malzahn's job may depend on it

Marlon Davidson & Nick Coe
Offense: Head coach Gus Malzahn will resume play call duties after a mediocre offensive campaign from the Tigers in 2018. They weren't terrible, averaging 30.9 PPG (48th in the country) but struggled to run the ball and stay consistent. Malzahn will have plenty of talent to work with, but not a ton offense to start in '19.

The first order of business will be locking in a new starting quarterback following the departure of steady Jarrett Stidham. The spring transfer of Malik Willis left it a two man race between redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix. Gatewood spent one season learning the playbook and has size reminiscent of Cam Newton (6'5", 227) but still has not taken a snap at the FBS level. Nix comes in with plenty of fanfare, as the former Alabama Mr. Football. My prediction on the winner? Gatewood will earn it out of fall camp, but don't be surprised if calls to unleash Nix begin pretty quickly on the Plains.

Malzahn teams are certainly at their best when they're running the ball effectively, and the Tigers return their top two rushers. Sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow was a pleasant surprise last season, leading the team in rushing (787 yards) despite just five starts. He has the chance to do even greater damage in 2019, although senior Kam Martin should also still be a factor. Junior Malik Miller also figures to be used creatively, as he caught 13 passes a year ago.

Figuring out a new top receiver may be a growing pain for Auburn this fall, but this is still a good group of playmakers. The top weapon has to be sophomore Anthony Schwartz, who is a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Also a track star, Schwartz has to be refine his route running skills and catching in traffic, but the raw skills are there for an exciting season. Junior Eli Stove appears to be healthy and ready to go following a medical redshirt last year. He is more of a natural No. 1 guy than Schwartz, although undersized. Then there is sophomore Seth Williams, who is technically their top returning guy after he put up 534 yards as a true freshman. Williams is a lethal deep threat, averaging 20.5 yards per reception last fall. Combined, that trio should give whoever earns the starting QB job a lot to work with.

Despite all the talent Auburn brings back at the skill position, the offense is not going to improve at all unless the O-Line makes a big leap. That should happen, as the Tigers return all five starters to the unit, including a number of guys that have All-SEC talent. Senior guard Mike Horton should be the anchor of the group, as will fellow veteran Kaleb Kim at center. UMass transfer Jack Driscoll should be a quality start at right tackle, although this not a very deep group. With five senior starters, there are no excuses for this unit in 2019.

Once again, there is ample talent playing on the Plains, but putting together is always the challenge. If either quarterback can emerge quickly and Whitlow does indeed do even greater things this fall, it has the good chance of being a Top 25 unit, particularly with some of Malzahn's magic sprinkled in there.

Defense: Once the Achilles Heel on this Tigers team, the defense has become their strength. They allowed just 19.2 points per game in 2018, 14th in the country, playing a physical type of football. It all starts with their defensive line, which has a very legitimate claim as the top D-Line in all the land.

It was quite a surprise when D-Tackle Derrick Brown announced he would forgo the NFL Draft and return for his senior year. The powerful disruptor had six tackles for loss and six QB hurries last year but made his real impact as a run stopper. He may be the best interior D-Linemen anywhere. Joining him are two impactful defensive ends in Nick Coe & Marlon Davidson. Coe led the team in sacks last season, managing seven while facing double teams. Davidson was also a force to be reckoned with, posting 11 quarterback hurries. Beyond that trio, Auburn also possesses plenty of depth with guys like Markaviest "Big Kat" Bryant and sophomore Coynis Miller quality reserves. 

That defensive line will have to eat up some run plays in 2019, as the linebacker corps is thin. Losing Deshaun Davis, who led all Auburn defenders with 116 tackles a year ago, is brutal. This group will be very inexperienced and a number of youngsters are going to have to play big snaps. Junior K.J. Britt is the likely starter at the ever-important middle linebacker spot and will have to be the leader of the group. He has proven he can play well in big-time SEC football, but it will still be a transition period for him. Keep an eye on newcomer Owen Pappoe, who was the gem of this year's recruiting class and impressed in the spring. Pappoe has a vast skill set and seems like the type of prospect that should pick up FBS football quickly.

The defensive line should certainly benefit from a secondary bound to lead to coverage sacks. Four key starters return, with the only new one likely broken in at nickelback. Senior corner Javaris Davis is likely to be the No. 1 guy after a superb 2018 season. He had eight pass breakups a season ago, while picking off two passes. Across from him junior Noah Igbinoghene has ample experience and is a major help in run support. Both safety spots seem to be in good hands, as seniors Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson are back in town. Thomas is the top returning tackler entering this fall and really does it all for this back-end.

Coordinator Kevin Steele has done a tremendous job on this side of the ball, and the returns of Brown and Davidson will pay major dividends. With both the line and backfield stocked, the attention will be on the linebacker crew to learn quickly. The season opener against Oregon in late August will test the defensive speed, but it should get them acclimated to primetime college football very quickly.

Special Teams: The younger brother of Auburn legend Daniel, kicker Anders Carlson had big shoes to fill when he first joined Auburn. He had a rocky freshman season, knocking down 15 of 25 field goals, but he did show a lot of potential. Punter should also be in good hands, with junior Arryn Siposs returning after second team All-SEC honors.

Bottom Line: No program in college football is as unpredictable year-in, year-out as Auburn, but the arrow seems to be pointing up for 2019. Sure, the quarterback situation is a major question mark that will have to be figured out in quick order. Yet, the return of Malzahn to play-calling duties adds a certain energy to this offensive group that just was not there a season ago. Steele should also have the defense firing, especially once the linebacker situation smoothes itself out. With that being said, a brutal schedule could restrict just how far the Tigers are able to rise. This team still certainly has the pieces to compete for an SEC West Title, but eight to nine wins seems to be more their range. That is, unless they're able to pull off some Auburn magic much the way they did in 2010 and 2013, which is never out of the question on the Plains.

Team Projections
Projected Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
Offensive MVP: RB JaTarvious Whitlow
Defensive MVP: DL Derrick Brown
Breakout Player of the Year: WR Anthony Schwartz
Impact Freshman: LB Owen Pappoe

Five-Year Trend
2014: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
2015: 7-6 (2-6 SEC)
2016: 8-5 (5-3 SEC)
2017: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)
2018: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)

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