As the season gets closer and closer, I will be doing a Mississippi State opponent preview series. I will examine two-to-three opponents a week to get through the Bulldogs’ twelve games by the opening Saturday. This series will be in no particular order, however, if you have requests on which team to do next, you can follow @hailstatetakes on Twitter and let me know in the comments under the posted article. On today’s edition we will be previewing the Auburn Tigers.
Gus Malzahn is entering his fifth season at Auburn and is coming off a disappointing (by Auburn’s standards) 8-5 season last year. The down year had many analysts in the SEC and across the country questioning Malzahn’s job security on the Plains. Justified or not, the lack of a legitimate SEC quarterback since the departure of Nick Marshall in 2014 has plagued the Tigers, not Malzahn’s inability to coach. Coming into the 2015 season, Jeremy Johnson was supposed to be the next big thing on the Plains, but whether it was the pressure or a simple lack of accuracy and decision making, things never panned out for Johnson. Fast forward one year, and there is another supposed savior in Auburn. Insert John Franklin III. The dual-threat speedster by way of East Miss. Community College, or as you may know it “Last Chance U,” was supposed to come in and be the perfect fit in Malzahn’s fast paced, spread you out offense. But a lack of throwing ability that plagued him at EMCC followed him to the Plains, and he struggled to get on the field with consistency in 2016. But all of these recent struggles on offense can finally be solved in 2017, as Jarrett Stidham, the transfer from Baylor, will get his shot at reviving the Tiger offense. Only time will tell if he can change the narrative for the Tiger offense, and possibly Malzahn.
As mentioned above, Auburn has struggled to find consistency at the quarterback position the last two seasons, but all of that could change with the arrival of Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. Stidham played in just ten games for the Bears, but his numbers were very impressive, especially as a Freshman. In the ten games he played in, Stidham completed nearly 69% of his passes for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just two interceptions. As impressive as he was at Baylor, it’s hard to completely buy into a guy who has never faced an SEC defense before. If he is truly as good as he appears to be, though, the sky is the limit for this Auburn team.
While it appears to be a forgone conclusion that Stidham will be the starter week one, head coach Gus Malzahn insists there is an open quarterback battle between Stidham and returning QB Sean White. White, a redshirt Junior, is coming off a season where he played in eleven games, completing 64% of his passes for 1,679 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. White was tasked with being a guy that made plays when he needed to, and didn’t make mistakes that would lose you a game. For the most part, he did just that, but if you want to win in the SEC, you have to get better-than-solid play out of your quarterback. Just ask Les Miles about what happens when you are unable to get that.
Kamryn Pettway is set in stone as Auburn’s number one back heading into 2017, and there is a good reason why. Pettway may be the best back in the SEC, and possibly the country. The 6’0″ 235 lb Heisman hopeful is coming off a season where he rushed for over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns in just nine games. In fact, Pettway didn’t even get a carry in the season opener. To think a guy can put up those kind of numbers in just nine games is scary. It will be interesting to see what he can do in a full season as the primary back.
While Pettway may be the feature back this season for the Tigers, don’t sleep on Kerryon Johnson. Johnson is a starter on just about every other SEC team, and you can bet your house on Malzahn finding all kinds of ways to get him the ball in space. Johnson played in twelve games last year, rushing for 895 yards and eleven touchdowns in those appearances. While the number three spot on the depth chart is up for grabs, Auburn fans can take comfort in the fact they have two guys on the roster that can dominate a football game by themselves.
This may be the most up-for-grabs position on the offensive side of the ball for the Tigers. While Auburn does return three starters from last season’s team in Ryan Davis, Jason Smith and Darius Slayton, they don’t bring much production with them. Slayton led the trio in yards with 292, and Davis led them in receptions with 25. While these numbers may appear low, they may also be attributed to the fact that Auburn had some struggles at the quarterback position throughout the year.
Another guy to keep an eye out for is former quarterback John Franklin III, who moved to wide receiver in the offseason. Franklin has the blazing speed needed to be a solid slot guy this year, but whether it translates or not remains to be seen. Kyle Davis is another big target that could be implemented at the outside receiver spot. With a 6’2″ 213 lb frame, he could provide that big play threat for Stidham in 2017. While Franklin is a guy to keep an eye out for, Will Hastings appears to be the primary slot heading into the season. Hastings, the kicker turned receiver, caught just eleven passes last year for 98 yards and a touchdown, but appears primed for a breakout season.
Like many spread offenses, Auburn doesn’t use the tight end the way a typical pro style offense, but new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has a history of using a tight end in his offense. As of today, there are only two guys vying for the starting job in Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella, with incoming freshman John Samuel Shenker expected to redshirt. Jalen Harris appears to be the more stereotypical tight end standing at 6’4″ and 252 lbs, while Sal Cannella at 6’5″ 228 lbs seems to be more of a receiver than a blocker. Ultimately, I expect Auburn to use the two on a rotational situation based on play call.
This offensive line group is the deepest Head Coach Gus Malzahn has had in his tenure at Auburn. With three returning starters in Darius James, Austin Golson and Braden Smith, and two graduate transfers in Wilson Bell and Casey Dunn, Auburn appears set on the line heading into 2017. Austin Golson will likely be the starting center come week one, and while the right side of the ball apears set with Wilson Bell at guard and Braden Smith at tackle, the left side of the ball is up for grabs. The left guard spot seems to be the most uncertain with projected center Austin Golson, Mike Horton and Darius James battling for the position. The Left tackle position is also a battle in progress with Darius James and Prince Tega Wanogho fighting for the spot as we enter camp. Regardless how the position battles shakeout, Auburn projects to have a deep experienced offensive line week one against Georgia Southern.
The defensive line is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into camp with the departures of Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson. Along with the loss of Adams and Lawson Auburn also lost two Senior tackles in Davaroe Lawrence and Maurice Swain. Although it will be tough to replace these guys, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will have plenty of talent to work with.
Auburn does return sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson and redshirt junior nose tackle Dontravius Russell. One of the more interesting battles on the defensive line heading into camp will be the Buck position. Jeff Holland seemed like a lock for the position until Paul James III came in and had an outstanding spring. If he can pick up where he left off in the spring, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is starting week one for the Tigers. While the Buck position may be the most intriguing battle during camp, there is also a wide open battle between sophomore Derrick Brown and redshirt junior Andrew Williams at the tackle spot. It will be interesting if Auburn can be as dominant on the defensive line as they were last year despite the new faces. They certainly are capable of it talent wise.
Whatever may lack on the defensive line this season may be made up at the linebacker position. Auburn returns all three starters from last years team in senior Tre’ Williams, redshirt junior Deshaun Davis and junior Darrell Williams. People close to the program will tell you that this may be Gus Malzahn’s best linebacking corps yet. The only real question for this group will be how quickly the freshmen get on the field and how they will contribute. Four star T.D. Moultry is considered one of the better pass rushers on the team and may get an opportunity to contribute right away at the Buck position.
The Tigers lost two key contributors to last years secondary in Josh Holsey amd Rudy Ford, but return key starters Tray Matthews, Carlton Davis and Stephen Roberts. Tray Matthews, who led the team in tackles in 2016, is the undoubted leader of the defense in 2017, and for good reason. After years of questionable secondary play under Malzahn, 2016 was by far the best year for the group. Even though the passing yards allowed increased from 2015, the pass efficiency defense greatly improved last season, ranking 22nd in the country. Auburn does replace secondary coach Wesley McGriff from last years staff with Greg Brown, but Brown will inherit a talented group, coupled with stability at the coordinator position, I don’t expect this group to take much of a step back.
Wins: Georgia Southern, Mercer, at Missouri, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, at Arkansas, at Texas A&M, Louisiana Monroe
These are games I expect Auburn to win relatively easily. Georgia Southern, Mercer, and Louisiana Monroe are all gimme wins, and while SEC teams are never a pushover, Auburn is simply more talented than the teams I’ve listed here. The two games I was most hesitant about putting on here are against Mississippi State and at Texas A&M. You can view my reasoning for Auburn beating State here. As far as the A&M game, it is always tough to win in College Station, but I expect Texas A&M to take a major step back in 2017 and be looking for a new Head Coach come December.
There isn’t a game on Auburn’s schedule where I say to myself “Auburn can’t win that game.” However, there are a few games I consider toss up games.
Toss ups: at Clemson, at LSU, Georgia, Alabama
The Clemson game in week two will be one of the better games of the week. Last season Clemson came to Jordan-Hare and held onto a 19-13 victory. But this is a different Auburn team and a different Clemson team. I question if the Clemson offense can be as explosive as it has been in the past with Deshaun Watson at the helm, and until Clemson faces off against the Tigers of Auburn, we won’t know for sure.
Last year’s LSU game on the Plains was one of the craziest games of the year. If you don’t recall what happened, LSU appeared to have scored the winning touchdown on the final play of the game, but after review the touchdown was waived off after it was apparent LSU failed to get the snap off in time. It is always difficult to win games in Death Valley and this won’t be any different. Heading into the season, I feel like Auburn is the better team, but nothing is a given when you make the trip to Baton Rouge.
Every year the Auburn Georgia rivalry is one of the best games of the season, and this one will be no different. Georgia has won five of the last six games in the series, but with both teams eyeing a trip to Atlanta at this point in the season, you can throw out previous years results.
Alabama will be making the trip to Jordan-Hare this season in a game that will likely decide who heads to Atlanta out of the West. I almost put this one in the loss catagory simply because I believe Alabama will finish the season undefeated, but knowing how crazy this rivalry can get coupled with both teams having everything to play for, this could end up being the best game of the season.
Final record: 10-2
I feel like Auburn will end up being the second best team in the West and possibly even the second best team in the entire league. Ultimately how successful the season is for the Tigers, will be determined by how well Jarrett Stidham plays.