No. 7 Auburn
"Really, if you look back to 2013, I feel the same way about our team.”
Gus Malzahn has high expectations for 2017, as he should, because another seven- or eight-win season with Auburn buried in the SEC West standings could cost him his job.
Malzahn has a new quarterback, elite running back and defense oozing with potential. Can he put the pieces together for a much-needed run at the playoff?
2016 Record: 8-5 (3-5, SEC)
Auburn's offense cost them in a season-opening six-point loss to Clemson in which they scored 13 points and had 262 total yards and three turnovers while averaging barely two yards per carry.
The Tigers did finish the season with a 31.2-point scoring average but were not consistent, averaging 13.4 points in five losses and 42.4 in eight wins. Their six-game midseason winning streak kept them alive in the SEC West race but they dropped their final two conference games against Georgia (13-7) and Alabama (30-12).
Head Coach: Gus Malzahn (5th year, 35-18 overall)
Gus Malzahn's 12 wins and national championship appearance in his first season feels like decades ago. Since that magical 2013 season, he has gone 23-16 overall and 11-13 in the SEC, only once finishing above fourth in the division.
Expectations are sky high for Malzahn's fifth season, and that's fine by him.
“We’re at the point now where we’ve had five top-10 recruiting classes in a row,” he said. “Right now, we have the best quality depth we’ve had since I’ve been here. We’ve got the most experienced team that I’ve had since I’ve been here . . . The fact that we have a very hungry team, they’ve got something to prove."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway, RB Kerryon Johnson, WR Darius Slayton, WR Kyle Davis, TE Jalen Harris, OT Braden Smith
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left for the same position at UConn, leading Malzahn to snag Chip Lindsey from Arizona State. Lindsey, a former Alabama high school coach who was an offensive analyst for the Tigers in 2013, was hired to bring better creativity, consistency and quarterback development to a unit that has labored for most of the last three years.
"I've actively seen him develop quarterbacks; he's very good at that," Malzahn said. "He's very good at evaluating quarterbacks. I feel very comfortable with Chip; I've got a lot of trust that he can do it. And then he fits within my philosophy.
Per usual with other previews, Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is much too big of a piece to be buried in the Player Additions section below. The 6-foot-3, 214-pound sophomore was terrific for the Bears in 2015, completing 69 percent of his passes for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. He averaged 11.6 yards per attempt and has a nice touch on passes 20 or more yards downfield.
"Some of the similarities that [Lindsey] has with what I’ve done at Baylor — some of the deeper passing game — it’s been a lot of fun," Stidham said. "And a lot of it, I’ve done before. It's kind of second nature."
Who will be on the receiving end of those deeper passes?
They don't return anyone who had more than 25 catches or 300 yards last season. They do, however, get back two sophomores capable of blowing the lid off the defense. Darius Slayton and Kyle Davis caught only 27 combined passes in 2016 but both averaged more than 19 yards per reception.
Lindsey has said they'll also use tight ends and running backs in the passing game more, something that's been a staple of his offenses at Arizona State and Southern Miss.
"At the end of the day you build an offense around your playmakers, and if your tight ends are in your top 3-to-5 playmakers, they’re going to catch balls," Lindsey said this spring, referencing junior Jalen Harris and JUCO transfer Sal Cannella. "That’s the way it works. If not, you’re going to get the ball to the guys that can score."
Topping that playmaker list are two big-time running backs in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. They combined for 2,019 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. And while offensive line is still unsettled — with a few freshmen and sophomores competing for two-deep spots — they do return senior right tackle Braden Smith, one of the best in the business.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Byron Cowart, DE Marlon Davidson, LB Deshaun Davis, LB Tre' Wiliams, CB Carlton Davis, S Tray Matthews, S Stephen Roberts
Carl Lawson was a five-star defensive end recruit in the Tigers' 2013 class. He appeared in just 18 games over his first three years before exploding for 14 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks last year. It's Byron Cowart's turn for a similar explosion.
He was a third-ranked prospect in the entire 2015 class but has battled injuries and ineffectiveness to contribute 12 tackles and zero sacks in 12 games. The 6-foot-3, 283-pounder moved from end to tackle this year and though reports haven't been glowing, coaches say he has the physical talent to become an elite interior lineman.
"He's just got to keep improving," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. "He moved to a new position, which is totally Greek. He's at defensive tackle, which that's a different position. So he has to learn the techniques and fundamentals that master those where he can be successful at that position."
Also returning is sophomore Marlon Davidson (below), who was a disruptive specimen as a freshman, registering 38 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four passes defended. He suffered a non-contact knee injury early in camp but has returned and should be fine for Week 1.
"From the moment he got on campus, he didn’t look like a true freshman,” Malzahn said of Davidson at SEC Media Days. “He looked like a veteran just with the way he practiced, his work ethic, how tough he was. And he’s a handful. He’s got a chance to be an impact player. I can’t say enough good things about Marlon.”
Tre' Williams and Deshaun Davis are back at outside and middle linebacker, respectively, for a group that allowed 132.8 rushing yards per game (third in the SEC, 27th in the FBS). And three starters return for a secondary that allowed 229.2 yards per game (ninth and 67th).
Roberts and Co. allowed 14 total passing touchdowns and ranked 22nd nationally in passing efficiency defense.
Notable Player Losses
WR Tony Stevens, G Alex Kozan, DT Montravius Adams, DE Carl Lawson, CB Joshua Holsey, S Rudy Ford
Auburn lost two huge pieces from both the secondary and defensive line, all four of whom were draft picks.
Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson combined for 22 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks. Lawson had 8.5 sacks over a seven-game stretch. Corner Joshua Holsey led the team with three picks and 10 passes defended (tied with Carlton Davis), while safety Rudy Ford is gone after appearing in 52 career games.
Offensively, Alex Kozan finally graduated after starting 40-straight games at guard, as did leading receiver Tony Stevens.
Notable Player Additions
RB Devan Barrett, WR Noah Igbinoghene, TE Sal Cannella, DE Markaviest Bryant, LB T.D. Moultry
Jarrett Stidham will have the most impact of any new player, but a bunch of true freshmen are in line for immediate roles, among them receiver Noah Igbinoghene and running back Devan Barrett. Barrett, a four-star recruit from Florida, was the nation's 11th-ranked running back.
"I think Noah may have a chance, especially because he's on special teams," offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said when asked which freshman will play in 2017. "I think he would be one for sure. … Devan Barrett would be another. He's getting a really hard look as a running back."
Also keep an eye on JUCO transer Sal Cannella, the top-ranked JUCO tight end in the nation.
On defense, all eyes are on end Markeviest "Big Cat" Bryant, another four-star product who's wowed the staff and veterans numerous times during fall camp.
"He's really shown that he's going to have an opportunity," said Gardner. "It gets your attention (as a player) that, 'Hey man, I got to really stay on top of my game or this guy, I'll look up and I'll be somewhere else,' because he's a kid that comes to work every day."
Both him and T.D. Moultry have taken snaps with the first team.
Auburn has an extremely interesting schedule.
Not only do the Tigers play Clemson the road in Week 2 in the second half of a home-and-home series that began with a Clemson win in Auburn last year, they have a rare three-game road trip and close the season with three-straight home games.
"We’ve got to seize the moment, we’ve got a chance,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got an unbelievably tough schedule. But we do have some key opponents at home. I like where we’re at.”
Will the Iron Bowl on Nov. 25 be for the SEC West title?
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Georgia Southern|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Clemson|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Mercer|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Missouri|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||vs. Mississippi State|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at LSU|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Arkansas|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. UL-Monroe|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Alabama|