SEC West: +625
SEC Championship: +1800
National Title: +5000
Projected Regular Season Win Total: 7.5, Over -140, Under +110
The Auburn Tigers started their 2018 season about as well as they could when they beat Washington 21-16 in Atlanta. The team started 4-1 with the only loss to a good LSU team and fans were feeling that they could be trending towards an SEC Championship game for a second straight year. But after that 5th game the Tigers finished the regular season on a 3-4 run and disappointedly accepted a spot in the Music City Bowl. Auburn finished the regular season 7-5 and mauled Purdue in their bowl game, a performance that could perhaps be attributed the pent up frustration of squandering a good first half of the season. So what happened to Auburn? The offense held its ground for the most part, but the defense unravelled. The first 5 games didn’t see a single team hit 400 yards, but the remaining eight saw 5 such games with Tennessee falling only two yards short. The first 5 opponents averaged only 12.6 PPG while the other eight averaged over 23 PPG, and if you take out the Liberty game that number rises to 26. You could blame it on whatever you like, but the fact of the matter is that Auburn needed to stick to their guns and stay tough on defense but were unable. The SEC is one of the best top to bottom conferences in the country and a subpar defense won’t get you very far. So for many fans this was a throwaway season and a team that amounts to, hopefully, an anomaly.
Offense: After a two year run, Jarrett Stidham left early to test the NFL waters and was curiously picked up by the Patriots. What makes this decision even worse for Gus Malzahn is that Stidham’s backup, Malik Willis, also transferred out to Liberty. So Malzahn is faced with the decision to either play redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or 5-star true freshman Bo Nix. Nix is the quarterback of the future, but it would be understandable if Malzahn didn’t want to throw him in there right away. Gatewood is a prototypical quarterback that has all the tools, but a much lower ceiling than Nix has. Malzahn has a big decision to make and it could affect Auburn football for the next few years if it doesn’t work out. JaTarvious Winslow and Kam Martin both had very underwhelming years running the ball last season but should bounce back behind a stout veteran line. Both will be used a lot with a new quarterback coming in so it is integral for one of them to up their play to the SEC bell cow level. Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton, the top two pass catchers for the Tigers, are gone from the team which poses another big problem. Auburn will have to lean heavily on Seth Hill and Anthony Schwartz to become the big play guys that Davis and Slayton were last year. It will be especially important this year that they are reliable in order to see what the Tigers really have at the quarterback position. The line is stacked with returning starters and should give a good push up front. They were shaky last year but became cohesive toward the end of the season; they should be much improved this year.
Defense: Auburn has a ridiculously good front four that should have plans to decimate offensive linemen this year. The only loss was Dontavius Russell at tackle, but there’s no reason to worry since there were 4 4-star commits on the line that gave the nod to the Tigers, and that’s not to mention Tyrone Truesdell and Coynis Miller Jr. who are ready to plug that hole. Whoever the starter is, they’ll have big Derrick Brown next to them. Brown was an NFL ready talent but decided to stay for his senior year; he pushes this line over the edge. Speaking of the edge, Marlon Davidson, another player who could have gone to the NFL, will be the premier rusher off the edge after getting 2.5 sacks and 4.5 TFL last year. Big Cat Bryant will play behind Davidson and is another pro talent that will make a big impact this year. The BUCK player will will be Nick Coe. When he’s on the field, there isn’t much guessing as to what he will be doing. He had 7 sacks last year which led the team, he’s a great penetrator and will be key in the disruptor role this season.
The biggest question on the defense will be the linebacking group. Even though the Tigers generally only use two linebackers, there are still huge shoes to fill. All 3 starting linebackers are gone with two of them being top 3 in tackles on the team. If we were looking only at talent, the starters this season would be K.J. Britt and 5-star freshman Owen Pappoe. Neither are big guys but both can move well and can hound out a tackle. While these two will be the likely starters we can expect to see competition from guys like Chandler Wooten, Zakoby McClain, and Derick Hall. There will be good competition but we should expect this part of the defense to lack a bit more than normal.
The secondary is headlined by a tremendous pair of senior safeties named Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson. Thomas is one of the best players on the team and was second in tackles last year while Dinson wasn’t far behind in 4th. Both guys had two interceptions last season and Thomas had two forced fumbles with another from Dinson. These two will be given a lot of freedom in centerfield and will be big time impact players for Auburn. Noah Igbinoghene will resume his job as the wide side corner while Javaris Davis steps into Jemel Dean’s spot. The corners are experienced and will do well in pass coverage with the possibility of shooting a corner blitz every once in a while. The 5th back in this 4-2-5 scheme will be sophomore Christain Tutt. He’ll do a variety of things from double cover, zone cover, track backfield players or even join the pass rush. Having this extra roamer allows the linebackers to take more risks than a usual group.
Before we move on to the next part of this article I want to talk to you guys about someone who will see playing time but has a bigger impact than what he does on the field. I’m talking about a guy who has first team All-Name potential not only in the SEC, but in the entire country. I’m talking about Smoke Monday. This free safety has one of the best names I’ve ever heard from start to finish. The name melts you and can absolutely turn opposing wide receivers into puddles at a whisper. By name alone he’s going to Smoke you. Coming across the flat? Prepare to be Smoked. Running a deep post? Smoked. And Monday is the perfect name to cap it off, the two syllable proper noun, it let’s you know you’re not only getting Smoked on gameday, you’re getting Smoked on Monday, and probably Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday too. And Sunday for good measure. This guy might be my favorite player in sports based on name alone. Incredible. Smoke Monday.
Keys to the Season
On offense the key will obviously be figuring out the quarterback situation. Joey Gatewood is QB1 on the depth chart but there’s no doubt that Bo Nix is coming for that spot. If there’s a way that you can let Greenwood have the job while giving Nix enough playing time to get his feet wet without burning his eligibility, that could be the best option. That would maximize Nix for the future. However, if Gus Malzahn feels as though it’s time to win now, Nix will probably be the starter. It will be interesting how it plays out in Auburn as there will be a big focus on the passing position this Autumn. The defense doesn’t have a lot to look at in terms of make or break potential this year. The biggest question will be who is starting at linebacker and what their play will be like. If all goes well Britt and Pappoe will take a big portion of the snaps and be tackle machines similar to their predecessors, but nothing is for certain in college football. Those guys are the best bet but there’s a good chance that someone steps up and will force a decision personnel-wise.
Auburn has a really good defense this year. They’ll get good pressure in the pass game and should be able to shut down any shaky quarterbacks. The run stop could be a little better but we’ll see how that plays out over the season. The offense obviously has questions at quarterback and will need better offensive line play to be able to dial the intensity up and get into a rhythm, but the skill positions are fairly straightforward. The issue is that Auburn has a miserable schedule. They’re 7th in the league in strength of schedule and it’s possible that even though the team got better, the record might get worse. The season starts at a neutral site against Oregon and a really good Justin Herbert. The defense will be good in that game but I don’t think the offense will be on the same page enough to keep up with a really good run and gun team that specializes in putting points on the scoreboard. Then the SEC gauntlet starts, at a really good Texas A&M, at Florida, at LSU, the cross-division game is against Georgia and the season ends, as always, with Alabama. Auburn fans won’t like this but I really can’t see them winning any of those games. It’s tough to imagine a world where Auburn’s record gets worse two years in a row but their schedule is just too demanding. They will win their bowl game since they’re pretty good out of conference and should get a lesser opponent similar to last year.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6, 3-5