Thursday was Auburn’s turn at the SEC Media Days, which has me fired up and excited for the upcoming season of college football. I am cautiously optimistic about the 2017 Auburn Tigers Football team as a fan and close follower of college football generally. I’m hoping for a great season, but I’m also realistic about what we face.
Just two weeks into the season, we visit the defending national champion Clemson in Death Valley. A few weeks after that, on the road at LSU, at Arkansas and at Texas A&M. Then we’re visited by Georgia and close against Bama. Oh well, if you can’t run the gauntlet, I guess you don’t deserve to be in the Playoffs. Can we pull all of that off? Time will tell, but I’m not going to get excited until we have some W’s accumulated.
We went to the Sugar Bowl last season. After a strong start, we finished poorly, but that was mostly due to injuries at quarterback and running back. Kamryn Pettway paced the SEC before getting injured, rushing 124.8 yards per game. If he can stay healthy, watch out. We also have what is probably the most talented quarterback to play at Auburn since Cam Newton took us all the way to the National Championship, but more on that in a bit.
“We went on a six-game win streak, and I really felt like we were playing as good as anybody in the country,” Auburn Head Coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “We had some key injuries late. We kind of limped home. Just had that bad feeling the way we finished. We felt like had a real opportunity there and just didn’t seize the moment.”
I was very surprised and happy with the improvement to the defensive line last year, but I hope we can replace the production of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, who are both now in the NFL.
The Tigers lost three of the last four games, including another loss to Alabama. Despite the late-season collapse, Auburn finished second-place in the SEC West last season, just behind Bama.
Championship or Hot Seat?
It’s been four years since Nick Marshall and Tre Mason helped guide us to the 2013 SEC championship during a stunning nine-game run to the national championship game, only to fall to an equally-talented FSU squad. That was Coach Gus Malzahn’s first year as Head Coach. Losing that game hurt like hell, but we have the consolation of knowing that Bama fans got to feel the same way last January.
Malzahn was offensive coordinator in 2010, when Auburn achieved an undefeated record, a No. 1 national ranking after the regular season and a berth in the BCS Championship game, played on January 10, 2011. That season, Auburn led the SEC in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense, pass efficiency, first downs and third down conversions on its way to a 13–0 record and a 56–17 victory over South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game. Malzahn was awarded the 2010 Broyles Award, recognizing him as the top assistant coach in the nation. Auburn went on to win the 2011 BCS National Championship Game against Oregon.
Gus has gotten a lot of mileage out of being involved in two appearances in the national title game in eight years, but the expectations of a highly competitive fan base are growing. Since losing the title game to Florida State, the Tigers have gone 11-13 in SEC play, including a last-place finish in 2015 — the same year the conference media picked Auburn to win the SEC. We’ve lost 16 games in three seasons. Even worse, we’ve lost three straight years to rivals Georgia and Alabama.
We excel at college football in this state because we take it so seriously. Gene Chizik was canned two seasons after that 2010 national title. Terry Bowden and Tommy Tuberville both had undefeated seasons on their resumes before being let go. Gus returned to the podium as Auburn’s coach this week only because of that controversial, last-second win against LSU that got Les Miles fired last season.
We enter the season ranked #23 on the AP Poll.
Why am I cautiously optimistic? Here are 14 reasons why:
- Auburn has one of the more experienced teams coming back in the SEC. Coach Malzahn said we’ve got more returning starters than we’ve had the last 12 years at Auburn.
- More quality depth in all areas. Depth is the key to overcoming those injuries that hurt you late in the season.
- Jarrett Stidham. The transfer quarterback is this season’s presumed starter based on his impressive performance in the spring game and his track record at Baylor, where he completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in 2015 as a true freshman despite only starting three games in addition to brief appearances in seven others. He is the sort of dual-threat quarterback that makes Malzahn’s offense click the way it did under Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
- Kamryn Pettway. One of the SEC’s most dangerous weapons as a downhill runner.
- First-year coordinator Chip Lindsey, who was hired in January to replace Rhett Lashlee, will hopefully bring balance to the offense so opponents who’ve adapted to Malzahn’s Hurry Up, No Huddle scheme will also have to worry about a strong rushing attack.
- Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is back for his second year, and Malzahn said the defense, returning seven starters, is hungry and confident headed into the season. Although Auburn is replacing two starters on the line, it returns one of the most experienced units in the nation — third, to be exact — with a combined 106 career starts among the group.
- Daniel Carlson. He holds Auburn’s single-season record for points kicking at 128 and holds 12 Auburn kick or scoring records. He has never missed an extra point. Despite having a chance to go in the NFL Draft this spring, Carlson decided to return for his senior season, bless him. Said Malzahn, “He all but eliminates the kickoff return.”
- Sean White as backup QB. Again, Stidham hasn’t been named starter yet, but I’d be shocked if he doesn’t win the job. It’s a good thing we have White to keep him honest and take charge in the event Stidham gets injured like he did in 2015. QB problems have been our Achilles’ heel the last two years.
- Marlon Davidson at Defensive End. As a true freshman who enrolled early last season, he finished with 38 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. The former four-star recruit has the athleticism to fill Carl Lawson’s shoes.
- Braden Smith at Right Tackle. He has racked up 27 consecutive starts, and at 6’6”, 303 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to bulldoze lanes for Pettway.
- A bevy of talented receivers for Stidham to throw to. Last season, it seemed like our receivers couldn’t catch much at all. Hopefully we’ll see major improvement in that area.
- Deshaun Watson won’t be Clemson’s quarterback when we play the defending national champions in week two. While I’m sure his successor will be talented, it’s a relief to know the Heisman finalist who led the Tigers to that thrilling win over Bama is now in the NFL. Even with Watson under center last season, Clemson only managed a 19–13 win over us. I’d love nothing more than to knock them off their pedestal.
- Alabama’s success. What? Huh? It’s potentially a weakness because of all the talent they’re losing to the NFL. The right side of the offensive line is still in question. Regardless, beating Alabama is the biggest challenge Auburn or any team, for that matter, will face this year. I much prefer the Crimson Tide that we dominated with five consecutive wins from 2002-2007, but let’s start with putting an end to their current 3-game streak. I was wrong. I’d love nothing more than to knock THEM off their pedestal.
- The Warmth of Malzahn’s Seat. Nothing motivates like the prospect of getting fired from a high paying, prestigious job. I’m glad Auburn did not fire him last season because there’s a risk that other top coaches won’t want the job if the fan base isn’t loyal and patient with the last guy. We’ve demonstrated that we believe in his intellect, but he had better start using it. He knows we expect results in a “man’s league”. Hopefully the Gus Bus will get back in gear and take us back to where we expected to go based on 2013: In the championship hunt.
It’s way too early to have expectations of Auburn winning a championship this season or for Stidham to be a Heisman finalist in December. After the embarrassment of Jeremy Johnson, it’s wise not to hype things too much on the Plains. As a fan, I’ll be disappointed if we don’t win at least nine games this year.
I’ll be following college football very closely this year, as always. I write a blog for the website of The Kickoff college football newsletter, a leading prognosticator since 1951.