2017 Auburn Football Preview

Photo Courtesy of Auburn University

SEC football is just days away. Before toe meets pigskin on August 31st, The Wheelhouse crew has compiled our preseason SEC power rankings and a preview of each team. As we release our team previews, we’ll release them in the order of which each team is ranked in our preseason rankings to help the days until kickoff go by quicker.

The Auburn Tigers check in at №. 2 in our preseason SEC power rankings.

Down on The Plains, the question is whether the 2017 Auburn Tigers are pretenders or contenders. Fans throughout the conference want to draw comparisons to the 2015 team, the team that was ranked in the preseason top 10 and had projected Heisman winner Jeremy Johnson leading the way. That team failed to meet expectations, going on to finish 7–5 and earning a trip up north to face Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.

After three seasons of eight, seven and eight wins, fans are ready for Auburn to get back to its winning ways. Something head coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t done at a high level since he reached the BCS National Championship Game in 2013.

Malzahn enters year-five, coming off a season in which one could argue that Auburn over-performed. Malzahn was the first name listed on every coaching hot board in the country heading into last season, with some media outlets projecting the Tigers to finish 6–6 or 7–5. But, Auburn went on to finish 8–5, falling to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

Throughout the course of last season, the Tigers dealt with injuries galore, specifically at quarterback. Sean White produced when he was in the game, but he couldn’t stay healthy, forcing Johnson and John Franklin lll to play. Despite the injury situation at quarterback last season, the Tigers still managed to form a dominating rushing attack and a solid defense. With most of that core returning and a transfer quarterback leading the way, fans on The Plains have reason to be exited about the 2017 Tigers.

Offensive Preview:

Success for Auburn in 2017 hinges on the play of Jarrett Stidham, a former five-star quarterback who left Baylor after his freshman season in 2015. Stidham played at McClennan Community College last season, coming off of a broken ankle he suffered while in Waco. In his freshman season for the Bears, the Texas native tore opposing defenses apart, throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns on 75-of-109 passing. Stidham has all of the tools to succeed in the SEC. He has a big arm, is accurate with the football and is mobile enough to keep teams honest.

While Stidham isn’t as mobile as a Cam Newton or a Nick Marshall, he’ll still be able to thrive in Malzahn’s system. The narrative about Malzahn’s offense is that you have to be a run-first quarterback in order for it to suceed and this isn’t true. The quarterback just needs to be mobile enough to keep the opposing defense from committing to the running back every single time on the read option, and that’s exactly what Stidham can and will do. Stidham won’t bust a long run like Marshall used to do, but he’s capable of picking up five-to-six yards when he takes off, just enough to keep the defense honest.

Lined up alongside Stidham in the backfield is one of the best running back tandems in the country. It seems as if the running game is always Auburn’s strength on offense and this year will be no different with Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson returning. Pettway averaged 138.7 yards per game last season while rushing for over 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns. Johnson does it both, gashing defenses on the ground and through the air. Last season, Johnson combined for over 1,000 yards of total offense.

Auburn doesn’t have any production returning at receiver, but the group possesses a lot of potential. Led by Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove, the wide receiver room will be crucial in helping Stidham live up to the hype. Stove is the team’s leading-returning receiver with just 224-yards.

Up front, offensive line coach Herb Hand returns three-of-five starters. Seniors Darius James, Braden Smith and Austin Golson are All-SEC caliber players. While those three anchor the line, Marquel Harrell, Mike Horton and Wilson Bell look to serve as the guards along the line.

Defensive Preview:

The defense was a pleasant surprise last season for first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, finishing fourth in scoring defense (17.1 points allowed per game) and fifth in total defense (361.9 yards per game.)

Steele returns seven starters on defense in 2017, but he has to replace the production of All-SEC defensive lineman Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. If Auburn can put together the puzzle pieces along the defensive line, they’ll be well on its way to a berth in the College Football Playoffs. All eyes turn to former five-star Byron Cowart who has moved from end to tackle. However, Cowart will be able to move around with Marlon Davidson while Dontavius Russell anchors the middle of the line.

Like they do at running back, Auburn also has one of the best linebacker tandems in the country. Tre’ Williams returns as the starting middle linebacker and Deshaun Davis returns alongside Williams from his outside linebacker position. The pair combined for 130 tackles and 10.5 tackles for a loss last season.

Few teams have more experience in the secondary than Auburn. The Tigers return Carlton Davis, Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts, three of the five starters in the secondary last season. Along with Nick Ruffin, Davis, Matthews and Roberts are the proven playmakers in the room, but the secondary is full on potential as well. Javaris Davis had two interceptions as a freshman last season as teams threw away from the other Davis, Carlton.

Special Teams Preview:

Daniel Carlson is the best returning kicker in the country and it’s not even close. Last season, Carlson connected on 28-of-32 field goal attempts and is now 69-of-83 in his career. The Lou Groza Award finalist has never missed an extra-point and seven out of every ten kickoffs are touchbacks. Kerryon Johnson will be the punt returner and potentially the kick returner following the transfer of John Franklin lll. Johnson returned 12 kickoffs last season for an average of 22.25 yards per return. Ian Shannon will likely be the starter at punter.

Newcomer to watch:

There’s no question who the newcomer to watch for is this year. It’s Jarrett Stidham. The former Baylor transfer is already receiving significant Heisman odds and being praised as one of the best quarterbacks in the conference before taking a single snap. It’s pretty simple. In football, you have to have a superstar quarterback to win a title and it appears that Auburn just may have one.

Schedule Breakdown:

Like fellow SEC brethren Tennessee, the Tigers start out with a triple-option team week one, a defensive coordinators’ nightmare. After Auburn deals with a tough Georgia Southern team, they’ll head over to Clemson to face the defending National Champs in primetime. The Clemson game will be the first true test for Auburn. Following this game, we’ll know whether to buy stock on the Tigers and Jarrett Stidham.

Following its week two trip to Clemson, Auburn takes on Mercer in Jordan-Hare before making a trip to Missouri and coming back home to face Mississippi State and Ole Miss in back-to-back weeks. At this point of the schedule, Auburn should be 5–1 or 6–0. The Tigers then travel to Death Valley to face LSU in Ed Orgeron’s first full season as head coach. Auburn hasn’t escaped Baton Rouge with a win since 1999.

Following its trip to LSU, Auburn will make trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M to conclude three consecutive road games. There is some good news though, as the Tigers will have a bye-week in between their games with the Razorbacks and Aggies. Following a rivalry game with Georgia in Auburn, the Tigers will gear up for the Iron Bowl against Alabama, the game that could decide the SEC West.

Keys to a successful season:

1) The №. 1 key to a successful season for Auburn is for Jarrett Stidham to have a big season. This team has all of the tools to win a championship, but if Stidham fails to live up to the hype, those dreams will be short-lived.

2) On defense, Auburn has to find production along the defensive line following the departures of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams to the NFL. The secondary is loaded, so if playmakers emerge at defensive line, Auburn’s defense will once again be one of the best in the conference.

3) Similar to the defensive line, Auburn will need playmakers to emerge at wide receiver in order to be in position to win a championship in 2017. On offense, the Tigers have elite players along the line, at running back and at quarterback, but little production returns at receiver. While the group returns little production, the potential for guys like Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, Eli Stove and Nate Craig-Myers is sky-high.

Final say:

Jarrett Stidham is going to live up to the hype in 2017, putting Auburn in a position to win a championship. The SEC West crown is going to come down to the final week of the season when Alabama and Auburn square off in the Iron Bowl, with the winner being in the driver’s seat to make it to the playoffs. Auburn will be one of the few elite teams in the SEC this season.