Of all the college football teams across the country, is there a group more energized about the potential the 2018 season can bring than the Auburn faithful? The Tigers turned in an improbable season going 10-4 with three losses against end-of-season, top-10 teams — Clemson, Georgia and UCF. If not for a 27-23 slip in Baton Rouge, head coach Gus Malzahn would have delivered a SEC record that included a 26-14 home win over in-state rival Alabama.
With a first-year starter at quarterback in Jarrett Stidham and continuous injuries in the backfield between talented running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway while playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, Malzahn still produced one of the nation's best offenses, churning out 452 yards per game. The offense was about as balanced as it gets, rushing for 218 yards per game while passing for 233. With Stidham leading the way once again, even if with some key personnel losses, it’s possible that this offense can be even better in 2018.
On the other side of the ball, defense was downright nasty at times only allowing 19 points per game, good for 12th in the FBS. Auburn did a good job against both the run and the pass, holding teams to 319 yards per game. There is no reason to believe that coordinator Kevin Steele's defense cannot replicate the same output again in 2018 with a host of talented youngsters ready to make their mark in the SEC.
Between a productive offense and a suffocating defense, there is plenty to be optimistic about with the Auburn Tigers in 2018. If that is not enough, here are three more reasons to be excited.
1. Continuity on the coaching staff
It seems that every year coaches and coordinators are plucked away from successful teams, leaving a void at their former home taking time to adequately replace. Gus Malzahn was able to sidestep having to break in new coordinators on both sides of the ball retaining Kevin Steele on defense and co-coordinators Chip Lindsay and Kodi Burns on offense.
On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal, but it is. Steele knows the talent he has on hand and more importantly the defense knows what to expect in Steele's defensive assignments. The players are able to act on instinct instead of thinking about what to do under a new coordinator. The offense should roll again after the play-calling was on point in 2017.
2. Jarrett Stidham
All football teams want to be balanced in all three phases of the game, but in this day and age if you do not have a shutdown defense you better have a good quarterback. Auburn has the potential for both with Stidham back. During his sophomore season, Stidham was slow and steady early on but deadly accurate throughout. By season's end, he was the second-leading passer in the SEC (3,158 yards) while leading all qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage (66.5).
With running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway declaring early for the NFL draft, more will be expected of Stidham in 2018. Based on his play in 2017, he will be able to answer the call.
3. The defense
Some big names on defense will be missed off the 2017 squad with cornerback Carlton Davis and end Jeff Holland declaring early for the NFL along with the graduation of safeties Trey Matthews and Stephen Roberts. But, the heart of the unit is back – linebacker Deshaun Davis. Davis led the Tigers in tackles (82) and was among the leaders in tackles for a loss (6.5) and sacks (3.5). Another big sigh of relief was heard throughout War Eagle Nation when defensive tackle Dontavius Russell pledged to return.
The defensive front should be a wrecking crew again with Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Andrew Williams, and Russell in the trenches. Watch out for Javaris Davis and Jeremiah Dinson in the secondary in 2018, both are emerging talents.
Fans will get an early shot at seeing just how good Auburn will be in 2018 right out of the gate. The Tigers open with Washington in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the exact same spot they hope to be on Dec. 1 for the SEC Championship Game.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.