Auburn lost some key players to the NFL, but the Tigers are talented enough and ready to defend their SEC West title. The offense will follow quarterback Jarrett Stidham's lead, especially with some uncertainty in the backfield. The defense is stout up front and deep at linebacker, but the secondary will need to grow up in a hurry. Gus Malzahn and company will be tested early and must face the two teams that played for the national title last season... on the road... in a two-week span... in November.
Previewing Auburn Football's Offense for 2018
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The equation is simple for Auburn's offense under Gus Malzahn: If the veteran coach has a quarterback he trusts to make plays - with his arm or his legs - then you can expect the Tigers to challenge for an SEC title.
Jarrett Stidham would be described as the former - a traditional passer rather than a dynamic athlete like Nick Marshall or Cam Newton. Stidham gave Auburn a viable vertical passing game, leading the conference and ranking sixth nationally in completion percentage and finishing second in the SEC in passing yardage with 3,158.
In 2018, the question won't be about the QB but about his protection. During five of its last six games in 2017, Auburn started four seniors on its offensive line, and those players have given way to a lot of new faces. Line coach J.B. Grimes has figured out at least three of the five starting spots: left tackle, left guard and right guard.
Only two schools have had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the last nine seasons: Auburn and Boise State. The Tigers expect that streak to continue with Kam Martin, who averaged 6.1 yards per carry in limited action during the 2017 season.
Auburn lost two wide receivers in spring drills to significant knee injuries (Will Hastings and Eli Stove), but the Tigers return nearly every player from last season, including Ryan Davis, who broke the school's single-season record with 84 receptions.
Previewing Auburn Football's Defense for 2018
Auburn will likely challenge Clemson for the nation's most dominant defensive front thanks to the return of starters Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson - all of whom are expected to be NFL Draft picks when their college careers are over. Pass rusher extraordinaire Jeff Holland will be missed, but the Tigers still have more than enough firepower to get after the quarterback.
The biggest concern at linebacker is finding enough snaps to keep everybody content. The team's top two returning tacklers are backers Deshaun Davis (82) and Darrell Williams (57). Williams is probably the team's best coverage linebacker.
The secondary is the one area that has the staff concerned - not because of poor play, but due to a lack of experienced depth. Auburn will rely on the veteran leadership of Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean at cornerback. Some true freshmen likely will be forced into action when the Tigers go to nickel and dime packages.
Previewing Auburn Football's Specialists for 2018
For the first time in five years, Auburn will be without placekicker Daniel Carlson, the program's all-time scoring leader. So now they simply turn to his younger brother. Anders Carlson was one of the nation's top kicking prospects two years ago and gives Auburn a similar level of confidence. A former Australian Rules Football player is expected to take over punting duties as 25-year-old Arryn Siposs arrives in the summer. Auburn hasn't had a punt or kick return for a TD in the last three years.
Malzahn faces some lofty expectations. The Tigers' sixth-year head coach just signed a seven-year contract extension for $49 million, with $36.75 million guaranteed, after a 10-4 season in which he won the SEC West and defeated both National Championship Game participants (Alabama and Georgia). Now, though, many fans will define an Auburn season as a success or failure based on whether it defeats those two rivals, and the Tigers must do so on the road in 2018. Good luck, Gus.