is this the year Gus Malzahn's Tigers reclaim supremacy in the SEC?
While you would think that making the Sugar Bowl and playing nearly perfect football in the month of October would go a long ways toward a successful season, in the case of Auburn it just left folks wondering about what could have been. What if, some probably wondered in the wake of a dismantling bowl loss at the hands of Oklahoma, the Tigers had simply kept a decent quarterback healthy? Or even just the starting tailback?
Such concerns do not figure to seep into the Plains in 2017 as optimism is running high that head coach Gus Malzahn has not one, but two good options behind center to go along with perhaps the second-best backfield in the SEC. Add in an experienced, swarming defense to the mix behind the likes of safety Tray Matthews, a top-notch special teams group featuring veteran kicker Daniel Carlson, plus a veteran coaching staff to bring it all together and it’s hard not to think that something special could be brewing at Auburn this season.
Will that end up being enough to cool down Malzahn’s hot seat and make some noise in the SEC West? Athlon Sports polled several writers to get their take on the Tigers and their realistic 2017 win/loss projection.
Auburn Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2017
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
There’s been plenty of talk around the SEC about which teams can possibly close the gap with Alabama and I’m slowly coming around to the fact that it could very well be the team right down the road in their own state. Gus Malzahn is not immune to having a puzzling few dips in the win column along the way but the ceiling is certainly there for the Tigers with what looks like, on paper, the best team he’s had on the Plains since 2013.
A lot of that optimism comes from having Jarrett Stidham at quarterback. The Baylor transfer by way of junior college has what you’re looking for in terms of arm talent and ability to get the ball out to playmakers, meaning he might be the best signal-caller for Auburn since another famous transfer at the position led the team to a title. Add in the bruising running of Kamryn Pettway and the addition of OC Chip Lindsey calling plays and I don’t see how this offense won’t be the most productive (and explosive) in the conference.
There are a few concerns on defense with the loss of a few NFL players along the defensive line but it’s hard not to think the entire unit could be just as good as it was a year ago when it was clamping down on everybody in the first half of the year. If they can get blue-chippers like Marlon Davidson and Byron Cowart to really hit a groove getting to the quarterback, things could be taken to the next level as a defense given how a deep secondary can clamp down on opposing passing games.
As good as the Tigers could be, the combination of having the SEC West slate, the SEC East favorite (Georgia) and the defending national champions on the schedule would seem to rule out any sort of run to the College Football Playoff. Even with that imposing challenge lying ahead, things still look in place for a double-digit win campaign and a return to a New Year’s Six Bowl. We’ve seen highly regarded Auburn teams in the past fall short of expectations but that doesn’t seem to be the case in 2017.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The Tigers are the biggest threat to Alabama in the SEC West. Coach Gus Malzahn’s team finished second in the division last year and should take a step forward to push for double-digit victories in 2017. The offense led the SEC in rushing last fall and returns a standout tandem of running backs in Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. The line is also one of the best in the league. But after finishing year at the bottom of the SEC in passing offense, Auburn found the missing piece for this attack in former Baylor signal-caller Jarrett Stidham. The sophomore should help the Tigers stretch the field and is already poised to emerge as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Auburn ranked fourth in the league in scoring defense last fall but loses a couple of key pieces, including standout end Carl Lawson. Assuming Stidham ignites the passing game as expected, and the defense performs up to last year’s level, the Tigers will be in the mix for a spot in the New Year’s Six.
Antwan Staley (@antwanstaley)
Ever since the Auburn Tigers played in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State back in 2013, Gus Malzahn has been on the proverbial hot seat. Now with arguably his most talented team since, a disappointing season could spell the end for Malzahn at Auburn.
Chip Lindsey is the Tigers’ new offensive coordinator this season. Auburn will return a talented backfield in SEC leading rusher Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Junior college transfer Jarrett Stidham will be Auburn's starting quarterback in the team's season opener against Georgia Southern.
Auburn will return seven starters on defense, but needs to replace defensive end Carl Lawson, defensive tackle Montravius Adams and safety Rudy Ford.
The schedule, as always in the SEC, is tough. Auburn will play at Clemson in Week 2. The Tigers also travel to LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Auburn will at least get Georgia and Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
A 10-2 finish is certainly possible with Auburn with all of the returning talent on the roster.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
The itch on The Plains to get back to the national championship game is building, especially with Alabama projecting their large shadow over the program from 160 miles away. Auburn won a title in 2010 with current head coach Gus Malzahn on staff as offensive coordinator and returned to the BCS title game in 2013 with Malzahn at the helm. After three seasons of eight-win-level play, Malzahn may feel pressure from fans to break a three-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide landing on the winning grounds of the SEC Championship Game.
The Tigers have the talent to unseat Alabama in 2017. With three starters returning on the offensive line, including preseason All-SEC right tackle Braden Smith, and 2016 breakout running back Kamryn Pettway (1,224 yards, 7 TDs), Auburn should have a dominating rushing attack. Add JUCO by way of Baylor transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham, and these Tigers may be as talented on offense as the 2010 squad. The defense has seven starters back from a unit that fared well against the run, and a veteran secondary should improve the statistics against the pass. The roster is dotted with All-SEC-caliber players in end Marlon Davidson, tackle Dontavius Russell, linebacker Tre’ Williams, cornerback Carlton Davis, and safety Tray Matthews.
The schedule is brutal with road games to Clemson, LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, but the good news is Alabama comes to Jordan-Hare to close out the regular season.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
The key for Gus Malzahn’s team in 2017 lies in the passing game, an area in which the Tigers struggled mightily at times last season. The additions of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey should go a long way to remedy those issues and complete what could be a very potent offense. Defensively, there are some big shoes to fill. However, they do return seven starters and plenty of experience on that side of the football.
Auburn’s biggest challenge will be navigating one of the more difficult schedules in the country. A slate that includes road trips to Clemson, College Station and Baton Rouge. The Tigers are fortunate to face rivals Georgia and Alabama at home in the final two conference games of the season. Regardless, these are extremely tough matchups that will ultimately make or break their season. If the passing game clicks, Auburn has the potential to make a serious run at a College Football Playoff spot and anything short of 10 wins would be deemed a disappointment.