Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn may be all smiles on the outside when walking around campus, but one has to think in his mind he feels like a Wild West gunslinger walking The Plains with a sharp eye on those around him. One season away from winning the SEC West with a 26-14 Iron Bowl thumping of rival Alabama, Malzahn became an embattled head coach after ending the 2018 campaign 8-5, 3-5 in the SEC.
A large swath of Auburn fans, alumni, and boosters rained down on Malzahn and staff in the postseason hoping for a change on the sidelines. Malzahn returns for Year 7 with the Tigers in what feels like a make-or-break run. Do the Tigers have enough talent on the roster with a schedule that will help keep Malzahn around for Year 8?
With then-junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham coming back, Auburn fans felt that another run to the SEC Championship Game was within reach in 2018. Troubles with an inexperienced offensive line led to a decline across the board on offense, dropping from 218 rushing yards per game on average to 168 last season. The inability to run the ball was not balanced out in the passing attack and even more pressure was put on the Tigers' defense, which stumbled at times. The good news for Auburn fans, the entire offensive line returns with talent in the backfield led by JaTarvious Whitlow. The skill position players have talent and speed, but the question that could throw off the entire season is who is guiding the offense from the pocket?
A god-send hire for Malzahn has been defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Steele is among the best in the SEC and has plenty of talent to work with this season. Auburn's defensive front is senior-laden with ends Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson along with Derrick Brown at tackle. The secondary has four players returning led by senior safeties Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson. An unknown entering the season is the play at linebacker with three new starters set to take the field.
The 2018 schedule was by no means easy, ranked one of the most difficult in the nation, but in comparison, the upcoming gauntlet seems even more unforgiving. From the onset against Oregon in AT&T Stadium, Auburn has to be ready. SEC play starts off in College Station against Texas A&M and has the Tigers on the road quite a bit in October (at Florida, Arkansas and LSU) before closing the slate out against Georgia and Alabama.
Will Auburn turn the tides of a tumultuous 2018 season for a berth in the SEC Championship Game? Athlon asked a few editors and one of its college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for Auburn in 2019.
Auburn Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2019
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Auburn is the biggest wild card in the SEC this season. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for this team, but after a disappointing 2018 campaign, coach Gus Malzahn’s seat is starting to warm. The Tigers feature a strong supporting cast on offense and an experienced line for Bo Nix or Joey Gatewood at quarterback. Both signal-callers ranked as some of the best in their respective recruiting class, but will one step up and win the job outright? On defense, Auburn’s line is arguably the best in the nation and there’s plenty of talent and speed at linebacker and in the secondary. When you combine the urgency surrounding Malzahn, a new quarterback and a brutal schedule, it all adds up to a team with lots of uncertainty – but also plenty of upside.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Auburn has the look of a team that is far better than 7-5, but it's difficult to find more than seven wins on the schedule... barring a dramatic uptick on offense (which is quite possible). The home/road splits aren't favorable; the Tigers have their two most difficult games at home (which might seem like a good thing, but I'd argue to the contrary) and have to play at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU. Those three games might be toss-ups if played at Auburn, but I'm chalking them up as losses since they are on the road. If the schedule shakes out like I'm predicting (which isn't likely), Auburn might end up being the best 7-5 team in college football history.
Ryan Wright (@RyanWrightRNG)
The weight of the 2019 season begins against a very talented Oregon squad. If a win cannot be had in AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas), the wheels on this bus for Gus may come off quickly. Texas A&M will have a very good offense but will be inexperienced on defense. Can Auburn score enough points to keep pace with the Aggies? The good thing about Auburn’s three-game road swing in October, it begins at Florida and is broken up with a bye before facing Arkansas and LSU. If Georgia gets this deep into the season without a loss, it's doubtful the Bulldogs will let up in Jordan-Hare. The Crimson Tide have an easier road to hoe this year with time to develop. Auburn gets a boost playing at home, but will their offense be able to go stride for stride with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Bama's receiving corps?
— 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.