The 2019 season was another high-achieving year for the Auburn Tigers and head coach Gus Malzahn. With proverbial hot seat rumors floating around about Malzahn even before the ball was teed up in Week 1, the team rallied around their coach for a 9-3 (5-3 SEC) regular season culminating in an end-of-regular season No. 9 national ranking by the Associated Press —and doing so against one of the nation’s toughest schedules.
Despite a "national championship trophy or bust" approach by some in the War Eagles fan base, Auburn outperformed reasonable expectations. The Tigers completed the nation’s second-toughest schedule, taking on six ranked teams (3-3) with four opponents slotted in the top 10. The victories can be traced back to a top-20 total defense that held teams to 323.9 yards and 18.6 points per game. While Malzahn is known for his offenses, that side of the ball did not live up to preseason expectations but performed about as well as possible with a true freshman at quarterback and star running back JaTarvious Whitlow limited to nine games due to injury. As a unit, the offense rallied for 421.1 yards and 32.0 points per game.
Even though there is still more Auburn football left to be played with the Outback Bowl scheduled against No. 18 Minnesota on Jan. 1, it is time to hand out some regular-season War Eagles awards.
Offensive MVP: Prince Tega Wanogho, OL
Wide receiver Seth Williams may have been Auburn’s most consistent play-maker throughout the 2019 season, but some attention should be given upfront to an offensive line that led the way. Of the trench hogs pushing defenses downfield, left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho stood out in a veteran group of seniors. Wanogho was rewarded by SEC coaches at the end of the season taking home second-team All-Conference honors.
Defensive MVP: Derrick Brown, DL
Derrick Brown bypassed the 2019 NFL draft, opting to come back for one more run at an SEC title to showcase his talents. Brown was fourth on the team in total stops (50) and led the squad in tackles for a loss (12.5). His dominating ways forced offensive lines to dedicate two to stop him from opening up lanes for his teammates to make plays. The senior's hard work was recognized with SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Best Freshman: Bo Nix, QB
The play of Nix may be up for mixed reviews within the War Eagles fan base, but from an objective viewpoint, the true freshman performed at a high level. Without a true No. 1 receiver or a dominant pass-catching tight end — and with Whitlow limited for stretches of the season — Nix finished sixth in the SEC in passing yards (2,366) and seventh in touchdown passes (15) during the regular season. Recruited as a dual-threat QB, Nix never let his natural athleticism as a runner take over but did contribute 300 yards on the ground tying for a team-high seven rushing scores.
Play of the Season: Bo Nix TD pass vs. Oregon
Surviving Week 1 with a victory was of utmost importance to Malzahn and Co. With boosters and fans clamoring for a change on the sidelines, beating then-No. 11 Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to start the season was pivotal. Down 20-21 with 16 seconds left in the game, on a 1st-and-10 from the 26-yard line, Nix connected with Seth Williams on the game-winning score to start the season on a positive note. A close second for the top play honors, with Auburn down 45-40 midway through the fourth quarter to Alabama, sophomore tailback Shaun Shivers made his only carry in the Iron Bowl a memorable one posting the game-winning score on an 11-yard run.
Best Performance by a Player: Anders Carlson vs. Alabama
There were many standout performances for Auburn in the Iron Bowl, especially seeing Derrick Brown harass the Crimson Tide offense for seven stops and 3.5 tackles for a loss. But the unsung hero of the game was kicker Anders Carlson. Carlson took over in the second and third quarters, nailing two field goals in each frame from 43, 52, 43, and 44 yards out.
Best Game: Alabama vs. Auburn
As rivalry games go, this one lived up to the hype. After losses to Florida, LSU, and Georgia, it was gut-check time for the Tigers with No. 5 Alabama coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium to close out the season. The thriller included 12 lead changes in the back-and-forth showdown. After feeling each other out in the first quarter, both teams showed great moxie, taking it to one another without backing down. After the Shaun Shivers 11-yard run putting Auburn up 48-45 with 8:08 left in the game, each remaining play had both fan bases on pins and needles.
Biggest Surprise: No 1,000-yard rusher
One thing Auburn is known for is running the ball and producing amazing tailbacks. Surprisingly enough, barring a 310-yard performance for Whitlow against Minnesota, Auburn will be without a 1,000-yard back for the second year in a row. Whitlow’s injury was a factor, but given four seniors returning on the offensive line, this seemed like a sure deal. The last Auburn player to hit the rushing plateau was Kerryon Johnson in 2017 with 1,391 yards.
Biggest Disappointment: Lack of offensive firepower around Nix
Nix did not set the world on fire with his passing — completing just 57.0 percent of his attempts — or with his rushing, but the former five-star recruit held up after being asked to carry the entire offense. Given the high level of competition played, Nix earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors is a huge deal. But outside of Wanogho earning second-team honors and Nix taking home freshman acknowledgments, no other Auburn offensive player was singled out for their individual performance during the 2019 season. On the recruiting trail, Malzahn will have to address needs at receiver, running back, and tight end, or it’ll be three more years of Nix looking around for help.
Senior(s) That Will Be Missed the Most in 2020: Derrick Brown and the offensive line
There are not enough superlatives to throw at Derrick Brown and what he means to Auburn’s defense. Replacing him is seemingly impossible, but perhaps even harder is bringing together a senior-laden offensive line. Props to Wanogho, left guard Marquel Harrell, backup center Kaleb Kim, right guard Mike Horton, and right tackle Jack Driscoll — they will collectively be sorely missed in 2020.
Player to Watch in 2020: 5-Star Class of 2020 RB Tank Bigsby
If the recruiting rankings are to be trusted and commitments hold true ahead of National Signing Day, Bo Nix may have his difference-maker on campus sooner than later in Bigsby. A five-star running back, Bigsby tore up 2A Georgia defenses in a breakout season with Callaway High School with 2,221 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns in 2018. Bigsby holds the promise of being that next All-SEC back on The Plains.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Replacing 13 key seniors
Even if Auburn only loses graduating seniors off the 2019 roster, retaining all potential early NFL draft entrants, they will still have to fill the void for eight seniors on offense and five on defense. The offensive line and Derrick Brown have been covered, which would be enough to crush any college football team, but then add in defensive end Marlon Davidson, cornerback Javaris Davis and safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas... there will be a lot of fresh faces and inexperience on the roster in 2020. All spring sessions are important, but Auburn can ill afford to go lightly once regrouping in the new year.
— 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.