The Tigers rank No. 20 in Athlon's Top 25 for 2019
Auburn couldn’t meet lofty preseason top-10 expectations in a tumultuous 2018 season. It got so bad at one point that there were reports that boosters were mobilizing to possibly force head coach Gus Malzahn out a year after he signed a lucrative seven-year, $49 million contract. Malzahn survived the noise but enters 2019 needing to fare better than last season’s 8–5 record in the ultra-competitive SEC.
He’ll have his hands full without a proven quarterback and no obvious option to choose. Malzahn, who will be the offensive play caller this season, needs to find the right answer there to meet expectations after the offense slumped in 2018. The Tigers ranked 79th in total offense, averaging only 389.9 yards per game, a significant drop from 2017’s 451.6 yards per game.
Auburn has stockpiled talent on defense, notably defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, but the Tigers’ hopes of contending in the SEC hinge on whether Malzahn can get the offense back on track.
Previewing Auburn's Offense for 2019
Malzahn has to find a new quarterback after two-year starter Jarrett Stidham opted to leave early for the NFL. The Auburn head coach must choose from an inexperienced group that has as much uncertainty as it does talent. Junior quarterback Malik Willis served as Stidham’s backup the last two years but decided to transfer at the end of spring practice. Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood has all the physical attributes Malzahn likes, while true freshman Bo Nix, a five-star recruit, is considered to be the future of the program. Gatewood and Nix will battle for the starting job in the fall.
For the first time in a decade, Auburn didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2018, due to a struggling offensive line and a committee approach. JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow emerged as the best of the committee and should be the featured back after rushing for 787 yards and six touchdowns. Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers are both solid as secondary options.
The Tigers lose their top two receivers, Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton, but there’s reason to believe Auburn’s receiving corps will be even better in 2019. Anthony Schwartz (seven total touchdowns) and Seth Williams (534 yards and five touchdowns) were revelations as true freshmen last season and should play significant roles in the offense. Eli Stove and Will Hastings both missed substantial time last season with injuries but will provide security blankets for whoever emerges as the starting quarterback.
All five starters on the offensive line return, though the group was inconsistent at best and struggled for a good chunk of last season. There was progress at the end of the season, though, and getting Prince Tega Wanogho and Marquel Harrell back to power the left side of the line is a positive.
Previewing Auburn's Defense for 2019
The talent starts up front for Auburn, where the Tigers have almost an embarrassment of riches on the defensive line. Brown and Davidson surprisingly decided to return for their senior seasons, giving the Tigers possibly the best 1-2 punch in the SEC. Nick Coe is a menace as an edge rusher — he led the team with seven sacks last season — and Auburn just reloaded the cupboard with four four-star linemen in its 2019 recruiting class. It won’t be easy to replace four-year starter Dontavius Russell at defensive tackle, but Tyrone Truesdell and Coynis Miller both have the talent to plug the hole.
It will be crucial for the talented defensive line to meet expectations given that Auburn must replace its entire starting linebacker group from last season. Inside linebacker Deshaun Davis (116 tackles) will be especially difficult to replace, though K.J. Britt is the favorite to do so. Look out for incoming five-star Owen Pappoe, who has the talent and temperament to make an immediate impact. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele will likely have to mix and match until he finds a group he likes.
On the back end, Auburn has one of the SEC’s top safety pairings in Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson. Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood are proven contributors who can step in and play at safety, too. There aren’t as many known quantities at cornerback with the Tigers’ top DB in 2018, Jamel Dean, off to the NFL. The Tigers will need players such as Noah Igbinoghene, Javaris Davis and Christian Tutt to step up at the cornerback spots.
Previewing Auburn's Specialists for 2019
The Tigers experienced a mixed bag from special teams in 2018. Arryn Siposs finally gave Auburn a viable punter after years of issues, finishing the year with the 18th-best punting average (44.2 yards) in the country. It didn’t go quite as well for true freshman Anders Carlson, who struggled to replace his All-America brother Daniel and made only 60 percent (15-of-25) of his field goal attempts. Igbinoghene and Whitlow, the team’s top two kick returners last season, both return, but Auburn needs to find a new punt returner.
This team’s ability to meet expectations might come down to the quarterback. The defense should be strong, assuming that linebacker isn’t a mess, but the entire offense hinges on Malzahn’s QB pick. There isn’t enough talent at running back and on the offensive line to be able to bank on only a strong rushing attack.