The 2019 Auburn Tigers will largely be remembered more for what could have been than for what they actually accomplished.
Gus Malzahn’s Tigers secured important wins over in-state rival Alabama and Pac-12 champion Oregon, but Auburn had the talent to finish better than its 9–4 record. Headlined by Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, Auburn possessed one of the nation’s top defenses, a unit that regularly kept it in games when the offense struggled.
A series of close-call losses, including a three-point loss on the road to eventual national champion LSU, highlighted just how close Auburn was to being a College Football Playoff team. No team played LSU better than Auburn in 2019, but true freshman quarterback Bo Nix wasn’t able to deliver late in the fourth quarter to get the win.
Auburn will need Nix to step up in 2020 with its starting offensive line, plus Brown and Davidson, all gone. As is seemingly always the case on the Plains, Malzahn enters 2020 with pressure to deliver big results again.
Previewing Auburn's Offense for 2020
It’s the Bo Nix Show in Auburn. Malzahn opted for the true freshman last season over more experienced options, a decision that both paid dividends and led to late-season criticism. Nix delivered the game-winning touchdown over Oregon but then struggled in losses to Florida and LSU, completing only 41.9 percent of his passes and throwing four interceptions in those two games. The talent is unquestionably there, but at times the young quarterback seemed overwhelmed. Still, the hype for what Nix can accomplish this season has only grown, and Malzahn has done nothing to throw water on it.
“He’ll win a championship before he gets out of here,” the Auburn head coach says.
If that’s going to happen, he’ll need new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. to build a cohesive unit as soon as possible. This position is easily the biggest question mark for the Tigers after they lost all five primary starters from last year’s roster. In 2020, the only known quantity is center Nick Brahms, who looked solid in five starts last season. Redshirt juniors Austin Troxell and Brodarious Hamm are two other good bets to be starters given their talent, but after that it’s wide open.
D.J. Williams should be the lead back after JaTarvious Whitlow surprisingly decided to leave the program. Williams is a powerful runner who can handle the bulk of the carries, though Auburn could opt for a committee approach with Shaun Shivers, freshman Tank Bigsby and Mark-Antony Richards all expected to get work.
Nix might have the best wide receiver combo in the SEC in Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. Williams took a big step in 2019, emerging as Nix’s favorite target and finishing with a team-best 59 catches for 830 yards and eight touchdowns. Schwartz, quite possibly the fastest man in the SEC, wasn’t quite as productive as many had hoped, but should benefit from new offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ schemes.
Previewing Auburn's Defense for 2020
There’s no one on the roster who can fully replace what Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, multi-year starters and future NFL contributors, brought to the table for the Tigers. The good news for defensive line coach Rodney Garner is that Big Kat Bryant (team-best nine QB hurries) and Tyrone Truesdell (three sacks in 2019) look ready to take on bigger roles this season. Derick Hall and Coynis Miller Jr. both showed flashes last season and could benefit from more opportunities.
The linebacker corps will be the strength of the defense. K.J. Britt, who had 69 tackles and 10.0 tackles for a loss in 2019, is the heart of the unit and was rightfully named first-team All-SEC last year. He’ll patrol the middle of the field for the Tigers, while sophomore Owen Pappoe and junior Zakoby McClain should both have big impacts on either side of him. Pappoe, a former five-star recruit, is Auburn’s most talented linebacker and should take a big jump this season.
The secondary could take a step back after losing starting cornerbacks Noah Igbinoghene and Javaris Davis and safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas. Auburn isn’t bereft of experience, though, with cornerback Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday more than ready to step into starting roles after strong play last season.
Previewing Auburn's Specialists for 2020
Kicker Anders Carlson hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations that came with following in his brother Daniel’s footsteps. He struggled in 2019 with field goals 40 yards or longer (8-of-15), although he went 4-for-4 in that range against Alabama when it mattered most. Auburn will need him to improve this season and might have to utilize him as a punter given Arryn Siposs’ decision to leave school early. Walk-on redshirt freshman Patrick Markwalter is the only punter on the roster.
In what could be a wide-open SEC, Auburn has the quarterback and the offensive weapons to compete with anyone. Can Morris do enough to help Nix become the best version of himself? That plus line play on both sides of the ball will be the big questions for this team. How Auburn answers them could be the difference between another seven- or eight-win type of season and being a real national contender.