Seth Williams is part of a deep and talented receiving corps that will play a big part in the Tigers' SEC West title hopes
The grind of college football in the SEC is unrelenting and not for the faint of heart. When the 2020 season kicks off, the Auburn Tigers look to pick up the positive pieces of a 9-4 (5-3 SEC) campaign a year ago that resulted in an end-of-season No. 14 AP ranking. But it will not be easy with only three starters back on offense, four on defense, and another grueling schedule that includes two separate back-to-back showdowns that would crush most college football programs.
Three Reasons Why Auburn Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Quarterback Bo Nix
While the War Eagle faithful have high hopes in the maturation of the sophomore, no one has more riding on the productivity of the dual-threat signal-caller in 2020 than head coach Gus Malzahn. The former five-star recruit had a promising true freshman season throwing for more than 2,300 yards with 15 touchdowns, but performed poorly in road losses to Florida, LSU, and Minnesota. Malzahn pushed Nix into the fire a year ago opting to groom his top talent over starting Joey Gatewood. Will the gamble of early playing time pay off in 2020 or will another four-loss kind of season send the coaching staff packing?
2. Receiving corps
When Nix drops back to pass, he has three of his top receiving targets back to help spread out defenses in Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove. Williams has elite talent, and the Tigers will need that for a chance to compete in the SEC West. Even with Nix shaky at times, Williams secured 59 receptions for 830 yards with eight touchdowns last season. Schwartz is a speed demon who can take the top off a defense and Stove is a solid SEC-caliber possession receiver. Because Auburn recruits so well, there is depth in this unit that could be a factor this season — 2018 four-star recruit Matthew Hill and 2020 four-stars J.J. Evans, Ze'Vian Capers, and Kobe Hudson.
Without a doubt, the linebacking corps is the strength of Auburn's defense, led by returning starters K.J. Britt and Owen Pappoe. A strong unit against the run is needed in the SEC, and Auburn has the ability to make teams one-dimensional if the front, led by Big Kat Bryant and a bunch of unproven options, can eat up opposing offensive linemen. Some of the Tigers' tougher games will feature teams with new starting quarterbacks who need to rely on a strong running game. If the linebackers are free to roam, Auburn will win some big games.
Three Reasons Why Auburn Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2020
1. Offensive line
On paper, the entire offensive line needs to be replaced even though center Nick Brahms got five starts in 2019. One returning starter or none, this group has a lot of work to do for a march to Atlanta. Aiding in this group coming together as a destructive force is new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. He comes over from Ole Miss where he helped mold the SEC's No. 2-ranked ground attack in 2019, one that averaged 251 yards per game. Making the line look better than advertised is a very talented, but young running back unit. The staff has been high on D.J. Williams becoming the next great Auburn tailback, and now he gets his chance to shine as the presumed starter. Incoming four-star recruit Tank Bigsby could push for time as well.
2. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris
Without spring practices to see how this unit works from the staff to the players, it is anyone's guess what will happen once the ball is teed up. Another big question Auburn fans need answered, which Morris are they getting: the offensive mind that set up Clemson as an annual College Football Playoff team or the guy who won just four games in two seasons as Arkansas head coach? With so much riding on the season, will Malzahn give Morris room to make the offense his or take over the play-calling duties midway through the second quarter of their scheduled season opener in Atlanta against North Carolina?
Had the universe worked differently, the 2019 War Eagles would eat this year's schedule alive. As is, the lack of returning experience leaves question marks all over the field. The schedule is tough with five teams ranked in Athlon Sports' top 18 teams — North Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, and Alabama. On the positive, Auburn drops Florida for Kentucky in SEC crossover play, but the Wildcats have a lot of experience and their offense looks salty. The three-game stretch against Kentucky, Georgia (road), and Texas A&M will decide if this team has a chance to make the SEC Championship Game with a shot at a playoff berth. Even if they can get past a rising North Carolina squad and come away from the middle of the schedule without a blemish, the Tigers still have to go through LSU and Alabama to end the regular season.
Georgia, LSU, and Alabama will be breaking in new quarterbacks with all three teams also taking heavy losses on the roster to the NFL, giving Auburn a more even playing field. But the schedule has other potential pitfalls in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Texas A&M.
One could argue that Gus Malzahn had another championship-caliber team a year ago just on the defense alone, but that opportunity was squandered. There may be a wealth of talent on this War Eagles team, but the lack of experience should prevent Auburn from winning the SEC West and a chance to make the College Football Playoff. Another nine-win season would be viewed as a success to all college football fans not on The Plains.
— 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.