Auburn capped off its 2016 football season with a Sugar Bowl berth, where it got handled by Oklahoma 35-19. While the Tigers didn't finish the season well (losing three of their final four games), there were plenty of bright spots along the way, including a 7-2 mark in early November.
Auburn showed flashes of greatness with a relatively young team, and it ended up having one of the SEC's better defenses. There is now plenty of hope as we look ahead to 2017.
With 15 returning starters and plenty of depth entering spring practice, head coach Gus Malzahn's Tigers look like a potential contender in the SEC West. Running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway are both back this season to tote the rock, and they'll be joined by plenty of talent at quarterback in what should be a healthy battle in the spring. There is a lot of positive momentum on the plains right now. It's now a matter of whether Auburn can build on that momentum in spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch in Auburn's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback Battle
Talk about a luxury. The Tigers have a ton of talent at the quarterback position and now they just have to decide which one to start. OK, so maybe it's not that easy, but it's a better situation than that of most other teams headed into spring practice. A former five-star recruit and Baylor/McLennan (Texas) Community College transfer, newcomer Jarrett Stidham, is creating a lot of buzz around campus as many believe he is the future at the position for the Tigers. And there is good reason to think that, but he's not the only guy available.
Sean White returns this season but will miss team drills during spring practice. He battled with injuries late last season. White racked up most of Auburn's yards through the air, but while he was fairly efficient, there wasn't anything overly impressive about the passing game. John Franklin III played well in limited action and is a senior now, so he'll get a crack at the job. But there's a reason people are excited about Stidham. He has the potential to be elite in Auburn's system. Whether or not he ends up getting the job, Stidham should get plenty of reps in the spring.
2. Running Back Progression
With Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway both returning, the Auburn backfield is loaded. Both of these guys are only juniors and they’ve already proven themselves as two of the SEC's top running backs. Pettway rushed for more than 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns last season as he led the SEC with 122.4 rushing yards per game. Johnson was a fantastic complement, gaining nearly 900 yards on the ground and led the team with 11 touchdowns.
Auburn's running backs are in the perfect system under head coach Malzahn, as his offense almost always focuses on the run first. The Tigers have a strong offensive line to run behind and if these guys can remain healthy, Auburn's running game is going to be just fine this season. It will be interesting to see how Johnson and Pettway have improved coming into spring practice.
3. O-Line Overhaul
Yes, Auburn is still going to be OK on the offensive line. The Tigers have recruited well under Malzahn and they've got plenty of capable run blockers who have been patiently waiting their turn to get on the field. It's never easy losing an offensive guard the caliber of Alex Kozan. He was arguably the SEC's best pulling guard for two years straight. Tackle Robert Leff also departs. But again, not all is lost.
Auburn returns three starting offensive linemen in Darius James, Austin Golson and Braden Smith. The Tigers also welcome FCS All-American Casey Dunn, a graduate transfer from Jacksonville State. Price Michael Sammons, Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell could potentially fill in the rest of the holes. And don't forget, Herb Hand is regarded as one of the nation's best offensive line coaches. Spring practice should tell us a lot about how the rotation will look.
4. New Offensive Coordinator
With Rhett Lashlee taking over as the offensive coordinator at UConn, Auburn brings in Chip Lindsey to help run the offense. Lashlee was with Malzahn for a long time and usually just implemented what the head coach wanted without changing things up too much or ruffling too many feathers. It's not that Lashlee wasn't a good coach, but he wasn't going to stray from Malzahn's approach. They were too similar.
That's why Lindsey should be seen as an upgrade. He was at Arizona State last season and Southern Miss before that. He is a proponent of a similar no-huddle, fast-paced approach but he brings a special contribution in his ability to recruit and develop quarterbacks. Auburn's running game has never been an issue. Malzahn needed someone who could help evolve the passing game, and it appears Lindsey should be the man for the job. He is a guy whose background is running an Air Raid offense. We'll see if and how different Auburn’s offense looks in spring ball.
5. D-Line Development
Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson are gone on the defensive line. The duo is NFL-bound after combing for 13.5 sacks last season and wreaking havoc along and behind the line of scrimmage. Both were effective in stopping the run, particularly Adams. But as with most defensive linemen, it wasn't really the statistics that jumped off the page. It was the fact that you had to account for them, often with two offensive linemen. They brought a huge advantage to Auburn's front seven.
With Adams and Lawson off to the pros, Auburn may have a tough time replacing them. At the least, it's going to take some time to get guys to that level of play. Jeff Holland played linebacker last season, but he is making the switch to defensive end and should be able to handle the learning curve. Nick Coe also is a popular candidate to work his way into the rotation up front. Spring practice will be a good time for Auburn to sort out all of the options.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Auburn in the SEC
As mentioned above, there is plenty of excitement in Auburn. The Tigers have some work to do in the spring in replacing some key players, but they've also got a lot of important pieces of the puzzle coming back. Plus, there's at least a possibility that the Tigers have a star quarterback ready to emerge. As is the challenge for every team in the SEC West, Auburn has to deal with... the SEC West.
It won't be easy going up against college football's deepest division. But right now, at least on paper, Auburn may be the second-most talented squad behind Alabama. The Tigers also are one of the most experienced. With the exception of an early tilt with Clemson, the schedule doesn't get too tough until midseason, and that should give the Tigers time to adjust. If all goes well, Auburn could certainly challenge for second place in the SEC West.
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.