After a highly successful 2017 college football season that included a share of the SEC West title and an appearance in the SEC Championship Game, the Auburn faithful were hopeful for a repeat and a step forward to the College Football Playoff in '18. With 13 starters returning, but big holes to fill on offense due to graduation and early NFL draft entries, the 2018 campaign fell short of the high expectations (7-5, 3-5 SEC) but still produced some big wins, close losses, and countless exciting plays.
The action on the field for the War Eagles continues with a Music City Bowl showdown against Purdue on Dec. 28 in Nashville, Tennessee, but before the big game, we take a quick look back at all the team accomplished during the 2018 regular season with team awards.
Offensive MVP: JaTarvious Whitlow, RB
The freshman tailback surprised all by leading the team with 777 rushing yards and four touchdowns (tied) on 143 carries. The yardage is below Auburn standards as a featured runner, but the emerging back only got 20-plus carries once during the season; a 22-carry, 104 yard, one-touchdown performance against LSU. He turned in his best effort against Ole Miss, gaining 170 yards on 19 carries. He also returned three kicks for 80 yards in that game.
Defensive MVP: Deshaun Davis, RB
Davis was among the best linebackers in the SEC, earning first-team All-SEC recognition by the coaches after coming up with 107 stops, 14 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. The productivity on the field was a big step forward for the senior after accumulating 82 tackles as a junior. Davis’ best game was arguably against then-No. 12 LSU when he collected 13 tackles, including four tackles for a loss, along with two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
Best Freshman: Anthony Schwartz, WR
The speedster did a little bit of everything for Auburn this season as he tried to make a difference whenever he got an opportunity. He pulled in 19 passes for 307 yards with two touchdowns, injecting life into the offense against Tennessee and Arkansas. He also showed up in the run game with 19 carries for 307 yards, including scores against Alabama State, Ole Miss, and Alabama.
Best Play of the Season: 76-Yard Anthony Schwartz TD vs. Tennessee
With 3:26 left until halftime, Auburn tied 10-all with Tennessee, Jarrett Stidham dropped back hitting Schwartz for what ended up being a 76-yard sprint down the sideline for the go-ahead touchdown. The spark gave the fans hope that the defense would shut the door so that the Tigers would go into the half with a lead.
Best Performance by a Player: Jarret Stidham vs. Texas A&M
Stidham had better statistical games against Washington in Week 1 and against Tennessee in Week 7, but came up big against the Aggies when needed most. A&M stuffed Auburn’s rushing attack for 19 total yards, making the Tigers’ offense one-dimensional. Stidham showed up hitting 18 of 29 passes for 239 yards with two scores with no interceptions. The junior field general threw the game-winner to Seth Williams with 1:41 left.
Best Game (Team Performance): Come-From-Behind Win vs. Texas A&M
After losing back-to-back games to Mississippi State and Tennessee, the Tigers bounced back to beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M. The 28-24 come-from-behind win over the Aggies was impressive, especially with a road trip the next week to then-No. 5 Georgia looming. Down 24-14 going into the fourth quarter, Auburn put together a pair of scoring drives, to reclaim the lead and hold on for the satisfying victory.
Defining Moment: Loss to Mississippi State
Losing 22-21 to No. 12 LSU at home in Week 3 was a heartbreaker, but the 23-9 road loss to Mississippi State three weeks later was the proverbial backbreaker. The defining moment of the season for Auburn may have been Bulldogs quarterback Nick Fitzgerald’s one-yard touchdown run with no time left on the clock just before halftime. That gave MSU a 13-3 lead that the Tigers did not threaten the rest of the game.
Biggest Surprise: Home Loss to Tennessee
Auburn was down on the mat after the Mississippi State loss, but returned home to Jordan-Hare to play a 2-3 Tennessee team coming off a bye week after a 38-12 road loss to Georgia. The two teams traded scores in the first half with Auburn up 17-13 at halftime. The Volunteers came out of the locker room and scored 17 straight points to take a 30-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Auburn closed the final margin with 37 seconds left on a 14-yard TD pass from Jarrett Stidham to Seth Williams, but it wasn't enough. The loss snapped the Tigers' six-game winning streak against Tennessee.
Biggest Disappointment: Jarrett Stidham, QB
In many ways Stidham took a step forward in his game, taking less sacks (23 vs. 35 in 2017) and throwing fewer interceptions (5 vs. 6) compared to a year ago, but he also regressed when it came to accuracy (60 percent completion rate vs. 67) and touchdown passes (13 vs. 18). After finishing second in the SEC in passing with 3,158 yards last season, Stidham wound up ninth this season with 2,421. That's a drop of nearly 25 yards per game and one of the reasons why Auburn's offense went from 452 yards per game in 2017 to 374 this season.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Dontavius Russell, DL
The obvious pick here would be Deshaun Davis, but some light should be shed on Russell’s play in the trenches. The big man has collected 34 tackles, including six for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Considering Russell plays nose guard, a position not known for statistics, those are fairly impressive numbers. Davis also can thank Russell for occupying offensive linemen so he can clean up and get credit for the tackle.
Player to Watch in 2019: Derrick Brown, DL
If Brown returns for his senior year, he is in line to be one of the best defensive linemen in the SEC. A second-team All-SEC honoree by the coaches, Brown has 45 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks entering the bowl game.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: The Offense
Auburn sorely missed the abilities of Darius James, Austin Golson and Braden Smith along the offensive line along with tailbacks Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway from the 2017 squad. The good news is if the all the current offensive linemen return for next season there will be four senior starters up front. Jarrett Stidham's decision this week to declare for the NFL draft a year early adds uncertainty to that position, especially after former Clemson starter Kelly Bryant announced he would transfer to Missouri after some predicted he would wind up at Auburn.
Auburn currently has one of the top 2019 recruiting classes with 16 verbal commitments. There is a lot of outside skill help coming, but a feature running back that can take it to the house from anywhere on the field and one who can make something out of nothing will help improve the offense's outlook for next season.
— 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.