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2016 SEC football preview: Auburn Tigers

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Gus Malzahn will be feeling the heat this year. How will he and the Tigers respond after a disappointing effort in 2015?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

2015 Record

7-6 (2-6 SEC)

Key Departures

OT Shon Coleman, RB Peyton Barber, RB Roc Thomas, WR Melvin Ray, WR Ricardo Louis, WR Duke Williams, OG Avery Young, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Kris Frost, LB Justin Garrett, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Blake Countess, RB Jovon Robinson

Key Returnees

QB Jeremy Johnson, QB Sean White, RB Kerryon Johnson, TE Chandler Cox, WR Tony Stevens, WR Marcus Davis, OT Austin Golson, OG Alex Kozon, DE/OLB Carl Lawson, NT Montravius Adams, DT Dontarus Russell, CB Jonathan Ford, CB Josh Holsey, FS Stephen Roberts, SS Tray Matthews

Key Arrivals

Derrick Brown (5* DT), Marlon Davidson (4* DE), Nate Craig-Myers (4* WR), Antwuan Jackson Jr. (4* DT), Kyle Davis (4* WR), Eli Stove (4* WR)

2015 at a glance

Life comes at you fast, and few teams felt that kind of rush than the Auburn Tigers did a season ago. It feels crazy to think about the fact that Auburn was competing for a National Championship against the Florida State Seminoles just three years ago, and now as they enter the 2016 season, the Tigers are likely to find themselves near the bottom of a juggernaut SEC West Division.

How did we get here? 2015 started with quarterback Jeremy Johnson getting a slew of Heisman Trophy hype, but the signal caller did little to effort that push in the first outing with a 1 TD-3 INT performance at the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta during the opening weekend of the season. From there, Auburn had to use overtime to defeat not-so-mighty Jacksonville State and were then promptly dump trucked by LSU in Baton Rouge.

Inconsistency became the name of the game for the rest of the year. The Tigers dipped and soared every couple of weeks, winning two, then dropping two, winning one, then dropping another sequentially until their season came to an end with a victory in the Birmingham Bowl. However it seemed obvious that the 7-6 record they amassed, with all six losses coming in conference play, that the season was nothing short of a disappointment. It’s all about how you play in the rigors of the SEC, and with just two victories in conference play against Kentucky and Texas A&M, 2015 serves as a fascinating prelude to 2016 which could be pivotal for the Tigers coaching staff.

Three Key Players

NCAA Football: Georgia at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Carl Lawson

Auburn’s most important player might be edge rusher Carl Lawson. TSK’s David Wunderlich wrote here how he might be the most important player in the conference, and the numbers would seem to indicate that hybrid pass rusher is making an impact on the field. And perhaps that’s the most important part: “on the field.” Last year Lawson only played seven games and brought the quarterback down just once, so Auburn will have to hope that their premier defensive player sees the field early and often, stays healthy and gets to the QB. If he does, then Kevin Steele will certainly be breathing many sighs of relief.

NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Auburn Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Montravius Adams

Nose tackle Montravius Adams entered Auburn shouldering lots of hype as a five-star recruit and the second-ranked player in the state of Georgia behind future NFL draftee Robert Nkemdiche (Coincidentally, Adams and Lawson, two of the three key players named, were No. 2 and No. 3 in the 2013 247Sports Georgia rankings). Adams quickly made an impact in his freshman season and then proceeded to have a junior season worthy of being named as a third-team All-SEC selection.

This year Adams comes into the year as a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, amassing the highest votes of anyone on that defensive line. With a group that includes Bryan Cox, Davon Godchaux and Charles Harris, that’s pretty impressive, so it’s clear that the defensive line still has many high prospects pinned on his broad shoulders. He’ll have his hands full weekly once SEC play starts up against some of the best linemen in the country, but good play from Adams will be pivotal to open up opportunities for the linebackers behind them and a secondary that looks to be in good shape this year despite some departures to the NFL and graduation as well.

The Quarterback

Yes, it might be oversimplified here but Auburn’s success will be mostly keyed in on who the quarterback is and how they perform. They are likely to be facing an uphill battle however, as the skill position pantry is left pretty barren after many departures this past spring. It didn’t help matters that running back and preseason All-SEC selection Jovon Robinson was recently dismissed from the program, but we’ll see how things play out at the quarterback position. It is nothing if not fascinating to project how things will go, especially after such an up-and-down 2015 from almost all perspectives.

Best Case Scenario

8-5 (4-4 SEC)

In the Tigers vs. Tigers matchup on September 3, Auburn falls to highly touted Clemson but rebounds with consecutive victories against Arkansas State and Texas A&M at Jordan-Hare. They aren’t quite able to tame the beast that is LSU, but rebound the following week with a win over UL Monroe. In Starkville, Auburn steals a victory in their first true road game of the year and follow it up with another victory against Arkansas. Oxford and Athens aren’t quite kind to them over the next three weeks as they go 1-3 in that rough stretch, but manage to still finish the season with seven victories in the regular season with a bowl win to boot. Alabama loses in the College Football Playoff semifinals to soothe the wounds, and Gus Malzahn survives to coach another season.

Worst Case Scenario

5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Auburn gets out to a woeful 1-3 start with losses to Clemson, Texas A&M and LSU. The next stretch doesn’t play too kindly to them either as two trips to Mississippi result in losses, and ultimately finish out the year 1-2 with thumpings courtesy of Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers fire Gus Malzahn and decline a bowl invite even while standing at 5-7. Carl Lawson gets hurt again and misses a chunk of the season. Alabama wins the College Football Playoff for the second year in a row.

Prediction

6-6 (3-5 SEC)

Bill Connelly has the Tigers’ projected win total at 6.5 and in this case, I’m sensing the under for them. The schedule is much too tough especially at the back end with trips to Athens and Tuscaloosa on the horizon. It doesn’t help matters that a trip to Oxford is looming also in the back half of the season. The game that could turn the tide is the Texas A&M game, but I simply don’t see Auburn’s offense matching with Texas A&M’s firepower and think that eventually they will lose that battle of attrition. Things aren’t looking mighty pleasant for Gus Malzahn either, as I suspect he could get his walking papers by the time December rolls around.