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2018 SEC Football Season Preview: Auburn Tigers

Can the Tigers win the SEC West in back-to-back years?

NCAA Football: SEC Football Media Day Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

At the close of the 2017-2018 football season, on the heels of an ugly loss to UCF and probably not independent of some courting from Arkansas, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension with $36.5 million guaranteed. I take that to mean that the bar has been raised, and the expectations on The Plains are as high now as they ever have been. But realistically, what should Auburn fans expect for the upcoming season?


Offense

Let’s start on offense. Two things stick out to me as concerns: 1) who will carry the load at running back and 2) who will step up on the offensive line.

Last year Kerryon Johnson accounted for 1,391 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, not to mention he was a leader in the locker room. (I’m assuming the leadership part.) The year before that, Kamryn Pettway had his own 1,000+ yard season. Both guys are gone now, but as we saw confirmed on the depth chart released earlier this week, junior running back Kam Martin and redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow will have the opportunity to step up as Gus’s go-to ball carrier.

J.B. Grimes, who coached Auburn’s offensive line from 2013-15, is back in town to assemble a unit that saw a lot of turnover at the close of last season. In five of the Tigers’ final six games, four seniors started on the o-line. Those are big holes to fill (I mean that both literally and figuratively).

Unfortunately, Auburn lost two key receivers to knee injuries during Spring practice: Will Hastings and Eli Stove. That being said, senior Ryan Davis is back for his final year after setting a school record of 84 receptions last year. On top of that, there is a lot of talent (*cough* Nate Craig-Myers *cough*) on the roster; in other words, there’s no shortage of guys who are able to catch the ball.

Auburn has every reason to feel most confident in the guy taking snaps at quarterback. Jarrett Stidham lived up to the hype last season, throwing for 3,158 yards, 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Not to mention he’s just shifty enough on his feet to pick up yards when yards are needed. Entering his junior season with a year under his belt, in theory, Stidham should look even better.


Defense

The Tigers will miss Jeff Holland for lots of reasons, especially his Sensei Mud persona. But defensive line coach Rodney Garner has recruited well, and there is a lot of depth at that position. I wouldn’t want to be lining up across from Dontavius Russell, Marlon Davidson or Derrick Brown. The guys that do are in my thoughts and prayers.

At linebacker Auburn returns two of the previous season’s leading tacklers in Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams. Combined they accounted for 139 tackles last year.

There isn’t much experience in the secondary outside of Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean, which means we’ll probably see some true freshmen in the mix early and often. Of course, if the defensive line lives up to the hype, I don’t anticipate quarterbacks having much of a chance to challenge them. Only time will tell.


Special Teams

Alexander Graham Bell said the following: “When one door closes, another opens.” He wasn’t talking about Auburn’s placekickers, but he might as well have been. Auburn fans were sad to see Daniel Carlson move on to the NFL, but before leaving, Daniel passed the baton (and by “baton,” I mean kicking tee) to his younger brother Anders. At this point is the Auburn Family not synonymous with the Carlson family?


Schedule

Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the country. They’ll start against the No. 6 team in the country in the Washington Huskies and close out, on the road, against the two teams who played for the National Championship last year.

As an enneagram six, I’m always thinking in worst-case scenarios; that being said, I don’t think that’s what we’ll see from this year’s Auburn team. With an opening loss to Washington and a loss to either Georgia or Alabama, I think Auburn goes 10-2 this year.

In the meantime, spend as much time on Twitter as possible and enjoy the ride.