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I’m very high on 2017 Auburn’s chances. This is terrifying.

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The Tigers always surprise everyone, whether in ways good or bad. Here’s why 2017 shows promise.

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NCAA Football: Auburn at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

College football teams tend to end up defined by how they start and how they finish. The first impression lasts for longer into the autumn than it should, and the last impression lasts all offseason.

In 2014, for instance, it took about two months of incredible play for us to forget about Ohio State’s loss to Virginia Tech and take the Buckeyes seriously. But thanks to the way they finished, they were a unanimous preseason No. 1 heading into 2015.

In 2016, we spent the first two months wondering what was wrong with Clemson as the defending national runners-up flirted with losses before suffering one to Pitt. Then the Tigers relaxed and played nearly perfect football on their way to a title.

This gives us a pretty conflicting view of Auburn heading into 2017.

The Tigers began 2016 by nearly upsetting Clemson in the most confusing way possible. The Auburn defense was brilliant in holding the eventual champ to 19 points, but Malzahn played just about every player in uniform behind center at one point or another, gaining just 262 yards and revealing that he had no confidence in any quarterback. Two weeks later, the Tigers fell to 1-2 after averaging 4.5 yards per play against Texas A&M at home.

Auburn finished 2016 in similar fashion. They were held under 200 yards by Georgia (in a 13-7 loss) and Alabama (30-12) and took more medicine in a 35-19 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

Starting 1-2 and finishing 1-3 is not the best way to make an impression.

But in between those two spells, Auburn was damn near perfect.

From a Sept. 24 upset of LSU to a Nov. 5 win over Vanderbilt, Auburn went 6-0. Quarterback Sean White caught fire, and the Tigers averaged 7 yards per play and 513 yards per game; their opponents averaged 4.8 and 334, respectively. They beat LSU in a slog and took down Ole Miss in a shootout. They played one of 2016’s best games, a 56-3 disintegration of Arkansas.

Auburn was the month of October’s best team in the country. But then White injured his shoulder against Ole Miss. He played well against the Rebels and Vandy, but he went 6-for-20 against Georgia and missed the final two games of the regular season. He returned against OU, threw 10 passes, and broke his forearm.

It’s as if losing your starting quarterback can jam a stick into your spokes.

After a three-act season, Auburn finished 8-5. That makes it seem similar to 2014 (8-5) and 2015 (7-6), two seasons that helped Malzahn onto the hot seat. But if you watched this team in between the first and last impressions, you saw a team capable of massive heights with a healthy quarterback.

Now, in theory, the Tigers have two healthy QBs. White is back after suffering four injuries in barely more than a calendar year. He’s the second-stringer to Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham.

Stidham had his own pre-injury supernova in Waco. As a true freshman in 2015, after Seth Russell went down, Stidham completed 51 of 81 passes for 934 yards, six touchdowns, and two interceptions against Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. He got his passer rating up to 199.0 for the year (and showed some wheels against OSU), then suffered his own season-ending injury.

So now, Auburn heads in with two starter-caliber QBs, a trio of running backs that rivals any in the RB-heavy SEC, a senior-heavy offensive line, and a defense with enough returning pieces and a high enough ceiling to match last year’s surprising top-10 performance. And with the Tigers ranked just 13th in the preseason AP poll, I find myself considering them almost ... underrated. I didn’t know that was possible, but here we are.

There are questions. The receiving corps has an infinite ceiling but is mostly unproven. The defensive line, the anchor of last year’s defense, lost just enough to make you worry. Plus, there’s the matter of 2014 and 2015 — the Tigers started each season sixth in the country and finished 22nd and unranked, respectively.

This is a program that tends to be at its best when it’s sneaking up on you, and even if I think they’re slightly underrated, top-15 teams don’t sneak.


2016 in review

2016 Auburn statistical profile.

The Auburn defense had a few ups and downs but established a steady level overall. The offense was all over the map. As went White, so went Auburn.

  • First 4 games (2-2): Avg. points per game: 24.5 | Avg. yards per play: 5.5 | Avg. offensive percentile performance: 65% | White passer rating: 138.6
  • Next 5 games (5-0): Avg. points per game: 43.0 | Avg. yards per play: 7.4 | Avg. offensive percentile performance: 78% | White passer rating: 185.3
  • Last 4 games (1-3): Avg. points per game: 23.3 | Avg. yards per play: 5.1 | Avg. offensive percentile performance: 34% | White passer rating: 44.0

Granted, that “last four” sample is unfair, since he missed two games and parts of the other two. But with backup Jeremy Johnson ineffective and John Franklin III a run-first, run-second guy (he played in all 13 games but threw just 26 passes), the Auburn passing game was tied to White, for better or worse. Now it’s tied to Stidham.


Offense

Auburn offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

It’s hard to glean much from full-season averages, knowing about the three-act process, but in the chart above, we see intent. This was a Malzahn offense: avoid negative plays, create third-and-manageable situations, and create big plays with the ground game. While the look of a Malzahn attack has changed depending on the talent at hand, that has been the underlying philosophy.

What made things a little bit different in 2016 was the way the passing game operated. And, of course, that changed multiple times during the year.

When White was clicking, completing 73 percent of his passes and averaging nearly 15 yards per completion, the Tigers couldn’t be stopped. But before Malzahn handed play-calling to now-former coordinator Rhett Lashlee (now with UConn), this was a mostly horizontal passing game. Late in the year, it was the same. It was also pretty easy to defend.

So the quest is easy to figure out: get vertical. And in Stidham, AU might have one of the most exciting vertical QBs in the country. He completed 57 percent of passes over 20 yards in 2015, and new coordinator Chip Lindsay was in charge of the most explosive offense in the country (first in IsoPPP) at Southern Miss in 2015.

NCAA Football: Baylor at Oklahoma State
Jarrett Stidham
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Stidham also has a trio of small-sample all-stars at his disposal. Four-star sophomores Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis, and Nate Craig-Myers combined to only catch 31 passes last year, but they averaged 19.7 yards per catch with a 53 percent success rate. Slayton caught a 46-yarder from Stidham in the spring game, and Craig-Myers caught a 50-yarder. It’s a lot to ask sophomores, but these three have the recruiting profile to back it up and have proven everything they’ve been asked to prove so far.

With a vertical threat, Auburn has basically everything else it needs.

  • Ryan Davis, Eli Stove, and Will Hastings are solid possession guys (they combined for a 71 percent catch rate).
  • The running back corps comes in all shapes and sizes: big (235-pound junior Kamryn Pettway), medium (212-pound junior Kerryon Johnson), and small (182-pound sophomore Kam Martin). It’s got competition, too, with 225-pound redshirt freshman Malik Miller and four-star freshman Devan Barrett looking for snaps.
  • The line returns three seniors who have combined for 60 career starts (including all-conference guard Braden Smith) and adds Florida State transfer Wilson Bell (who started 18 games for the Noles) and Jacksonville State transfer Casey Dunn, a two-time FCS All-American. There are eight four and five-star freshmen, redshirt freshmen, and sophomores waiting their turn.

Pettway deserves way more than a bullet point. As important as the vertical passing game is, when Auburn was clicking in October, Pettway was playing like an All-American. Against MSU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, he rushed 121 times for 770 yards (6.4 per carry) and six touchdowns.

Of course, the tires on this semi truck blew out a couple of times; Pettway missed three contests with injury and finished averaging just 3.3 yards per carry against Alabama and Oklahoma.

Johnson had his moments, but they mostly came in blowouts — he averaged 6.3 yards per carry against Arkansas State, ULM, and Alabama A&M and 4.2 against everybody else. Martin did most of his damage against G5 teams as well. Only Pettway really proved he could maul a good defense.

If Pettway’s healthy, with Stidham next to him in the backfield, Slayton/Davis/Craig-Myers roaming deep, and a nasty, experienced line in front of him ... goodness, this offense could be terrifying. Having White, Johnson, etc., on the second string is a heck of a luxury, too.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn
Kamryn Pettway
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Auburn defensive radar

Every situation is different. Every new job is an opportunity for success or failure. This is my seventh year of writing these previews, and I’ve been wrong plenty of times when it comes to new hires.

Still, like everyone else, I was confident in my unimpressed reaction to Malzahn’s hire of Kevin Steele in 2016.

In his last two years as a coordinator, Steele's units have crumpled. In 2011 at Clemson, his Tiger defense plummeted from sixth in Def. S&P+ to 65th; in 2015 at LSU, the Tigers fell from ninth to 27th.

This ignores mountains of context, obviously. Still, it's hard to be inspired by Malzahn's latest coordinator change. He replaced Ellis Johnson with former Florida head coach Will Muschamp last fall, then took Steele from LSU when Muschamp took the South Carolina head coaching job. (LSU didn't appear to put up a ton of fight.)

Then Steele killed it.

  • Def. S&P+: from 29th in 2015 to ninth in 2016
  • Success Rate: from 97th to 33rd
  • Rushing S&P+: from 49th to 14th
  • Standard Downs S&P+: from 30th to 10th
  • Points per scoring opportunity: from 28th to second

Auburn regressed a bit on passing downs, but if you had to choose one, you’d prefer to be good on standard downs — even the worst passing-downs defense is better than all but the best standard-downs defenses.

Improvement up front was vital; looking to 2017, then, that creates a blurry picture.

On one hand, blue-chip sophomore end Marlon Davidson returns, as do junior Jeff Holland and a potentially dynamic foursome of tackles in juniors Dontavious Russell and Andrew Williams and sophomores Derrick Brown and Byron Cowart.

On the other hand, end Carl Lawson (13.5 TFLs) and tackles Montravious Adams, Devaroe Lawrence, and Maurice Swain Jr. (combined: 13 TFLs) are all gone.

The upside here is obvious, but depth has taken a serious hit. There is only one senior on the line (end Paul James III), and a poorly placed injury or two could create a two-deep loaded with freshmen and sophomores. Even when you recruit well, inexperience means a hard cap.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Auburn
Deshaun Davis
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

If the line holds, though — and you never know in advance how much iffy depth will hurt you — the back seven could be dynamite. Junior Deshaun Davis (seven non-sack TFLs) is one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in a conference full of them, and three other LBs (Tre’ Williams, Darrell Williams, Motavious Atkinson) all made plays at times.

The secondary does have to replace nickel back Johnathan Ford and corner Joshua Holsey (combined: 6.5 TFLs, 20 passes defensed), and that’s a little scary, considering the pass defense wasn’t nearly as disruptive as the run defense. But the experience levels are high enough to be optimistic. Senior safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts are back, as are junior cornerback Carlton Davis (two TFLs, 10 passes defensed) and sophomore Javaris Davis, who basically posted a nickel back’s stat line from the corner position last year (six TFLs, nine passes defensed).

Throw in another veteran (senior safety Nick Ruffin), a pair of exciting sophomore safeties (Daniel Thomas, Jeremiah Dinson), and a high-profile transfer (former Ohio State corner Jamel Dean), and you’ve got reason for excitement. I just listed a lot more safeties than corners, but if Dean sticks on the first string and allows Javaris Davis to thrive at nickel, this secondary has what it needs.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Auburn
Javaris Davis
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Despite drastic inconsistency in kick returns, special teams were a massive net plus for Auburn.

Daniel Carlson was asked to kick too many field goals (32 in all!) but made 28 of them, plus all of his PATs. He was also third in the country with a 79 percent touchback rate on kickoffs. He was second in kickoff efficiency and third in FG efficiency. And despite it feeling like he’s been on the Plains since about 2003, he still has another year of eligibility remaining. And his little brother Anders is on board to succeed him when he finally leaves after 2017.

There are questions at punter and in the return game, but Carlson’s presence alone should guarantee a top-30 Special Teams S&P+ ranking.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Georgia Southern 98 31.4 97%
9-Sep at Clemson 6 -4.8 39%
16-Sep Mercer NR 42.1 99%
23-Sep at Missouri 53 13.6 78%
30-Sep Mississippi State 30 13.8 79%
7-Oct Ole Miss 26 11.6 75%
14-Oct at LSU 4 -5.8 37%
21-Oct at Arkansas 32 8.9 70%
4-Nov at Texas A&M 19 4.1 59%
11-Nov Georgia 20 9.1 70%
18-Nov UL-Monroe 121 37.8 99%
25-Nov Alabama 1 -11.6 25%
Projected S&P+ Rk 9
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 18 / 12
Projected wins 8.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 13.9 (14)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 9 / 7
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 3 / 10.6
2016 TO Luck/Game -2.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 66% (72%, 60%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.9 (0.1)

Auburn has the anti-social tendency of defying whatever expectations you set, good or bad. That alone makes me nervous about how good I’m feeling about this team.

I know I’m putting a lot of expectation on sophomore receivers, and the defensive line depth appears tenuous. But few backfields have the upside of a Stidham-Pettway combination, I like the offensive line a lot, and the backbone of this defense — Russell, Andrew Williams, Davis, Tre’ Williams, Matthews, Roberts — is outstanding. Malzahn has recruited at a top-10 level and just added a blue-chip quarterback. There is so much to like here.

The schedule will tamp down expectations a bit. AU plays at Clemson in September, at LSU (as the first of a three-game road stretch) in October, and finishes with an Alabama that is probably as good as ever. Despite a top-10 S&P+ projection, the Tigers are only projected to win about eight games. Such is life when you live in the SEC West and schedule the defending national champ in non-con play.

I’m curious what the reaction will be if the Tigers finish with eight or nine wins while playing top-10-caliber ball. At some point, Malzahn needs to make another 2013-level run — or, more realistically for 2017, at least get back to 10 wins — but with high points higher than those of 2016, Malzahn should be able to create buzz. And with so few senior difference-makers outside of the offensive line, the Tigers could be in line to make that crazy run a year from now.

Team preview stats

All power conference preview data to date.