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Speed, defense, and a downright reckless schedule? It must be another Auburn football season!

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Gus Malzahn’s Tigers will have to play at a top-five level just to reach 10 wins. But they’ll probably do it.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn
Gus Malzahn
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Malzahn enters as the assistant dean of the SEC. Only Nick Saban has been a head coach longer. (Kentucky’s Mark Stoops entered in 2013 too, but we’ll say the tie goes to Malzahn because he has more wins.)

Logically, this makes sense. He’s been around in a business that tends to be the opposite of long-term.

But intuitively ... this is Auburn, right? The school that shoved Gene Chizik out two years after a national title? Auburn doesn’t do stable, right?

In truth, Auburn is one of the steadier jobs among its peers. Chizik aside — his four years were a whirlwind replete with a hostile welcome, a title, and a fall off a cliff — this job tends to stay in the same person’s hands for a while. Tommy Tuberville, Terry Bowden, and Pat Dye stayed for an average of 9.3 years. Doug Barfield lasted five despite a .500 record, and Shug Jordan lasted a quarter-century.

Malzahn is one of only seven to hold the full-time job since World War II. There’s drama, mind you — plenty of it — but changes are rare. Despite long tenures from Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, Alabama has employed nine in that span. LSU: 12. Georgia: also seven.

There’s a chance, then, that Malzahn is only getting started on the Plains. And that’s a great thing in basically all ways but one.

In five seasons, Malzahn has beaten Saban-era Alabama twice — the only other active coach to have done that is Urban Meyer — won two SEC West titles and a championship game and made one national title game. Based on preseason AP rankings, he’s exceeded expectations three times and finished in the postseason top 10 twice.

This is all with what might be the hardest average schedule in the country. Adjusting for opponent, he’s finished 13th or better in S&P+ four times.

The only environment in which this isn’t a massive success is one in which Saban is your chief rival. Saban has two national titles and five top-10 finishes in the same time period.

The way 2017 played out was particularly cruel. Auburn beat No. 2 Georgia and No. 1 Alabama to wrap up a division title and rise from 14th in the CFP rankings to second. The Tigers were positioned to become the first two-loss team to reach the Playoff and trailed Georgia by just six heading into the fourth quarter of the SEC title game. But Georgia scored twice ... and then Auburn had to watch one main rival (the Dawgs) play the other (the Tide) for the title.

The Tigers then lost to UCF in the Peach Bowl, too. But hey, at least that meant UCF could antagonize Bama.

It was the latest rough finish. Auburn lost three of four to end 2016, four of seven in 2015, and four of five in 2014.

Back-loaded schedules keep changing how we view AU’s seasons. The 2018 Tigers face three teams in the projected S&P+ top six, all away from home, and two — No. 6 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama — come, as usual, in the last three weeks of the regular season. There are four other projected top-25 teams as well.

Auburn is loaded, mind you. The Tigers are projected fifth and return quarterback Jarrett Stidham, his top five wide receivers (though a couple are still trying to come back from knee injuries), and a majority of the two-deep from a defense that has ranked ninth or better in Def. S&P+ in each of coordinator Kevin Steele’s first two seasons. The run game requires retooling, but running isn’t generally one of Malzahn’s issues.

This is going to be ... a pretty Auburn season, in other words. The Tigers are going to have a chance in every game and should go at least 9-3. But I guess that only matters so much if Saban is lifting another trophy afterward.

Offense

Stidham’s first season after a transfer from Baylor was sketchy at the start and finish, but amazing in the middle. Over the first two and last two games of the season, he completed 58 percent of his passes at 10.4 yards per completion with a 114.1 passer rating. Over the 10 games in the middle: 71 percent, 13.8 per completion, 169.4 rating.

He also averaged 5.4 yards per non-sack carry over just enough rushes to punish defenses for over-pursuing the running back. He was brilliant against Georgia (the first time) and Alabama, too. With Stidham, Auburn improved from 44th to 10th in Passing S&P+.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn
Jarrett Stidham (8) and friends
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the following, it is quite conceivable that the Tigers could improve further:

  • Wideouts Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton, Will Hastings, Eli Stove, and Nate Craig-Myers return after combining for 187 catches, 2,602 yards, and 17 touchdowns. Stove also rushed 30 times (mostly on jet sweeps) for 315 yards and two more scores. Stove and Hastings suffered torn ACLs early in the offseason, but indications are that both are on schedule to be healthy by at least the midway point of the season.
  • Stove is an important horizontal weapon, but so is Davis, who more than doubled any other player’s receptions total with 84. Slayton (22.2 yards per catch) and Craig-Myers (17.8), meanwhile, are two of the SEC’s better vertical threats. And with sophomore Marquis McClain and three four-star freshmen (Matthew Hill, Anthony Schwartz, and Seth Williams), plus maybe some cameos from cornerback Noah Igbinoghene, Auburn’s got one of the most loaded receiving corps even without the two ACL victims.
  • The sack rate can’t get much worse. Auburn ranked 94th in Adj. Sack Rate, as Stidham sometimes proved a little too willing to hold onto the ball. Tackles Austin Golson and Darius James are gone, which can’t help, but Auburn thrived even with some sacks, and junior Prince Tega Wanogho did start seven games. This isn’t likely to become more of an issue.

Coordinator Chip Lindsey’s first season saw an aerial shift in the run-pass ratio, but most of that was because Lindsey trusted Stidham on passing downs. On run downs, Auburn still ran, even with an injured RB stable.

Backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway combined to miss 11 games (nine from Pettway, two from Johnson), and their combined per-carry average slipped from 5.4 to 4.7. They rarely lost yardage — Auburn was ninth in stuff rate (avoiding run stops at or behind the line) — but the explosiveness was minimal.

Johnson and Pettway are gone, as are those responsible for 50 of 70 starts up front. Wanogho and guards Mike Horton and Marquel Harrell are back after serving as part-time starters, and UMass transfer Jack Driscoll (20 career starts in Amherst) could be an immediate starter at right tackle if he can fend off four-star redshirt freshman Austin Troxell. There’s still run-game experience.

There’s also still Kam Martin in the backfield. The junior got more carries than expected last year thanks to injuries, and his 6-yard average dwarfed that of Johnson and Pettway. (Granted, that average fell to 4.9 without the Georgia Southern and ULM games.)

Sophomores Malik Miller and Devan Barrett each saw some action, redshirt freshman Jatarvious Whitlow has been a standout in practice, and there are new blue-chippers who could find time (four-star freshmen Asa Martin and Shaun Shivers, plus Harold Joiner, who could play H-back).

It’s hard to be as confident in the depth as we were last year, so it’d be great if the injury bug stopped biting the skill corps. But the top-line talent is awfully strong, especially in the passing game.

NCAA Football: Peach Bowl-Auburn vs Central Florida
Darius Slayton
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Remember two years ago, when we were all sorts of skeptical about Malzahn’s hire of Steele? Yeah, me neither.

Steele has been a revelation. He inherited a top-30 defense, improved it to ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2016, and then improved it to fifth last fall. The Tigers ranked first in Passing S&P+ and first in Standard Downs S&P+. The run defense could have been a little more disruptive, but that’s picking nits. The Tigers did a great job of making you use your weak hand, and they seemed more capable than most of forcing QBs to read unfavorable options on RPOs.

This was a standout defense, even in a conference that tends to have plenty of those.

There’s not much turnover, but the sterling secondary does take a hit. Steele must find a way to account for the loss of safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts (combined: eight tackles for loss, 10 passes defensed) and corner Carlton Davis (12 passes defensed). Ace pass rusher Jeff Holland is gone, too.

Luckily, Steele deployed a huge rotation. Despite those losses, three safeties and two corners return after making at least 17.5 tackles each last year. Junior corners Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis (who could end up at nickel this year) each defensed eight passes, and junior safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas had roles to play. So did sophomore Jordyn Peters. Four-star freshmen Smoke Monday, Jamien Sherwood, and Christian Tutt have all tried to shove their way into the rotation.

Mississippi v Auburn
Jamel Dean
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There’s nowhere for the pass defense to go but down; the run defense could pick up the slack, though. Holland is the only real loss on the line, and four returnees made at least 4.5 TFLs last year: tackle Derrick Brown (nine), tackle Dontavius Russell (6.5), tackle Marlon Davidson (6.5), and end Nick Coe (4.5).

Plus, sophomore T.D. Moultry and Big Kat Bryant, Holland’s most likely replacements in pass-rush situations, combined for five tackles for loss among their 17.5 tackles. Malzahn brought in four-star JUCO tackle Daquan Newkirk, as well.

The linebacking corps will be manned by three seniors: Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams, and Montavious Atkinson. Davis took part in 11 run stuffs, second on the team behind Brown (15). And surprise, surprise, there’s a nice batch of well-touted freshmen and sophomores waiting their turn. Between the returning star power and Steele’s knockout two seasons at AU, one has to give this unit the benefit of the doubt.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn
Derrick Brown
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Oh no, All-American kicker Daniel Carlson — who went 10-for-16 on field goals longer than 40 yards last year — is gone. What is Auburn to do?

[checks roster]

Ah, his redshirt freshman brother Anders was the nation’s top prep kicker and made a 53-yarder in the spring game. Guess that solves that problem.

This unit was a bit shaky outside of Carlson. Aidan Marshall and Ian Shannon combined to rank just 113th in punt efficiency, and the return game was unmemorable. We’ll see if that improves with experience.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Washington 4 -1.5 47%
8-Sep Alabama State NR 64.4 100%
15-Sep LSU 16 11.0 74%
22-Sep Arkansas 52 21.2 89%
29-Sep Southern Miss 94 31.0 96%
6-Oct at Mississippi State 14 4.2 60%
13-Oct Tennessee 79 26.5 94%
20-Oct at Ole Miss 25 9.0 70%
3-Nov Texas A&M 24 13.9 79%
10-Nov at Georgia 6 -2.2 45%
17-Nov Liberty 115 36.8 98%
24-Nov at Alabama 2 -7.0 34%
Projected S&P+ Rk 5
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 16 / 7
Projected wins 8.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 17.3 (4)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 11 / 7
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 6.1
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 69% (78%, 61%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 10.6 (-0.6)

The last six teams to beat Auburn had an average record of 12-2. In two years, the Tigers are 5-8 against teams in the S&P+ top 30 (3-6 against the top 10) and 13-1 against everyone else. The schedule defines AU’s seasons, and the schedule’s usually hard.

Malzahn’s sixth Tiger team takes on four projected top-15 teams, all away from Auburn (vs. Washington in Atlanta, at Mississippi State, at Georgia, at Alabama), and hosts No. 16 LSU and No. 24 Texas A&M. So despite a top-five S&P+ projection, AU is given just a 1.4 percent chance of going 12-0. For comparison, No. 2 Alabama has a 14.7 percent chance, and No. 6 Georgia is at 9.1 percent.

Still, they’re a projected favorite in nine games and the slightest of underdogs in two others. If the passing game has another gear, and if the defense remains top-five caliber, then the Tigers could be 9-0 when they head to Georgia, and they’ll have a shot at an upset against either UGA or Bama.

Auburn’s never boring, and under Malzahn, the Tigers are usually awesome. I don’t see why either of those things would change this fall.

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