Auburn – 2018 SEC Preview
The 2018 edition of the Auburn Tigers will be a team for which the sky is the limit. The offense, defense, and special teams are talented, experienced, and deep. On paper, Gus Malzahn’s minions are, to use a familiar term in the realm of sports… loaded.
This team is one that contains all of the qualities to make the College Football Playoff. And so, one might ask oneself, what is the “X-factor,” the impediment, the potential monkey wrench, if you will, in the Tigers’ march to a championship season?
Auburn, which is a top-ten pick in most publications and will be in many polls, faces a litany of opponents that would cause great consternation for any college football coach in full use of his faculties.
Auburn’s schedule, in a word? Brutal.
The Tigers open the season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against the University of Washington. The Huskies are certain to be ranked in the pre-season top ten, and, most likely, will be a top five team. The Tigers close the regular season with games against Georgia and Alabama, both on the road, as two of their final three opponents. Throw in the remainder of the SEC West between the aforementioned three potential playoff teams and you have the makings of a schedule which would make any coach shudder.
But, the schedule is the schedule. It is the given. It is what it is. Get ready. Be prepared. Put your best foot forward. And pray without ceasing. ($1 to the Apostle Paul.)
With all due respect to the highly talented and very well-coached squadrons on this minefield of a gauntlet, the 2018 Auburn Tigers are not going to flinch at such a formidable task. In fact, they will probably relish such an opportunity to prove their worth. The Tigers are hungry and quite eager to return to the gridiron and redeem themselves after the two debacles that closed the 2017 season, losses to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and to self-proclaimed National Champion, the University of Central Florida, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Here is what Malzahn’s troops bring to the table. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey returns for his second year on the Plains and will have 6 starters from 2017 to build around. The key building block is junior quarterback, Jarrett Stidham. Malzahn and Lindsey have said that they will, “turn him loose,” with the offense.
Stidham had the second highest single-season passing yards per game, 3,406, in Auburn football history in 2017. He is, of course, a very solid all-star candidate and is mentioned in early Heisman talk.
Stidham must receive good protection, hence a huge key to this offense succeeding is replacing four starting lineman. There is a great deal of talent here, but it is inexperienced to a degree. J.B. Grimes, after the departure of Herb Hand, rejoins the staff as coach of this group and that is good news. He is one of the better teachers in the collegiate ranks and he is also a hard-nosed, old school type of guy.
The 2017 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Kerryon Johnson, has departed, as has Kamryn Pettway, but the Tigers have a stable of running backs that is five deep. Kam Martin will top the depth chart when the season commences, but watch closely for redshirt freshman JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow and true freshman Asa Martin to push hard for their share of carries.
Senior fullback/H-Back Chandler Cox is a devastating blocker at that position.Two wide receivers, senior Will Hastings and junior Eli Stove, both went down with ACL injuries in the spring, and it is not certain when they will return. All-time single season reception leader, Ryan Davis will be back, as will deep threat Darius Slayton, the dangerous Nate-Craig Myers, and up and coming Marquis McClain.
True freshmen Matthew Hill, Shedrick Jackson (Bo’s nephew), and Anthony Schwartz all have a good shot at playing time. Schwartz, a sprinter in track, set a new Boys’ World Youth Best of 10.15 seconds in the 100-meters in March of 2017. He came to Auburn on the condition that he be allowed to run track.
Third year coordinator Kevin Steele, with eight returning starters, will have the luxury of coaching what should be one of the most outstanding defenses in the country this coming season.The front four could be the top unit in the SEC and, quite possibly, the nation. It begins in the middle with Outland Trophy watch list candidate, junior Derrick Brown. Senior Dontavius Russell will play alongside Brown and is a potential all-star himself.
Another Outland Trophy candidate, junior Marlon Davidson, will start at end. Davidson became the first true freshman D-lineman to start on opening day at Auburn in thirty years. Sophomores T.D. Moultry and Big Cat Bryant could wreak havoc at the buck position. The loss of sack leader Jeff Holland should not affect the Tigers at all at that position.
Seniors will compose a fearsome linebacker trio in 2018. Deshaun Davis, who is sorely underrated, Darrell Williams, and Montavious Atkinson make up the position, and coach Travis Williams also has good depth here.
All said, the front seven is, arguably, as good as any in college football.
The secondary has the most question marks of any position on the defense, but the “J” boys, Jeremiah Dinson (nickel), Jamel Dean, and Javaris Davis provide a strong nucleus to build around at cornerback. The athletic wide receiver and kick returner, Noah Igbinoghene, moves over to the defensive side of the ball at cornerback. Travion Leonard, John Broussard and Jayvaughn Myers help with depth, as do newcomers Christain Tutt and Roger McCreary.
Auburn loses Tray Matthews, Nick Ruffin, and Stephen Roberts at safety. Dinson, a junior, is likely to start here, and Daniel Thomas, also a junior, should join him. Sophomore Jordyn Peters will provide help. Jamien Sherwood and “Smoke” Monday are true freshmen and are both rangy, physical players who add depth to the safety spot.
Auburn Special Teams
Special teams is an area that seeks improvement. Losing perennial Groza Award semi-finalist, Daniel Carlson, doesn’t seem like the way to do this, but his brother Anders, who will replace him, is reported to have a stronger leg, And his older sibling says Anders could even be an upgrade.
Arryn Siposs has been lured in from ProKick Australia to handle the punting chores. The past five Ray Guy Award winners have hailed from ProKick. The 25-year-old also played Aussie rules football and rugby. Sophomore Aidan Marshall will return, as well.
Malzahn, with a new 7-year, $49 million contract, now has the stability and continuity that he needs on his coaching staff. This is his sixth season at the helm of the Tigers and it could very well turn out to be his most successful campaign.
That brings us full circle—back to that daunting schedule. If Auburn can properly navigate those treacherous waters, it could find itself playing for all the marbles in January of 2019.
Bird attended Auburn University from 1970-71 and in 1973. He is a graduate of Troy University where he majored in Speech and Theater and minored in Journalism.
Bird’s father, mother, and son also attended Auburn. The first football game he attended in Auburn was the Clemson game (Homecoming) in 1961. Auburn won that game 24-14, and Bird has never been the same since that day. Auburn sports, and football, in particular, have been his deep and abiding passion for 57 years.
Bird retired in 2013 after spending 22 year with AAA as an inspector of hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, and attractions. His wife, Melodye, and he have been married for 41 years. They have two adult children and four grandkids. Bird has a passion for music that rivals his love for all things Auburn.