Jon Cartu States: Preseason Top 25: No. 11 Auburn hopes to get back into the …

Preseason Top 25: No. 11 Auburn hopes to get back into the ...

Jon Cartu States: Preseason Top 25: No. 11 Auburn hopes to get back into the …

Auburn’s 2019 season was a roller coaster of epic proportions. The regular season started off with Bo Nix — in his first ever college game — tossing a last-minute touchdown to Seth Williams to top Oregon and concluded with a win over arch-rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Losses to Florida, LSU and Georgia in-between prevented the Tigers from contending for the College Football Playoff, and an Outback Bowl loss to Minnesota left a sour taste in their mouths heading into the offseason.

There is hope, though. Nix and Williams are back, the linebacking corps should be one of the best in the country and other SEC West contenders have more questions and holes to fill than coach Gus Malzahn’s Tigers. Consistency has been a problem on The Plains, which needs to be rectified if they are going to get back into the national title picture.

2019 rewind

Final ranking: No. 14 | Achievements: Iron Bowl win, lost 31-24 to Minnesota in the Outback Bowl

Stud defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson kept Auburn in every game last season, but the offense couldn’t do enough against top-tier competition. With the two stars gone off of the defensive line, the onus will likely shift to Nix and Co. to lead a potential charge back to the top of the SEC West.

Key departures

DL Derrick Brown: The monster in the middle had 55 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss as a senior before being drafted seventh overall by the Carolina Panthers.

DL Marlon Davidson: Brown’s running mate up front also had 12.5 tackles for loss and totaled 48 tackles before being drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Falcons.

Defensive backs everywhere: First-round draft pick Noah Igbinoghene was the headliner last season. But Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Javaris Davis and Jamien Sherwood are also gone out of the secondary.

Offensive linemen: Marquel Harrell, Prince Tega Wanogho, Jack Driscoll and Mike Horton are all gone from last season. Center Nick Brahms is the only holdover.

RB JaTarvious Whitlow: Auburn’s leading rusher for the last two seasons entered the transfer portal.

Who’s back?

QB Bo Nix: The sophomore threw for 2,542 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions in his first season as Auburn’s starting quarterback. 

WR Seth Williams: Nix’s favorite target caught 59 passes for 830 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore. The 6-foot-3, 224-pounder should be one of the top wide receivers in the country in 2020.

Stout linebacking corps: K.J. Britt, Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe were three of Auburn’s top six linebackers last season. All three will be counted on to be the leaders of a new-look unit. 

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele: The veteran assistant has proven to be one of the most valuable pieces of Auburn’s program since taking over the defense in 2016.

Fresh faces

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris: The former Arkansas coach should allow Malzahn to take his hands off of the offense and focus more on standard head coaching duties.

RB Tank Bigsby: The 6-foot-2, 210-pound true freshman was the highest-ranked member of Auburn’s 2020 signing class (No. 39). He should provide plenty of help in a backfield that also includes D.J. Williams and Shaun Shivers.

DL Zykeivous Walker: The 6-foot-4, 260-pound defensive end was ranked 77th-nationally in the Class of 2020. There are open spots along Auburn’s defensive line, and Walker should contend for playing time up front.

Critical games

Week 2 vs. North Carolina (in Atlanta) — Sept. 12: The quarterback battle between Nix and fellow sophomore Sam Howell should be one of the best matchups of the first month of the season.

Week 6 at Georgia — Oct. 10: The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry got moved up the schedule and will be a massive SEC game that could have an impact on the national title race.

Week 12 vs. LSU — Nov. 21: The LSU game got moved back in Auburn’s schedule to accommodate Georgia’s move up. A key SEC West game during the penultimate week of the regular season should be extra spicy.

Week 13 at Alabama — Nov. 28: Who doesn’t love the Iron Bowl? The Crimson Tide will be looking for revenge after falling at Jordan-Hare Stadium last year.

2020 outlook

Auburn has plenty of question marks to address, including offensive line, defensive line and defensive backfield. But the lack of stars at the quarterback position will give the Tigers more than a puncher’s chance to win the division as long as Nix takes a step forward and avoids the sophomore slump. Whitlow’s absence shouldn’t be too much to overcome thanks to the trio Auburn will have under center. The key will be up front. Auburn’s going to have to grow up in a hurry on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, there might be instances where too much is thrust upon Nix’s shoulders. No matter what happens, it’s a critical year for Malzahn. The hiring of Morris and the wide open SEC West means there’s a wide open window for the talented Tigers to walk through.

Jonathan Cartu

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