Auburn ended its 2016 season with a 35-19 loss to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl to finish 8-5, a one-game improvement over last year.

There are numerous question marks regarding the program, but things might look worse than they really are. Despite the concerns Tigers fans might have, here are seven reasons for optimism heading into 2017.

1. Kevin Steele has at least one more year left on his contract: Steele, Auburn’s fifth defensive coordinator over the past six seasons, turned out to be the Tigers’ best offseason hire. Entering the Sugar Bowl, Auburn was fifth in the FBS in scoring defense, allowing 15.6 points per game before surrendering a season-high 35 points to the Sooners.

The biggest impact Steele made was improving Auburn’s run defense. The Tigers ended the regular season third in the SEC against the run – their highest ranking since leading the conference in 2010 — allowing 124.8 yards per game.

Under Steele, Auburn went eight consecutive games without allowing a rushing touchdown, a claim that Alabama can’t make – yet. Entering its national championship rematch against Clemson, the Crimson Tide hasn’t allowed a score on the ground in seven consecutive contests.

2. The 2017 schedule looks favorable: The Tigers kick off the second half of their slate with a rough three-game road stretch against LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. And they have to visit Clemson on Sept. 9.

But the other non-conference matchups – Georgia Southern, Mercer and Louisiana-Monroe – are three winnable games. Plus, the Tigers also get Georgia and Alabama at home, so that’s a good thing, too.

AU’s SEC East matchup next fall is at Missouri, but Gus Malzahn’s squad is in much better shape than Barry Odom’s team. If Auburn survives that difficult three-game road gauntlet, the rest of the schedule appears manageable.

3. Rhett Lashlee will continue to call plays: Auburn scored 80 points over its first three games this season – including 51 against Arkansas State – but lost two of them. Beginning with a 18-13 victory over LSU on Sept. 24, when Lashlee took over the play-calling from Malzahn, the Tigers went gone 7-3 while averaging 32.6 points.

Under Lashlee, Auburn became the SEC’s top rushing team, averaging nearly 279 yards a game before gaining just 185 yards in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers did that while running the ball 70 percent of the time, which made them very one-dimensional.

The jury is still out regarding whether Sean White is the answer at quarterback, and the offense could stand to be more balanced. But the Tigers were definitely better on offense once Lashlee called the shots, and both he and his attack still have room to improve.

4. This year’s recruiting class could be better than last year’s: According to, Auburn’s 2017 group of recruits ranks fourth in the SEC and eighth in the country. That’s a slight improvement over last year’s class, which was ranked fifth and ninth respectively.

The lone 5-star recruit in this year’s group is Calvin Ashley, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive tackle from St. John’s College High School in Washington. D.C. Auburn’s class also includes dual threat QB Jarrett Stidham, who completed 75 of 109 passes for 1,265 yards, 12 TDs and 2 interceptions as Baylor’s backup in 2015.

5. Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are coming back: Pettway and Johnson are the two biggest reasons Auburn’s running game was so effective. A year after not taking a handoff at all in 2015, Pettway averaged 122.4 rushing yards per game to lead the SEC.

Johnson, meanwhile, led Auburn with 11 rushing TDs and ran for 895 yards – both career highs. One concern for both backs has been injury history; they combined to miss four games in 2016.

In addition to staying healthy, Pettway needs to improve as a pass-catcher. Over the past two seasons, Pettway has hauled in just three passes for 26 yards.

6. These players also have eligibility left: White, Pettway and Johnson aren’t the only starters who appear poised to return. Barring some early departures for the NFL, the following teammates on offense might also stay in school: wideouts Ryan Davis, Jason Smith and Darius Slayton, offensive linemen Darius James, Austin Golson and Braden Smith and H-back Chandler Cox.

Most of these starters on defense could remain on the Plains: defensive linemen Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson, linebackers Darrell Williams, Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams and defensive backs Stephen Roberts, Tray Matthews and Carlton Davis. Potentially, that’s 18 returning starters, not too shabby when you consider that place-kicker Daniel Carlson also has one more year of eligibility left.

7. The program is in a much better place: A year ago at this time, Malzahn’s future was in doubt even after the Tigers’ victory over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl that capped a 7-6 season. With Will Muschamp heading to South Carolina, the Tigers took a chance on Steele, and his hiring turned out to be better than expected.

Malzahn’s decision to have Lashlee call plays perked up the offense, which helped Auburn finish second in the SEC West and clinch its Sugar Bowl berth. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of work to be done; the Tigers have gone three years without beating Alabama or winning an SEC Championship.

But regardless of how you feel about Malzahn, things are much more stable at Auburn than they were 13 months ago. It remains to be seen if he can turn that stability into national championship-caliber success.