The Tigers salvaged an 8-5 season with a record-setting 63-14 Music City Bowl victory over Purdue giving Auburn faithful something positive to hold onto heading into the 2019 season.
They signed their QB of the future, 5-star Bo Nix, and finished No. 11 in the nation in the 2019 recruiting cycle.
Bowl victories and strong recruiting are important for momentum and where head coach Gus Malzahn is concerned also beneficial in turning down the heat a degree or two on his seat.
That’s the good news, Auburn showed definite signs of life in routing the Boilermakers and proved that they aren’t that far off from competing again in the SEC West.
Certainly, that’s not to say that there are still major objectives that must be met if Malzahn is to continue leading the football program. Here are 5 realistic goals that the Tigers could accomplish heading into spring ball and the 2019 season.
1. Develop a quarterback
This is first and foremost on the list. Auburn has talented signal-callers though unproven at the college level. All eyes will be on incoming freshman Bo Nix, the 5-star dual-threat from Pinson Valley, Ala. Malik Willis will be a junior but has only thrown 14 passes in limited action over the past two seasons, completing 12 of those for 69 yards and a touchdown (no interceptions). Redshirt freshmen Cord Sandberg and Joey Gatewood will also compete for the job.
Malzahn might still be looking. He was interested in Jalen Hurts and the transfer portal includes options at the most important position.
2. Return to the offense of old
Malzahn went back to calling plays in the Music City Bowl and wow what a difference. Records went flying out the window as Auburn executed Malzahn’s orders to near perfection in a 49-point victory. If that can carry over into the 2019 season, and granted a couple of those key pieces won’t be back (QB Jarrett Stidham, WR Darius Slayton), then the Tigers can return to the offensive juggernaut that propelled them to the SEC Championship Games in 2013 and 2017.
Malzahn hired Kenny Dillingham as offensive coordinator, but make no mistake: This is Malzahn’s show in 2019, and we’ll begin to see that as soon as this spring.
3. Getting LB recruit Owen Pappoe ready
Auburn’s most coveted recruit could make an immediate impact. The 5-star from Grayson, Ga., enrolled early and has been bonding with teammates. The 6-0, 210-pounder is the nation’s top player at his position, according to 247Sports.com, and the third overall talent in his class out of the state of Georgia. Pappoe will no doubt get ample opportunity to earn a starting role in Auburn’s biggest position need outside of quarterback.
4. Getting the rest of the 2019 recruits ready
Auburn’s incoming class isn’t huge, but it added some significant pieces on Signing Day: Charles Moore and Mark-Anthony Richards. Moore, a 6-4, 268-pound defensive end decommitted from Mississippi State and flipped to Auburn. The 4-star from Louisville, Miss., is an Under Armour All-American.
Richards also is a 4-star and a Top 100 prospect. He is listed as an athlete, but most expect him to join the Tigers’ loaded backfield rotation.
Landing those two helped offset losing George Pickens to Georgia and also kept the Tigers close to the Top 10. They finished No. 11, but that was 1 spot ahead of last year.
5. Develop young LBs
This is probably a big ask, but if the Tigers are going to compete in the SEC West, it is a must. Three of Auburn’s four starting linebackers are seniors and will need to be replaced for the 2019 season. Sophomore Nick Coe is the only returning starter, and only sophomores and freshmen are left on the depth chart.
Outside of developing a quarterback for 2019, this will be Malzahn’s biggest task this offseason. But there’s talent to work with, and the addition of Pappoe should help as well. Sophomores K.J. Britt and Big Kat Bryant displayed some talent throughout the season as did fellow sophomores T.D. Moultry and Chandler Wooten. Freshmen Richard Jibunor and Zakoby McClain also saw playing time.