Auburn football: 5 ways the Tigers will measure success in 2020
In at least one respect, Auburn’s 2020 season will already be a success compared to 2019. After all, the Amen Corner scheduling feat that saw the Tigers face LSU, Georgia and Alabama in the final month of the season is no more — as Georgia is moved up on the schedule to Oct. 10.
Still, Auburn hasn’t won in Athens since 2005 or in Tuscaloosa since 2010. Ultimate success means both losing streaks end, but there are other ways to measure success within the football program in 2020 …
5. Bo Nix makes sophomore jump, not sophomore slump
Bo Nix was a true freshman sensation, throwing for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns (both Auburn freshman records) and rushing for 313 yards and scoring 7 more TDs on the ground. That effort earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors, and Nix was the 1st true freshman QB to start a season opener for Auburn since 1946.
Now the trick is to keep that momentum going. Nix will face defenses in 2020 that have seen all of his tricks and will prepare armed with a full season of game tape on Nix and his tendencies.
Not that Nix needs to be Joe Burrow, though Nix’s 2019 numbers were rather similar to Burrow’s 2018 stats. But Nix will have most of his skill-position supporting cast back in 2020, and Nix improved in the final couple of games of the 2019 season — a sign he was getting it even more than he did earlier in the season. Plus, Nix’s new offensive coordinator, Chad Morris, has a great record developing QBs everywhere except for Arkansas.
Improvement with pocket presence and accuracy must happen for Nix, especially on the road, but it can certainly happen for Nix in 2020.
4. Seth Williams catches 1,000 yards worth of passes
A parallel of Nix’s advancement would be to have a WR1 to pitch the rock to. Seth Williams seems to fit that bill and could become only the 3rd Auburn receiver to ever get to 1,000 receiving yards in a single season.
Williams had 830 receiving yards in 2019, though he was injured early against Tulsa and missed all of the blowout win against Kent State. It is certainly possible that would have gotten to 1,000 yards — where only Ronney Daniels (1999) and Terry Beasley (1970) have gone before.
Nix and Williams’ connection should only grow throughout the offseason, especially now that Nix is locked in as the starter. Morris prefers to stretch the field vertically more than Malzahn’s spread game. If Nix and Williams can find a groove, look for big things.
3. The defense doesn’t regress dramatically
Here is the problem with having a once-in-a-generation talent: When that talent leaves, it is tough to replace him.
Auburn’s defense faces that task in 2020, as defensive end Derrick Brown heads to the NFL. Brown was dominant at Auburn, earning unanimous All-American honors as a senior and winning the Lott IMPACT Trophy. Brown finished with 170 career tackles and 33.5 tackles for loss. Making matters worse, defensive end mate Marlon Davidson’s time as a pro is about to begin. Davidson was a force at Auburn — making 175 career tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss and recording 17.0 sacks (the 8th-most in Auburn history).
The slightest of silver linings is that defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been grooming the replacements for Brown and Davidson. But the significant dark cloud remains and the forecast is that Auburn could well take a step backward defensively. The secondary has also been decimated with graduation and departures, too, though the Tigers’ linebacking corps returns almost everyone from 2019.
Figure Steele’s defense to likely not finish in the top 5 of Defensive SP+ again in 2020, but the Tigers still have too much talent to keep from falling too far off the 2019 standard.
2. Welcome to the big leagues, Big Kat Bryant
If you don’t know about Big Kat Bryant by now, it certainly isn’t for Bryant’s lack of trying. The junior tallied 9 quarterback hurries in 2019 to lead Auburn — the same career trajectory Davidson had when he led the Tigers in hurries in 2018 before finishing in the top 5 in the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss in 2019. Jeff Holland did the same thing in 2016 and 2017.
Davidson and Holland evolved between their junior and senior seasons, as Davidson got faster and leaner and Holland became a close-combat ace at the line of scrimmage.
Figure Bryant to be next in this evolutionary process, especially seeing as he was among the SEC’s leaders in QB hits in 2019. Should history repeat itself yet again for an Auburn edge rusher, the Tigers defense will be just fine.
1. Being in the conversation on Nov. 21
As it is the SEC, Auburn has the usual mix of paycheck games along with perennial powers on the schedule. But for Auburn to be truly successful this season, it will have to be undefeated by Nov. 21.
That’s when defending national champion LSU comes to town, after all. And with the annual Iron Bowl a week later in Tuscaloosa, it would be a tremendous challenge to run the November table.
That said, even getting to mid-November would be a trick. North Carolina in Atlanta won’t be a cakewalk on Sept. 12, but the real test might just be the double dip of playing at Georgia on Oct. 10 and then hosting Texas A&M on Oct. 17.
Can Auburn feel great about its season in 2020? Getting to Nov. 21 with a 0 in the loss column would be a really big feat.