Gus Malzahn wants you to know.

Auburn’s schedule was the most difficult in America last year, and according to him, that’s true again in 2018.

He might have a point. The Tigers do have arguably the toughest nonconference game of the contenders with facing a preseason top-7 team in Washington, and they have to go to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State. Playing that many games away from home is less than ideal for a coach with a .500 record away from Jordan-Hare.

Last year, that obviously wasn’t the case. Getting Alabama and Georgia at home was huge for an Auburn team that looked unbeatable at Jordan-Hare in 2017. With a banged up Kerryon Johnson, the season obviously didn’t turn out the way the Tigers hoped.

Johnson is gone, but Jarrett Stidham is back, as is a richer Malzahn, despite rumors that he was pondering a move to Arkansas. Also back is that daunting schedule. Let’s get into the keys on what it’ll take to attack that.

2017 record: 10-2 (7-1)

RB questions

Yeah, you already know. Replacing Johnson and Kam Pettway has been a hot topic of conversation on The Plains. Apparently people have figured out that Malzahn loves his workhorse back, and finding one is pretty important to make the offense go. In Malzahn’s 8 years at Auburn (including his time as offensive coordinator), his leading rusher averaged 265 carries per season. That would have ranked No. 12 in FBS in 2017.

Can Kam Martin be that guy? It seems like he’s going to get that opportunity. He’s no longer the 172-pound back he was a couple years ago, which is good news. Now listed at 193 pounds, it’s still fair to wonder if a guy who’s had 15-plus carries in a game once can handle that kind of workload.

Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

He’ll definitely have some help if he winds up being more of a 200-carry back. True freshman Asa Martin will get some run, as will Malik Miller, Shaun Shivers and others. Malzahn feels confident about using a rotation of backs behind Martin. The question is how effective the ground game will be compared to last year.

Losing the SEC Offensive Player of the Year definitely isn’t a “next man up” scenario, no matter how much coach speak you hear about it.

Stidham’s charge

While the ground game seems to be in question, Auburn doesn’t have any concerns about its starting quarterback. Stidham adapted well to Malzahn’s system in the latter half of 2017, and he’s rightfully beginning the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

You got the feeling from SEC Media Days that Stidham is far more confident than he was at this time last year. Part of that could be the decision from Malzahn to give Stidham more freedom to check calls at the line of scrimmage. That was a big reason the redshirt junior elected to return.

Stidham might not put up the rushing numbers that past successful Malzahn quarterbacks have, but his willingness to tuck it and run will still be huge for a rushing attack that’ll be trying to find its identity early in the season. We know that Stidham has the NFL arm to stretch the field, which should could keep defenses honest.

I argued that Stidham deserved the title of “SEC’s most valuable player” heading into 2018. With how daunting that schedule is, you can bet Auburn fans are sleeping a whole lot easier knowing that their starting quarterback is ready to roll after an impressive 2017.

That front seven, though

It’s pretty simple. Auburn’s strength this year is going to be the front seven. It’s loaded.

Between Deshaun Davis, Marlon Davidson, Dontavious Russell and Derrick Brown (can we call them the “Killer Ds” please?), Auburn will be a nightmare for teams with shaky offensive lines. Shoot, even the good ones will have trouble game-planning for them.

The group that finished No. 12 in scoring defense and allowed just 11 rushing touchdowns in 14 games should be even better this year. It’s easy to focus on Malzahn’s offense, but defensive coordinator Kevin Steele deserves a lot of credit for the job he has done in turning that unit into one of the nation’s best. That’s what it takes to be consistent in the SEC.

The question is if the defense can hold up for 60 minutes if Auburn can’t sustain drives in the ground game. As much as I like Stidham to take that next step, the schedule suggests there could be plenty of 17-14 matchups in store for 2018. We saw how the defense ran out of gas against Georgia and UCF when the Tigers couldn’t get the ground game going.

A repeat of that wouldn’t be ideal for the Tigers’ chances of repeating as West champs.

Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Game-by-Game Predictions

Week 1: vs. Washington* (L)

Spoiler alert: I think Washington is a Playoff team this year. And no, it isn’t just because Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin somehow have eligibility left. Washington’s front seven is loaded after returning basically everyone besides Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Vita Vea. Plus, Chris Petersen with ample time to prepare is a dangerous sight for an Auburn program that has struggled away from Jordan-Hare under Malzahn.

Week 2: vs. Alabama State (W)

After arguably the toughest opening weekend game of 2018, there’s nothing like facing an FCS team with a losing record, right?

Week 3: vs. LSU (W)

Is it so wrong to assume that the home team is the automatic winner in the Tiger Bowl? As great of a rivalry as this is, the home team won this game every year since Malzahn arrived in 2013. Joe Burrow’s development is the wild card, but it’s tough to say Auburn’s front seven will struggle at home against an LSU offense that’s a complete mystery.

Week 4: vs. Arkansas (W)

The pregame storylines here will be better than the actual game. The “what if” about Malzahn going to Arkansas will be a fun topic for him to brush past when asked, but it’ll be something the rest of us will think about. Fortunately for Malzahn, he winds up being on the right side of a lopsided win.

Week 5: vs. Southern Miss (W)

Southern Miss has improved in the Sun Belt, but I’m not about to call for an upset at Jordan-Hare when the Golden Eagles couldn’t beat Kentucky or Tennessee last year.

Week 6: at Mississippi State (L)

This is the one that’ll get me in trouble with Auburn fans. I’m high on MSU this year because I think Joe Moorhead is going to take a relatively one-dimensional offense and turn it into a unit that’s capable of knocking off elite foes. That includes Auburn. Nick Fitzgerald is in midseason form after a slow start from his ankle injury, and the Bulldogs avenge a 49-10 loss.

Week 7: vs. Tennessee (W)

I’m curious how Tyson Helton is going to revamp that dreadful Tennessee offense, but I’d expect this to be a long day for the Vols up front. The Tigers dominate the line of scrimmage and cruise at home.

Week 8: at Ole Miss (W)

The Rebels struggled mightily in 2017 against teams that established the run. I’m guessing that by Week 8, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have found their rhythm in the ground game. The Rebels’ offense will make it plenty interesting, but Auburn will pull away late against a gassed Ole Miss defense.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: vs. Texas A&M (W)

I don’t have enough confidence in Jimbo Fisher to make a preseason prediction that his offense can light up the Tigers at Jordan-Hare. Could that change in a few months after we’ve seen Fisher develop either Kellen Mond or Nick Starkel? Perhaps. But for now, I’ll say Auburn holds the Aggies under 20 points and wins by a couple scores.

Week 11: at Georgia (L)

Take a shot every time you hear the word “revenge” brought up at a Georgia press conference that week. Don’t. You’ll be hammered (yes, even though Georgia got revenge in the SEC Championship). Instead, just assume that Auburn is going to see an extremely motivated Georgia squad playing in its biggest home game of the year. By November, Georgia’s young defense could be clicking and on the brink of another Playoff berth. While I don’t think it’s quite as ugly as the 2017 SEC Championship turned out, I’m not betting on Kirby Smart to lose a home game anytime soon.

Week 12: vs. Liberty (W)

Why hello, cupcake week. I vote to start calling this “meat week” for Auburn. Why? Because this game has the ultimate SEC sandwich around it.

Week 13: at Alabama (L)

Could Alabama have beaten Auburn with Tua Tagovailoa last year? Maybe. We’ll never know. Instead, we’ll have to wait until 2018, when he’ll make his Iron Bowl debut. Tagovailoa vs. Stidham could wind up being the SEC QB matchup of the year, which would feel strange for this rivalry. Betting on Nick Saban to lose to a team in consecutive years feels like throwing money away. This time, it’s Alabama that marches on to Atlanta.

* at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta

2018 Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC West

Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

#WarEagle

I know. I’m going to have to duck and cover from Auburn fans. Suggesting a preseason top-10 team will win just 8 games needs some explaining.

Before I’m attacked, let me echo what Tony Barnhart, AKA Mr. College Football, said about Auburn. This year’s team could actually be better than last year’s. But that schedule has to be taken into account. And right now, I don’t have confidence that Malzahn will beat elite foes on the road. I just don’t.

I understand that history doesn’t win or lose games. But I’d feel a little better about Auburn’s chances if we weren’t talking about a coach whose only road win vs. a Top 25 team in the past 3 years was at No. 25 Texas A&M … which went 4-4 in the SEC. I actually think there’s a decent chance that Auburn has a top-10 defense and Stidham stays in the Heisman hunt. But I question the running game and how the defense will hold up late against elite foes.

If Malzahn silences doubters and leads Auburn to 10 regular season wins, he shouldn’t have anyone questioning his $49 million contract. Until that happens, though, the skeptics will be out in full force.

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