Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues with Auburn. Tonight: Arkansas. Wednesday morning: LSU.

How do you want me to spin it?

The “Auburn had a good year” crowd would point to the fact that the regular season started and ended with wins against Oregon and Alabama, both of which were legitimate top-10 teams. Oh, and let’s not forget that Auburn gave LSU, AKA the best single-season team in college football history, its toughest game of the year. The “Auburn had a good year” crowd would also point to the fact that Auburn finished in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 for the second time in 3 years, and did so with arguably the toughest schedule in college football.

The “Auburn had a bad year” crowd would point to the fact that a team that missed out on a New Year’s 6 Bowl couldn’t even beat Minnesota. They’d say that their 5-star freshman quarterback Bo Nix didn’t average 7.0 yards per attempt or finish among the top 30 Power 5 quarterbacks in passing yards. They’d point out the fact that they were essentially eliminated from SEC West contention in October despite the fact that Auburn had what was probably its best defensive line duo ever with Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.

So where do I stand? Somewhere in the middle, probably.

Gus Malzahn kept his job, and he did so because while Auburn lost 4 games to teams that finished inside the top 10, it was competitive in all of them. A 9-win season wasn’t a surprise necessarily. It also wasn’t the type of year that warranted firing a coach who had a buyout north of $27 million.

So, here we are. Another year looking up at West favorites, another daunting schedule, another time to question whether Malzahn is going to be on The Plains after this season.

Say what you want about the weirdness of 2020, but that’s about the only thing that feels normal.

Good Chad or bad Chad?

I was, in a word, stunned to see Chad Morris get the keys to the Auburn offense. You know, the same Auburn offense that Malzahn took over before last season with his true freshman quarterback. It wasn’t that long ago that we were talking about “New Gus.” Instead, Malzahn turned his offense over to a coach who never beat a Power 5 team as a head coach at SMU or Arkansas — his teams averaged 18 points per game in those matchups — and had 1 top-70 offense in his 5 years as a head coach.

And look, I get it. They’ve been buddies for a long time now. Morris got the Arkansas job in part because of Malzahn. There was an opening to fill on Auburn’s staff, and Malzahn went after someone who was an offensive coordinator who led a top-10 offense at 2 different schools. He deserves credit for that.

But “efficient” isn’t exactly Morris’ best attribute. At least not during the Playoff era, when he produced just 1 top-50 offense. The guy went through 7 (!) starting quarterbacks in less than 2 seasons at Arkansas, and he had the nation’s No. 128 passing efficiency offense last year. I’m not sure he’s the person I would have bet on in order to turn around Auburn’s No. 89 passing efficiency offense. Yes, I have major questions about that, especially considering Auburn returns just 1 starter up front.

I get that Auburn players are fired up about that group. It’d be weird to hear them be like “yeah, it’s just not working out” before Morris has called a single play. And who knows? Maybe this is just “New Gus” gambling and knocking it out of the park.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

This is why Kevin Steele gets paid so well

If there’s one thing I know about Auburn in 2020 it’s that Malzahn is extremely fortunate to have Steele on his side. Auburn is one of 5 programs in America that had a top-20 defense from 2016-19. That, of course, is Steele’s tenure on The Plains. That’s why he’s now the highest-paid defensive coordinator in America.

He’s paid that well to not miss a beat after what was a major loss of production and talent. Losing 4 defensive players to the NFL Draft — and 3 in the first 2 rounds — isn’t easy. Last year’s Auburn defense had to deal with a new set of starters at linebacker, but with Davidson and Brown up front, that task was a bit easier. Now, however, those linebackers have to carry this group. K.J. Britt will be asked to take on even more this year. Owen Pappoe is expected to do big things, as well.

Auburn doesn’t get let off the hook in that division or with that schedule. The expectation is that Steele will find a way to still produce one of the nation’s best units, and to have games like LSU where his innovation is on full display.

Is Auburn about to have an elite combo at tailback again?

Can we first talk about this JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow thing real quick? Like, he led Auburn in rushing each of the past 2 years and then he bolted for a 1-win FCS program in the Midwest? Are we missing something? I don’t know.

I remember standing behind Auburn’s bench at the LSU game in Baton Rouge and scratching my head as to why he suited up weeks ahead of schedule coming off that knee injury, only to seem him frustrated he wasn’t getting much run in the second half. Weird.

Did Whitlow’s departure have anything to do with Auburn’s promising young duo of D.J. Williams and Shaun Shivers? I don’t know. By the way, I know plenty of Auburn fans are hoping to see an elite trio with true freshman Tank Bigsby enrolled. How much work he gets could vary a lot depending on his learning curve early on.

But in the meantime, Williams and Shivers are plenty intriguing. I thought Williams flashed some major upside last year when given the opportunity, and Shivers, well, you know:

This might not be Kerryon Johnson/Kam Pettway 2.0, but am I crazy to think that those guys could potentially have one of the SEC’s top 1-2 punches? Maybe. After all, that overhauled offensive line could determine that.

Still, I’ll squat on that take.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Kentucky (L)

I’m not big on a team with major questions in the trenches having to go up against that Kentucky offensive line. It’s loaded with experience and proven talent. That’s the battle that I see the Wildcats winning in Week 1. Would I feel differently about this game if it were being played later in the year? Probably, and I also would have a different thought process if this was being played in a packed house at Jordan-Hare. It’s not. Give me the Cats to pull this one off whether Joey Gatewood is out there or not.

Week 2: at Georgia (L)

Yikes. An 0-2 start for Auburn? That’s not ideal. This comes back to an Auburn offense in transition having to go up against the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, who returns loads of talent off last year’s group. I think it’ll be awfully tough to score against Georgia, just as it was for Auburn in those first 3 quarters last year before finally figuring things out late. While I expect the Dawgs’ new offense to have its fair share of ups and downs, I’ll still take Georgia to squeeze out a hard-fought, low-scoring battle.

Week 3: vs. Arkansas (W)

Oh, what a time this will be for Morris to get his first win as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. Would there be some irony in him being a part of his first win against a Power 5 team since 2014 coming against Arkansas? Of course. Auburn outscored them 137-33 the past 3 years. With all due respect to Sam Pittman, who has done many things well so far, I can’t see him turning that around. Steele confuses Feleipe Franks and Auburn rolls.

Week 4: at South Carolina (W)

Ah, that battle of the teams who brag about having the toughest schedule annually. An atypical matchup against one another should be at least somewhat interesting. I think the Gamecocks should hold up in the trenches better than some realize. But do I trust Ryan Hilinski to outsmart Steele’s defense? No. It wouldn’t surprise me if Roger McCreary picked off multiple Hilinski passes and really proved to be the difference in this one.

Week 5: at Ole Miss (W)

When Lane Kiffin took off at Alabama, that was when Auburn fans realized that Malzahn wasn’t quite the offensive guru that they once thought he was. Kiffin doesn’t have Alabama levels of talent to work with at Ole Miss, though. I’d be a bit more convinced of a possible upset if I knew that John Rhys Plumlee were starting for Ole Miss, which has no shortage of talent at the skill player positions. But I do expect Auburn’s offense to have its best showing of the young season. Nix goes off and gets some much-needed momentum back for Auburn.

Week 6: vs. LSU (L)

The narrative going into this game is going to be “but Auburn played so well in Death Valley last year and LSU lost soooo much.” I get that. Auburn played so well in part because Brown and Davidson did their thing in what proved to be the only team with the personnel to successfully execute the 3-1-7 defense against LSU (sorry Georgia and Clemson), while LSU played so well because Clyde Edwards-Helaire did his thing. But yes, I’ll slightly lean LSU despite all of those major losses. I’m a Myles Brennan believer, and I think the LSU receiver room is still stockpiled with enough talent even after Ja’Marr Chase opted out. I’m not sure if Steele will bust out the 3-1-7 again without having 3 down linemen who can generate pressure consistently, but I think his unit will come up just short against an LSU offense that should still be one of the league’s best.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: at MSU (W)

No, I don’t want to know what those conversations on The Plains would sound like if Auburn went into the bye at 3-3. But I think it’ll come at the right time. They’ll show up with an extra week to prepare for Leach’s Air Raid, which will prove vital. Steele will draw up ways to dial up pressure with Big Kat Bryant and Co. that allow Auburn to keep MSU at an arm’s length. A K.J. Costello turnover early gives Auburn an early lead that it doesn’t look back on.

Week 9: vs. Tennessee (W)

I’m trying not to let my impressions of that 2018 disaster impact how I break down this game because both teams are much different 2 years later. Auburn was a mess offensively, and Jeremy Pruitt completely out-coached Malzahn that day. Could that happen again? Sure. But this is exactly the type of game that we should see some interesting wrinkles with Anthony Schwartz. Two weeks removed from a bye with Malzahn eager for some revenge on Pruitt, this is going to be a diverse offensive game plan that he and Morris come up with. Auburn’s offense finds just enough ways to keep Tennessee on its heels and gets to 5-3.

Week 10: at Alabama (L)

Remember that Shivers play in last year’s Iron Bowl that I brought up before? I mean, how could you not. A play like that happened in part because you had a safety like Xavier McKinney trying to make a play when Shivers had a head of steam at the second level … after the Red Sea parted. Alabama’s injuries in the front 7 were a major reason the Crimson Tide looked much more mortal than usual against the run. With Dylan Moses, LaBryan Ray and Joshua McMillon back healthy, I think that turns around. Alabama forces Nix to throw a ton and Nick Saban’s defense gets the bad taste of last year’s loss out of its mouth.

Week 11: vs. Texas A&M (W)

Seth Williams, Seth Williams, Seth Williams. Have I said that enough? I realized that I hadn’t really dug into that just yet. Why will this be a big game for him? Well, against Mike Elko’s defense, which likes to bring safeties into the box to force teams to throw, I think we see a lot of good 1-on-1 matchups for Williams downfield. That’s where he thrives. This is the type of game where he can look unstoppable late, just like he was against Georgia last year. He has 3 touchdowns in 2 games against Elko’s defense. It wouldn’t surprise me if he matched that total en route to an Auburn victory to close the regular season.

2020 projection: 6-4, 3rd in West


Is a 6-win season going to change how people feel about Malzahn? No. But is having a winning record against an all-SEC schedule a pretty decent accomplishment? I’d say so. I think the key point in the season is how Auburn responds from that bye week. If the Tigers are sitting there at 3-3, there can be a lot of finger-pointing. Shoot, we could see opt-outs at a point like that with eligibility not being counted in 2020.

But instead of that bye week turning into a time to crumble, I think we see a much better squad down the stretch after some early growing pains against the likes of Kentucky and Georgia. If Auburn closed the year with a 6-2 mark after an 0-2 start, I tend to believe the Nix buzz would grow immensely.

I’d be higher on Auburn if I believed in Morris. I’d be higher on that offense if it didn’t have such turnover on the offensive line.

But honestly, I’ll pretty much tip my cap to any SEC team that gets out of this weird year with a winning record.