Auburn has been perhaps the toughest team in the SEC to get a handle on recently, bouncing back and forth between exceeding expectations and failing to live up to them.
Not much was forecasted for the Tigers in 2016, yet they made a nice run in the middle of the season and ended up receiving an invitation to the Sugar Bowl. Coach Gus Malzahn continued to make lemonade at quarterback with Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III.
However, Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is no lemon, so he could be the most important newcomer in the SEC this year. Even if his time with the Bears in 2015 was short — the Air Raid system he performed in has been known to inflate numbers, too — he looks like the most gifted passer on The Plains in a while.
Maybe most important, Malzahn and Co. get rival Alabama at home this time. What a post-Thanksgiving treat it would be for all if the Iron Bowl determined the winner of the West.
2016 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Actual Record: 8-4* (5-3)
* doesn’t include bowl game
On one day, Malzahn is in the conversation for second-best coach in the conference behind, naturally, the Crimson Tide’s Nick Saban. But then the next, he’s supposedly on the hot seat.
The man knows how to run the football, though. In four seasons as the head coach at Auburn, he’s finished first, second, fifth and first in the league in rushing offense. What he hasn’t been able to do is throw the ball consistently, no matter who’s taking snaps from center.
This past season, Auburn was dead last in the SEC in passing offense at a paltry 169.5 yards per game. That’s why the addition of Stidham is so important. Even Nick Marshall, who got the Tigers within one minute of a national title in 2013, was a converted cornerback who had transferred in from Georgia. He didn’t have a fraction of the natural arm talent that Stidham does.
While Malzahn usually prefers a QB who can run, that’s not Stidham’s game. It’s up to Malzahn to adjust his approach accordingly.
Although Stidham hasn’t technically been named the starter yet, nobody expects him to get beaten out by the low-ceiling White.
Based on what Stidham did in the spring game alone, he can completely transform what Auburn has done through the air in recent years. Unlike his predecessors, he stretches the field vertically and brings a downfield element that has been sorely lacking.
Tony Stevens was the Tigers’ leading pass catcher in 2016, and he only had 31 receptions. But Eli Stove, Darius Slayton and Kyle Davis all reeled in double-digit balls last season as freshmen, plus Nate Craig-Myers — he was a little disappointing in Year 1 — might be the best of the bunch. There’s reason to believe that Stidham will have weapons aplenty.
That being said, this isn’t the Big 12 anymore. They actually play D in this conference. Keep Stidham away from the Heisman Trophy watch lists, and everything should be fine.
Strengths & Weaknesses
If Stidham can indeed get some of those overly aggressive safeties out of the box, just imagine the open holes that Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson will have on the ground.
Each missed a little bit of time this past year due to injury, but they still combined to rush for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns. They’re the premier tailback tandem in the league, ahead of Alabama’s Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough and even Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
The offensive line is being shifted around a bit, as All-SEC guard Braden Smith is now lining up at tackle. Stidham appears to have a handful of receiving threats, but somebody needs to step up and announce himself as the primary option. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams are big losses off the D-line. Still, there are bright futures for youngsters like Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown.
Don’t forget about kicker Daniel Carlson, either. He’s arguably the best in America and also eliminates the opponent’s return game.
Week 1: vs. Georgia Southern (W)
The Eagles have been awfully tough for several SEC teams to handle over the years, but Auburn should win rather convincingly based on the roster disparity alone.
Week 2: at Clemson (L)
The Tigers gave the eventual national champions everything they could handle at Jordan-Hare Stadium last year. Memorial Stadium is quite a different story, though.
Week 3: vs. Mercer (W)
For some reason, the Bears decided to travel to Auburn and Alabama in 2017. These soon-to-be blowout losses are the dictionary definition of paycheck games.
Week 4: at Missouri (W)
Considering the state of Mizzou’s rushing defense, Stidham shouldn’t have to do too much. Just hand off to Pettway and Johnson.
Week 5: vs. Mississippi State (W)
While Nick Fitzgerald has been prolific against poor defenses, he hasn’t fared well when facing a unit full of blue-chip recruits just yet.
Week 6: vs. Ole Miss (W)
It’s impossible to know what to expect from the Rebels, although 4-8 feels like more of a realistic possibility than 8-4. Either way, Auburn should roll.
Week 7: at LSU (W)
If you like the running game, this is the matchup for you. Derrius Guice doesn’t have as much of a supporting cast, at least not when comparing Stidham to his field general, Danny Etling.
Week 8: at Arkansas (L)
I’m high on the Hogs this season and like them to pull an upset or two along the way. This might be one of them.
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at Texas A&M (W)
With an extra seven days to lick their wounds, the Tigers certainly have the formula necessary to run it down the Aggies’ throats from start to finish in College Station.
Week 11: vs. Georgia (W)
One of the better crossover rivalries in the conference, this game is a monster for both programs. Give me Auburn at home.
Week 12: vs. ULM (W)
The Warhawks have been giant killers in the past, but coming off a 4-8 campaign that included a 58-7 defeat to the Tigers, this isn’t an upset in the making.
Week 13: vs. Alabama (L)
Contrary to what some Auburn fans think, there’s more separating these two teams than quarterback play. Stidham is a difference maker, but not enough to shift the balance of power.
2017 Projection: 9-3 (6-2)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC West
We all know that White is a limited athlete. Nevertheless, Malzahn was still doing read-option stuff with him in 2016 because that’s the way he wans to run his scheme.
Remember that White ended up getting hurt, as well. The last thing the Tigers can afford is an injury to their new prized passer. It will be very interesting to see if Malzahn utilizes Stidham more traditionally.
If there’s one team that can give ‘Bama a run for its money in the West, it’s Auburn. Stidham is a serious upgrade. Pettway and Johnson are a formidable duo. The defense played much better for coordinator Kevin Steele in 2016 than it did for one-and-done Will Muschamp the season before. Special teams should be a strength with Carlson.
But the Tide remain head-and-shoulders better than not just the rest of the division, but the rest of the SEC. The separation is real.