Previews 2019: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Nov 29, 2014; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn addresses the media following their defeat to the Alabama Crimson Tide 55-44 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn Tigers

Projected record: 7-5; 4-4 (UA, Ore, TAM, LSU, UGA) and 4th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (SE, LT, LG, C, RG, RT)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (JDE, RDT, DE, RCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Av LB: Fr
WR: Fr DB: Vg
OL: Vg ST: Vg

Offense – what’s to like: The entire offensive line returns intact … now, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Auburn ranked just 68th in rushing offense last year, and a couple of starters, most notably LT Prince Tega Wanogho, are better-suited to other styles of offense. Having said that, if Auburn can find a way to get more consistent production out of this group, no one can match the Tigers’ experience.

The running game ought to be strong. Auburn has developed decent depth, with JaTarvious Whitlow, Kam Martin, Harold Joiner and Shaun Shivers as its top group. This gives the Tigers an inside threat (Whitlow, Joiner) an inside/outside combo runner (Martin) and a scatback (Shivers). Malik Miller, D.J. Williams and signee Mark-Antony Richards make this lineup even better. Joiner could also play a fullback/H-back role if necessary.

Offense – potential pitfalls: The offensive line ranked a respectable 39th in sacks allowed, but had trouble against defensive lines that were equal or better to the OL in a head-to-head matchup. Jarrett Stidham wasn’t a statue, either – Alabama had recruited him as a receiver out of high school – so the fact Stidham was so harassed in 2018 isn’t defensible. With Stidham gone and Malik Willis transferred out, the job is going to fall to either Joey Gatewood – a 6’5”, 240-pound physical freak with a good arm – or the much more slight Bo Nix, a true freshman who has the advantage of being the son of a successful former Auburn quarterback. Freshman quarterbacks, though, are typically a crapshoot.

The receiver corps, though, is where the real question marks lie. Seth Williams is a good outside receiver, with a lot of height and ability, but Auburn struggled to build a solid rotation last year. Anthony Schwartz and Will Hastings, along with oft-injured Eli Stove and converted tight end Sal Cannella, will be among those fighting for two open spots. The tight end position could be a problem all on its own. John Samuel Shenker is a new face there and really the only prototypical tight end in the mix. Cannella could play there if pressed.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: The defensive line is being heralded as the best in college football, and it just might be. If Tyrone Truesdell and Coynis Miller can shore up the defensive tackle position left vacant with the departure of Dontavius Russell, it’s hard to imagine many teams having a leg up on the Tigers. Still, Auburn ranked just 32nd in rush defense in 2018, even with this line and a veteran linebacker group. Point being, the talent is there.

The secondary could also prove to be a strength, so long as CB Jamel Dean can be adequately replaced, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. What was missing from last year’s team was a second line of players that could adequately spell the starters; that isn’t the case now. Depth has been built, and Auburn’s secondary ought to keep the team in games against even the best quarterbacks. Punter Arryn Siposs had a solid first year after coming in from Australia.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: Two issues – linebacker and placekicker. Anders Carlson couldn’t match his brother’s output from the year before, hitting just 15-of-25 kicks being generally unreliable. Auburn appears ready to ride out the storm with him, though, for better or worse.

The linebacker situation is the far bigger issue of the two. K.J. Britt has a lot of fans as a middle linebacker, but he’s on the small size for a 3-4 over/under MLB and there may not be much help behind him if things go sideways. The weakside and strongside positions were led by Chandler Wooten and Owen Pappoe coming out of spring. Again, size is an issue for both. Zakoby McClain was listed as the backup at both sides, and he’s smaller than either starter. Auburn is clearly prioritizing speed over size, but this is also an area where recruiting hasn’t kept up with other position groups quite as much. It will take some time to break in the new players.

Final analysis: The defense will sort itself out, barring some type of complete collapse or massive attack of injuries. Basically, the fate of the 2019 Auburn Tigers comes down to the quarterback. If both Nix and Gatewood struggle early, Auburn could be in trouble. Auburn didn’t run the ball well enough in 2018 to suggest that it can just line up and do only that in 2019 while hiding its quarterback behind a curtain. And if the Tigers limp home to four or five losses, this may be the end of Gus Malzahn’s time at the helm of the program.


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