Location: Auburn, Alabama
2018 Overall Record: 8-5
2018 Conference Record: 3-5
Coach: Gus Malzahn
Notable Alumni: Vince Dooley, Erk Russell, Tim Hudson, the guy from Apple, Robert Baker and the laptop belonging to Rev. Cecil Newton’s son.
Last Season: Defensive losses and a failure to establish a ground game proved to be the undoing of the Tigers as they fell from a preseason top-ten ranking to unranked by season’s end. Things got so bad over on The Plains that Auburn athletics director Allen Greene issued the dreaded vote of confidence for Malzahn. Similar to what Georgia fans experienced in the final throes of the Richt era, the topic of Malzahn’s future is divisive among the WarTigerPlainsmen.
Last Time They Played the Dawgs: Auburn scored first, but it was all Georgia after that as in true Georgia fashion under Kirby Smart, the game was slowly put away. Other than the great trick play of all time, Rodrigo Blankenship’s failed pass on a fake field goal, all went right for Georgia and the opposite for the Tigers.
The Tigers bedrock run game took a step back last year, failing to have a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2009. It was not a coincidence that Auburn had to replace four offensive line starters last season. This year, the script flips. All five starters will be back, led by Jack Driscoll and Prince Tega Wanogho at tackles, Kaleb Kim at center and Mike Horton and Marquell Harrell at guard. That experience stands to make it easier for the mix of Kam Martin, Shaun Shivers and JaTarvious Whitlow along with Anthony Richards. Whitlow’s health may be key for Auburn as injuries slowed him off and on last year.
A heated QB battle has apparently cleared with true freshman Bo Nix getting the nod. He may not be as mobile as a Nick Marshall was, but he does have enough mobility to make plays outside the pocket, more than Jarrett Stidham if nothing else. The fact that the Tigers are going to a QB before he regresses under Malzahn’s system is not a bad thing. Auburn does well offensively with a good offensive line and somewhat mobile QB. Between those factors and a receiving group led by Seth Williams, the Tigers offense should, in theory improve. There again, Malzahn will take on playcalling duties himself. Is it desperation or an actual method to more swiftly run an offense? Time will tell.
Experience-wise, Auburn is on two extremes with its front seven. A key element to Auburn being good is a great defensive line, and those stars may be aligning in 2019 for the Tigers. It’ll be easier for Auburn to get after the opposing quarterback and disrupt the run as three starters are back, including highly rated Derrick Brown on the inside as well as Nick Coe. Linebacker-wise, this group is short on experience and will have to learn in the spotlight. The good news? Auburn’s coaching staff seems to be confident in this group geling - the question is, how quickly that happens. KJ Britt and Owen Pappoe, who Auburn beat out Georgia for on the recruiting trail should be the ones leading the way.
Auburn won’t face many slouches in the passing game, and it’ll need its defensive backfield with three starters back to carry its weight. It’s worth noting that three of the four returning starters are seniors - Daniel Thomas and Noah Igbinoghene at one safety slot and junior Jeremiah Dinson at free safety.
Auburn could have one of the better units in the country here with placekicker Anders Carlson. He made 15-of-25 field goals last year but seven of the misses were from over 50 yards. Arynn Siposs is back after averaging 44.2 yards a punt. When you mesh that with Igboghene being able to line up deep to return kicks, and it’s a group that should not be a liability.
For no apparent reason, here’s Greg Blue laying Auburn out on hit that’d be instant targeting today.
For reasons that at times defy logic, the law of averages catches up to Auburn every few years and a fairly good season turns into a very, very good one, only to revert back a season later. Between Bo Nix’s skill set, an experienced offensive line and highly touted defensive line, this team has a good chance to challenge Alabama in the SEC West.
The intangible here is how hot Gus Malzahn’s seat gets. If it does heat up, two things will happen - either Auburn implodes or players play lights-out for him.
Prediction: Georgia 27, Auburn 10..Kirby finally gets his first SEC West road win.