The Tiger File
Location: The Plains
Home Stadium: Jordan-Hare Stadium (for the uninitiated, that’s pronounced “Jordan” as in Michael and Air)
Representative Alumni: Hmm... let’s see... well, you’ve got Academy Award winner, Octavia Spencer, so that’s cool. New New England Patriot and “ongoing investigation” subject, Cam Newton... not bad. Your usual array of state and national politicians, the occasional astronaut, CEOs, etc. Here’s a good one: The co-founder of Wikipedia (which I used to find this information, so thanks for that). And of course (I almost forgot), Tim Apple, purveyor of fine fruits.
The Tigers enter the 2020 season coming off a year in which they beat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the Iron Bowl. And that’s the dream, right? Unfortunately, they also dropped road games to Florida and LSU and lost at home to your Georgia Bulldogs. They then capped off the season by losing to the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the Outback Bowl. That means that, as things stand, Gus Malzahn has won exactly two games for every one he has lost (62-31) at Auburn. As one would expect, those numbers aren’t better in conference play (33-23), and the Gus Bus has really had difficulty when it comes to bowl games (with a 2-5 record during his time on the plains). So will this season be a step into a new and more productive future or a rehash of the mixed bag we’ve seen from the Tigers the last couple of years? A Week 2 contest against the Dawgs should be a pretty good indication.
I don’t think it’s a secret that the Auburn offensive attack is going to live and die with the continued improvement of Bo Nix. In 2019, Nix showed a ton of promise and the potential to grow into one of the top QBs in the SEC. If he wants to get there and take Auburn to where they want to be, he’s going to have to improve his completion percentage (57.6) and TD/Int ratio (16:6)... particularly if Gus expects him to throw the ball as often as he did last year (almost 400 attempts).
These areas are ones you often see big improvements in between a freshman and sophomore season. And I would say you’re guaranteed to see them out of Nix, except for the fact that the Tigers will be replacing four starters on the offensive line. Even beyond the starts, there is simply a lack of experience for many of the guys on the line. They’re going to gel as the season goes along and this will become less of a problem, but I don’t think Bo Nix is going to have much of a pocket by Week 2. Azeez Ojulari should find himself in the backfield early and often.
Auburn’s running game should be potent in 2020, combining the production of D.J. Williams and the raw talent of Tank Bigsby. The Tigers look to be well-stocked at wide receiver with top returner Seth Williams and a host of developing and new talent. One of those talents is Caylin Newton (whose last name you may recognize) who chose to leave the QB spot at Howard University to come play receiver for Auburn. And the only thing I can tell you about the tight end room is that it’s full. It may take a few weeks (or longer) to see what kind of rotation Malzahn settles into there.
But ultimately, it all comes back to the inexperience of the offensive line. If Georgia and Auburn were playing this game in November, I’d be significantly more concerned about the potency of Auburn’s offense. But in only the second week of a season following no spring practice and a fall camp with limitations, I just don’t think the o-line is going to be able to provide Nix protection and open holes for Williams and Bigsby the way they will by season’s end.
Unlike Georgia’s defense, where I struggle to differentiate between which unit is the strongest or most important, Auburn has some very clearly defined strengths and weaknesses on D in 2020. Starting where the Tigers look to be strongest, 2020 looks to be a season in which Auburn will field a very formidable linebacking corps. KJ Britt is back, as is Owen Pappoe. And despite losing Chandler Wooten (who opted out of the season), there is a fully stocked pantry of fresh, young talent in this unit.
The secondary has the potential to be solid, if not initially spectacular. Though Christian Tutt is the only returning starter from last year’s squad, there is considerable experience in the guys stepping into the shoes of last season’s departures. Smoke Monday (excellent name) and Damien Sherwood (pretty solid, too) should slide in seamlessly to the safety spots and there are a number of experienced options to round out the group.
Where Auburn is going to struggle defensively, especially early, is in the trenches. The defensive line just has so much talent and experience to replace. Losing a first-round (Derrick Brown) and second-round draft pick (Marlon Davidson) will do that. There is still plenty of talent and veteran Big Kat Bryant (excellent name) is looking to put his stamp on the unit, but early on in the season there should be ample opportunities to take advantage of mistakes. And that’s where Zamir White and James Cook come in.
Auburn returns placekicker Anders Carlson, who has improved considerably over the past two seasons. In fact, the key specialists from long snapper to kick returner have experienced guys starting. Things are much murkier at punter, where the Tigers appear to still be formulating a plan. If Georgia wants to exploit a part of Auburn’s special teams game, the punting unit would certainly be the one to focus on.
Gus Malzahn is an incredibly consistent head coach. He’s going to lose four or five games a season. Even when he manages to eke out a 10-win season, he’ll still find a way to lose four games. Losing four or five games is Gus Malzahn’s jam.
Taking into account the shortened season, let’s give Gus the benefit of the doubt and say he loses only three. I’d figure those to be Georgia, Alabama, and LSU. Then again, the entire schedule is in-conference, so maybe he drops another one to Texas A&M to hit four. It certainly wouldn’t be out of character.
I see no reason that Georgia can’t manage Auburn with a solid, workmanlike effort. That said, the game occurring early in the season is one of the primary reasons for my optimism (well, that and the fact that Auburn’s opening opponent, the Kentucky Wildcats, aren’t exactly the pushovers they used to be). As much as I love this game being played in November, I’m perfectly happy for the Dawgs to get the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry out of the way before Gus really gets the offense firing on all cylinders. And he will. He always does. Just like he always loses four or five games.
GEORGIA 24 - AUBURN 17
Until next time...