Our ranking: No. 9 AUBURN
Coach: Guz Malzahn (35-18, entering fifth season; 44-21 in five seasons overall)
2016 record: 8-5 overall, 5-3 Southeastern Conference; tied for second in West Division
Look back: Coach Gus Malzahn’s 2016 Tigers ended a pivotal year for the program with a Sugar Bowl bid.
But the accomplishment did anything but let Malzahn off the hook with the Auburn faithful. A spot in the prestigious game was as reflective of the weakness of the SEC as the strength of the Tigers.
Behind a strong defense and Malzahn’s formidable running game, Auburn shook off a 1-2 start that included a 19-13 nail-biter during the season-opener against eventual national champion Clemson. After a loss to Texas A&M two weeks later, the Tigers won six straight games, highlighted by a 56-3 rout of Arkansas.
Offensive starters returning: 7
Offensive starters lost: 4
Defensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters lost: 4
Key losses: DE Carl Lawson, DT Montravius Adams, DB Rudy Ford, WR Tony Stevens, G Alex Kozan
Top returnees: RB Kamryn Pettway, RB Kerryon Johnson, RT Braden Smith, C Austin Golson, S Tray Matthews, PK Daniel Carlson
Strengths: Malzahn’s offense begins with a strong running game, and the Tigers return the key components of the SEC’s No. 1 rushing offense in 2016.
Running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson combined for 2,119 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. Pettway, a 6-foot, 237-pound bruiser, averaged 138.7 yards in SEC games. The duo will run behind a line returning three starters, including right tackle Braden Smith, the leading vote-getter among offensive lineman on the All-SEC preseason squad.
On the other side of the ball, hard-hitting safety Tray Matthews, who had a team-best 76 stops last season, sets the tone for a physical defense that ranked seventh nationally in average points allowed. Cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis form a nice duo. In front of them, linebacker Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis were surprises a season ago, but now need to be leaders. Up front, the Tigers have holes to fill, but sophomore Marlon Davidson made an impact as a freshman and can play both inside and outside.
Placekicker Daniel Carlson, nicknamed “Legatron,” is a two-time finalist for the Lou Groza Award. Carlson is 69-of-83 on field-goal attempts during his career.
Weaknesses: The 2016 Tigers finished last in the SEC in passing and may have been a quarterback away from a memorable season. This year’s team hopes Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham is the missing piece. In 2015, Stidman completed 68.5 percent of his throws for 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in a back-up role. Malzahn hired Chip Lindsey as offensive coordinator to develop Stidham and diversify the playcalling.
Defensive end Carl Lawson and defensive tackle Montravius Adams were the centerpiece of coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense a season ago, but now are in the NFL. Lawson’s nine sacks and Adams’ ability to clog the middle will be missed. Former five-star recruit Byron Cowart, a junior from Jacksonville, moves inside with the hope to finally tap into his potential. Converted linebacker Jeff Holland looks to fill Lawson’s big shoes.
Outlook: Malzahn enters his second season on the hot seat, and yet many feel his Tigers are the best threat to challenge Alabama’s SEC supremacy. The addition of Stidham and Lindsey should balance out a one-dimensional attack. Steele’s defense has holes to fill up front. But Auburn has recruited well and has the potential to be among the SEC’s best again. As always, the Tigers’ schedule is demanding, featuring an early visit to Clemson and later a pivotal three-game stretch at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M.