2019 Auburn Football Season Preview
A summer of waiting for the next college football season is over, and it’s time for the Auburn Tigers to return to the gridiron. With Bo Nix winning the starting quarterback job, the preseason’s biggest question was answered. Now, the attention turns to a difficult schedule and a head coach with many questions surrounding him. It’s time for football, and it’s time for the 2019 Auburn football preview.
The biggest get for Auburn in the offseason wasn’t any of their recruits, it was the decisions made by Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Auburn. The depth and talent up front should give Auburn one of the best defensive lines in the country. The key losses for the Tigers were not surprising. Jarrett Stidham declared for the NFL Draft alongside Darius Slayton, while senior leaders Deshaun Davis, Ryan Davis, and Chandler Cox graduated. The impact Deshaun Davis had was obvious, but it will be interesting to see how Chandler Cox is replaced. Cox, and the H-back position generally is a forgotten position, but it is important in the Auburn offense as a lead blocker and decoy for an offense that still likes to pound up the middle often.
Key losses: Deshaun Davis, Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis, Jarrett Stidham, Jamel Dean, Darrell Williams, Chandler Cox
Key returning players: Prince Tega Wanogho, Derrick Brown, Nick Coe, Javaris Davis, Seth Williams, Jeremiah Dinson
Key Recruits: Bo Nix, Owen Pappoe, Mark-Anthony Richards, Jaren Handy, Keiondre Jones
It’s nearly impossible to predict how Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood will respond in numerous tough road environments and big games. Both Nix and Gatewood enter the season with minimal experience and in the case of Nix who won the job, zero experience. It will be Auburn’s first time starting a true freshman at quarterback since 1946, however, Nix possesses the talent to be a big time star, which allows for the possibility that a lack of experience will not matter.
It is doubtful Auburn has in their current backfield a Cadillac Williams, Tre Mason, or Kerryon Johnson, however, early returns on JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow are better than people give credit for. Whitlow averaged 5.2 yards a carry on 150 carries in 2018 while battling hamstring injuries and possesses the qualities to be an every down back. The depth is good, with an experienced Kam Martin, and an electric Shaun Shivers following Whitlow, as well as the intriguing DJ Williams who had a good spring game for Auburn.
Auburn has done a solid job of filling the various niches that their offense requires. A speedster like Anthony Schwartz, a bubble screen and jet sweep guy like Eli Stove, a jump ball receiver like Sal Cannella, and of course, an all-around receiver like Seth Williams. However, depth is a bit of an issue. Aside from Seth Williams, there doesn’t seem like there’s another receiver capable of playing in all situations, and for some of those niches, there’s not an obvious number two. The initial guys are great, but an oft injured group will need to stay healthy to avoid question marks.
Auburn will likely go with more of a mix than in years past after Chandler Cox’s graduation. Jay Jay Wilson appears to be in the lead for winning the job, with John Samuel Shenker playing some tight end depending on the package. Harold Joiner is intriguing, but figuring out how to utilize him could be an issue.
The starting offensive line should be a bright spot for Auburn in 2019. Prince Tega Wanogho figures to be in the mix as a potential first round pick, and senior Marquel Harrell had an opportunity to leave early after last season but decided to return to Auburn. Depth is what drags the overall grade down as aside from Nick Brahms, there isn’t much experience in the second unit, and not many highly touted lineman.
It should be no surprise, the best defensive line in the country is talented, experienced, and deep. Derrick Brown figures to be a very high first round pick, while Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson will have the chance to work their way to a first or second round grade. Meanwhile, the depth is strong at least on the ends, as Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry are good enough to start for other teams in the league. Filling the Dontavius Russell position is the one, small, question, but it’s not enough to detract from the high expectations given to this defensive group.
The linebacking core for the Tigers is the main question. Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams, and Montavious Atkinson all graduated, and K.J. Britt is the player returning with the most on-field experience. Chandler Wooten and Zakoby McClain will figure into the rotation, as well as five star freshman Owen Pappoe who has a lot of talent, and will one day have a chance to be the leader of the defense.
The defensive backs have flown under the radar because of the defensive line but the backs have a chance to be very good. Javaris Davis should have a shot at the NFL and Noah Igbinoghene possesses physicality and skills at DB that were impressive for a receiver turned corner. The safeties for Auburn are solid, hard hitting, run stoppers that can help out the linebackers in running situations. However, they are not as skilled in the coverage department and are better at run stopping. There is a fairly reliable backup at every position, so expect Auburn to play more than just their four starters.
Both kicker and punter return for Auburn in 2019 and still have years ahead of them on the Plains. Arryn Siposs figures to be one of the best punters in the nation, while Anders Carlson demonstrated the power necessary to make long field goals but will look to improve his accuracy from long range. Punt returner is a question for Auburn, as they haven’t settled on one particular guy, and the likes of Javaris Davis, Christian Tutt, Ja’Varrius Johnson, and Noah Igbinoghene have all received consideration for the role.
Gus Malzahn, Head Coach (7th Season)
Gus Malzahn will return to play calling duties in what once again appears to be a make it or break it season. The questions around his quarterback development and scheme will be put to the test with a freshman quarterback, and a plethora of young skill position players. With a big game to start the season and many difficult road games in the middle, momentum will be a big X-factor determining the type of season Malzahn and the Tigers have.
Kenny Dillingham, Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks (1st Season)
Dillingham was not necessarily a well-received hire by the fan base, but as Gus Malzahn resumes playcalling duties, Dillingham was the type of coach that made sense. It will be hard to assess his success in 2019 as Gus Malzahn will get most of the credit or the blame for how the offense operates and if the young quarterbacks are improving.
Cadillac Williams, Running Backs (1st Season)
An Auburn legend, Cadillac Williams comes to the Plains without much experience at the Division 1 level as a coach but with invaluable playing experience. It’s hard to judge any coach after one season, but, Cadillac has already made an impact, landing one of the top running back recruits in the country in Class of 2020 target Tank Bigsby.
Kodi Burns, Co-Offensive Coordinator/Wide Receivers (4th Season)
Burns has done a great job recruiting highly ranked receivers to the Plains, but development has been questionable. Blame could be tossed around to either the individual players or maybe the scheme used by Gus Malzahn, but the improvement of youngsters like Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams will paint a clearer picture of Burns' ability to develop talented young players.
Larry Porter, Tight Ends/H-Backs/Special Teams (3rd Season)
No complaints thus far in the tenure of Larry Porter. The kicking game has remained steady, and the return game is productive as far as special teams are concerned. With his offensive responsibilities, his first test will come in the replacement of Chandler Cox at H-back. Cox was an important and impressive lead blocker for Auburn, who will need to be replaced if the running game is going to operate at peak proficiency.
J.B. Grimes, Offensive Line (2nd Season)
The biggest challenge for J.B. Grimes won’t be anything to do with the starting five in 2019. It will have everything to do with the development of the second-string offensive line into quality depth that will be necessary in 2020 and, if injuries strike, as soon as this season.
Kevin Steele, Defensive Coordinator (4th Season)
Kevin Steele has been magnificent in his time on the Plains. Yet again, Auburn is expected to have a great defense, as Kevin Steele continues to coach as well or better than any defensive coordinator in the league.
Rodney Garner, Defensive Line (7th Season)
Garner has been with head coach Gus Malzahn since his arrival in 2013, and has continually churned out great defensive lines. The 2019 line might be his crown jewel, with first round NFL talent and legitimate depth, it’s expected that this defensive line could be the best in the country.
Travis Williams, Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers (4th Season)
2019 will be an important year for Travis Williams and his linebackers, but there’s no reason to think he won’t develop the next crop effectively. Williams has done a terrific job recruiting, and his charisma seems to make a lasting, positive, effect on his players.
Marcus Woodson, Recruiting Coordinator/Defensive Backs (2nd Season)
Still early in his tenure, but impressing so far, Marcus Woodson has already had a major project come out successful in the conversion of Noah Igbinoghene from receiver to corner. Woodson has aided Auburn recruiting wise, making inroads in his home state of Mississippi, landing prospects like Charles Moore and Jaren Handy in the 2019 recruiting class.
Wesley McGriff, Defensive Assistant/Defensive Backs (1st Season)
McGriff returns to Auburn after an unsuccessful stint at Ole Miss as Defensive Coordinator. McGriff does, though, have recent success to draw on from his time as Auburn’s defensive backs coach in 2016. McGriff will not have a major role on the staff this season, but experience like his is always welcome.
2019 Auburn Schedule:
#11 Oregon (Neutral) | Difficulty: A- | Toughness Rank: 5th
Obviously when starting a season there are lots of unknowns and rust can play a part, as Florida and Miami demonstrated in Week 0. With a true freshman at quarterback for Auburn, it’s hard to know how he will respond in a big environment. It will be a tough first test for Nix and Auburn against an experienced Oregon team.
Key Matchup: Auburn’s defensive line against Oregon’s offensive line
Prediction: Auburn 27, Oregon 20
Tulane (Home) | Difficulty: D+ | Toughness Rank: 10th
Tulane has steadily improved over the last few seasons but not enough to be a realistic threat. It will be Auburn’s first home game and second toughest non-conference game, but it should still be easy enough for the Tigers.
Key Matchup: Auburn’s rushing attack against Tulane’s rush defense
Prediction: Auburn 41, Tulane 10
Kent State (Home) | Difficulty: D | Toughness Rank: 11th
Kent State might be more intriguing than the Tulane game but it is even easier. The Golden Flashes went just 2-10 last season and a major improvement is not expected. However, the intrigue will surround the return of former Auburn quarterback Woody Barrett who will be a second year starter for Kent State.
Key Matchup: Woody Barrett returning to Auburn
Prediction: Auburn 48, Kent State 6
#12 Texas A&M (Away) | Difficulty: A- | Toughness Rank: 6th
Most might argue that the Texas A&M game is more difficult than the Oregon game and that’s fair, and while this will be the first road game for Bo Nix, his first career game will bring challenges that make the Oregon game a tougher matchup. Also consider the road team had won every game in this series until last season, so Auburn hasn’t been intimidated in College Station the way others have.
Key Matchup: Kellen Mond against Auburn’s pass rush
Prediction: Texas A&M 27, Auburn 24
Mississippi State (Home) | Difficulty: B- | Toughness Rank: 7th
Mississippi State acts as the middle ground game for Auburn this year. There are five easier games which appear to be cakewalks, and there are six tougher games which are at best 50/50. Mississippi State loses a lot off last year’s team including much of their defense and starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, making this game feel pretty easy for Auburn at home.
Key Matchup: Auburn rushing game against depleted Mississippi State defensive front
Prediction: Auburn 31, Mississippi State 17
#8 Florida (Away) | Difficulty: A | Toughness Rank: 4th
Auburn’s first trip to The Swamp in over a decade will be quite big, as the Gators figure to be a top-10 team throughout the season. The Swamp is one of the toughest environments in college football, and this will truly be a must see game for any Auburn fans who remember the days when this game was a legitimate rivalry.
Key Matchup: Both defensive lines against the opposing offensive lines
Prediction: Florida 17, Auburn 13
Arkansas (Away) | Difficulty: C | Toughness Rank: 8th
The Hogs had a horrendous start to the Chad Morris era last year, and are in major rebuild mode. Despite it being a road conference game for Auburn, venue shouldn’t really matter for a much more talented Auburn team.
Key Matchup: Auburn versus temptation of overlooking a lesser opponent sandwiched between two big games
Prediction: Auburn 38, Arkansas 10
#6 LSU (Away) | Difficulty: A+ | Toughness Rank: 3rd
First, the stat everyone knows, Auburn hasn’t won in Baton Rouge since 1999. However, Auburn hasn’t been without opportunities, as it was just two years ago Auburn had LSU on the ropes before blowing it in the second half. Whether LSU has been better than other foes has not mattered, Tiger Stadium has been a house of horrors for Auburn. This year though, when people least expect it, might be the right time to change that.
Key Matchup: Auburn’s wide receivers against LSU’s secondary
Prediction: Auburn 23, LSU 17
Ole Miss (Home) | Difficulty: C- | Toughness Rank: 9th
The easiest of the SEC games for Auburn will come just prior to the difficult home stretch. Ole Miss might end up better than Arkansas. But with this being a home game for Auburn, the only thing that could jeopardize a blowout would be a hangover effect from the LSU game.
Key Matchup: Running back Scottie Phillips against the Auburn front seven
Prediction: Auburn 38, Ole Miss 7
#3 Georgia (Home) | Difficulty: A+ | Toughness Rank: 2nd
Although Auburn has some incredibly tough road games, there’s something to be said for playing against a team you know is going to be one of the best three or four in the country. Two of the last three trips to Jordan-Hare Stadium have not gone well for Georgia, and a good Auburn team at home is very hard to beat. This game will be a very physically imposing game, which should come down to the last possession.
Key Matchup: Auburn defensive line against the Georgia offensive line
Prediction: Georgia 20, Auburn 17
Samford (Home) | Difficulty: F | Toughness Rank: 12th
Auburn fans will remember a recent blunder against an FCS school from the state of Alabama, but Samford is not Jacksonville State. Samford does not figure to be a factor in FCS this season, and while it will be a great opportunity for them, it should be an opportunity for Auburn to rest up and get ready for the Iron Bowl.
Key Matchup: Staying healthy and staying sharp for Alabama
Prediction: Auburn 52, Samford 0
#2 Alabama (Home) | Difficulty: A+ | Toughness Rank: 1st
It shouldn’t be shocking that Alabama gets the nod as the toughest game of the season for Auburn. Alabama is anyone’s toughest game and it would be that way if the game were on the moon. A lot of what happens in the Georgia game could affect how Auburn plays in the Iron Bowl (see 2013, and 2017 here.) And, for that matter, what Auburn does the entire season leading up to the game. Nick Saban owns many impressive records, but one that goes against him? 0-6 against nine win or better Auburn teams. I don’t have Auburn projected to get to that mark, but if they do, it will be an interesting story to follow.
Key Matchup: Tua Tagovailoa against the Auburn defense
Prediction: Alabama 34, Auburn 24
Final Auburn Record Prediction: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
A year full of big matchups await Auburn. For Gus Malzahn, it’s another chance to climb into the good graces of college football, or to be sent packing behind another talented, yet underperforming team.
My prediction is neither. 8-4 is not bad enough to be unforgivable, and not good enough to feel proud. Maybe that’s what frustrates Auburn fans the most, a school with much passion and tradition, feels normal and average under Malzahn. A program constantly with the ability to be great, but slipping to the middle of the pack in the ever difficult SEC.
While not falling to the depths of a 3-9 2012 season, and not rushing the field triumphantly after an SEC West clinching victory over Alabama. A disastrous season underneath a tough schedule is possible, a triumphant season against all odds is possible, a bland, dissatisfying 8-4 type of season is possible. But one thing is for sure, football is back, and with it, the heart palpations and pulse of an entire community, living and dying, with every snap.
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