As Tom Hardy said in his weird Bane voice, “Let the games begin.”
The 2017 Auburn Tigers open a highly anticipated season Saturday night with a visit from the Georgia Southern Eagles. Experts seem optimistic about the team entering this season, but memories of the 2015 season continue to haunt the memories of fans who don’t want to let themselves get too enthusiastic about the team until they see them perform on the field.
Those 2015 Tigers, as you may recall, were expected to be one of the nation’s most explosive offenses. Led by dynamic new quarterback/trendy preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Jeremy Johnson and a cluster of impressive returning starters all over the field, Auburn fans spent the summer wondering who their team would face in the College Football Playoff; that’s not how things played out. Auburn narrowly defeated Jacksonville State, Leonard Fournette steamrolled the Auburn defense in Baton Rouge, Johnson was benched before September was over, and the Tigers finished the season with a 7-6 record (including four very close losses) that would have been respectable considering the circumstances if preseason expectations had not been so high.
Cut to 2017: led by dynamic new quarterback/trendy preseason Heisman Trophy candidate Jarrett Stidham and a cluster of impressive returning starters all over the field… you see what I mean. The 2017 Auburn Tigers could be one of the best teams in the country, but much of that potential falls on the powerful shoulder of Stidham, the Baylor transfer who threw 109 passes as a freshman before ejecting himself from the program after a scandal that claimed the jobs of the university’s president/chancellor and head football coach.
The reasons for excitement on The Plains are clear: Auburn led the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2016 and returns most of its key components. It stands to reason that Stidham, who was a very big deal as a recruit, should add explosiveness to a passing game that finished last in the conference in yards per game last season, making the Tigers considerably more difficult to stop on offense. Coupled with a defense loaded with depth, experience, and potential Stidham could prove to be the missing ingredient needed to lead Gus Malzahn’s offense back to the upper echelon of the SEC in most statistical categories – and more importantly, lead the Tigers back to the SEC Championship Game (and beyond).
If you won’t believe it until you see it, I can’t say I blame you.
WHAT TO WATCH:
1) Though Stidham’s debut attracts the most attention, he won’t be the only consequential figure making his debut for Auburn this Saturday. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, who previously held the same role at Arizona State, finds himself tasked with calling the plays for a unit that returns Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson, who combined for more than 2100 rushing yards last season (and adds Stidham at quarterback). Lindsey, who was coaching high school football less than a decade ago, hopes to continue his swift rise through the ranks of college football; a good season with Auburn could place him on wish lists all over the country as schools begin to hunt for new head coaches.
2) Even if Stidham is as good as many people believe he can be, he won’t throw the ball to himself. Tony Stevens was Auburn’s leading receiver last season with 487 yards, and he graduated. Darius Slayton led all returning receivers with 292 yards last season, but his output will need to increase if Auburn expects to effectively move the ball through the air. Receivers Nate Craig-Meyers, Will Hastings, Eli Stove (from Niceville High School, just like me), and running back Kerryon Johnson all figure to play a significant role in Auburn’s offense this season.
3) Most of Auburn’s key figures return from a defense that played outstanding football in 2016, but a major question lingers: who will replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams (now playing in the NFL) along the defensive line? Hopes are high that Marlon Davidson will continue to develop after his notable freshman campaign. Jeff Holland, Nick Coe (a high school wrestling champion who generated a great deal of buzz during this offseason), and Byron Cowart (who was ranked as the #1 player in the nation coming out of high school in 2015) are among the players expected to emerge as key components for an Auburn defense that will face an early test when the Tigers travel to Clemson and face the defending national champions on September 9.
South Carolina 28, NC State 27: a fashionable preseason ACC Champion pick loses a heartbreaker to South Carolina, led by boy wonder quarterback Jake Bentley
Georgia 34, Appalachian State 24: the Bulldogs survive a scare from a scrappy Mountaineers team known for pulling off opening-day upsets
Michigan 17, Florida 7: the shorthanded Gators struggle to move the football against a Michigan team led by renowned lunatic Jim Harbaugh
Alabama 30, Florida State 14: a high-profile matchup of championship contenders becomes uncompetitive once FSU starts making mistakes
Auburn 48, Georgia Southern 20: The Tigers handle their overmatched opposition from the Sun Belt, only letting up after the result is well in hand
Enjoy the games!