TSS Top 50: No. 40 Auburn Tigers

Auburn Tigers
2015 Record: 7-6 overall, 2-6 SEC (beat Memphis 31-10 in Birmingham Bowl)

1 Burning Question: Is the honeymoon over for Gus Malzahn?

Gus Malzahn took the conference by storm in 2013. In his debut season as head coach, he took the Tigers to a 11-1 regular season record, beat the mighty Crimson Tide, and guided the Tigers to the National Championship Game.

Since that season, the returns have diminished each year. In 2014, the Tigers slipped to an 8-4 regular season record, winning just half of their SEC games (4-4), and losing four of their last five (to Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama, and Wisconsin). Last season,  the wheels really came off, as the Tigers won just two conference games. They had respectable wins against Louisville, Texas A&M, and Memphis but the other victories came against Jacksonville State (in OT), San Jose State, Kentucky, and Idaho. It’s fair to say that it was a very disappointing seven-win season for Auburn.

Malzahn has received a vote of confidence from Athletic Director Jay Jacobs, but we all know that doesn’t mean a whole lot. Right now, the Auburn athletics department is having some issues. The football team has put up back-to-back disappointing seasons. The men’s basketball team hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2003! The baseball team did make the NCAA tournament but they did so with a losing conference record. Auburn athletics needs Malzahn to turn the football program back around and they need it done now.

Malzahn has proved that he’s a good recruiter and he’s a solid offensive coordinator. Yet, in limited results, Malzahn has not proved that he can be a head coach at the major college level.

The defense under Malzahn has ranked 12th, 9th, and 13th in total defense in the SEC. The scoring defense has ranked 9th, 10th, and 11th. The Ellis Johnson experiment from 2013 to 2014 was a huge failure. Although they showed signs of improvement at times, getting Will Muschamp to run the show for one year in 2015 didn’t prove to be much better. Malzahn has hired Kevin Steele for 2016. Steele has a long resume. He’s known as a very knowledgeable coach but also one that struggles in getting his teams to adapt to different situations. Malzahn’s career likely hinges on whether or not Steele can get the maximum results out of this defense.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to

11 — This is the number of TD passes Auburn threw in 2015. Auburn threw less than 1 TD per game in 2015! In 2014, they threw 23. In 2013, they threw 20. Last season, Jeremy Johnson had 10 and Sean White threw 1. There were 5 games where the Tigers did not throw a TD pass. The Tigers have to be more successful through the air in 2016 so that they can open up their ground game.

19 — This is the number of sacks the Tigers had in 2015. When they went to the National Championship Game in 2013, the Tigers amassed 32 sacks. In 2014, they had just 21, and last year they had only 19. Only Kentucky had less in the SEC in 2015. Auburn ranked 102nd nationally in sacks last year.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

Full 2016 Schedule
9/3 — Clemson
9/10 — Arkansas State
9/17 — Texas A&M
9/24 — LSU
10/1 — ULM
10/8 — at Mississippi State
10/15 — Open Date
10/22– Arkansas
10/29 — at Ole Miss
11/5 — Vanderbilt
11/12 — at Georgia
11/19 — Alabama A&M
11/26 — at Alabama

Saturday, Oct 8, at Mississippi State
Record in the Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 17-9

Why it matters: Auburn starts off its season with five straight home games. The bad news is that two of these games are against Clemson and LSU. Expect those to be losses. The Tigers should come out of that five-game stretch with a 3-2 record. Anything better, and Auburn should feel great about themselves. Anything worse, and Malzahn’s head is on the chopping block. This is where game six comes in. Game six is Auburn’s first road game, and it’s against a Mississippi State team that has beaten the Tigers in consecutive years. But, the Bulldogs will also be learning how to win without Dak Prescott. This is a must win game for Malzahn. Win, and the Tigers are likely 4-2 heading into the next game with a 2-2 mark in the SEC.

Saturday, October 22, vs. Arkansas
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 54-46

Why it matters: After their first road game of the season, the Tigers will be back at Jordan-Hare for an all important matchup with the Hogs. Arkansas is another team that Auburn lost to last season. When you started reading the “3 key games” part of this preview, you may have been expecting to see Clemson, LSU, Georgia and/or Alabama. Wrong. This season isn’t about beating those four teams. It’s about beating everyone else and getting back to the upper half of the division. Auburn needs to walk before they can run. Beating Arkansas is crucial for Auburn and Malzahn in 2016.

Saturday, October 29 at Ole Miss
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 27-19

Why it matters: Imagine that Auburn does go 3-2 in their first five games. Coming out of that, they face Miss State, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. Win all three, and the Tigers are 6-2 heading into a season that finishes with Vanderbilt, Georgia, Alabama A&M, and Alabama. The worst the Tigers finish would be 8-4. That may not be optimal if you are an Auburn fan, but it’s much better than last years 6-6 regular season record. Everybody wants to beat their rivals and win the “big” games every year, but this season it’s all about the middle of the schedule and beating the teams that overtook Auburn in the SEC West last year.


4 Key Players

John Franklin III, QB – A lot of people (including myself) bought into the Jeremy Johnson hype last season. Johnson and Sean White proved last year that Auburn needs something more at QB. That man is John Franklin III. He’s a former track star and he may be the fastest QB in the nation. If he can show that he can run Malzahn’s offense, he could be the man that helps Auburn exceed expectations this year. It’s difficult to pin the hopes and dreams of a college football team on one man, but Franklin is that man this year for Auburn.

Jovon Robinson, QB – Auburn’s leading rusher, Peyton Barber, is gone. Roc Thomas is gone. That leaves Jovon Robinson as the number one man on the depth chart. An ankle injury held him back last year until the end of October. In six games to close the season he averaged 103 ypg. He must step up this year into the number one running back slot and play a compliment to Franklin.

Montravius Adams, DT – Adams came to Auburn in the class of 2013 as the number two player in the state of Georgia and as the number three player at his position in all of high school football. He’s been a good player at Auburn, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations….yet. He’s battled some injuries throughout his career and he’s hoping to change that this season. The defensive tackle position is hard to measure in terms of stats as sometimes they just play the role of disrupter. That being said, he has to improve on tackles for loss, as he only had three last season.

Carl Lawson, DT – Like Adams, Lawson is another player that hasn’t grown into his potential….yet. The main reason for that has been injuries. Lawson has to stay healthy for this Auburn defense to reach it’s potential and help Auburn exceed expectations. The Tigers have an incredible amount of talent on the defensive line, yet they finished 11th in rushing defense in the SEC last season. The Tigers need to get maximum production from their D-line this season.

5 Bold Predictions

5. Auburn will lose to Clemson, LSU, Georgia and Alabama.

That’s four losses right off the bat for Auburn. If you are an Auburn fan, temper your expectations for this season. This year is about regaining your stature in the SEC West. It’s not about beating the four teams above, it’s about beating everybody else.

4. John Franklin III will lead Auburn in rushing in 2016

It’s not necessarily bad news when/if your QB leads the team in rushing. Auburn fans know this as Cam Newton led the Tigers in rushing in 2010. The big question is if Franklin can combine his rushing prowess with the threat of the pass and if Jovon Robinson (or another backfield mate) can serve as another threat in the run game.

3. The Auburn defense will move to the middle of the SEC pack in 2016

The Auburn defense will improve in 2016. The Tigers finished 13th in total defense in 2015. They gave up over 400 yards in nine games. One thing that will help the defense is that the offense will be better this season. More sustained drives and better ball control will keep the defense off the field, which will in turn result in fresher players and improved results on the defensive side of the football. Another thing that will help Auburn is that it will be better against the run this season. They won’t allow as many yards on the ground and they won’t allow as many TD runs (allowed 24 in 2015).

2. Auburn will avenge their losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State

Auburn will get back on the right side of the win column against Arkansas and Mississippi State. Both teams will be breaking in QBs and neither QB will be as good in 2016 as Franklin will be.

1. Auburn will finish 7-5 and Malzahn will head into 2017 on the hottest of seats

Auburn’s season likely won’t end up exactly as I’ve laid out. They will probably beat somebody they aren’t supposed to (see: Georgia, Ole Miss or LSU) and they will likely lose to somebody I have them beating (see: A&M or Arkansas). Auburn will show flashes this year of being the team that they were in year one under Gus Malzahn, and that will be enough for Jay Jacobs to keep Malzahn around to see if he can get Auburn back over the hump in 2017. Malzahn’s fortunes are tied greatly to John Franklin III. If Franklin is a success this season, Malzahn gets another year. If Franklin fizzles out, Malzahn will likely be shown the door.

Auburn fans expecting to compete for a SEC Championship this year will be disappointed. Auburn fans looking to see improvement and hope for the future will see some of those signs. 7-5 is not where Auburn football wants to be, but it’s likely where they will land. Gus Malzahn has about a year and half to prove he’s an SEC caliber head coach and that starts this season.

About Kevin Causey

Dry humorist, craft beer enthusiast, occasionally unbiased SEC fan, UGA alumni, contributor for The Comeback.