State of the Program
#3 Auburn Tigers
After two predictable teams (Ohio State and TCU), it is time to discuss a more dynamic team. The Auburn Tigers will enter into the 2015 season with great expectations and a lot of promise. After all, the Tigers return 8 defensive starters and acquired the services of Will Muschamp in the offseason.
Gus Malzahn’s offense has been highly successful thus far in his tenure but will have to achieve those same results with a lot of new faces in 2015.
Auburn returns only one skill player, WR Duke Williams, and only 4 offensive starters. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is expected to take the Tigers to new heights in respect to the passing game. Johnson is a more polished passer than his predecessor, Nick Marshall, so look for Auburn’s passing attack to be more consistent in the upcoming year.
The running game will be strong, however, the loss of Cameron Artis-Payne and Nick Marshall could result in some growing pains early on as there will be little cohesion amongst the newcomers. Roc Thomas, a sophomore running back, returns after carrying the ball 43 times as a freshman. Thomas will be in a position battle with Peyton Barber (Soph.) and JUCO signee, Jovon Robinson. Robinson was rated as the top JUCO prospect by ESPN.
Defensively, a lot of familiar faces return for the Tigers. It is yet to be determined whether or not Tiger fans are happy about this or not given the defensive struggles in recent seasons. However, with a lot of experience coming back at linebacker and in the secondary things might improve this season given Muschamp’s reputation as a top defensive mind.
Defense lineman, Carl Lawson, will return from injury to help the Tigers pass rush. Auburn also signed the top overall prospect, Byron Cowart (DE). These additions should bolster a pass rush that struggled in the latter half of the season.
I find it difficult to imagine a team who must replace so much offensive production being ranked this highly. However, as I stated in the first post of the series, I am not making the rankings.
I like the overall talent of the roster and I feel that the defensive will improve with Muschamp’s guidance. One must respect the coaching staff and Malzahn’s willingness to bring in Muschamp. I thought this was a bold move considering Muschamp had so recently been a head coach and I could have foreseen the hiring of someone a little less headstrong. I will be interested to see how the dynamic between these two coaches works during the season.
Jeremy Johnson will be under a tremendous amount of pressure in his first season as the starting quarterback and the schedule will offer him little time to get used to his new role. Auburn opens the season against Louisville and will play at LSU in its third game of the year. The positive impact that winning these two games would have on Johnson’s confidence should not be overlooked. The quarterback position is fickle and history says that a player in his first year as the full-time starter needs to have success early in order to build confidence.
Duke Williams returns and is a very talented player who could have opted to enter the NFL Draft. Ricardo Louis still managed to catch that pass against Georgia the last time I checked. I like both Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost at linebacker. McKinzy has a tremendous name. I feel that the return of Carl Lawson to the defensive front should not be overlooked and is one of the keys to Auburn’s success in this upcoming season.
If the Auburn defense can make strides they are a serious contender to win the SEC and as a result, earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. I do have concerns because of a schematic shift in the defense, a difficult schedule, and the losses of key contributors on the offensive side of the ball. The losses offensively should be taken with a grain of salt. I think the offense has a greater potential in this upcoming season due to the prospect of a much more balanced attack. Johnson gives the Tigers a legitimate hope of being one of the most efficient passing offenses in the conference. Auburn will score points so long as Malzahn is wearing the headset.
Biggest Game(s): at LSU (Sept.19), Mississippi State, which is seemingly always a close game (Sept.26), Georgia (Nov.14), Alabama (Nov.28)
Best Player: Duke Williams, WR
Williams could have left school and pursued his NFL career at the conclusion of the 2014-2015 season. He suffered through some nagging injuries in the latter half of the season that resulted in diminished production. He is, however, one of the most physically talented players at his position and would have likely been drafted in the 2nd round of the NFL Draft. It is a major boost for the Auburn offense and for Jeremy Johnson that Williams returned to Auburn for his senior season.
Breakout Star: Ricardo Louis, WR/HB
Louis already had an established role within the Auburn offense. The departures of Artis-Payne, Corey Grant, and Nick Marshall should free up more touches for Louis in the running game. Sammie Coates declared for the NFL Draft and Quan Bray, who after 45 years playing for Auburn has finally graduated, should allow Louis more targets in the Tigers passing game. If Johnson plays the way that many feel he is capable of then Louis could be in more increased production as the new passing attack blossoms in 2015.
Biggest Disappointment: Byron Cowart, Defensive Line
Cowart has tremendous talent and will probably be a very good player in the years to come. I don’t believe that he will be ready to anchor the Auburn defensive line this season and most Tiger fans should hope the freshman isn’t relied too heavily upon. It’s not a knock against Cowart that he won’t be ready to be a dominant player as a freshman but rather a testament to the players that he will be competing against. Look for Cowart to get increased playing time as the season progresses and go through some ups and downs early on.
Key Position Battle: Running Back, (projected winner) Jovon Robinson
This is just my feeling; the guy has an ideal frame to handle the heavy workload he’ll be given as the starter. Thomas is a little bit smaller than would be ideal to handle so many carries and Barber received so little playing time last season that he has no real advantage. I also believe that if a coach recruits a junior college player that he has to envision that player playing as soon as possible. Otherwise, why not recruit a player out of high school and let them develop in your program and with your offensive terminology? I like Robinson to start and rush for over 1,100 yards.
Best-Case Scenario: Auburn’s offense gets off to a fast start and allows its defense to progress throughout the year with little pressure to win games for them early on. Jeremy Johnson performs well at quarterback and the Auburn passing game takes a massive step forward from the last two seasons. The defensive line pressures opposing quarterbacks and gives its defensive backs the help that was much needed at the end of last season. Auburn tackles its difficult schedule and finishes the season atop the SEC West standings and plays for the SEC title in Atlanta, GA.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Auburn offense has a slow start and misses Nick Marshall’s running ability. This key component from their rushing attack results in a less potent offense that renders too much responsibility on the shoulders of the defense. The defense struggles to improve due to an inability to rush the passer and the Tigers stumble early. The team has trouble finding motivation once their high hopes are dashed and they lose to Louisville and LSU to start 1-2.