College football opened the 2020 season last Saturday night with an FCS contest played at Cramton Bowl in Montgomery. More teams will get into action over the Labor Day holiday weekend. And for Auburn and other teams in the SEC, on Saturday they will be three weeks away from their openers.
In Auburn’s case, it will be interesting to see just how ready the Tigers are to play Kentucky when the Wildcats come to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 26. The biggest question for Coach Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team will be the offensive line.
Not only are the Tigers entering the season with a new coach for those positions, Jack Bicknell, Jr., they are doing it without four multi-year starters who were seniors last year as well as two senior backups who had also started games.
One of the keys to building a successful offensive line is preparing five guys to work together as a smoothly functioning unit. From the conglomeration of returnees who have played, others coming off of redshirts, a Division I transfer, junior college transfers and true freshmen, Bicknell probably has enough talent and depth to put a respectable group on the field this year and has no time to waste in figuring out the best way to do it.
With no spring training this year, the offensive linemen need all of the work they can get, but last week the Tigers practiced just once after nine players registered positive on Covid-19 tests and Malzahn said a total of 16 to 18 players were not available to practice.
Because of Auburn’s protocols, which are certainly way more rigid than what most football teams are doing, that means 10 days of isolation followed by seven more days with no practice before a player is allowed to return to action.
The Tigers began the third week of practice with just six practices completed, including one scrimmage, to evaluate and prepare players. Teams are allowed 25 practices prior to the first game, but with two mandated off days per week the Tigers aren’t going to be able to take advantage of all of their opportunities to be on the field to get ready to play Kentucky. The Wildcats will likely be quite capable of defeating Auburn if the Tigers aren’t ready to perform at a high level, especially on the offensive front.
Malzahn has talked about the need for being “flexible” and developing depth this year. On a roster that currently has 122 players, counting the walk-ons, the opportunity is there to get a lot of guys ready to compete in games.
On the defense, the part of the team that is the least experienced is the secondary, where four 2019 starters are gone, but unlike the offensive front there are five players returning with plenty of prime-time experience. Getting that group ready to play a game shouldn’t be a major problem as the Tigers prepare for a really different schedule featuring 10 games vs. SEC competition.
Mark Murphy is the editor of Inside the Auburn Tigers magazine and newsletter