Derrick Brown

Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown stuffs a play by Southern Mississippi

In the recently released AP preseason poll, Auburn came in at No. 16. It seems like the Tigers have underachieved in recent years whenever they receive too much preseason hype, so being ranked 16th seems appropriate for a team with legitimate questions at multiple position groups but also with enough veteran talent to contend in the SEC.

The Tigers have a grueling schedule that starts with a neutral-site matchup against No. 11 Oregon in Arlington and ends with matchups against SEC powerhouses and rivals UGA and Bama in two of the last three weeks.

I think the Tigers scrape by Oregon in a 2011 BCS national championship rematch due to a veteran defense and an improved running game.

Speaking of defense, the Tigers return the talent to field arguably the top unit in the entire country. 

Senior Derrick Brown is a 6-foot-5, 318-pound monster who I expect to have an All-American type year for the Tigers. Add in redshirt junior Nick Coe and senior Marlon Davidson, and the Tigers defensive line should strike fear into even the most experienced offensive lines.

The biggest question for Kevin Steele’s defense will obviously be at linebacker where the Tigers will have to replace three starters from last year. But I expect junior K.J. Britt to take over as a starter and pass the test with flying colors. It also doesn’t hurt that Auburn was able to snag freshman phenom Owen Pappoe, the top-ranked outside linebacker prospect in the class of 2019 and a big step in replenishing the depleted unit.

Despite an average 8-5 season last year, the Tigers still ranked in the top 15 nationally in terms of points allowed. I think, with Brown, Coe and Davidson being the anchors, Auburn has a chance to be even better on that side of the ball this year.

On offense, the obvious question mark is at quarterback where the Tigers will start true freshman Bo Nix. Before we dive deeper into the Nix’s intangibles, let’s take a look at the more established parts of the Tiger offense.

All five starters on the offensive line are redshirt seniors, and 6-foot-7, 305-pound left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho has a chance to be one of the best in the country at his position.

The O-line was largely inconsistent and disappointing last year. If the Tigers want to avoid a repeat of last year’s performance, improvement definitely needs to be made. At the same time, the team could do much worse than having five redshirt seniors on the O-line, two of whom were named to preseason All-SEC teams.

For a team that didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher last year for the first time in what seems like forever, I’m quite optimistic about where the Tigers stand at running back.

Expect a breakout season for sophomore JaTarvious Whitlow, who ended last year with 787 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

As talented as senior Kam Martin, sophomore Shaun Shivers and true freshman D.J. Williams are, I think Whitlow is a cut above the rest and the trio will serve as valuable backup options throughout the season.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Whitlow end the season with a good bit over 1,000 rushing yards and double-digit touchdowns while the stable of backs Auburn has behind him make for one of the deepest RB units in the country.

If the Tigers get back to playing fast-paced, no-huddle football, the depth at running back will become integral and I think Auburn has enough talent at the position to return as one of the best rushing teams in the NCAA.

Losing the top two receivers from last season is usually not a great sign for things to come. However, I believe this year’s unit will be faster, more effective and overall better than the 2018 iteration. 

After a breakout season as a true freshman, sophomore Seth Williams is expected to take the next step. With as much natural talent as the 6-foot-3 wideout has, taking the next step should be no problem as Williams will likely be thrust into the role as the Tigers No. 1 option at  wide receiver.

Track star Anthony Schwartz could very well become the SEC’s most electric playmaker. While he may not be as polished a wideout as Williams, Schwartz’ elite speed is undeniable and hard to stop.

The emergence of freshman Matthew Hill could become key and the return of injured wideouts Will Hastings and Eli Stove is much more important than I think most people realize.

Maybe I’m reaching a bit after solid freshman seasons from Williams and Schwartz but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that despite the inexperience and uncertainty at quarterback, this year’s group of pass catchers will be the best on The Plains in the last decade.

For the first time since 1946, the Auburn Tigers will start a true freshman for the season-opener. After the announcement last week, five-star freshman Bo Nix, just like his father Patrick in the ‘90s, will be QB1 for the Tigers.

Nix was 247Sports’ top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2019, and all reports from camp praise the freshman’s ability to lead the offense.

It wont be easy for a true freshman to have to go through Auburn’s grueling schedule but it seems like Nix is no regular freshman.

Nix has an elite arm coupled with precise accuracy, but I think what will set him apart is his underrated running ability.

Nix has shown an excellent ability to extend plays with his legs and has deceptive speed. At 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, he doesn’t quite have top-level size (especially when compared to backup Joey Gatewood) but regardless, his natural talent leads me to believe the legacy recruit will be one of the top freshmen in the country.

As for Gatewood, I’d imagine Malzahn will have no problem drawing up plays and packages for the redshirt freshman. Like Nix, Gatewood is a great dual-threat quarterback and his natural athleticism and big 6-foot-5, 233-pound frame will allow him to make some sort of an impact.

Although Nix was able to pull away late in the QB battle, if the freshman gets a bit too rattled or is unable to execute the offense properly, I am confident Gatewood would be a suitable and exciting backup

I’d also like to briefly mention the Auburn special teams, specifically redshirt sophomore kicker Anders Carlson.

Carlson didn’t have a good 2018 — there’s not much of an argument otherwise. However, seeing as the brother of Auburn great Daniel Carlson attempted three more 50-plus-yard field goals than any other kicker in the country, perhaps too much pressure was put on the freshman in 2018.

Carlson undoubtedly has elite talent and one of the strongest legs in the country. It’s up to the Auburn offense to put Carlson in more favorable positions to succeed — something I think they will do.

For that reason, I’m expecting a breakout year for Carlson and while Anders may not be at the level of his older brother (yet), the redshirt sophomore should be more consistent and confident in 2019.

After an 8-5 season last year, Malzahn is definitely on the hot seat and perhaps will be coaching for his job in 2019.

A schedule that features half the teams ranked in the top 12 certainly won’t make things easy for Auburn but if last year’s bowl game blowout was any indication, the high-scoring, fast-paced Auburn of years past is back.

If Nix isn’t ready for the big lights and the Tigers continue to struggle running the ball ,then Auburn could easily lose five or more games.

On the other hand, if the Auburn D-line lives up to the hype and the team’s mix of talent and experience on offense lives up to the hype, a 10-plus win season is possible, which should be enough to save Malzahn’s job.

This year really feels like a do-or-die year for Auburn. After this season, the entire offensive line is gone, and key members of the defensive line will likely be off the to NFL. As a result, it’s time for the Tigers to put up or shut up.

Just like in 2017, having both Georgia and Alabama at home should help. If the Tigers can stay competitive and largely unblemished until then, they could have a good opportunity to compete for an SEC title.

If the team can stay healthy (which is always a big if), I expect the Tigers to, at the very least, win seven or eight games. 

However, maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I think the Tigers have a real chance to be in a New Year’s Six Bowl come January. 

I’ll be bold and go with the latter.

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