Gus Malzahn

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took over play-calling duties in the Tigers' win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl in December, a practice he will continue this season 

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will field arguably the most-talented team and imposing defense of his tenure, but it may not be enough for the Tigers to put together a magical season similar to 2013 for one glaring reason — the schedule.

It’s brutal. The Tigers will face six of the top 12 teams ranked in preseason polls — No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Georgia, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Florida, No. 11 Oregon and No. 12 Texas A&M

Talk about a murders’ row! 

And Auburn will have to traverse this row with Bo Nix, the first true freshman quarterback to start a season-opener for the Tigers since 1946?

Good luck, young man. 

Working in the favor of Nix and the Tigers is a senior-laden offensive line, a good stable of young, talented running backs and wide receivers and a top-tier defense featuring an experienced secondary and arguably the best defensive line group in the country. 

All of those units will have to perform at a high level to help Nix as he matures and settles into his position, all the while staying as healthy as possible, especially along the lines, which both suffer from a lack of experience on the depth chart.

Perhaps the most important factor in the Tigers’ success this season will be not shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers. Auburn did fairly well in that regard last season, giving the ball up only 13 times while gaining 22 turnovers, good for the third-best turnover margin in the SEC. 

The Tigers will also need to find a way to get the running game going again after a 2018 season that saw Auburn plummet to 10th in the SEC in rushing offense, averaging only 167 yards a game. 

JaTarvious Whitlow should be the premier back and get the bulk of the carries after averaging 5.25 yards per carry last season. Kam Martin, who got 103 carries to Whitlow’s 150 last year, only averaged 4.45 yards. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Martin’s share of the load decrease, with the speedy Shaun Shivers and the versatile Harold Joiner picking up more of the backup reps. The speed sweep with Anthony Schwartz and possibly Eli Stove will also be an important element to keeping defenses off-balance. 

Despite giving up only 19.2 points per game last year, the defense has plenty of room for improvement. 

In the SEC last season, the Tigers finished eighth in total defense, seventh in passing defense and sixth in rushing defense, while giving up 178 plays that went for 10 or more yards, which ranked 11th in the league. 

Even if everything comes together for Auburn — Nix steps into stardom, the running game returns to normal, the offensive and defensive lines and receivers stay healthy and Gus Malzahn calls nearly flawless games — it may not be enough to get the Tigers past the 10-win barrier. 

The season-opener against Oregon will speak volumes about the Tigers’ potential this season. And then there’s road games at Texas A&M, Florida, Arkansas (OK, not a big deal), and LSU, as well as huge home matchups against the Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama. 

Best-case scenario? 10-2. Let’s not even talk about worst case. My pick ... I’ll say the Tigers finish 8-4 and go bowling.

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