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Looking Ahead to Auburn with College & Magnolia

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Baylor v Oklahoma State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Jack Condon from SB Nation’s Auburn site, College and Magnolia, joins us a week early as we give the stiff arm to the (non-existent) Kent State SB Nation site. We start high-level this week and delve into the game specifics in next week’s Q&A.

The Crimson Tide have stolen the headlines in the state of Alabama for the past few seasons, but over the past month the hype around Auburn seems to be growing. Are you buying in? Why or why not?

Well, since Gus Malzahn has been at Auburn, the Tigers have been one of the most consistent teams in playing with Alabama. Obviously he beat the Tide in his first year with the Kick Six, and the next three years despite the final scores, the games were close until the final minutes. He knows how to prepare and to coach against Bama, and this is the year where he’s got the right combination of defense and hopefully a non-injured starting quarterback come November.

As for the hype, it’s hard to stay grounded with everything that we’ve seen so far from the Tigers. With Kam Pettway and Kerryon Johnson returning in the backfield, the ground game should purr like it did last midseason when the Tigers were at their best. During the six-game winning streak last year, Auburn averaged 318 yards per game on the ground, including a conference record 543 yards against Arkansas. Bring back an offensive line that’s got starting experience galore, and the rushing attack shouldn’t miss a beat.

What’s going to be the key factor is obvious – Jarrett Stidham and the passing game. We’ll see how Chip Lindsey’s new offense fits into what Gus wants to do, but by all accounts Gus has gone mostly hands off and let Lindsey run things. When Lindsey was at Southern Miss a couple seasons ago, the Golden Eagles had the nation’s most explosive offense, but this year’s version on the Plains should be more balanced. Stidham will have one of the most talented (if inexperienced) receiving groups to throw to, with Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers, Darius Slayton, Eli Stove and more.

On the defensive side, Auburn returns what should be a rock solid back seven, with upperclassmen in the linebacking corps and multiple year starters in the secondary. Up front, Auburn will see an improved Marlon Davidson at the defensive end spot, and then a couple of newcomers will try to replace Carl Lawson at the Buck position in Kevin Steele’s defense. Nick Coe and Paul James III are the names to watch there, but they’ve gotten rave reviews so far.

The schedule shakes out as well as it possibly could too. Having to play last year’s national championship contenders isn’t ideal, but Alabama comes to Jordan-Hare while Auburn at least gets Clemson early when things may not be fully settled yet. Aside from a three game road swing in mid-to-late October (with a bye sandwiched in), Auburn has about as easy a road as you can get playing in the SEC West.

So yes, I’ll be surprised if the Tigers aren’t very good this year.

Transfer QB Jarrett Stidham is a big reason Auburn is receiving so much dark horse playoff contender hype. He threw for 12 TDs and 2 INTs as a freshman at Baylor in 2015. What type of QB do you expect Stidham to be in 2017?

People are making the comparisons between Stidham and Gus’ other two transfer quarterbacks, Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. There are similarities, sure, but Stidham won’t be such a factor on the ground like Newton and Marshall were. Cam had the NFL arm, but being the dual-threat that he was about. It worked so much better for our offense to run the ball, and Marshall was a zone-read savant.

Stidham will likely set the Auburn single-season passing yards record this year (3,277 yards by Dameyune Craig in 1997) as he’ll be the featured player in our offense. Chip Lindsey’s offense at Southern Miss in 2015 averaged 330 yards per game through the air, and last year at Arizona State he averaged nearly 260 yards per game despite having terrible luck with quarterback injuries.

The arm strength that Stidham’s got is way out in front of where Sean White was last year, so this year the passing game should be an actual weapon instead of a change of pace. We’d be stupid not to use his ability, and I imagine we won’t run to set up the pass. We’ll spread the field a ton and give our backs big lanes. If Auburn beats Clemson, expect him to receive early Heisman buzz.

There are some truly fantastic opening week games this year. Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee and Alabama vs. FSU in the beautiful new Mercedes Benz Stadium headline the list. Auburn will have a quieter week hosting Georgia Southern. What are you looking for (aside from a decisive victory) in the contest?

Against a team that’s not nearly as good as the one that took Georgia to the brink a couple of years ago, Auburn should be able to pull away and win pretty easily against the Eagles on opening day. It’ll be tough to gauge certain things, especially on defense since the Tigers will face off against that unique triple option attack. Still, Auburn’s increased the focus on snaring turnovers this offseason after really falling short in the category in 2016. If the defense can get 2-3 turnovers while holding Georgia Southern to ten points or less, I think we’ll all be pretty pleased with it.

We want to see a bit of the new offense, but not enough of it to give you guys a ton of film to scout. If Jarrett Stidham, Kam Pettway, and Kerryon Johnson play deep into the third quarter, I think we’ll all be a bit nervous. That would mean the game is either close or the coaches are trying to get the offense a little extra work. Auburn needs to be able to run the ball very easily against GSU, and a couple long touchdowns from Stidham would do well to please the fans in attendance. 500 total yards and 40 points isn’t out of the question as to being the benchmark people will point to for success on offense.

And of course, zero injuries on both sides of the ball. Auburn’s already pretty thin in a couple spots defensively, and we don’t need the option cut blocking to take out any knees or ankles.

We will dive into our matchup much more in next week’s Q&A, so let’s keep it high level with this last question. Auburn has not won in Baton Rouge since 1999. They travel there this season. They close the season by hosting the Crimson Tide and play the SEC East favorite UGA from the East. Where does Auburn finish in the SEC West?

There are so many variables, and I’m going to cop out a bit here, so I’ll give you the OPR. Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic.

Optimistic: Auburn’s new offense turns out to be fantastic and Jarrett Stidham becomes a Heisman candidate. The defense builds on where it was last season (7th best scoring defense), and Daniel Carlson finally wins his Groza Award. Because an undefeated season is likely out of the question (most people are predicting bit of a bloodbath around the country this year), I’ll say the best case scenarios is 11-1. That means a loss to either Clemson, at LSU, or Alabama.

Pessimistic: Things don’t work out for Auburn with the new offense, or injuries bite once again and Stidham/Pettway/key defensive players all get hurt. The good news is that Auburn can handle one quarterback injury, as Sean White’s more than capable of stepping in, but it would still stunt the offense a bit. If Auburn loses to Clemson, then gets tripped up by a sneaky good offense at Missouri, the Tigers will be 2-2 with the Mississippis coming to town in back-to-back weeks. Lose one of those, and you’re 3-3 with a three-game road stretch ahead of you. Best case scenario if that happens is probably 7 wins, which I don’t think would allow Gus Malzahn another year on the Plains. Most people believe he needs 8 to stick around, but he’d be on the hot seat for sure if he only gets that many. This team is too talented to lose more than five games, no matter what happens.

Realistic: History says that the Tigers will lose at least one game in the road swing featuring games at LSU, at Arkansas, and at Texas A&M. You said it right there – Auburn has lost eight straight in Baton Rouge, and LSU will be jonesing for revenge after last year’s finish. Arkansas will also be looking for some payback after the 56-3 beatdown they were forced to endure on the Plains, but the Tigers are 2-0 against the Aggies in College Station while they’ve been in the SEC. Auburn will also likely split the Georgia/Bama games, and there’s a sizable contingent of Auburn fans on each of the debate about which of those two they’d like to win more. Gus needs to beat Georgia, that’s a fact. A loss to Bama is forgivable at this stage since we’re all just waiting out Nick Saban’s tenure. Realistically, I think Auburn splits Clemson/Bama, and trips up either at LSU or against Georgia at home. If Auburn beats Clemson and loses to both Georgia and Bama, that’ll be a catastrophic end to the season, but it would put Auburn at 10-2 overall. I think that’s Auburn’s record, but with just one loss in the SEC, and if it comes to anyone other than Bama, that means the Tigers go to the SEC Championship Game with a shot to make the Playoff as a two-loss team.

A big thanks to Jack Condon for giving us some insight into the Auburn Tigers football program. Our Q&A series will continue next week as we re-engage College and Magnolia to talk about our week 2 clash.