3. Your Quarterback
Again, a reoccurring issue with teams about to suffer a rough season, the “competition” in Auburn will have Coach Gus Malzahn choosing between worse options on the field than the voting booth this fall. All three competitors for the starting job bring something to the table, but severely lack an imperative skill or ability to run Malzahn’s high-octane offense.
Sean White, who’s built similarly to the Shermanator, is a game manager capable of minimizing mistakes while specializing in handing the ball off to a bevy of talented Tiger ball carriers. Unfortunately, with his size, durability is a definite concern. The ceiling for the Tigers’ offense is low with White under center.
Jeremy Johnson looks the part of the sort of dynamic Cam Newton impersonator that Malzahn has craved sine the NFL MVP left Auburn with a Heisman and National Championship. Unfortunately, games are not played on paper, nor in practice, and the “eye test” fades quickly when the on-field product is a turnover circus. Johnson, a pre season Heisman darling in 2015, posted a TD:Turnover ratio in the bottom ten of all Power 5 quarterbacks with at least 100 attempts.
Finally, the supposed Nick Marshall clone and savior, John Franklin III has arrived on campus from junior college with his lightning speed and agility. Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten his arm talent in Community College. Practice reports have detailed Franklin III wowing coaches and teammates with footwork having some experts claiming his true position as a slot receiver or defensive back. Not exactly what you want talent evaluators to think of your starting quarterback. There is no question Franklin III could be electrifying in the read option offense, but without a legitimate threat in the passing game, loaded fronts will stifle the Auburn offense, and probably injure their run-first quarterback.
I am pulling for Johnson in this race but see red flags with all contenders.
2. Your Schedule
Poor Gus Malzahn. How could anyone have imagined Dabo Swinney, who until about 2014 was largely considered a place holder coach and total dufus, would have Clemson as a national power just two seasons later? Find a transcendent talent at quarterback, one of the best defensive coordinators in the nation, and voila, you have the new Clemson Tigers.
Why does this ACC giant matter to the Tigers? Because Auburn opens their season with a visit from the National runner-up in Jordan-Hare, starting a gauntlet of a schedule bookended by both teams from the 2015 NCAA Championship game.
After Clemson, Auburn gets Texas A&M and title favorite LSU back-to-back, before gearing up for a demonic six-week stretch in late October, featuring Arkansas, Georgia, Ole Miss, and Alabama.
This has to be one of, if not, the most difficult schedules in the country. Possibly breaking in a new quarterback, defensive coordinator, and first-time starters at linebacker, Coach Malzahn will have to earn his money this season.
1. Turnover on Defense
Auburn lost perhaps the best defensive coordinator in the nation in new South Carolina coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp managed to keep the Tigers in most games last season as the offense sputtered and gave the ball away like Christmas presents.
Replacing Muschamp is former LSU coordinator Kevin Steele, who I am far from sold on. Steele replaced John “The Chief” Chavis when he abruptly bolted for the greener pastures (read: money) of Texas A&M, and under-performed in his first year in Baton Rouge. Les Miles replaced him with former Wisconsin DC Dave Aranda, a move generally viewed as one of the biggest coaching staff upgrades of the offseason.
Anytime the replacement for your new coach is viewed as a significant “upgrade,” you know there’s a problem. But though Coach Steele will have one of the most talented defensive lines in the country, the linebacker situation is a mess, with three new starters likely, and the top returning linebacker only registering 51 total tackles last season.
In the secondary, replacing half their starters, most players receiving regular playing time aren’t old enough to buy a beer (legally) with inexperience spelling danger for the back end of the Tiger defense.
Reasons for hope:
Auburn, on both sides of the ball, features some of the most talented and experienced linemen in the nation — the gem of Malzahn’s recruiting and talent stockpile during his time at the helm of the Auburn program. Games are won in the trenches, and solid protection for whoever the fuck wins the quarterback competition will help with the transition.
2. Jeremy Johnson
This might sound crazy given his horrible 2015, but if Johnson survives the pathetic QB hunger games going on in Auburn right now, it may be a sign he finally possesses the confidence necessary to lead the team on Saturdays, not just in practice. Johnson is a good athlete with phenomenal arm talent. Winning the starting job would raise Auburn’s offensive ceiling immensely, and allow for Franklin III to be used in the proper way: as a situational quarterback with his own set of run based plays to compliment Johnson.
Auburn gets smacked at home by Clemson in Week 1 and the Malzahn detractors can be heard echoing throughout Jordan-Hare. Clemson is too athletic and dynamic on both sides of the ball, and too experienced for the home team to pull out a win. After back-to-back wins, Auburn loses again in Week 4 to LSU, before winning both of their matchups leading up to their six-week stretch of coach killing pain.
Auburn beats Arkansas, but suffers losses to Ole Miss, Georgia, and a whooping in Bryant-Denny to cap the season. Malzahn’s seat is on fire, but he is given one more year to show he can perennially compete in Auburn..
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