July 20, 2024

FILE - In this Nov. 9, 2013, file photo, Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah (81) catches a pass for a touchdown as Tennessee linebacker Dontavis Sapp (41) defends during an NCAA college football game in Knoxville, Tenn. Uzomah is the Tigers' No. 1 tight end, though he's almost as likely to line up out wide or in the back field. In college football today it helps to have players who are hard to define because it also makes them hard to neutralize. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Auburn was the only team to beat the two teams that played in the national championship game last season. Unlike the beginning of last season, there’s no questioning Head Coach Gus Malzahns’ job security entering 2018 after leading the Tigers to the SEC Championship Game. For the first time since 2014 Auburn will return a starting quarterback on offense in junior Jared Stidham. Malzhan emphasized during the spring that he wanted to get experience for the young offensive line and Stidham more freedom at the of scrimmage this season. Replacing all-everything running back Kerryon Johnson will be key. He was super productive, but Auburn has had nine-straight 1,000-yard rushers. Five running backs will look to fill the void Johnson left. On defense Auburn returns six starters and some of the best players in the SEC.

Team strengths: The defensive line. The Tigers have an all-star defensive line that’s arguably the best in the SEC. With amazing depth and production. Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Dontravius Russell, T.D. Moultry, Nick Cole, Andrew Williams and Big Kat Bryant combined for 232 tackles, including 33 from behind the line of scrimmage and 15.5 sacks. It’ll be tough for opposing offenses to run on Auburn this fall.

Team weaknesses: Uncertainty on special teams and inexperience on the offensive line. Auburn must replace place kicker Daniel Carlson, who’s the program’s all-time leader in scoring. His younger brother Anders will look to fill that void. Former Australian rugby kicker Arryn Siposs will take over punting duties. The offensive line returns just two starters in juniors Prince Tega Wanogho and Mike Horton. The two will need to lead the other three¬† new faces and gel in time for the season-opener against Washington.

Players to watch: Quarterback Stidham, wide receiver Ryan Davis and linebacker Deshaun Davis. Stidham threw for 3,158 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. He has a great arm and can make all the throws. A. Davis led the team in receptions and receiving yards with 84 catches for 815 yards and five touchdowns. D. Davis is the teams’ leading returning tackle with 82 stops, including seven from behind the line of scrimmage and four sacks.

The schedule: Brutal. The season-opener against Washington will be huge for both teams and their conferences. Auburn gets LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M at home. Road games at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama will make any team in the nation cringe.

My take: Auburn has all the pieces in place to compete for another SEC Championship. There’s experience, leadership and production on both sides of the ball. This team is hungry and ready for their season-opener. Anything less than 10 wins would be a huge disappointment.