(Part 2 of a 16-part SEC preview series)
Coming off of a disappointing finish, the Auburn Tigers aim to improve upon last year's 8-5, 5-3 ledger.
Auburn stood 7-2, including a hard-fought 19-13 season-opening loss to eventual national champion Clemson, before faltering down the stretch with three losses in the final four games.
Entering his fifth year on the Plains, coach Gus Malzahn overhauled his coaching staff during the offseason, bringing in Chip Lindsey from Arizona State as offensive coordinator.
Lindsey and co-coordinator Kodi Burns are searching for balance. Last season, the one-dimensional Tigers ranked first in the SEC and No. 6 nationally in rushing (271.3 yards per game) and dead last in the league and 114th nationally through the air (169.5 ypg). Auburn cracked the top half of the conference in scoring (31.2 points per game), total offense (440.8 ypg) and turnover margin (plus-3), placing sixth in all three categories.
Oft-injured junior Sean White completed 63.9 percent of his passes for 1,679 yards, nine touchdowns and only three interceptions out of 208 passes in 11 games.
White is being challenged by sophomore Jarrett Stidham. A five-star dual threat recruit out of Stephenville (Texas) High School, White completed 75-of-109 passes for 12 touchdowns and two interceptions at Baylor as a true freshman.
Auburn should again feature a strong running game as first-team All-SEC Kamryn Pettway (209 carries, 1,224 yards, 7 TDs) and Kerryon Johnson (182-895-11; 17 receptions, 125 yards) return for their junior seasons. Also available is sophomore Kam Martin (44-320-3).
Junior Ryan Davis (25 receptions, 194 yards, 1 TD) is the top returning receiver. Among the others vying for playing time are sophomores Eli Stove (23-224), Kyle Davis (12-248-2) and Darius Slayton (15-292-1). Slowed by injuries as a true freshman, Nate Craig-Myers (4-70-1) is a potential playmaker. Converted quarterback John Franklin III has also joined the mix.
Juniors Chandler Cox (4-41) and Jalen Harris (2-16-2) are the tight end/H-backs.
A pair of third-year starters, right tackle Braden Smith and senior center Austin Golson are the pillars up front. Smith, who earned first-team All-SEC acclaim as a right guard last season, has logged 27 consecutive starts. Senior Darius James returns at left tackle after starting the final eight contests in 2016. Auburn is breaking in two new starting guards in senior Wilson Bell and sophomore Mike Horton. Bell started 18 games (5 in 2016) at Florida State prior to enrolling at Auburn as a graduate transfer in May.
Defensively, the Tigers ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring (17.1 ppg), third in rushing (132.8 ypg), ninth in passing (229.2 ypg) and fifth in total yardage (362 ypg).
All-America end Carl Lawson (13.5 tackles for loss, 9 sacks, 24 quarterback hurries) will doubtless be missed. Sophomore end Marlon Davidson (38 tackles, 6 TFL, 2.5 sacks) is joined up front by junior Dontavius Russell (29 tackles) and sophomore Derrick Brown (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack).
Senior Tre´ Williams (67 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack) and juniors Darrell Williams (52 tackles, 3 TFL) and Da'Shaun Davis (63 tackles, 7 TFL) provide the Tigers with three experienced linebackers. Junior Jeff Holland and senior Paul James III are competing for time at Buck linebacker.
Last year's leading tackler, senior safety Tray Matthews (76 tackles, 1 interception) spearheads a veteran secondary. Senior free safety Stephen Roberts (57 tackles, 2 INTs), sophomore nickel back Daniel Thomas (16 tackles, 2 INTs), junior cornerback Carlton Davis (46 tackles, 2 TFL, 10 pass breakups) and sophomore corner Javaris Davis (37 tackles, 6 TFL, 1 sack, 2 INTs) round out the returnees. Additionally, sophomores Jamel Dean and Jeremiah Dinson are available at the corners after missing the entire season with knee injuries.
Senior Daniel Carlson was a first-team All-SEC selection after banging 57-of-72 kickoffs for touchbacks and converting 28-of-32 field goals with a long of 53.
Sophomore Ian Shannon has claimed the punting job.
Kerryon Johnson (12 kickoff returns, 22.2 average) and Roberts (6 punt returns, 16.7 avg.) are the top return men.
2017 AUBURN SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Georgia Southern TBA
Sept. 9 at Clemson, 6 p.m.
Sept. 16 Mercer (HC) TBA
Sept. 23 at Missouri* TBA
Sept. 30 Mississippi State* TBA
Oct. 7 Ole Miss* TBA
Oct. 14 at LSU* TBA
Oct. 21 at Arkansas* TBA
Nov. 4 at Texas A&M* TBA
Nov. 11 Georgia* TBA
Nov. 18 ULM TBA
Nov. 25 Alabama* TBA