Auburn football rose to as high as No. 2 in the college football playoff rankings, but injuries caused a falter down the stretch. How can the Tigers improve in 2018?
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The end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 no doubt leaves a sour taste in the mouths of all Auburn football fans. The Tigers ended November with wins over No. one ranked Georgia and No. one ranked Alabama to make the SEC championship and rose to as high as No. 2 in the playoff rankings.
However, what seemed like a dream season for the Tigers quickly turned to disaster. The Tigers lost their rematch with Georgia in the SEC championship game and missed the college football playoff and then lost to UCF in the peach bowl, while both Georgia and Alabama made the playoff and eventually the championship game, which Alabama won.
Things seem dreary for Auburn football fans, but there is still a lot to be proud of and even more to look forward to. Auburn finished with 10 wins and was the only team to beat the National Champion, setting themselves up as possible championship contenders in 2018.
Auburn football player losses
Still, the Tigers will have to do some rearranging as they lose a few key players off the 2017 team. They don’t lose many, but the losses of players such as Jeff Holland, Kerryon Johnson, Tray Matthews, Braden Smith and Carlton Davis will not be easy to overcome. Which begs the question, where does the Auburn offense turn in 2018?
New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and quarterback Jarrett Stidham definitely brought balance to an offense that was starving for consistent quarterback play and some sort of a downfield passing game, but just like every other Gus Malzahn Auburn offense, the running game was the catalyst. When star running back Johnson played hurt in the last two games, the offense was clearly not the same.
Now Johnson is gone. Headed to the NFL, the Tigers will have to replace the reigning SEC offensive player of the year who finished with 1,391 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns as well as two receiving touchdowns and a passing touchdown. He was Auburn’s 11 1,000 rusher since 2009.
Also gone is Kamryn Pettway who was Auburn football’s 1,000 yard rusher from the 2016 season. He missed most of the 2017 season with injury, but it’s still not good to lose him when he could have returned.
So where does that leave Auburn in the running game? Kam Martin was Auburn’s second leader rusher this season with 453 yards and 2 touchdowns, but most of those yards came in garbage time in games. Other returners will be Devan Barrett and Malik Miller, neither of which rushed for more than 135 yards.
Auburn will also get Asa Martin in the spring. The 2018 Gatorade player of the year in Alabama rushed for 2,228 yards and 33 touchdowns in his senior year.
All of these backs were four-star recruits out of high school, except for Miller, so they are talented but just lack experience.
Attacking through the air
Here is what Auburn football does return on offense. Jarrett Stidham returns after being the first Auburn quarterback to pass for over 3,000 yards since Dameyune Craig in 1997. Also returning will be the Tiger’s top five receivers. Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton and Will Hastings all eclipsed 500 yards, and while sophomore Nate Craig Meyers didn’t have the break out season many thought he would, he holds the most upside and showed significant improvement towards the last 3 games of the season.
The Tigers are also set to add a dynamic receiving class that already features three four-star receivers and could add another in the state of Alabama’s top player Justyn Ross, a top 100 recruit and an elite talent.
So where does the offense turn in 2018? The answer is simple, it’s time for the Tigers to flip the script. Gus Malzahn is a run first guy, but Auburn’s 2018 success is going to come from using the passing game to set up the running game.
Jarrett Stidham wasn’t perfect in 2017, but he showed the potential to be a possible high NFL draft pick. When given the time, Stidham tore defenses apart with deadly accuracy. He still needs to work on being more comfortable in the pocket when it breaks down and also his turnovers. He committed five in the last three games. But that’s nothing another season of experience can’t help out (he’s only been a starter for one full season anyways).
Tigers will contend
The Auburn football team is going to have a strong running game; it’s in the DNA of the program. The Tigers have had 11 1,000 yard rushers since 2009 and most of those weren’t highly rated recruits. Tre Mason and Cameron Artis Payne were both three stars, while Kamryn Pettway didn’t even play running back his first two years on the plains.
Malzahn has a knack for finding diamonds for his running game and with three four-star backs on campus, he’ll do it again. However, the true success lies in the air for Auburn. The sky is the limit for Stidham in 2018, and if he is turned loose then Auburn is looking at a repeat trip the SEC championship game and possibly more.