Yahoo Sports' Top 25: No. 12 Auburn

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/251133/" data-ylk="slk:Jarrett Stidham">Jarrett Stidham</a> (L) enters his second season as Gus Malzahn’s starting quarterback. (AP Photo)
Jarrett Stidham (L) enters his second season as Gus Malzahn’s starting quarterback. (AP Photo)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Previously: No. 25 South Carolina, No. 24 Utah, No. 23 West Virginia, No. 22 Central Florida, No. 21 Texas, No. 20 USC, No. 19 Florida State, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 16 TCU, No. 15 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State, No. 13 Notre Dame

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No. 12 Auburn

2017 record: 10-4 (7-1 SEC)
Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense

With Jarrett Stidham, Auburn has stability at QB

It has to feel nice for Auburn to enter the season without a question mark at quarterback. It is for head coach Gus Malzahn.

“The big thing that stands out to me is our quarterback’s back, and this is only the second time since I’ve been at Auburn in nine years that our quarterback’s back,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days.

The Tigers have Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham as the starter for a second year. He beat out Sean White for the job last fall, and lived up to the hype established from his play as a true freshman in Waco (1,265 yards and 12 TDs in three starts).

In his first year on the Plains, he shook off a Week 2 beating from Clemson to lead Auburn to an SEC West title. For the season, Stidham threw for 3,158 yards, 18 TDs and six INTs while completing 66.5 percent of his passes.

Malzahn thinks it took much of the season for Stidham to adjust to the SEC and really play up to his capabilities. Now he’s expecting that to carry over into 2018.

“He’s like a coach on the field. And towards the end of the year, [he and OC Chip Lindsey] were thinking the same, talking the same,” Malzahn said. “This year, he’s going to have freedom to get us in the right play, to check us out of a bad play. We have a lot of confidence in him.”

Though both Eli Stove and Will Hastings were injured in spring, Stidham still has a deep group of receivers, led by senior Ryan Davis. Running back Kerryon Johnson moved on to the NFL, but his backup, junior Kam Martin, rushed for 460 yards on 6.1 yards per carry last fall.

Though the skill positions look pretty stocked, the offensive line enters the season as one of the team’s biggest question marks.

The front seven on defense is going to be nasty

Though last year’s sacks leader Jeff Holland left school early, Auburn just has a ton of talent on the defensive line. The unit returns three starters: Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell at tackle, and Marlon Davidson at end. All three of those guys have all-SEC potential, especially Brown, who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 325 pounds.

Nick Coe was an All-SEC freshman selection last fall with 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He is a natural defensive end, but defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said recently that Coe has seen quite a bit of action at Auburn’s “Buck” position, which is essentially a hybrid defensive end/linebacker who lines up at different spots and rushes the passer.

No matter where he plays, expect the 6-foot-5, 282-pound Coe to see significant snaps even if he doesn’t start. T.D. Moultry, another sophomore, is also expected to have a role at the Buck spot.

Beyond the defensive line, the starters at linebacker are pretty much set with three seniors: Darrell Williams at strongside, Deshaun Davis in the middle and Montavious Atkinson on the weakside.

“I really feel like our strength will be our front seven like it was last year,” Malzahn said. “And I think big picture-wise we have a chance to be as good defensively or possibly even better.”

Four-year starter Dontavius Russell (95) is the anchor of Auburn’s ferocious front seven. (AP Photo)
Four-year starter Dontavius Russell (95) is the anchor of Auburn’s ferocious front seven. (AP Photo)

Washington and Georgia and Alabama, oh my!

Malzahn’s opinion that Auburn has the “toughest schedule in all of college football” isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s still really, really difficult.

There are plenty of wins to be had as the year progresses, but facing Pac-12 favorite Washington in Week 1 in Atlanta will be a tremendous test — especially for the reshuffled offensive line. The rushing attack was key for the offense last fall; it could be difficult to establish a rhythm against the Huskies.

Auburn also has to play three of the SEC’s toughest teams — Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi State — on the road. Last year, Auburn was able to beat Alabama and Georgia in November to win the SEC West title, but both of those games were played at home. Traveling to both Athens and, of course, Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl in a three-week span is an unenviable situation to say the least. And those two games will more than likely determine the ultimate potential of the season.

Impact player: Darius Slayton, WR

After putting up a program record 84 catches last year, Ryan Davis rightfully gets the attention among the receivers, but Darius Slayton had only 173 fewer yards than Davis — on 55 fewer receptions.

Yeah, Slayton is a big-play threat. The junior averaged 22.2 yards per catch, but was often an all-or-nothing guy. If he can improve his all-around game, he can be an even better complement to a steady possession receiver like Davis.

Nate Craig-Myers, one of the team’s top recruits in 2016, could be due for a breakout year, too.

Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton averaged 22.2 yards per catch in 2017. (AP)
Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton averaged 22.2 yards per catch in 2017. (AP)

Game to watch: Nov. 10 at Georgia

The Iron Bowl is the obvious pick, but a win over Georgia two weeks earlier could raise the stakes of the Alabama game tremendously.

Best-case scenario

If the offensive line clicks and the running game operates like it did last year, there’s no reason to think Auburn can’t win another SEC West title — and even the SEC as a whole for the first time since 2013. Stidham is arguably the conference’s best quarterback, and that defense — provided the secondary holds up its end — could be right up there with Alabama. The sky’s the limit.

Worst-case scenario

Auburn loses to Washington before piling up wins at home through September. At 4-1, the team’s first road test, Mississippi State, is too much. From there, Auburn wins three in a row before losing to both Georgia and Alabama to finish third in the SEC West.

Prediction

It will be close, but Washington will prove to be too much in Week 1. From there, Auburn cruises until November. This time, the Tigers lose to both Georgia and Alabama on the road. 9-3.


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