Perspective from The Auburn Plainsman

Nathan King

On The Plains of Auburn, Al., opinions vary concerning the level of success attained by the 2016 football team.

The Tigers’ final record of 8-5 is not indicative of the talent possessed on both sides of the ball. Amid Auburn’s six-game winning streak, the defense was dominant, Sean White was the most efficient passer in the SEC and Kamryn Pettway was an unstoppable force on the ground.

The injury bug severely plagued Auburn late, right as the team had climbed into the Top 10 of the College Football Playoff rankings. Most skill position players were injured at some point, along with a general loss of depth along the defensive front, linebacking corps and secondary.

“I felt like at that time, we were playing as good as anyone in the country,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days in July. “We had some key injuries late and kind of limped home. We felt like we had a real opportunity there and just didn’t seize the moment.”

After narrowly avoiding a home upset at the hands of Vanderbilt, Auburn preceded to drop three of its final four games of the year, falling to Georgia, Alabama and Oklahoma. In the first half of the Georgia game, White suffered an arm injury that lingered into the Iron Bowl.

That injury became unquestionable in the Sugar Bowl, when White broke his arm on the first drive and left the offense in the hands of a confused Jeremy Johnson and an inexperienced John Franklin III.

Insert Jarrett Stidham.

Stidham seems the perfect solution to Malzahn’s issue of developing quarterback depth. A proven gamer, the Baylor transfer will lead the charge for Auburn in their opener against Georgia Southern, with a deep roster behind him.

“In this league, there’s nothing like experience,” as Malzahn put it. “As the head coach of the Auburn Tigers, this is the first time I can say that we have quality depth in all areas.”

The Steele Curtain

Forget the flashiness of a new offense, Kevin Steele’s defense was the true savior of most games last season. Steele’s crew handled Deshaun Watson and company in the opening week, and preceded to hold opponents to 17.1 points per game for the remainder of the season.

Although the group loses anchors Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the duo is replaced by a plethora of playmakers along the defensive line, including Marlon Davidson, Jeff Holland and Derrick Brown.

The linebacking corps is widely regarded as the strongest unit on the team, seeing as they return the same starters as last year. Behind the leadership of Deshaun Davis and the hard-hitting prowess of Tre’ Williams, the 2017 Auburn linebackers look to be a top group in the SEC.

Senior Tray Matthews spearheads a tenacious secondary, and is surrounded by athletic, hungry newcomers and veterans. Matthews and Stephen Roberts will fly in to lower the boom, while the lightning-quick Javaris Davis and Jamel Dean can lock down most pass catchers in the conference.

Super Stidham?

It remains to be seen whether the ridiculous amount of preseason hype surrounding Jarrett Stidham will be vindicated, however all signs point to a successful year for the Texan.

Stidham has earned the trust of his teammates. It also doesn’t hurt that he’ll be working with one of the deepest offensive lines in the country. All-American Braden Smith is capable of protecting Stidham across the line, and the Tigers essentially go two-deep at all five spots, meaning that the quarterback will always have fresh, energized bodies in front of him.

The wide receiving corps is chock-full of mega athletes, but is often seen as a question mark. New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s utilization of the Run-Pass option offense won’t be easy to game-plan for, which should allow the wideouts some wiggle room to find their niche.

The old “One-two”

Besides the opener against then No. 2 Clemson, when Malzahn hadn’t yet discovered the dominance of Kamryn Pettway, there wasn’t a single game last year where both Kerryon Johnson and Pettway were 100 percent healthy.

Pettway became the featured back, while Johnson settled for a third down, specialty back role. “Bubba” Pettway will look to make good on his numerous preseason accolades; projections that tabbed the big bruiser as a second-team All-SEC rusher and a dark horse candidate for the Heisman.

Pairing Johnson with the athleticism of Stidham on RPO packages will be Lindsey’s brain child, and one that has the potential to be a devastating backfield sight for defenses.