- The Tigers will need their defense to carry them in 2019, but if there's hope for an offensive turnaround, it comes from the ground game.
Our college football 2019 season preview issue is here, which means we're checking in with all 25 teams from SI's official preseason Top 25 ranking. What do you need to know about each of this year's top contenders, from top-ranked Alabama down to Stanford? We'll be rolling out scouting reports for each team over the next two weeks, all of which are being collected here. Next up, it's No. 17 Auburn.
THE BIG STORY
The Tigers entered last season as a top 15 team and a CFP contender but lost three of their first four SEC games on their way to a disappointing 8–5 finish. Even with a QB who was good enough to be a fourth-round draft pick—Jarrett Stidham, now with the Patriots—the Tigers finished 78th in the country in total offense, and things are not going to get any better with more inexperience on that side of the ball. The D will have to carry the Tigers through a treacherous schedule.
Future NFL pick Derrick Brown, the 318-pound cornerstone of the defensive line, is a dominant interior presence with overwhelming power as a pass rusher. A shiftier run defender than his size would indicate, Brown pairs with lineman Marlon Davidson to make up one of the SEC's most dominant tandems.
Not only is Stidham gone to the NFL, but his backup Malik Willis also transferred to Liberty. The defections leave Malzahn with a slate of unproven options to start opening night against Oregon. Which highly touted young quarterback—redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or true freshman Bo Nix—will step up and lead Malzahn's offense?
If Auburn is going to make it to the SEC title game, it's going to get to Atlanta on the ground. The Tigers will lean on a stable of impact rushers, none more explosive than sophomore Jatarvious Whitlow, who racked up 787 rushing yards on 5.2 yards per carry—and that was in his first season playing running back. Whitlow was a star QB at LaFayette High, 25 miles from Auburn, and signed with the Tigers as a three-star WR before switching to the backfield during his redshirt year. Auburn was 68th in rushing in 2018. With his blinding speed—he was also a track star in high school—Whitlow and 5'7" scatback Shaun Shivers could turn a middling ground game into a strength.
OVER OR UNDER?
Under 7.5 wins. It doesn't get much tougher than this: The Tigers open against a Pac-12 power before a slate of SEC opponents that includes LSU, Florida and Texas A&M on the road.
THE BOTTOM LINE
After signing a $49 million deal before last season, Malzahn faces immense pressure after a disappointing 2018. One thing working in his favor: a massive buyout that's reportedly 75% of the money left on his deal.