SEATTLE – Believe it or not, Washington won’t be the only top-10 football team taking the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 1.
As game week approaches, it’s finally time to turn our focus toward No. 9 Auburn, the defending SEC West champion and aspiring College Football Playoff contender. Gus Malzahn’s Tigers finished 10-4 in 2017, dropping their final two games – both coincidentally inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Against No. 6 Washington, they’ll attempt to buck the trend.
Here are 10 things to know about the Auburn Tigers.
1. They think they have the best defensive line in the country.
Senior linebacker Deshaun Davis said that publicly during SEC Media Days, and he might have a point. The Tigers return three of four defensive line starters from 2017 and eight players who appeared in the two-deeps last fall. That includes standouts Dontavius Russell (46 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2017), Derrick Brown (56 tackles, nine TFL, 3.5 sacks) and Marlon Davidson (43 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks).
Despite the loss of vaunted pass-rusher Jeff Holland (10 sacks, 13 TFL, 22 QB hurries in 2017), Auburn’s defensive line may be deeper and more talented as a whole.
2. Washington may not have the best quarterback on the field.
After transferring from McLennan Community College (and before that, Baylor), Jarrett Stidham passed for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns with just six interceptions, while completing 66 percent of his passes, in his first season as Auburn’s starter in 2017.
Those numbers are comparable to Washington senior Jake Browning, who completed 68.5 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,719 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions last fall.
The expectation for Auburn is that Stidham will take another step forward in his redshirt junior season, perhaps even landing in the Heisman conversation.
Still, it will be difficult for anyone – even Stidham – to dissect the Washington secondary.
3. Kerryon Johnson is gone, but does it matter?
On the surface, that may seem like a silly question. After all, the departed standout running back piled up more than 1,500 total yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
Next weekend, the Tigers will roll out a running back tandem of Kam Martin and JaTarvious Whitlow, both of whom remain relatively unproven.
But get this: Auburn’s offense has produced a 1,000-yard rusher for nine consecutive seasons.
Even without a Bo Jackson (or a Kerryon Johnson), expect the Tigers’ running backs to produce.
4. Auburn has issues on the offensive line.
Specifically, let’s talk pass protection. In 2017, the Tigers surrendered 2.57 sacks per game, which ranked 101st nationally. Their 6.43 tackles for loss allowed per game ranked 93rd.
Moreover, four 2017 senior offensive linemen with starting experience have since watched their eligibility expire.
5. Washington isn’t the only team with kicker questions.
Gone is place-kicker Daniel Carlson, the leading scorer in Auburn history.
In his place is his younger brother, Anders Carlson.
Through spring and fall practices, Anders – a 6-foot-5, 210-pound redshirt freshman – has earned rave reviews. Still, there’s no telling how he’ll react to his first legitimate dose of college football.
The Tigers will turn to a new starting punter as well, as Australian Arryn Siposs is expected to land the job. Before coming to the United States, Siposs played five years of professional Australian rules football.
6. Deshaun Davis is Auburn’s defensive leader.
In 2017, the 5-11, 233-pound linebacker led the Tigers with 82 tackles to go along with seven tackles for loss, four sacks and two fumble recoveries. He has started 27 consecutive games on the second level for the Tigers.
The defensive line may grab the headlines, but Davis remains the constant in the heart of the Auburn defense.
7. Questions abound in Auburn’s secondary.
Here’s one, for example: Who are these guys? Proven contributors Carlton Davis, Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts are gone. Cornerback Jamel Dean (43 tackles, eight pass breakups and 2.5 TFL in 2017) could be a budding star, and junior Jeremiah Dinson returns to bring some semblance of stability to the safety spot. But beyond that, there are few established certainties.
Of course, Washington’s wide receivers are equally inexperienced. There’s no telling which side will make more strides on Sept. 1.
8. Ryan Davis might be a problem.
The 5-9, 185-pound senior is Auburn’s undisputed No. 1 wide receiver, fresh off a 2017 season in which he led the Tigers in catches (84), receiving yards (815) and receiving touchdowns (five). As a result, he was named to the preseason All-SEC second team by both the coaches and the media.
Still, don’t expect the Washington secondary, which allowed just 10 touchdown passes in 13 games last season, to be intimidated.
9. The wildcat is alive (and well?) in Auburn’s offensive playbook.
Remember the wildcat? That thing where a player other than the starting quarterback takes a direct snap, theoretically to add an extra blocker in the running game and overwhelm an unprepared defense?
The Tigers still use it. When they use it, they use it well. According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Auburn ran 51 plays out of the wildcat last season, averaging 5.57 yards per play. Even more impressive, nearly 55 percent of those plays resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
Without Kerryon Johnson, the most likely candidate to take the wildcat reins this fall is redshirt freshman running back JaTarvious Whitlow.
10. History is not on Auburn’s side.
Dig your hand into the bowl of mostly irrelevant historical statistics, and pick out the one you like.
Auburn is 1-7 in season openers against ranked opponents. Oh, and the lone win came in 1957.
Auburn is 0-3 in season openers when both teams are ranked.
Malzahn is 3-5 in nonconference games played away from Jordan-Hare Stadium, and in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Auburn has lost five consecutive games away from home against ranked teams.