Photo: Brynn Anderson (AP Photo)

Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 10 Auburn. 

In 2017, Auburn was so painfully close to making the playoff. The Tigers held Clemson to 14 points, thumped Mississippi State and Georgia, beat an undefeated Alabama team, and shoved their way into the SEC title game. Then, it fell apart. Auburn couldn’t hold back Georgia’s stable of running backs and it reserved itself a slot in the Peach Bowl, where the Tigers had the unique honor of losing their bowl game to the people’s champion, UCF. The defeat closed the book on a season that was close to being the the program’s return to the heights of college football.

This year marks head coach Gus Malzahn’s sixth at Auburn. The Tigers were wallowing in five-loss territory for three years and Malzahn’s seat started to feel a little toasty. Then 2017 arrived, providing a reminder of just how dangerous this Auburn squad can be. The Tigers finished 10-4 and are now coming off their best season since Malzahn’s first-year national title game appearance. And those four losses sure don’t look as bad now that Malzahn’s got a second Iron Bowl win under his belt.

Yeah, that always helps.

With an offense stuffed with the kind of quick-footed and sure-handed weapons one needs in this up-tempo attack, 2018 should be another year of shooting for the stars for the Tigers. They need a handful of fantastic, season-long performances out of a hobbled receiving corps and a still-congealing offensive line, but with offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey running the show, there’s always hope.

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Starting at the head of the attack, Jarrett Stidham is back at quarterback after a 2017 season that saw more ups than downs from the former Baylor Bear. He settled into a groove during the thick of SEC play, though the end of the season wasn’t quite as comfortable. In his final two games—the SEC title game against Georgia and the bowl loss to the Knights—Stidham struggled, completing just 58.7 percent of his passes for two scores and two picks. He’ll be back this year to prove he’s got the arms and the legs to carry Auburn to an SEC title; luckily, he’ll have a slew of 2017 receivers returning.

Ryan Davis leads the wideouts, having set the Auburn single-season record for receptions last year with 84. I have a good feeling he and Stidham have that number circled. Past Davis, this group of receivers should be a match made in heaven for Stidham and the Auburn offense,“should” being the operative word.

Eli Stove is one of the most impressive athletes on the Tigers football team, with Lindsey deploying him both on the sweep and the deep ball. But in a 2-for-1, both Stove and Will Hastings, who contributed five scores on 26 receptions last year, suffered injuries requiring ACL surgery in the spring. Until Stove and Hastings are back to 100 percent, Darius Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers will round out the top-line receivers to the start the year.

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Any dysfunction on offense this year will trace its roots to those injured receivers. With that being the case, it’ll be important that the Auburn running game build upon its exciting 2017 showing. Having to replace current Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson sucks, plain and simple. But Kam Martin proved he’s at least game for the SEC through two seasons of work. In limited action, 118 total carries, he’s been good for 6.6 yards per rush and five scores. Look at it this way: In 2017, Auburn stuffed the ball in Johnson’s gut 285 times; if Martin maintains his current rates, he’ll outrush Johnson by 500 yards.

That said, a full season is a big load, and Martin’s biggest hurdle will be going from the explosive switch-up back to the full-time top option. It won’t help that last season’s battle-tested offensive line was depleted over the offseason. Martin packed on 15 pounds in the offseason to bring him at least close to 200—this is essentially a must if a back wants to survive a full season of the SEC gauntlet as the No. 1 option. Hopefully, he’s still got those trademark burners.

As for the guys tasked with stopping the offenses of the SEC, the Tigers should once again boast one of the SEC’s, and thus the nation’s, premier defenses. In 2017, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele guided his team to a No. 9 national ranking in yards allowed per play at 4.6. The secondary and the linebackers were lockdown in the passing games, holding quarterbacks under six yards per throw. It was the exact kind of unit that, barring a braindead offense, guarantees you six wins, even in the SEC. This year’s group shouldn’t be too much different.

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Looking up front, the defensive end responsibilities will be handled by T.D. Moultry and Marlon Davidson, who combined for 4.5 sacks last season. Davidson is the more experienced of the two and his 2017 performance (42 tackles, 6.0 behind the line of scrimmage) marked him as a name to watch come 2018. Expect Nick Coe to continue to be mixed in throughout the season, too—in limited action last year, he posted 29 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2.0 sacks.

The linebackers lost Tre’ Williams, but in all honesty, they’re going to be fine. They return Deshaun Davis, who led the team in tackles last year with 82—the second player on the list, safety Tray Matthews, had 59. Davis will be the beating heart of the defense; he’ll line up alongside Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson. Both of those guys made more than 40 stops last season, with Williams managing 57. This group, combined with the experience on the line, is a big part of how Auburn found its way to the SEC title game last year, and if they stay healthy, they’ll be a big part of why the Tigers return.

The only questions on defense come in the secondary, which was depleted over the offseason. Starting safeties Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts are out, as is corner Carlton Davis. This leaves it to redshirt junior Jeremiah Dinson and junior Daniel Thomas to step in and instantly provide big-time stops and pass coverage for a group that was among the top in the nation at both of those things a season ago. It’s a tall order, one made taller by the fact that Dinson just had shoulder surgery in the spring.

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They’ll be assisted by a group of rising corners that seem ready to continue the precedents of 2017. Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, and Noah Igbinoghene will round out the secondary starters, though you should look for Igbinoghene to pop up on offense from time to time.

A Guy To Know

Jarrett Stidham is the perfect quarterback for the Auburn offense. He’s (usually) smart with the ball, stands tall in the face of pressure and makes admirable snap decisions, and if the worst happens, he can tuck the ball and do it himself.

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In his first year of action at Auburn, Stidham looked comfortable going through his reads in the pocket. Auburn had him sling the ball 26 times per game; he rewarded that trust with a 3,000-yard season to go along with 18 scores and six picks. The hope is he’ll help the ball find its way to the end zone more frequently this year. I think with this set of wideouts and running backs—Martin has made himself a great option when he leaks out of the backfield—Stidham will have the tools to continue moving Auburn up the field in five-yard chunks while also being able to let it fly more frequently.

The Assistant Coach Tweet Of The Day

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...said every pipsqueak DB ever.

Can They Make The Playoff?

Yes, Auburn has what it needs to make a playoff run. Both sides of the ball are overflowing with talent and the coaching staff from 2017 is intact. That’s not the question. The question is whether they can survive a beast of a schedule.

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The Tigers nearly made the playoff run last year, but then the offense coughed up two fumbles to the Georgia defense and the defense couldn’t bottle up the trio of Bulldogs running backs two times in one season. This year, Auburn opens with fellow playoff contender Washington, plays LSU two weeks later, and then closes its season going to Georgia and Alabama. Auburn and every other SEC team knows the path to the playoff goes through the Crimson Tide, either in the regular season or in the title game. It’ll take a lot of luck to pull off a repeat, but if Tiger fans can cling to anything, it’s knowing they cleared the same hurdle last year.

Schedule

Sept. 1: Washington (“Neutral”—it’s in Atlanta)

Sept. 8: Alabama State

Sept. 15: LSU

Sept. 22: Arkansas

Sept. 29: Southern Miss

Oct. 6: @ Mississippi State

Oct. 13: Tennessee

Oct. 20: @ Ole Miss

Nov. 3: Texas A&M

Nov. 10: @ Georgia

Nov. 17: Liberty

Nov. 24: @ Alabama