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.
Things started out fun in 2014, as the Tigers held each of their opponents to 21 points or less while piling on at least 40 points in four of the first five games. But just as Auburn seemed to be making a midseason push toward the top of the polls, Mississippi State promptly dismantled them 38-23. Auburn rebounded and won its next two games, but dropped two in a row after that, including a 41-38 shootout to unranked and kind of shitty Texas A&M. When it was all said and done, the Tigers lost four out of their last five, and the one was to Samford. 2014 was not a good year for Auburn.
Luckily for the Tigers, it’s 2015, and with it comes a whole new set of expectations for us to gradually lower.
Will Muschamp gave it his best shot at Florida, but damned if he didn’t just kind of suck as a head coach. Now he’s back in the saddle as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, and he inherits a defense that couldn’t stave off any SEC offense that didn’t belong to LSU, who Auburn drubbed 41-7. (To give you a feel for just how much the quality varied, the defense finished 45th in the nation in defensive FEI while the offense finished second in OFEI.)
Much is made of SEC teams scheduling
five four non-conference opponents, and though the Tigers did play Kansas State in 2014, the vast difference in opponent quality still shines through. In five non-conference games, including its bowl loss to Wisconsin, Auburn allowed 17.0 points per game. In seven SEC games, the Tigers gave up 34.4 per game. Even with Cameron Artis-Payne rushing for 1,605 yards and 13 scores, and Nick Marshall tossing 20 touchdowns and running for 11 more, the Tigers couldn’t keep up with their conference opponents. Landing Muschamp and returning six starters on defense is a good place to start, but don’t expect them to suddenly start shutting out the SEC.
The offensive line lost three starters from last year’s group, but this year’s collective still returns four players with starting experience and should reload just fine. The bigger open spots, though, are at running back. With Artis-Payne and Corey Grant gone, the Tigers turn to a pair of backs with relatively fresh SEC experience. Roc Thomas or No. 1-ranked junior college transfer Jovon Robinson will be lining up in the backfield behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Thomas ran for 214 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry last year, and Robinson still has a lot of potential despite some lackluster preseason reviews. Auburn always has a strong running game, though, so there’s a good chance somebody is going to break out and have a 1,000-yard season in 2015.
Duke Williams will line up out wide as one of the nation’s top returning receivers. Ricardo Louis and Marcus Davis will join Williams to form one of the more promising receiving corps in the nation. Hey, remember when Louis did this?
Under center, Nick Marshall has now graduated and will be replaced by Jeremy Johnson, who everybody is getting in a tizzy over because of some brief moments he’s had as a backup. His 2014 totals—75.7 completion percentage, three scores, no picks— are impressive, but they are from an extremely small sample size; the guy only threw 37 passes all of last season. At least we saw Cardale Jones light up three top-15 teams before we started giving him a national reach around. Johnson will probably be great, but let’s cool the hype.
D’Haquille “Duke” Williams is absolutely a player you should watch this year. This is a receiver who has controlled games from his spot opposite Sammie Coates, and with Coates gone to the NFL, Williams presents himself as the team’s lone proven offensive star. He had five 100-yard receiving yards games in 2014, and with a much better pocket passer under center for the Tigers, this year should be the year he breaks out and racks up 1,000-plus yards through the air. If Malzahn and Williams can get their collective shit figured out, Auburn’s offense could actually get better this year. If not, well, I hope you have a backup team in mind.
Auburn can make the playoff, but to get there, they are going to need a lot of things to break their way.
First off, Johnson can’t be a flop. He doesn’t have to be Cam Newton, but he needs to prove he can sling the mid-range and deep ball well against stout SEC defenses. He has the advantage of being a veteran backup, so he more or less knows the system, and long as Williams is there for him to throw to, Johnson should have himself a decent season.
The biggest concern will be the defense, and Muschamp’s attempts to come in and work wonders with a crew that continually shit games away in 2014. If they can at least be average, the offense should be able to shoulder the load and give the team a shot at winning the West. Expecting the Tigers to throw together a top-25 unit is a little far-fetched, but give me top-35 and we can talk playoff.
Guz Malzahn is a confident coach who occasionally dines on the fine delicacy commonly referred to as a “blue waffle.” But, as far as I can tell, he is not a dick.
Alabama is still the team to beat in the division, but Auburn has the firepower to take down the Tide and claim the SEC title. The Tigers will be fun as hell to watch this year, and they just might do it.
Sept. 5: Louisville
Sept. 12: Jacksonville State
Sept. 19: @ LSU
Sept. 26: Mississippi State
Oct. 3: San Jose State
Oct. 15: @ Kentucky
Oct. 24: @ Arkansas
Oct. 31: Ole Miss
Nov. 7: @ Texas A&M
Nov. 14: Georgia
Nov. 21: Idaho
Nov. 28: Alabama