The 2017 college football season is just around the corner, and with it will come another chapter in Gus Malzahn’s Auburn tenure. Last season was riddled with inconsistency, but with all of their returning talent, the Tigers are being billed as dark horse contenders.
Before they take the field, it’s always fun to imagine how good they could be. Making bold predictions is part of what makes the offseason fun, and seeing even one of those predictions come true is downright delightful.
Below are five of my most fearless guesses about various outcomes in Auburn’s 2017 season. Obviously, there are many other important variables that will determine whether or not Auburn is competitive, but these are my top choices.
And sadly, until September 2, all I can do is guess.
1. Daniel Carlson wins the Lou Groza Award
Third time’s the charm, right? Carlson will have one more shot at taking home the award for college football’s best kicker after being a finalist two years in a row.
Also known as “Legatron,” Carlson has been the best kicker in the SEC the past two seasons. Since starting as a true freshman in 2014, he’s posted a 83.1 field goal percentage (fourth best in SEC history), made eight of 12 field goals from 50 yards or more, and has never missed any of his 141 extra points (second best in SEC history).
The picture of consistency, his leg is as reliable as it is powerful. He’s an entire offseason to perfect his motion, and should have plenty of opportunities to show off the strength of his leg in 2017.
2. Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson each run for 1,000 yards
Bear in mind that for the majority of last season, both backs weren’t at full strength at the same time. Johnson started hot with 517 yards and six touchdowns through the first five games before an ankle injury placed Pettway squarely in the lead back position, which resulted in a ridiculous four-game stretch — the 240-pounder racked up 770 yards and six touchdowns.
Pettway eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark with 1,224, but Johnson just couldn’t get there, mostly because of Pettway’s dominance and that nagging ankle injury down the stretch.
Now, they’re both fully healthy and settled into their roles. Together, they form the best one-two punch in SEC (and maybe the country), and should each receive enough carries to surpass 1,000 yards.
Interesting late night observation: Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway had the same number of all-purpose touches in 2016 for Auburn (211).— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) May 12, 2017
It’s true Auburn will try to be more balanced on offense with the arrival of coordinator Chip Lindsey, but a power running attack is still Gus Malzahn’s bread and butter. In a perfect world, he would only pass it when he needs to, and with two outstanding backs like Pettway and Johnson, he might never need to.
3. Marlon Davidson records ten sacks
Someone will have to fill Carl Lawson’s shoes, right? As the star edge rusher, Lawson tallied 9.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, even while being double teamed most downs.
Now, Marlon Davidson is primed and ready to take his place. He had a great breakout season as a true freshman, and now he’s had an entire season with defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. He has a surprising burst for his size (6’3″, 273 pounds), and excels at blowing up plays in the backfield.
While Lawson and defensive tackle Montravius Adams (four sacks, eight tackles for loss) were drawing the double teams, Davidson finished ninth on the team in total tackles, and added 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss.
Auburn DE Marlon Davidson burst onto the scene in 2016 as a Freshman— NCAAF Nation (@NCAAFNation247) June 21, 2017
He had 38 Tackles 6 Tackles for Loss & 2.5 Sacks pic.twitter.com/UZphsuJql0
4. Jarrett Stidham throws 25 touchdowns
As a freshman at Baylor in 2015, Stidham posted a strong stat line, even starting in three games: 68.8 completion percentage, 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions.
In Auburn’s spring game, he completed 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards, and added a rushing touchdown in just one half of action. In Chip Lindsey’s scheme, he’ll certainly have opportunities to air it out, especially if that spring game is any indication.
On paper, he’s the answer the Tigers have been looking for. If only games were played on paper, right? Auburn has been burned by a supposed star quarterback not meeting expectations (remember Jeremy Johnson?), but Stidham appears poised enough to lead the Tigers on a championship run.
Auburn’s receiving corps is developing nicely, and Stidham has a huge arm. It’s a match made in heaven.
5. Auburn wins ten games… or more
This assumes that items one through four on this list, as well as a couple of other things, fall into place for the Tigers. However, it’s not a stretch to imagine Auburn seriously challenging Alabama for the SEC West title.
If Stidham pans out, Pettway and Johnson stay healthy, and defense picks up where it left off last year, Auburn should be really, really good.
The schedule is arguably tougher than last year, but getting Georgia and Alabama at home is huge. Other than a Week 2 matchup with Clemson (which will be a good metric for determining how good Auburn is), the front half of the schedule is fairly easy. Even if Auburn loses to Clemson, a trip to Atlanta is still in the picture, and the Tigers enter an October matchup with LSU 5-1.
From there, the schedule gets intense, with three straight SEC road games and showdowns with Georgia and Alabama broken up only by a visit from Louisiana-Monroe. However, Auburn proved last year that with a healthy, adequate quarterback, it has the pieces in place to compete with any team.