By Tony Castricone (photo credit: Auburn athletics)
August 24, 2018
With eight days to go until kickoff, the season-opening matchup between Washington and Auburn is now less than 48 hours away from reaching “game week” status. To get a head start on my Auburn preview, I caught up with Brad Law from the Auburn Sports Network, who’s an Auburn alumnus, deeply knowledgeable about the Tigers, and an all-around great guy.
If you’d like to check out a half-hour breakdown of the game from the Tigers’ perspective, click play on the interview above.
If you’d like to read my preliminary thoughts on the Tigers’ 2018 outlook, keep scrolling!
AUBURN 2018: THE COACH AND THE QUARTERBACK
The Gus Malzhan Era hasn’t always been all roses on The Plains. After a 12-2 showing in his first year at Auburn in 2013, including a heartbreaking last-minute 34-31 loss to Florida State at the final BCS Championship Game in Pasadena, the Tigers trended downward between 2014 and 2016. The three-year stretch witnessed just 23 wins and 16 losses, three of which came to arch-rival Alabama, all by double digits.
Malzhan seemed to be on the edge of the hot seat heading into 2017, which proved to be a rollercoaster ride full of highs and lows. And after a Week 7 loss at LSU, the Tigers found themselves 21st in the national polls, 5-2 on the season, with two more monster games looming against Georgia and Alabama. It was a pivotal point for Malzhan. Losses to Georgia and Alabama would’ve been understandable, but would’ve also placed his Tigers no better than 8-4 heading into the postseason with temperatures rising. Instead, Auburn won out to finish the regular season.
Blowout wins at Arkansas and Texas A&M provided momentum, and despite being a 2-point home underdog to 2nd ranked Georgia, the Tigers mauled the Bulldogs 40-17. After a tune-up win against Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn stifled top-ranked Alabama 26-14, limiting the Tide to just 103 yards passing and just 314 total on the day. The win catapulted Auburn to number-4 in the polls, placing them in poll position to make the College Football Playoff for the first time.
But they didn’t.
A rematch against Georgia in Atlanta proved to be too tough a stretch, and the Bulldogs won the SEC title 28-7 while allowing just 259 total yards. Auburn dipped to 10-3 and slipped into the Peach Bowl. It was a consolation prize for the Tigers, but also a “national championship” game for their opponent. The highly-motivated UCF Knights beat Auburn 34-27.
Somewhat up. Then down. Then WAY up. Then crashing down. That was the Tigers’ 2017 season.
Regardless, there was enough “up” in there (including an SEC West championship!) for Malzhan to be courted by other major schools for a head coaching job, including Arkansas. The Razorbacks reportedly offered him $50 million to leave The Plains. Auburn countered with $49 million over seven years if he’d stay.
Thus, Malzhan heads into his 6th season at Auburn with Washington as his first concern. His 45-22 record is good, but his 1-4 bowl mark leaves a lot to be desired, especially when the “other guy” in the state is Nick Saban.
Athlon’s preseason synopsis writes: “In order to win another West Division title, (Malzhan’s) team must rebuild the offensive line, find at least one running back capable of handling regular work and find a couple of safeties.”
They’re slated to play three games away from home against Top 10 teams, going to Atlanta, Athens and Tuscaloosa. The Tigers are used to playing a huge non-conference game early, having opened at home against Clemson in 2016 and playing in Death Valley in 2017. Because of that schedule, this will mark the third straight season the Tigers have played against both the defending national champion and the defending runner-up. These guys are no strangers to monster matchups. So is junior quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
Stidham started his career at Baylor in 2015. The Bears were ranked as high as number-2 in the country before quarterback Seth Russell was injured, forcing Stidham, a freshman, into the lineup. He did his best to hold down the fort, but the Bears lost three of their last four games in the regular season to finish up 10-3.
After the scandal at Baylor, Stidham transferred to junior college for a year, and was ready to take the reins in 2017 when Auburn needed a starting quarterback.
Despite a banged up shoulder, Stidham delivered some pretty impressive numbers during his sophomore season. 3,158 yards passing. An 18:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He completed almost exactly two-thirds of his passes.
“Stidham has the potential to become one of the nation’s best,” Athlon writes. “He makes good decisions, delivers the ball on target and can move a little bit.”
“Stidham could be one of the nation’s top QBs this year,” agrees Phil Steele. “He’ll be in the mix to be the top QB selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.” He made Steele’s list as a 3rd team preseason All-American, just one spot ahead of Washington’s Jake Browning, who was a fourth-teamer.
We’ll start to take a deeper look at other position groups for Auburn as we get closer to kickoff.