Auburn is just three years removed from a national title game, but it might as well have been an eternity. The Tigers limped to a disappointing 6-6 record in 2015, including a slim overtime win over FCS-foe Jacksonville State.
The pressure on head coach Gus Malzahn will rise this season, especially if the Tigers struggle. Questions across the roster do not bode well for his chances. Sean White was named the starter against Clemson on Thursday night, but John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson will continue to be options as the season goes on.
Here are five bold predictions about Auburn’s 2016 campaign.
The quarterback battle lasts into the season
Between Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III, Auburn boasts a competitive quarterback battle. Though White was named the starter, the battle might not be over as yet.
White is the safe pick, but Franklin III and Johnson possess greater upside. Franklin has an uncanny ability to make plays with his feet. With the way Malzahn runs his offense, dual-threat ability changes the way teams defend it significantly. Even though Johnson struggled when given the job last year, he has talent that should not be counted out.
Inconsistency plagues the offense
There is talent all over Auburn’s offense. The Tigers have recruited at an elite level, reeling in top 10 classes each of the last four seasons. However, attrition and player development issues have plagued the offense. Auburn lacks consistency at every level of the offense.
The quarterback struggles are well documented, but the skill positions might be worse. Running back Jovon Robinson’s dismissal means the leading returning rusher had 208 yards last season (Kerryon Johnson). Nate Craig-Myers leads a talented receiver recruiting class, but the top returning receiver caught just 13 balls last season. Even the offensive line replaces experienced tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young. The beginning of the season could be brutal.
Auburn starts 1-3
The Tigers have one of the nation’s toughest opening stretches. Over the first four games, Auburn plays Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU. This is a nightmare scenario for a team already trying to reestablish itself on offense.
Clemson and LSU have the talent to manhandle Auburn’s offense. While Auburn’s defense will be improved, it won’t be able to slow Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson. Texas A&M also provides a unique test to Auburn’s secondary. Even Arkansas State will be tougher than it sounds – the Red Wolves went 9-4 last season.
John Franklin III brings excitement, but limited results
The last time Auburn brought in a junior college quarterback, Nick Marshall led the Tigers to a national title game. Franklin isn’t as good as was Marshall’s, but he is a pure playmaker. Franklin possesses a strong arm, but struggles consistently moving the ball downfield. Rushing prowess sets Franklin apart. Eventually, it will cause Malzahn to substitute Franklin for White.
Marshall posted 1,866 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in his two years at Auburn. With limited options at running back, Malzahn will emphasize the run-pass option and get Franklin in the open field. While this will lead to excitement down the stretch, it might not see results against a brutal SEC West schedule. However, building towards the future with Franklin might be an attractive option.
Gus Malzahn does not return
Few coaches in Auburn history have faced the pressure Malzahn has to win. With Nick Saban is winning championships in Tuscaloosa, Auburn has pressure to match. Malzahn’s shortcoming will lead to his downfall. A bad loss to the Crimson Tide will signal the end of an abbreviated era.
Barely making bowl games is not good enough. Malzahn is a few lucky tips and a kick-six away from being a disappointing hire. Another average season will convince athletic brass that a new voice is needed. Click here to see some of the up-and-coming coaches that could be considered.