AUBURN, Ala. — While Tray Matthews’ decision to return to the Auburn football program for his senior season wasn’t a surprise, it cemented an important number about the returning talent for Gus Malzahn’s team in 2017.
Now that Matthews is officially staying in school, Auburn could return up to 17 offensive and defensive starters in 2017, depending on what one calls a “returning starter.” But even the most conservative of definitions would give Auburn more returning starters for 2017 than it has in any of its last 12 seasons.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn repeatedly said the Tigers had a bright future during their 2016 season. That had a lot to do with the massive amount of experienced talent he’ll have at his disposal in 2017.
“We have got a bunch of guys back,” Malzahn said shortly after Auburn’s Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma earlier this month. “We’ve got a bunch of young guys that will learn from this experience, and the future is bright in that locker room.”
Returning talent doesn’t guarantee future success. But it’s undoubtedly better to have experience than it is to rebuild a depth chart for the upcoming season.
Whether one looks at the traditional returning starter count or dives into the numbers of returning production, it’s easy to see why Malzahn is so high on his Tigers in 2017.
How many returning starters does Auburn have?
How many returning starters could Auburn have in the 2017 season? It depends on how that term is defined — and it’s not as easy as it may seem.
Only 11 players can start on offense and defense in a college football game. The first 11 on the field are the official starters. That can make establishing a definition hard, especially for an Auburn team that relies on multiple packages on both sides of the ball.
For example, Auburn’s official depth chart lists 12 starters on offense and 12 starters on defense.
On offense, the extra man happens because the Tigers list four wide receivers as starters, along with an H-back or a tight end. Auburn rarely starts a game with four wide receivers, though, and it usually opts for a three-wide lineup with an H-back. Then there are games like the Sugar Bowl in which the Auburn starting lineup contained two wide receivers, one H-back and one tight end.
On defense, the extra man is a simpler explanation. Auburn is a 4-3 defense by design, but it often plays in a 4-2-5 nickel system to combat spread offenses. Therefore Auburn either starts a third linebacker or a nickel back — never both at the same time. Auburn returns all three of its starting linebackers in 2016, but it loses its top nickel back, Rudy Ford.
A traditional returning starter count, like the ones used in this analysis from Phil Steele and NationalChamps.net, only tallies 11 offensive starters and 11 defensive starters. Some use the nickel back, others go with three linebackers.
Using Auburn’s official team depth chart — one with 12 starters on offense and 12 starters on defense — the Tigers will have 17 returning starters on its roster in 2017.
|Sean White||QB||Marlon Davidson||DE|
|Darius Slayton||WR||Dontavius Russell||DT|
|Eli Stove||WR||Darrell Williams||SLB|
|Chandler Cox||HB/TE||Tre’ Williams||WLB|
|Darius James||LT||Carlton Davis|
|Braden Smith||RG||Stephen Roberts||FS|
Using the traditional 11-starter method, Auburn returns 16 starters — 9 on offense (Eli Stove had as many starts as Tony Stevens at receiver and played more toward the end of the 2016 season) and 7 on defense (Auburn played more nickel than 3-linebacker sets).
Either way, it’s clear that Auburn can return at least 16 starters in 2017. Not all of them are locked in as starters in 2017 by any means. But that experience on the roster is still the same heading into the new season.
More returning starters than the last decade-plus
Auburn has had experienced teams in the last several seasons, but the 2017 one arguably has the most in more than a decade.
Using Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazines for the 2008-2016 seasons and NationalChamps.net for the 2002-2007 seasons — results cut off before 2002 — here’s a look at how many starters Auburn returned in recent years.
|2017||9||7 or 8||16 or 17||???|
Auburn hasn’t returned as much starting talent to a roster in a single season since 2003. The above table shows a few positive trends and a big warning sign when it comes to returning experience.
First and foremost, the 2003 season wasn’t great for the Tigers. Auburn returned all those starters from a 9-4 team and scored 3 points in its first two games of the season. The Tigers fell from No. 6 in the preseason poll to unranked in less than a month, and they lost three of their final four SEC games.
Having returning experience is great, but it’s all about taking full advantage of it. More returning starters usually leads to more success in the following season. Auburn returned 14 or more starters in three of its last four seasons with double-digit wins. It also returned that many in its most recent losing campaigns — 2008 and 2012.
Still, Auburn has only had one double-digit-win season — 2006 — in which it returned fewer than 14 starters. It’s much harder to compete for championships at Auburn when the Tigers have to rebuild their depth charts.
Returning production: A newer view
Not all returning starters are created equal, and players further down on the depth chart at key positions can be just as important as some first-teamers. Returning a lot of productive players from a past season is the best-case scenario for a team.
This idea originally came from the brilliant mind of Bill Connelly at SB Nation. Connelly, inventor of the S&P+ ratings system for college football, came up with his own formula to show how much a team’s offense and defense is returning.
Instead of compiling all the data into a weighted system like Connelly, here’s a simpler look at the returning production for Auburn in 2017 based on raw statistics:
|STATISTIC||2016 TOTAL||RETURNING||% RETURNING|
|Tackles for Loss||83||48.5||58.4%|
Roughly 81 percent of Auburn’s offensive production from 2016 will be back in 2017. The Tigers might not reuse all of it, especially if transfer Jarrett Stidham beats out Sean White for the starting quarterback job. But that doesn’t change the fact the production will be back on the roster, barring transfers.
The Tigers’ biggest area of offensive concern, unsurprisingly, will be in the passing game. Auburn must replace its top yardage receiver in Stevens, and it’ll have to come with a new offensive coordinator and possibly a new quarterback. But Auburn has a lot of bright young talent at the position — eight of its top 10 receivers in 2016 were all underclassmen.
Defensively, Auburn returns most of its production in every area except for the pass rush. With Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams off to the NFL, the Tigers need to find new ways to generate sacks. Starting end Marlon Davidson, backup defensive tackle Andrew Williams and backup Buck end Jeff Holland are the only returning players who recorded multiple sacks in 2016.
But Auburn’s returning experience at linebacker and defensive back shine through in the above table, especially in the area of tackles. Auburn played much better defensive ball in 2016 than it has in several seasons, and having most of that talent coming back will be crucial in 2017.
Lastly, here’s a bonus note, and one that some might be wondering aloud about in this analysis.
Returning starter counts don’t normally include specialists. However, it’s definitely worth mentioning that Auburn returns one of the best kickers in the country in 2017.
Two-time Groza Award finalist Daniel Carlson is back. That means 100 percent of Auburn’s field goals, 100 percent of Auburn’s extra points — a grand total of 134 points — and 100 percent of Auburn’s touchbacks will be back in 2017.
Tack Carlson’s ultra-reliable leg onto the amount of returning experience Auburn has in 2017, and it’s easy to see why Malzahn is so high on his roster.
However, as the highs and lows of recent Auburn seasons show, returning experience is a luxury. But underachieving with a lot of it quickly leads to firings on the Plains.