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2016 SEC Preview: Pressure building on the Plains for Auburn?

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It might be a hot seat year for Gus Malzahn if he can’t right the ship.

Birmingham Bowl - Auburn v Memphis Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Since leading Auburn to the BCS National Championship game Gus Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers have suffered back to back disappointing seasons. In 2014, Auburn was 5-0 and ranked #2 before losing to Mississippi State in Starkville. Since that defeat, Auburn is an even 10-10. To make matters worse, the Tigers are 0-4 vs hated rivals Alabama and Georgia the past two seasons. While they have made improvements to their defense, they are still searching for a quarterback to lead them.

Heading into the season, Auburn was looking to lean on their ground game in Malzahn’s fast paced offense. They had a strong backfield that took a big hit when starting running back Javon Robinson was released from the football program. Already without last season’s leading rusher and losing Peyton Barber to graduation, Auburn will now lean heavily on sophomores Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox. Auburn must also replace last season’s leading WR Ricardo Louis. Senior Marcus Davis will be the guy to lead the group that is very important in the Tigers’ offense. The QB battle is a three horse race between last season’s starters, Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, and JUCO dual-threat John Franklin III (a transfer from East Mississippi Community College, the school featured on the Netflix documentary series Last Chance U). Coach Malzahn has been very reluctant to name a starter and could be prepared to wait until game day against Clemson on September 3rd. One plus on the offensive side of the ball will be a veteran offensive line, led by senior Alex Kozan and juniors Braden Smith and Austin Golson.

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele inherits a talented group of defenders from South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp. Steele, who has been at Alabama, Clemson, Alabama again, and LSU since 2007, will look to build on what Muschamp started last season. The Tigers will be good on the defensive line with three returning starters, led by 2nd team All-SEC DE Carl Lawson and 3rd team All-SEC DT Montravius Adams. The Tigers will have a young but talented group of linebackers to go with a few returning starters in the secondary.

The Tigers will also return placekicker Daniel Carlson, who was a Lou Groza award finalist last season.

Last Season

Auburn capped off a 6-6 (2-6) season with a bowl win over Memphis.

The Schedule

Heading into the season, Auburn has arguably one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Tigers currently have five of the top sixteen teams in the nation on their schedule. Auburn will open up the campaign hosting #2 Clemson. They will not have to leave Jordan-Hare Stadium until October, hosting Arkansas State, Texas A&M, #6 LSU, and Louisiana-Monroe before traveling to Starkville to face Mississippi State. The Tigers will then host Arkansas before going to #12 Ole Miss. A home game vs. Vanderbilt preludes a trip to Athens to play #16 Georgia. Auburn will finish up with Alabama A&M before traveling to Tuscaloosa to take on #1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Prognosis

Auburn will have to be able to take advantage of an early home schedule before finishing the season with four of their last seven on the road. A strong showing against Clemson the opening day of the season is exactly what the young Auburn Tigers need. If Auburn starts slow, they could be looking at 1-3 with four SEC road games remaining. Six wins could be the ceiling with such a tough schedule. Combine a losing or even 6-6 season with losses to Georgia and Alabama, and Auburn may look at making a coaching decision in the winter.