Defining Success in 2018–2019
Julie Bennett/ al.com
Now’s the worst time of the year for sports fans, aside from those who find solace in a World Cup bereft of the United States. So it’s a good time to start looking forward to the upcoming football season.
Preseason rags are out in force, and like every year, I buy them all. I don’t buy them necessarily for the projection of the Auburn Tigers, though I did opt for the Jarrett Stidham cover over the other option. Typically I buy them to educate myself on all of college football, mostly for the sake of fantasy football, for which I will obligate a large portion of the coming months. Still, as I read the different magazines and where they predict Auburn to finish, it was impossible not to start formulating my own projections for Auburn. And, as an Auburn fan, I have a healthy dose of cynicism anytime Auburn is highly ranked, which tempers my expectations.
It’s fifty-odd days until the South’s favorite college game kicks off the 2018–2019 sports year when Auburn faces Washington in Mercedes Benz Stadium. Gus Malzahn entered last season on a hot seat and fueled his own fire with an epic collapse at LSU. He responded by dominating Georgia and Alabama, setting the Tigers up for an SEC Championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff. However, Auburn’s coaching looked suspect, and Georgia’s preparation guided the Dawgs to an embarrassingly easy SEC Championship before losing to Bama in the CFP Final.
Then. Auburn’s letdown spawned a loss to UCF in the Peach Bowl. And like all good teams that have recruited well, Auburn experienced significant turnover to the NFL. Auburn’s defense, in particular, had some heavy losses, but it is the offensive line that should worry Auburn fans.
Success for Auburn in the last 15 years has come from a veteran offensive unit with tons of upperclassmen that began to play early and take their lumps. That was the case for this past unit. In 2018, Auburn will basically have an entirely new offensive line, and that has not bode well for performance in the past.
While run blocking has never been an issue under Malzahn, he has also had a very capable and experienced running back that could take the hits. It’s been enough to make Auburn’s offense click, but he doesn’t have that this year. What he does have is a returning receiver corps led by Auburn’s all-time leading pass catcher Ryan Davis. Outside of Davis, who has rarely caught anything other than an extended hand-off, are a group of players with a lot of talent but have yet live up to their billing. Oh, and he does have a quarterback that many believe could wind up being a number-one draft pick.
In other words, Malzahn has a great piece in Jarrett Stidham. However, there’s no promises on being able to do anything other than lean on him and hope he can deliver. Of course, with a rebuilt offensive line that may not happen.
Auburn’s defense is going to be as good, if not better, than the last two units, and that is saying something. In contrast to previous years, Malzahn’s offense won’t have time to get right against lesser opponents with Washington coming to Atlanta.
What does success look like for Auburn’s flagship program? A second consecutive ten-win season is something that hasn’t been done since Pat Dye in ’88-89. While consecutive ten-win seasons would at least scratch the surface of being defined as success, it will also depend on other things, namely, whom those wins and losses come against.
Entering last season Auburn was 0–6 against Georgia and Alabama since 2013. Malzahn is now 4–7, including the SEC Championship against the Bulldogs. Yet, as of now, he is the only active coach to have beaten Nick Saban more than once. By beating Saban again, he could become only the second (and only active) coach to beat him in consecutive attempts. If he can beat both Georgia and Alabama again, he will likely get the chance to even his score at 7–7 in Atlanta. Considering the strength of Auburn’s rivals, this alone would make 2018 a wildly successful year.
The chances of Auburn, or anyone, going undefeated, are slim to none—even for programs like Alabama. That could mean that Auburn can drop two games along the way. Look no further than week one against Washington for that first possible loss. It’s widely known that Malzahn needs four or five weeks to set his offense. This will likely be the toughest job he has experienced as a head coach, and he has to prepare for a pretty solid defense.
Where could the other loss come from? LSU showed us that you can lose games easier than you can win. Tennessee is breaking in a brand new staff in a program hungry for success. Most don’t believe the Vols can have a winning season, much less contend with the big boys, but people said the same thing about Auburn in 2013. But for the Tigers, success will mean another ten-win season, beating at least one of their two biggest rivals, either Georgia or Alabama.
Although football is what everyone is solely focused upon right now, on Wednesday we’ll examine what success for all major sports programs at Auburn may look like for 2018–2019.