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State of the Program — Auburn Football

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Where do we stand with the roster, coaches, and facilities?

Earlier this week, we addressed the status of other Auburn athletics programs — Monday it was baseball, and yesterday we talked basketball. Now, while we had the best years in each of those sports in some time, we all know where most Auburn fans’ bread is buttered.

It begins and ends here in many cases.

Auburn football has always been king, and so the success of the program on the gridiron oftentimes guides the mood and direction of the rest of the athletics department. And while the last decade has been one hell of a roller coaster, it can be argued that Auburn football has never had more success or had as much stability as it does right now.

COACHING

Like the admins, I’m all in on Gus Malzahn right now. Despite the outcries that he “calls all the bad plays and Chip calls all the good ones” he’s been an integral part of Auburn’s rise to unprecedented heights since before he headed up the football program. Gus ran the offense that won us a national championship in 2010, and he got us within seconds of a second title in four seasons in his first year as head coach.

Sure, the end of 2014 and all of 2015 were subpar seasons, but the last two showed a definite upswing. Let’s look closer at 2016 first: Auburn was 7-2 heading into the Georgia game. If we don’t lose our quarterback and starting running back to injury, we likely beat the Bulldogs and maybe, maybe have a shot to beat Alabama. Do you remember who won the East that year? Florida. They lost 54-16 to Alabama in the SEC Championship. With a healthy offense, Auburn would’ve been right in the hunt. And as a two-loss SEC Champ with a road win at #1 Alabama, the Tigers would’ve likely been in the Playoff.

Now, that’s a lot of ifs. I understand. The point is that things outside of Gus’ control happened to derail what had turned into a very good season. I also understand that it’s his responsibility to have a backup plan in place should such injuries occur. The majority of teams in the country would have trouble if they lost their starting backfield to injury in the most critical stretch of the season. Sue me if I don’t place that blame on Gus.

Then we get to this past season. It’s a 100% certainty that Auburn would’ve made the Playoff by beating Georgia in Atlanta. That means that Georgia and Alabama are both likely left out, so the whole dynamic of the Playoff is different. Once again, that hope was partially derailed by a key injury to our workhorse in Kerryon Johnson. Yes, Gus’ fault that we didn’t have a capable backup ready to roll, but I’m not putting injuries fully on the shoulders of the staff.

And we have to remember that the measurements by which Gus and the rest of his staff are being measured are higher than any Auburn coach in the last 40 years. When Alabama’s won five national titles under Nick Saban, the pressure will be higher on us, but the road is even tougher. Gus is 2-3 against Nick Saban, with two of his losses coming with a backup quarterback starting the Iron Bowl. Pat Dye got to coach against Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, and he brought us four SEC Championships. Tommy Tuberville got to coach against Mike Dubose, Dennis Franchione, Mike Shula, and the early part of the Saban dynasty, and he brought us one SEC Championship in ten seasons.

Think about what Gus would be doing if he’d had similar competition in-state.

As for the assistant coaches, we’ve ended up with a pretty good crop of guys on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Kevin Steele’s made a name once again as one of the best coordinators in football. He and his guys have built one of the most fearsome front sevens in the nation, and he’s working with some young and tenacious recruiters as well. Travis Williams, Marcus Woodson, and Rodney Garner are all well-known recruiting hounds, while Greg Brown is a fantastic coach in the secondary (three Thorpe Award winners to his name).

On the offensive side, we know that Gus will always have a hand in what goes on there. He’ll never have that full CEO role a la Tuberville, and we’ll see certain things that he likes to do until the end of time (Wildcat). It makes sense that he may bring in guys that have come from the branches of his own coaching tree, but he’s expanded his horizons by bringing in Chip Lindsey to run the offense. While Lindsey is definitely a Gus guy, he’s made his own name in other stops at Southern Miss and Arizona State. And while we had a bit of a rocky start figuring out what we wanted from the offense last year, it came together in spades as Jarrett Stidham developed as the most efficient quarterback in the SEC.

The rest of the offensive staff includes Kodi Burns, J.B. Grimes, Tim Horton, and Larry Porter. Again, Porter’s legacy as a recruiter is well-know, while the other guys have all been around the Auburn offense for years. It’s familiarity with Gus that matters in this realm, and he’s got guys that he’s comfortable with.

Overall, Gus Malzahn has gone up against the best in college football and more than held his own. He’s built a staff that recruits well against some of the top groups in that regard, and he’s won two SEC West championships in the toughest division in sports. That may have all come across as major sunshine and optimism, but I don’t think there are very many guys that would’ve had as much success in Gus’ position as he has had over his first five seasons.

Furthermore, that contract certainly helps him feel comfortable, but maybe the uncertainty of his job was what spurred him on to have such a good November in 2017. We’ll see.

ROSTER

You’ve got to like what our coaches have to work with.

If we start on offense, Jarrett Stidham should be poised for a year that allows him to make All-SEC, and likely set Auburn records in terms of passing yardage and touchdowns. With an offense that looks destined to lean on the air attack, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Stidham breaks Cam Newton’s 30 touchdown mark, or Dameyune Craig’s record of 3,277 yards through the air in 1997 (Stidham finished with 3,158 last year).

He’s got a big bunch of experienced and talented receivers to work with as well. Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis (single-season receptions leader at Auburn), and Nate Craig-Myers will be great for the passing game, and there’s plenty of talent below while we wait for Eli Stove and Will Hastings to overcome spring injuries.

Running back may take a step back this year if we can’t find someone to duplicate the success and heart of Kerryon Johnson, but reports on Kam Martin and Boobie Whitlow out of spring practice were good. Up front, there’s unproven talent mixed with a few old-guard guys on the offensive line. Having Chandler Cox back to help block will be an immense weight off the rest of the road-gradres.

On defense, it looks really good. The line should be one of the best in the SEC with Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Dontavius Russell, Andrew Williams, and Nick Coe are all proven commodities, while young studs like Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry will be edge-rushing nightmares.

Behind them Auburn’s got one of the best linebacking groups around too. Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams lead the way as seniors, with Montavious Atkinson and Richard McBryde waiting to help out.

Meanwhile, the secondary should have plenty of talent despite the loss of Carlton Davis, Stephen Roberts, and Tray Matthews. Javaris Davis, Jamel Dean, and Jordyn Peters all showed off at times last year, and Jeremiah Dinson should be ready to roll in the fall as well. Daniel Thomas has plenty of experience, and there are a bunch of highly-regarded young players waiting in the wings. Defensive depth is not really an issue.

And hey, we lost Legatron, but we got the sequel as Anders Carlson steps in to take over for his older brother. The only question that really comes in on kickers is whether Arryn Siposs can live up to the hype from his days as an Australian rules football player. If he Brad Wings for us, we’ll be in good shape.

If you’ve followed AU Nerd’s recruiting articles, you’ll know that Auburn’s putting together very good classes for the next two seasons as well, and that the Tigers are bringing in some scintillating players on both sides of the ball.

FACILITIES

While Jordan-Hare Stadium is one of the unfriendliest venues for opposing teams in the SEC, and while there are renovations being completed that will be ready for the upcoming season, it still needs a little bit of work.

First, check out some images of what will be happening this fall in the southwest corner.

Auburn Athletics Association

What we’ve got here is a new recruiting center, locker room, and press box. Now, I know the view will be a little different Rod Bramblett and company, and that may affect how the Auburn radio broadcast goes, but this is an upgrade that adds premium seating, and the experience for recruits as well.

Something that Gus Malzahn has fought for in his new contract negotiations is a football-only facility. Right now, Auburn’s football headquarters are in the Athletics Complex on Donahue Drive, which provides access to the practice fields. With a new football-only complex, it would only help drive support in arms race that’s defined recruiting as of late.

Like most schools, Auburn has a dedicated nutrition center and a weight room (video below), but they may be falling behind in the latter category.

Auburn may not be right at the top in terms of eye-popping weight rooms (see the Zanzibar across the state) but they’re in the conversation, and it’s certainly not a negative for the program.

Many of the common complaints when it comes to the football facilities are heard from fans. They’re not unwarranted. I’d love to have a nice bricked in stadium all the way around, like this:

Instead of the current lattice-work of steel crossbeams.

Auburn is certainly doing renovations, but it will take a concerted effort to make the stadium look uniform and clean, rather than piecemeal projects that may end up looking like mismatched puzzle pieces.

One thing that Auburn may also never need are extreme stadium expansions to get the seating number up close to 100,000. It’s a fact that there are less fans of Auburn than there are of an Alabama, a Tennessee, or a Georgia. An expansion like that may end up hurting the program should we enter a true prolonged downturn and fan support sags. The sight of empty seats during a game because you just can’t fill them is bad. The sight of visiting fans filling those seats is even worse.

Whether we’ve got the prettiest stadium from the outside or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the raucous nature of the people inside of it is unrivaled. And that brings us to our final point...

SUPPORT

For Auburn, fan support is at an all-time high. With two trips to the national championship and two SEC Championships in the past decade, the Tigers are in the midst of one of the most successful runs in school history. For one, you just need to look at the rising price of tickets to know that demand is increasing as well. However, we’re not always the best, and it’s an ever-changing mindset.

The Georgia and Alabama games were incredible, and the fans were a huge reason why Auburn dominated both times. Then we lose in Atlanta, and UCF greatly outnumbers us in the bowl game in the same building. We don’t regularly have full crowds for non-SEC home games, and we do have dwindling student crowds late in the first half and early third quarter for the cupcakes.

This isn’t a problem that’s solely Auburn, either. With rising ticket prices, it can cost hundreds, if not thousands, for a family to make a trip for a single game. Much of that is out of Auburn’s control too, with hotels and travels costs making up a huge portion of the total.

In terms of the support that Auburn gets from the administration, it seems like Allen Greene’s on the right path. He’s young, energetic, and clearly wants to build stability. With Gus’ contract, it’s clear that the admins think he’s the guy, and are willing to pony up to keep him around. He’s the foundation of the program, and with a deal locked in, he can afford to be rock solid.

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All told, Auburn football’s in a very good spot. We ended 2017 on a sour note with the injuries and losses in Atlanta, but there’s a chance for redemption in less than two months against another potential Playoff team. What Gus Malzahn and the rest of the staff and players have going on right now is fantastic, and we have to remember not to judge what he’s accomplished by the historic march across the state. Focus on Auburn’s successes, not the honors of others. War Eagle!