One could easily argue that the SEC has been the elite college football conference in the country since the 1992 season with at least 14 claimed titles seeing Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Florida claim nine of those trophies since the 2006 season.
Once again, the SEC has title contenders in both divisions with perhaps the greatest depth of overall talent spread out among five hopefuls -- Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Florida, and Georgia. Only Auburn has shown the ability to beat the Crimson Tide in recent years among this group, something the Tigers will need to do against if they want to make it to the College Football Playoff this season.
Auburn bucked a three-game losing streak to their archrivals last season, winning the Iron Bowl 26-14 in Jordan-Hare Stadium on the way to a 10-4 (7-1 SEC) record. The Tigers lost some fantastic talent to graduation and the NFL, but seven starters return on offense, including quarterback Jarrett Stidham. On defense, Auburn figures to be nasty again with six starters back and a front line that can dominate games. But, nothing will be easy for the Tigers once again as they must navigate one of the toughest schedules in the nation.
Three Reasons Why Auburn Will Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. Jarrett Stidham
Over the past decade, college football has increasingly become about the play coming from the pocket. If a team does not have a good quarterback, chances are they will not go far. Lucky for Auburn, Stidham is one of the best in the nation.
The junior completed 67 percent of his passes in his first season in head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense finishing second in the SEC with 3,158 passing yards to go along with 18 touchdown passes. Stidham’s talent coupled with his four top receivers returning (Ryan Davis, Darius Slyton, Eli Stove and Will Hastings) will overwhelm opposing defenses.
2. Auburn’s defense
The War Eagles may have played the toughest schedule in the nation last season, yet still ended up with the 14th-ranked defense, allowing 319 yards per game. Coordinator Kevin Steele gets three starters back up front with emerging sophomore star T.D. Moultry expected to do big things off the edge. The linebacker unit gets leading tackler Deshaun Davis back while the secondary is loaded with experienced upperclassmen.
Auburn’s defense has improved in each of the past two seasons and there's no reason this group cannot perform at the same level as last year if not better.
3. The schedule
After a season-opening, neutral-site game against Washington in Atlanta, the Auburn plays four straight at home before going on the road to face Mississippi State. The rest of the season alternates between playing at home and on the road, which favors Auburn. Auburn also gets its bye after playing at Ole Miss before hosting Texas A&M.
If Auburn can make it through the first nine games of the season unscathed, two of the final three -- at Georgia and Alabama with Liberty in between -- sets up for a College Football Playoff berth.
Three Reasons Why Auburn Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2018
1. The offensive line
During the 2017 season, Auburn had three fantastic senior linemen in Braden Smith, Austin Golson and Darius James. With those three gone, that leaves just two starters returning –- left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and right guard Mike Horton. Last year's line helped lead the way for a rushing attack that averaged 218 yards per game.
So can the rebuilt line gel enough to be a driving force for four quarters, especially late in the season, while keeping the pocket secure for Stidham? If not, this could be another 10-4 kind of year.
2. The next 1,000-yard rusher
If Auburn has done anything well throughout the history of the program, that would be producing great college running backs. The likes of Bo Jackson, Ben Tate, Ronnie Brown, Rudi Johnson, Joe Cribbs, Brent Fullwood, Carnell Williams and Stephen Davis have all raced through and past SEC competition. And last season it was Kerryon Johnson winning SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns. So who is next in line?
Kam Martin will get the nod as the starter, but Martin's size (5-10, 193) makes him more of a scat-back/change-of-pace- option, rather than your tradition, between-the-tackles bruiser. Incoming freshmen, Harold Joiner (6-3, 218) and Asa Martin (5-11, 209), will get snaps during fall camp to prove they can help carry the load for Auburn’s normally lethal rushing attack.
3. The schedule
While the early part of the schedule plays out well for Auburn allowing the team to come together in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers still must play Washington, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama on the road –- a grueling slate for any team.
Most teams would pray for a 3-2 finish through those road matchups, but if Auburn goes 3-2, especially against SEC teams, there may not be room for the Tigers in the College Football Playoff.
Auburn has the pieces to make a run to the College Football Playoff, and Alabama and Georgia, their two biggest SEC adversaries on paper in 2018, may not be as balanced on both sides of the ball as they were a year ago. The season opener against Washington will not be easy. The Huskies return 16 total starters and have their playoff aspirations. Laying in the weeds in the SEC is a veteran Mississippi State team as well as LSU, who matches up pretty evenly with the Tigers in terms of talent.
Auburn has not won consecutive Iron Bowls since winning six straight from 2002-07. But, can Auburn do it? Yes, but with a whole lot of luck, another "Kick Six" type of miracle, and funny bounces going their way in tight games.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 7
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 10-2 (6-2 SEC)
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 9
5 Dimes Over/Under Odds: 9
-- Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.