Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 10 Auburn

Dr. Saturday
Gus Malzahn is 35-18 in four seasons at Auburn. (AP)
Gus Malzahn is 35-18 in four seasons at Auburn. (AP)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 GeorgiaNo. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 8-5
Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 at Clemson
Biggest conference game: Nov. 25 vs. Alabama

Key returning player: RB Kamryn Pettway
Key departed player: DL Carl Lawson

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Three things to know about Auburn

• Auburn finally has stability at quarterback with Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. As expected, Tigers coach Gus Malzahn named Stidham the team’s starter earlier this week — ahead of the very capable Sean White — after he impressed throughout the offseason. His presence is significant for an Auburn team that has struggled to find consistency at quarterback the past few seasons.

After leaving Baylor amid the turmoil that led to the firing of Art Briles, Stidham sat out the 2016 season before enrolling at Auburn for spring practice. In his true freshman season for the Bears, Stidham showed a ton of promise. He quickly ascended to No. 2 on the depth chart and then flourished during his time on the field after an injury to starter Seth Russell. In three starts (and 10 appearances overall) Stidham threw for 1,265 yards, 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions while completing 68.8 percent of his passes.

Stidham is also a bit more mobile than he gets credit for — something Malzahn will surely put to use. However, this won’t be the Auburn of the Nick Marshall days. Malzahn adapts his offense to his personnel. Stidham will form a fantastic backfield duo with running back Kamryn Pettway, who is coming off a season with 1,224 yards and eight scores. Kerryon Johnson (895 yards, 11 TDs) and Kam Martin (320 yards, 3 TDs, 7.3 YPC) also return to make up one of the best — if not the best — running back depth charts in the SEC.

Jarrett Stidham, a transfer from Baylor, has been named Auburn’s starting quarterback. (AP)
Jarrett Stidham, a transfer from Baylor, has been named Auburn’s starting quarterback. (AP)

That group will play behind an offensive line that includes three seniors with a ton of experience, plus two graduate transfers: Winston Bell, an 18-game starter from Florida State and two-time FCS All-American Casey Dunn from Jacksonville State.

If there’s one unproven position on the offense, it’s receiver. This is a talented and deep group, no doubt, but there hasn’t been a lot of production so far in their young careers. That should change with Stidham and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey in the fold. Lindsey, back at Auburn after serving as OC at Southern Miss and Arizona State, isn’t afraid to chuck it downfield, and Stidham was very proficient with the deep ball at Baylor. For as solid as White was during Auburn’s six-game winning streak last year, he doesn’t present the vertical element Stidham does — provided the young wideouts hold up their end of the connection.

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• Compared to 2016, Auburn’s strengths could be flip-flopped in 2017. Last year, Auburn’s defense surpassed expectations pretty dramatically. From the opener against Clemson and beyond, the Tigers were really tough defensively, especially against the run. The defense kept the team in a lot of games as the passing attack sputtered.

But in 2017, just based on personnel lost, it’s hard to think the unit won’t take somewhat of a step back.

That’s usually a simplistic way to look at things, but when you lose talent the caliber of end Carl Lawson, tackle Montravius Adams and defensive back Rudy Ford, plus many of the top backups on the defensive line, you’re relying on young players at some key spots — especially the defensive line. That consistency along the defensive line set everything up for the rest of Kevin Steele’s defense, which was seventh in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 17.1 points per game. Auburn has recruited at a really high level under Malzahn, so there’s talent to fill the void on the line, but there’s something to be said about throwing inexperienced plays into the fire.

Tray Matthews will be a leader on Auburn’s defense. (AP)
Tray Matthews will be a leader on Auburn’s defense. (AP)

Linebacker should be a strength for the defense with Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis leading the way. Safety, with seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts, will be strong, too. And returning starters at corner Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis need to make some strides. The Tigers were up-and-down against the pass in 2016.

And none of this means Auburn’s defense is going to be bad in 2017. Definitely not. It just won’t be a surprise if the Tigers find themselves in a few more shootouts than they did last year. With the improvements to the offense, that may not be such a bad thing.

• Gus Malzahn has sounded very confident in his 2017 team. At SEC Media Days, he didn’t hesitate to compare his current squad to the team that made it all the way to the national championship in 2013.

“Probably the biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team is that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013. That’s a good comfort for me,” Malzahn said.

“We’ve got a challenging schedule. We’ve got some great teams in our league. We play the defending national champions on the road week two. But I really like where we’re at. And just got that feeling where there’s a lot of excitement around our complex, not just with our coaches, but our players. And we’re really looking forward to the season.”

Malzahn said that unprompted, so you know he’s feeling good. And you know what? He should feel good. With the way they finished in 2016, it’s easy to forget just how good the Tigers were during the middle of the season. After a 1-2 start, Auburn really hit a nice groove and won six in a row from Sept. 24 to Nov. 5. That stretch included wins over LSU and a 56-3 blowout of Arkansas, which was ranked No. 17 at the time.

That winning streak came at a time when things were stable at quarterback. White was playing at a pretty high level until he hurt his shoulder vs. Ole Miss. He clearly wasn’t right in the loss to Georgia and then he missed the last two games of the regular season before returning in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, only to break his arm.

Now White is healthy and backing up Stidham, giving the Tigers two SEC-caliber starters.

“Probably the thing that I’m most excited about is we have quality depth and our quarterback position,” Malzahn said. “And that’s been our Achilles’ heel the last two years. That gives me, I know our coaches and our players, comfort.

Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man. What he’s done since he’s been at Auburn, just his leadership. He’s really done a good job trying to win over his teammates and his work ethic. I’m very excited about Sean White. When Sean White’s healthy, he plays at an extremely high level. Last year when we got on that roll, that 6-game win streak, he was leading the league in completions and quarterback efficiency.”

For all of the warranted optimism, Auburn’s schedule does it no favors for its big picture chances. As Malzahn noted, the Tigers travel to Clemson in Week 2. How’s that for an early season test? Things are a little more forgiving early in SEC play, but the last two months of the season are brutal. After facing Mississippi State and Ole Miss at home in consecutive weeks, the Tigers have three straight road games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M. There is the reprieve of a bye between trips to Fayetteville and College Station, but that’s still a challenging stretch that could very well decide the SEC West.

The schedule wraps up with three straight at home against Georgia, UL Monroe and Alabama. That kind of schedule just comes with the territory in the SEC, doesn’t it? It’s hard to find double-digit wins on that slate, too, which makes you wonder if Malzahn could find himself on tenuous ground in the winter.

For more Auburn news, visit AuburnSports.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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