Yahoo Sports' 2019 Top 25: No. 13 Auburn

Can the Tigers power through one of the toughest schedules in the country? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
Can the Tigers power through one of the toughest schedules in the country? (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.

Previously: No. 25 Wisconsin | No. 24 TCU | No. 23 Nebraska | No. 22 Iowa State | No. 21 Missouri | No. 20 Iowa | No. 19 Mississippi State | No. 18 Michigan State | No. 17 Texas A&M | No. 16 Washington | No. 15 Miami | No. 14 Utah

No. 13 Auburn

2018 record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)

Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense

Will Gus feel the heat again in 2019?

Auburn’s been a bit, shall we say, underwhelming ever since Gus Malzahn’s first season. After taking over a team that was 3-9 in 2012, the Tigers were 12-2 in 2013 and made it to the final BCS Championship Game.

Since then, Auburn has won 10 games just once over the last five seasons, though it’s fair to note that the disappointment is relative to the high expectations placed on the Tigers every year by the fan base.

There are many programs who would take six straight winning seasons. But simply having a winning season isn’t enough at Auburn. Malzahn realizes that.

“I got a job that expects to win championships, and I expect to win championships,” Malzahn said. “I knew that when I signed up for that. In the years that we win championships, it's good. The years we don't, it's hot seat this, hot seat that. And I think out of the six years, four had been this same rodeo. And it's just part of the job description.

“And we expect to win championships. I'm very excited about this year. And you ask how you deal with it, that's just part of being at a place that expect to win championships. Some places eight wins, they celebrate. That's just not part of Auburn.”

With a schedule that includes annual games against Alabama and Georgia and a trip to Florida along with a neutral site opener against Oregon, Auburn has one of the toughest schedules in the country in 2019. A championship seems unlikely this season.

Does that mean Malzahn will feel the heat again in 2019? Well, it depends on how the season goes. And we’re clearly high enough on the Tigers to think that they’ll be at least competitive in those four contests and could even win one or two of them. A 9-3 season would be a damn good one. Will everyone realize that?

What will the offense look like?

Malzahn will be an easier target in 2019 if things go south because he’s set to call the offensive plays. But if 2019 looks anything like the Music City Bowl, Auburn’s offense is going to be fun as hell no matter who ends up winning the starting quarterback job.

The head coach took over the play-calling duties from Chip Lindsey ahead of the bowl game against Purdue after Lindsey left (and ultimately took over at Troy). The results of the first game since 2016 with Malzahn at the play-call helm were nothing short of extraordinary. Auburn scored seven offensive touchdowns in the first half (eight overall) on the way to a 63-14 romp over Purdue.

Malzahn admitted at SEC media days that giving up calling the plays early in the 2016 season was a “mistake.” He has a chance to avenge that mistake in 2019 with a talented offense that has just one big question: the quarterback.

Running back JaTarvious Whitlow is back after running for nearly 800 yards. So are four key receivers and Eli Stove, who missed the 2018 season with a knee injury. And all five starters are back on the offensive line.

The quarterback will be either redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or freshman Bo Nix, a five-star recruit in 2019 and the top pro-style quarterback in his class. With the immediate success of players like Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa, the immediate expectations for Nix could get a little too high.

Continue the defensive excellence

Auburn’s defense returns seven starters and has allowed fewer than 20 points per game in each of the last three seasons. Not so coincidentally, that timeline matches up with the tenure of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who was hired ahead of the 2016 season.

Steele’s defense should stifle opponents yet again in 2019. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown is primed for a big year and buck linebacker Nick Coe — who led the team with seven sacks in 2018 — is also back. Leading tackler Deshaun Davis needs to be replaced, but KJ Britt got valuable playing time in 2018. He should step in at middle linebacker.

The secondary is also loaded with three senior starters and a fourth in junior Noah Igbinoghene, a player who led the team with 11 pass breakups in 2018. If Auburn stifles a talented Oregon offense with QB Justin Herbert and nine other returning starters on Aug. 31, the Tigers will be the biggest beneficiaries of the annual Week 1 overreaction cycle.

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Biggest game: at Texas A&M (Sept. 21)

Like with A&M’s season preview, there are a half-dozen games that could go on this list. But we’re picking the game against the Aggies for a couple reasons. First, if Auburn knocks off Oregon, the game against Texas A&M will be for a 4-0 start heading into a home game against Mississippi State. Or, if Oregon wins in Week 1, Auburn could be staring at a 2-2 record before September is over.

The game in College Station could also serve as the head-to-head tiebreaker for third in the SEC West too.

Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz (5) runs in a 76-yard touchdown reception during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)
Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz could be an even bigger part of the offense in 2019. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Impact player

WR Anthony Schwartz

Schwartz stepped in as a freshman and made an immediate impact in 2018. He should be even better in 2019. Just look at the glowing things that Malzahn had to say about his speed this summer.

“He showed up in August because he was traveling the world with track,” Malzahn said. “And for him to have the year he had was really unbelievable. And I think he's going to be a huge weapon for us this year. When you got a guy that has real speed like that, that changes the dynamics of defenses and everything that goes with that.”

Schwartz had 22 catches for 357 yards and two scores in 2019 and scored five rushing touchdowns on 27 carries. Double-digit touchdowns looks very possible this season as Auburn utilizes him from all over the field.

Biggest question mark

From Rivals’’s Jay Tate: Gus Malzahn enters an important season with precious little experience at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood has a total of one college game to his credit — 13 snaps of work during the bowl game's final stages — and true freshman Bo Nix was in high school eight months ago. The Tigers' defense should be up to the task this fall, but one of these freshman quarterbacks must provide consistently competent play if Malzahn is going to silence his legion of doubters this fall.

NASHVILLE, TN - DECEMBER 28: Auburn Tigers running back Shaun Shivers (25) runs the ball during the Music City Bowl game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Auburn Tigers at Nissan Stadium on December 28, 2018 in Nashville, TN.  (Photo by Steve  Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Shaun Shivers rushed for 371 yards in 2018. (Photo by Steve Roberts/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Auburn Sports’ breakout player

RB Shaun Shivers

Shivers played in all 13 games last season, but his freshman year was mostly about acclimation. The 5-foot-8 tailback has elite track speed and an aggressive attitude to go along with it. If the Tigers are serious about using their quarterbacks to attack in the run game, they'll need a speed sweep guy. Shivers fits that role perfectly.

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Top 2020 NFL draft prospect

DL Derrick Brown

From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: We thought he had a chance to be a late first-round pick, even with a deep DL class, had he opted to come out last January. But Brown opted to return to school, and two NFL scouts we spoke with thought it was the right decision despite him possessing some real upside as a prospect. Some evaluators we spoke with do wonder if Brown truly has a dominant trait, but others have mentioned his all-around game along with his power and quickness as being a rare combination.

Brown has the build you want for an interior dominator at 6-foot-4 and 316 pounds, able to play anything from a 0-technique (head up over the center) out to a 5-technique (outside shoulder of the offensive tackle), and the foot quickness to wow scouts. He rushes the passer well (4.5 sacks, 28 pressures per PFF) but is even more effective and polished against the run. Alabama couldn’t get much going on the ground in the Iron Bowl last year, and Brown was a big reason why.

A few more standout performances against top-tier teams could push him into the upper part of Round 1. He’s probably our favorite interior prospect right now in what appears to be a solid but perhaps not spectacular class at the position as we enter the 2019 season.

Fantasy sleeper

WR Eli Stove

Stove missed the 2018 season because of a knee injury but had nearly 600 combined rushing and receiving yards in 2017. While he may be supplanted by Schwartz in the dual-threat wide receiver role, he should still be a key piece in Auburn’s offense.

Over/under projection

Over 8

This is tough. A push could seem likely given the schedule. It would also be the easy way out. And if we’re putting Auburn at 13, then we gotta be bullish. 9-3 with an upset of someone (Georgia on Nov. 16 at home?) is the play here.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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