Auburn fans storm the field after win over Alabama in 2017
College football has (un)officially begun.
SEC Media Days is in full swing in Hoover, Alabama, and Auburn takes the stage Thursday morning. Head coach Gus Malzahn, offensive lineman Prince Tega Wanogho, defensive end Marlon Davidson and defensive tackle Derrick Brown will be on hand.
There are storylines and questions aplenty to digest this preseason, from the Tigers’ uncertainty at quarterback to the defensive line rebuild (or reload, depending on who you ask).
With that in mind, here’s three topics to watch for.
Defensive line replaces key figure
Dontavious Russell’s departure was expected (he was a senior last year, of course), but the return of senior defensive tackle Derrick Brown was, perhaps, the most surprising news surrounding the program this offseason.
Brown was named to the Bednarik Award (given to the best defensive player) watch list on Monday, and his return headlines what might be the most talented position group on the team.
Brown, senior Marlon Davidson and junior Nick Coe are the three to watch this season, but the question of just how big a loss Russell’s departure will prove will not be answered until the Tigers’ season-opener against Oregon (August 31, ABC).
The Tigers’ defensive line is plenty talented and certainly deep enough to anchor the Auburn defense this fall.
Opening against a strong opponent
Auburn has seen its fair share of high-profile early-season games in recent times.
The Tigers opened with Washington last season, played Clemson in Week 2 in 2017 (and opened against Clemson the year before) and play Penn State in 2021. This year’s schedule follows that trend.
This season, the Tigers open with a national championship rematch.
The Tigers face Oregon to kick off the 2019 season, 7:30 p.m. at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on August 31. Many questions remain about this Auburn team — quarterback certainly being a major one — and the Ducks are no pushover.
The Ducks finished 9-4 last year and beat Michigan State 7-6 in the Redbox Bowl. They beat Washington, just like Auburn, and return a talented quarterback in Justin Herbert, who made this year’s Maxwell Award (best quarterback) watch list and threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.
Pressure on the offensive line
The Auburn running attack sputtered for most of last season for a multitude of reasons.
Auburn did not have a player in the top-40 rushing leaders last season. The Tigers finished behind teams like Iowa, Wake Forest and Arizona State in total rushing yards. JaTarvious Whitlow led the Tigers with 787 yards (six touchdowns), followed by Kam Martin’s 458 yards.
Add an inexperienced quarterback to the mix, and Auburn’s offensive line has its work cut out for it in the brutal SEC West.
However, the issues are fixable.
The Tigers return the core group of offensive line starters from last season, and an experienced running back corps, so improvement is not out of the question. On the running-back side, the Tigers return both JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin, and boast two talented younger players: Harold Joiner and D.J. Williams.
The question, though, is just how much the Tigers will improve.