Kerryon Johnson (21) of the Auburn Tigers celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter against the UCF Knights during the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on January 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. Johnson is now a Detroit Lion, but the Tigers have produced back-to-back 1,000-yard rushers. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Football

Our 10th annual Top 25 countdown: SEC heavyweight Auburn hoping things break its way

Jarrett Stidham returns to lead the Tigers' offense, but don't overlook Auburn's running game, either.

Posted July 20th, 2018

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Sure, it’s July. But it’s never too early to talk college football. Here’s your daily fix — our annual countdown of the preseason Top 25, as selected by the American-Statesman sports staff. Last year’s eventual CFP semifinalists were ranked Nos. 1, 5, 8 and 14 on our 2017 list.

Our Top 25 — so far:

No. 25: Texas is building — but are we there yet, are we there yet?

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No. 24: LSU has a tough schedule, questions at key spots

No. 23: Oregon welcomes a new coach — again and again and again

No. 22: Central Florida is out to go unbeaten (ahem, again)

No. 21: There’s a new coach, offense and direction for Florida State

No. 20: Their big names gone, USC is reloading … or is that rebuilding?

No. 19: For West Virginia, when there’s a Will there’s a way

No. 18: For Boise State, the Mountain West sky is the limit

No. 17: Mississippi State is breaking in a new head coach

No.16: Virginia Tech’s chances hinge on an up-and-down quarterback

No. 15: TCU has been the model of consistency, but there are 2018 concerns

No. 14: Love is all you need, at least if you’re talking about Stanford’s Bryce Love

No. 13: Notre Dame is on the brink of a real springboard season

No. 12: Michigan has said goodbye to John O’Korn, hello to Shea Patterson

No. 11: With just about everyone back, Michigan State looks for a 2017 encore

No. 10: Penn State bids goodbye to Saquon Barkley, but Trace McSorley’s still there

Today’s team: No. 9 Auburn

The Tigers’ best-case scenario: The Tigers ride the momentum of beating Washington in season opener and survive road dates at Georgia and Alabama to earn spot in SEC title game.

Their worst-case scenario: Offensive line and secondary continues to have issues and Auburn’s tough schedule bites them a few times.

RELATED COVERAGE: ‘Close’ won’t cut it in 2018 for Auburn

RELATED COVERAGE: Stidham — Texas A&M didn’t pursue me hard

Inside the Tigers

Coach: Gus Malzahn (sixth year, 45-22; 54-25 overall at Arkansas State and Auburn)

2017: 10-4, 7-1 in the SEC (lost to Central Florida 34-27 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl)

Returning starters: 6 offense, 6 defense

Goodbye: RB Kerryon Johnson (2nd, Lions); OG Braden Smith (2nd, Colts); CB Carlton Davis (2nd, Buccaneers); OLB Jeff Holland; K Daniel Carson (5th, Vikings)

Spring cleaning: Malzahn went with the familiar when he hired J.B. Grimes to be his new offensive line coach. Grimes had worked at Auburn from 2013-15 but left the program to coach at Cincinnati. He replaced Herb Hand, who left Auburn in the offseason to become the offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator at Texas. … Quarterback Jarrett Stidham underwent shoulder surgery in January. He was limited in spring workouts but was cleared for summer… The Auburn board of regents approved a project to renovate the suites at Jordan Hare Stadium. … Preferred walk-on C.J. Harris made national news when he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. Harris, a running back, uses cannabis oil as a treatment for seizures caused by his epilepsy.

Jarrett Stidham (8) of the Auburn Tigers celebrates with teammates after rushing for a touchdown against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Jordan Hare Stadium on November 25, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Returning leaders

PASSING: Jarrett Stidham, 246-370-3,158, 18/6 (1st)

RUSHING: Kam Martin, 74-453-2 (2nd)

RECEIVING: Ryan Davis, 84-815-5 (1st); Darius Slayton, 29-643-5 (2nd); Eli Stove, 30-315-2 (3rd); Will Hastings, 26-525-4 (4th)

TACKLES: LB Deshaun Davis, 82 (1st)

SACKS: LB Deshaun Davis, 3.5 (T-2nd); DL Derrick Brown, 3.5 (T-2nd); DL Marlon Davidson, 3.5 (T-2nd)

INTERCEPTIONS: DB Javaris Davis, 2 (1st)

Returning All-SEC players (1)

Offense: QB Jarrett Stidham (2nd team)

Defense: None

FYI

Aggies’ loss, Tigers’ gain: Stidham, who is going into his second season as starting quarterback, explained at SEC media days that he really wanted to go to Texas A&M when he decided to transfer from Baylor in 2016 after Art Briles was fired. But he told reporters that Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin didn’t “recruit him too hard.” Stidham had been a five-star prospect when he signed out of high school. This summer, he got engaged to a Baylor soccer player. … Kam Martin, Auburn’s likely starter at tailback, also has deep ties to Baylor. He signed with the Bears in 2016 but was allowed out of his national letter of intent. Malzahn, while saying that Martin is atop the depth chart, says there are four to five more backs competing to fill the void left by Kerryon Johnson, last year’s SEC player of the year.

Lots of weapons: Malzahn is an offensive innovator, but he prefers running the ball over throwing it. But the strength of the Tigers offense this year is in its passing game. Every single receiver who finished last season with Auburn is back. Plus, the Tigers signed three 4-star prospects. But Auburn isn’t ready to ditch its running game; the Tigers have produced a 1,000-yard back nine straight seasons.

Driven by loss: Auburn enjoyed a terrific season in 2017, knocking off two teams that were ranked No. 1 on their way to an SEC West title. Then the Tigers dropped games to Georgia and Central Florida. Malzahn said it was the loss in the Peach Bowl — “we laid an egg that day” — that motivated his team in the offseason. Central Florida claimed the national title after beating Auburn and tweaked the Tigers again on Twitter this week.

2017 national rankings

Scoring: 27th (33.9 ppg) — right above No. 28 Wisconsin, right behind No. 26 Louisiana-Monroe

Points allowed: 12th (18.5 ppg) — right above No. 13 Michigan, right behind No. 11 Troy

Passing: 65th (233.4 ypg) — right above No. 66 Florida International, right behind No. 64 Northwestern

Rushing: 26th (218.3 ypg) — right above No. 27 Oklahoma, No. 25 Boston College

Total offense: 26th (451.6 ypg) — right above No. 27 Notre Dame, right behind No. 25 North Carolina State

Total defense: 14th (319.4 ypg) — right above No. 15 Fresno State, right behind No. 13 Virginia Tech

Running back Kam Martin of the Auburn Tigers runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during their game against the Louisiana Monroe Warhawks at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Auburn, Alabama. With Kerryon Johnson now in the NFL, Martin is the Tigers’ leading returning rusher. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)

The schedule

DATEOPPONENTLAST YR'S RESULT (IF PLAYED)
Sept. 1 (2:30 p.m., ABC)Washington
Sept. 8 (6:30 p.m., SECN)Alabama State
Sept. 15 (2:30 p.m., CBS)LSU*L, 27-23
Sept. 22Arkansas*W, 52-20
Sept. 29Southern Mississippi
Oct. 6at Mississippi State*W, 49-10
Oct. 13Tennessee*
Oct. 20at Ole Miss*W, 44-23
Nov. 3at Washington*W, 30-22
Nov. 10at Georgia*W, 40-17
Nov. 17Liberty
Nov. 24at Alabama*W, 26-14
* SEC game

The key game: at Georgia, Nov. 10

The last 5 years

YEARW-L (CONF.)RANKINGSBOWL, RESULT
201312-2 (7-1)— / 2ndBCS title game, L
20148-5 (4-4)6th / —Outback, L
20157-6 (2-6)6th / —Birmingham, W
20168-5 (5-3)— / 24thSugar, L
201710-4 (7-1)12th / 10thChick-fil-A Peach, L
Total45-22 (25-15 SEC)1-4 in bowls

Note: Ranks are that year’s preseason/final ranking

Our Top 25, by conferences

3 schools:

SEC — No. 9 Auburn, No. 17 Mississippi State, No. 24 LSU

Big Ten — No. 10 Penn State, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan

Pac-12 — No. 14 Stanford, No. 20 USC, No. 23 Oregon

Big 12 — No. 15 TCU, No. 19 West Virginia, No. 25 Texas

2 schools:

ACC — No. 16 Virginia Tech, No. 21 Florida State

1 school:

Independents — No. 13 Notre Dame

Mountain West — No. 18 Boise State

AAC — No. 22 Central Florida

Coming tomorrow: Our No. 8 team

Want a hint?

This school has produced six Heisman Trophy winners and the last three have been quarterbacks.

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