SEC Team Preview Series: Auburn
Welcome to WNSP’s preview series to get you ready for SEC and Sunbelt Media Days. Each day, we will preview a new team in each conference and get you ready for football season. We’ll take a look at what Vegas has their win total set at, make a prediction, and talk about their season outlook. Today’s team: The Auburn Tigers
Players to watch:
Offense: QB Zach Calzada (Assuming he wins the job), RB Tank Bigsby, TE John Samuel Shenker
Defense: LB Owen Pappoe, CB Nehemiah Pritchett, EDGE Derick Hall
O/U Win Line: 6.5
Dave Schultz’s Pick: Under
Mark Heim’s Pick: Under
Lee Shirvanian’s Pick: Over
Nick Wiggins’ Pick: Over
Michael Brauner’s Pick: Over
We have saved the best for last and finally arrived at the two local teams in this SEC preview series. The Tigers enter year two in the Bryan Harsin era after many tried to run him out of town following an unsuccessful first season Auburn started 6-2, but then lost the final five games of their season to finish at 6-7. They will look a bit different on both sides of the ball, and the one thing we know is that this team’s ceiling is going to be determined by a successful running game and the defense’s ability to keep the offense in ballgames.
The presumed starter at quarterback is Zach Calzada, whose big moment in 2021 for Texas A&M came in a masterful performance in an upset win against Alabama, but he did not show a ton to be excited about outside of that game. Calzada chose Auburn out of the transfer portal when it looked clear he would not win the job in College Station in 2022. The other options at QB are T.J. Finley, who started three games, all losses, for Auburn last year and struggled in all of them, and young Oregon transfer Robby Ashford is the wildcard. While Ashford probably has the highest ceiling of the three, I’d be shocked if QB1 (at the start of the season at least) for the Tigers is not Calzada.
Tank Bigsby returns as one of the best bell cows in the SEC after a monster 2021, and he will be a huge part of this offense once again. Auburn also returns much of their offensive line to block for Bigsby, but they will need to improve to give Calzada time to throw the ball. Experienced options at receiver are limited outside of Shedrick Jackson, and Harsin and Calzada will need guys to step up if they are to be at least somewhat balanced of an attack. Ze’Vian Capers is a name to keep an eye on there. John Samuel Shenker will be huge as a security blanket after a fantastic 2021 in which he set Auburn’s single season record for receptions for a tight end.
Clearly, the strength of this team is going to be on defense. Derek Mason, who Harsin brought in as his defensive coordinator last year, took a pay cut to take the same job at Oklahoma State, a sign many pointed to as dysfunction in the program. Harsin promoted his former defensive coordinator at Boise State who he brought with him to The Plains to coach linebackers, Jeff Schmedding, to replace Mason. While the Tigers do lose a lot from a good 2021 unit, namely shutdown corner Roger McCreary, safety Smoke Monday, and linebacker Chandler Wooten, they still have a ton of talent, especially on the front seven.
Linebacker Owen Pappoe returns after an injury ended his 2021 season early. He is an absolute stud who likely would have been a high draft pick this year if not for the injury, and if he can stay healthy, he should be the heart and soul of this defense. Even though they lose a lot in the secondary, the Tigers are still extremely deep here, with Nehemiah Pritchett ready to step into the CB1 role with Jaylin Simpson and Zion Puckett next to him. Auburn boasts one of the best combos of edge rushers in the nation in Derick Hall and Colby Wooden as well, who should make things easier on the secondary by getting to the quarterback early and often.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, their schedule in-conference is pretty brutal. They have to face both Georgia and Alabama on the road, as well as Ole Miss and Mississippi State. At home, they’ll get LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M. They must get off to a great start, facing Mercer and San Jose State will be an easy 2-0, but then it gets tough taking on Penn State. They get Missouri and LSU at home as well before Georgia.
Auburn simply must start 4-1 at the absolute worst, because the middle part of their schedule is an absolute gauntlet. Harsin has an extremely tough task ahead of him, but I believe this defense will be good enough to get the Tigers off to a great start. If they can get some half decent quarterback play and play low scoring games in-conference, this team can absolutely give some teams trouble and scrape and claw their way to 7-5. I’ll take the over, but it’s going to be tough sledding for Auburn in 2022.