It’s hard to think of a season that ends with a trip to the Sugar Bowl as anything less than a success, but that is how things feel for the Auburn Tigers as they enter 2017 and turn their eyes to next season. They finished the year with two big losses, to two top teams. There was of course the Iron Bowl loss to Alabama, and the more than 500 yards that was given up to their biggest rivals. And then the loss on January 2nd, and the 524 yards allowed to Oklahoma.
It goes without saying that in 2017, the defense will need to be better against the top teams. Defensive end Carl Lawson, who led the Tigers in tackles for loss and sacks is leaving for the NFL draft, so that won’t help a defense that is also losing Montravius Adams to graduation. But with Byron Cowart, Marlon Davidson, and Nick Coe all in a position to step up and fill those holes, the defensive line should be fine. Couple that with a linebacking corps that returns everyone and a secondary that returns three key players, and this defense should again be one of the best in the SEC.
So where then can they see improvement enough to get up to 10 wins or more and challenge the Crimson Tide? The addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham, the sophomore transfer from Baylor who was also being courted heavily by Florida and Texas A&M.
Stidham will of course have to win a three-way quarterback competition with Sean White and John Franklin, III. But the dual-threat quarterback looked phenomenal in three freshman starts with Baylor, finishing the season with 1,365 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions. He also rushed for a pair of touchdowns, and as maturing quarterback who would be playing in an offense that is built for his skill set, the sky would be the limit, assuming he’s the starter in 2017.
Now, give him a full season under his belt, including an early season test against Clemson in September. Add in the fact that the Iron Bowl will be played at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 25th, where the Tigers are 8-5 in the Iron Bowl. And could we see the Tigers win the state, the SEC West, and get themselves into the conference championship game with a shot a national championship playoff berth? Absolutely.
There is a lot of work to be done over the next ten months. And staying healthy is always one of the keys. But in spite of the way 2017 began in New Orleans, it’s a realistic possibility that it will end with the Tiger back among the elite.