The updated SEC odds have the Auburn Tigers as the fourth-best team in the SEC West. Here’s why the oddsmakers are dead wrong about Gus Malzahn’s Tigers.
Heading into the 2020 college football season (assuming there actually is a 2020 college football season) the Auburn Tigers are getting slighted a bit by oddsmakers. In 2020, oddsmakers are picking the Tigers to be the fourth-best team in the rather deep West division of the vaunted Southeastern Conference.
As Brett McMurphy tweeted, the SEC West is led by Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU in that order. Auburn comes in at fourth, followed by Mississippi State and Ole Miss, who are tied for fifth. Arkansas rounds out the pack at seventh.
This comes after Auburn finished last year with wins over Alabama and A&M, and a three-point road loss to LSU last season. It seems a bit odd to project Auburn would be the fourth-best team in the SEC West next year.
Looking beyond those three other SEC West teams, Auburn ended 2019 season at 9-4, finishing the year with a 31-24 loss to Minnesota. While it would be fair to point out the Tigers probably should have had a better season, it’s important to note Auburn beat Oregon, who finished the season 12-2.
Auburn’s four losses came to teams who averaged 12.25 wins. Those four losses came by an average margin of seven points. The Tigers ran through a brutal schedule and showed they could contend with (and even beat) some of the country’s best teams.
Bo Nix’s development under Gus Malzahn is crucial to Auburn’s success
According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly’s SP+, Auburn had the 34th best offense in 2019. While head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense is traditionally known for running the ball incredibly well, Auburn was a rather well-balanced team offensively last season, with freshman quarterback Bo Nix playing fairly well in his first year starting for the Tigers.
Nix threw for 2,542 yards but just 16 touchdowns while completing a relatively meager 57.6 percent of his passes. For a first-year starter in the SEC who also happens to be a freshman, Nix’s stats are certainly respectable. In fact, they were good enough for the SEC’s coaches to award Nix with SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
But he’ll need to improve considerably heading into next season.
That’s where Chad Morris comes in. Malzahn’s offense is built more around dual-threat quarterbacks and spread option concepts. Morris will bring a different approach to Auburn’s offense that might help Nix distribute the ball around a bit better.
Morris failed to get Arkansas off the ground as the head coach of the Razorbacks, but before his head coaching stints in Fayetteville and Dallas with SMU, Morris was the architect of potent passing offenses at Clemson. In three seasons under Morris’ guidance, Tajh Boyd threw for 11,575 yards and 103 touchdowns against 36 interceptions.
Auburn probably doesn’t have the same sort of talent at wide receiver Clemson had from 2011-2014, but Morris is just the right guy to be able to step in and help develop a pass-first quarterback.
Texas A&M appears to be trending up, LSU will probably regress
While LSU was remarkable last year and Texas A&M is primed to leap forward next season, there’s no guarantee both of these teams will be better than the Auburn Tigers. In fact, it seems likely LSU regresses considerably next year and Texas A&M has yet to have a great season in the SEC without Johnny Manziel.
Between Texas A&M and LSU, it seems more likely A&M is the team that could be better than Auburn, and that’s because of how much LSU has lost.
On offense, LSU lost quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, wide receiver Justin Jefferson, tight end Stephen Sullivan, tight end Thaddeus Moss, offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry, offensive lineman Saahdiq Charles, offensive lineman Damien Lewis, and offensive lineman Adrian Magee. And that’s along with passing coordinator Joe Brady, who really invigorated LSU’s offense this past year.
On the defensive side of things, LSU lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, defensive back Grant Delpit, linebacker Jacob Phillips, linebacker Patrick Queen, linebacker Michael Divinity Jr., linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, and defensive back Kristian Fulton.
While it seems incredibly likely LSU takes a notable step back next season, there’s a really good chance this is the year Texas A&M makes a breakthrough in the SEC.
A&M’s first six games are against Abilene Christian, North Texas, Colorado, Arkansas in Arlington, at Mississippi State, and then back home against Fresno State before heading to Auburn. After that trip to Auburn, the toughest games A&M will face are at the end of the season when the Aggies face Alabama and LSU in back-to-back weeks. A&M is probably 6-0 heading into that Auburn game. The Aggies might end the season at 9-3 or 10-2.
Auburn should certainly be able to contend with both of these teams next year. Given the Tigers only lost to LSU by three points and beat the Aggies by eight last season (with both games being on the road), it’s plausible Auburn beats both LSU and A&M next season.
But at worst, the Tigers should split these two games. That primes the Tigers for a chance to enter into a tie for second in the SEC West, or at worst, the No. 3 spot in the division.