For better or worse, Auburn football has tucked its 2018 spring camp into the books.
The worse is obvious: Two major receiving targets lost to ACL tears, along with a number of minor dings in the offensive line and defensive backfield. But Auburn fans shouldn’t overlook the better, either: A defense that between a ferocious front seven and its quick-developing young depth in the secondary appears capable of equaling — or surpassing — the achievements of the top-10 unit in 2017.
Between the clearly bad and the clearly good, however, are the question marks. SEC Country’s Justin Ferguson has run down many of the biggest ones as the Tigers sail into their summer, but there’s many more besides: Which of the Tigers’ gaggle of potential All-SEC pass-rushers will, in fact, become an All-SEC pass-rusher? Is Prince Tega Wanogho fully ready to take on the burden of being Auburn’s unquestioned starting left tackle? Perhaps most important of all: How much will Jarrett Stidham’s spring injury and the loss of Eli Stove and Will Hastings disrupt an Auburn passing game that can’t afford the disappearing acts we saw at Clemson and LSU last fall?
In some years, Gus Malzahn would have the luxury of not needing answers to those questions until the second or third week of the season. But 2018 isn’t one of them — not with the Tigers opening their season against the Washington Huskies.
In the wake of the Huskies’ 2016 Pac-12 championship and College Football Playoff berth, Chris Petersen and Co.’s relatively anonymous 2017 season means Auburn fans might expect to find a team on the downswing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta this September.
It’s true that not one of the Huskies’ 10 wins last season came over a team ranked in the final AP poll; true that much like Auburn’s, the Washington offense had a maddening habit of collapsing at inopportune moments, as in the 7 total points scored in a loss at Arizona State or the 23-0 run given up to Stanford in the season-defining defeat in Palo Alto, Calif.; true that Petersen has said goodbye to a pair of irreplaceable megastars in Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Vita Vea and all-time NCAA punt return king Dante Pettis.
The Huskies are good. But it’s not like having Clemson as a Week 1 opponent again. Right?
Wrong — or probably wrong, at the barest minimum. With both quarterback Jake Browning and tailback Myles Gaskin delaying their NFL draft entry by a year, the Huskies return a whopping 16 starters — seven on offense, nine on defense — and 75 percent of their overall 2017 production. Bear in mind, too, that all that production returns to a team that was better than its record. The Huskies’ average margin of defeat in its three 2017 losses came to only 7.o points; its average margin of victory in its eight Power 5 wins was 24.4 points.
Add it up, and you get a team many already expect to become Petersen’s best yet in Seattle. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings at SBNation project Auburn as the FBS’s fifth-best team this coming season … and Washington the fourth-best. The expectations will be for the Huskies to become a national title contender — and it’s not often Chris Petersen teams underachieve.