Auburn Tigers trying to live up to those 2013 comparisons

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) The Auburn Tigers have stockpiled highly rated recruiting classes and built what coach Gus Malzahn deems his deepest, most experienced team.

Now, the Tigers are hoping for a corresponding rise in on-the-field fortunes after three unimpressive seasons. That will almost certainly require an improved passing game behind quarterback Jarrett Stidham and/or Sean White, a healthy Kamryn Pettway in the backfield and a defense that remains strong after losing two of the team’s top players.

Malzahn feels he has ”a very hungry team” that reminds him of the 2013 group that made a surprising run to the Southeastern Conference title and the national championship game.

”They’ve got something to prove,” Malzahn said. ”If you look back to 2013, I feel the same way about our team. We’re in a good spot. We’ve got to seize the moment. We’ve got a chance.”

He has collected five straight Top 10 recruiting classes, under the 247Sports composite rankings. But the Tigers have lost 13 Southeastern Conference games in the last three seasons, going 23-16 and failing to beat top rivals Georgia or Alabama during that span.

That makes this a pivotal year for Malzahn & Co.

Cultivating a consistent, productive passing game is a big priority for Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Auburn has remained unsettled at quarterback since Nick Marshall left after the 2014 season, partly because of injuries to White, and finished 49th nationally in scoring offense and 112th in passing last season.

Enter Stidham. The onetime Baylor starter shined in the spring game when White was recovering from a broken right forearm sustained in the Sugar Bowl.

The two most proven offensive weapons are both in the backfield with Kerryon Johnson and Pettway, a first-team All-SEC performer. Johnson believes they’ll continue to pile up the carries under Lindsey, an offensive analyst for that 2013 Auburn team.

”He still knows we have one of the best backfields in the country and he’s not going to be afraid to use it,” Johnson said.

The defense was better than it had been in years last season. But linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson have moved on to the NFL. Two of Malzahn’s top recruits, defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Byron Cowart, are hoping for breakout seasons.

Here’s some of what to know going into Auburn’s season

BACKFIELD MATES: The 6-foot, 235-pound Pettway led the SEC with a 124.8-yard rushing average per game, while starting only six times and missing three games. He became the first Auburn player since Bo Jackson in 1985 to run for 150-plus yards in four consecutive games. Johnson has 2,078 all-purpose yards in two seasons.

DEFENSIVE ENCORE: Auburn had one of its best defensive seasons in years during Kevin Steele’s first year as coordinator. The Tigers ranked seventh nationally in scoring defense. Leading tackler Tray Matthews returns at safety while defensive end Marlon Davidson, cornerback Carlton Davis and linebacker Tre’ Williams are among the top returnees.

RECEIVERS: Auburn’s young receiving corps is high on promise and low on production. The Tigers are banking on a group of sophomores that includes Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton and Eli Stove to produce at least one breakout performer. Stove’s 224 yards tops the returning receivers.

KEY GAMES: At Clemson, Sep. 9; Georgia, Nov. 11; Alabama, Nov. 25

PREDICTION: The Tigers are a popular pick to finish second in the SEC West behind Alabama. Challenging the three-time defending SEC champions would require a big leap on offense behind Lindsey, who takes over playcalling duties long handled by Malzahn. It could happen if Stidham lives up to his billing.

SEASON OPENER: Auburn opens Sept. 2 against Georgia Southern at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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