Stidham, Auburn aiming for repeat SEC West title _ and more

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              FILE-In this Nov. 25, 2017, file photo, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn on the field talks to the media after the Iron Bowl NCAA college football game in Auburn, Ala. The team will have to navigate what Malzahn has been calling "the toughest schedule in college football." "It's a man's league, and if you win the West, you really do something," Malzahn, who has a new seven-year contract, said. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)
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AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — The big question facing Auburn is no longer whether the Tigers can beat rivals Georgia and Alabama.

They answered that emphatically last November, wresting the Southeastern Conference Western Division title from the rival Crimson Tide. Winning an SEC title and January bowl game proved more elusive.

Auburn once again appears likely to be ‘Bama’s top challenger in the West with a talented defensive line and the return of standout quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The team will have to navigate what coach Gus Malzahn has been calling “the toughest schedule in college football.”

“It’s a man’s league, and if you win the West, you really do something,” Malzahn, who has a new seven-year contract, said. “But there’s such a fine line in this conference of winning the conference championship and coming close. And we came close last year.

“And we’ve got to figure out a way to take that next step. And that’s easier said than done.”

Auburn ended last season with losses to Georgia in the SEC championship game and to UCF in the Peach Bowl to wind up 10-4. The Tigers have dropped their final two games in back to back seasons but did snap three-year skids against their top rivals — both holding No. 1 rankings at the time.

Auburn has high hopes for Stidham, who was one of the SEC’s most efficient passers as a first-year starter. Auburn hasn’t had a two-year starter at quarterback since Nick Marshall in 2013 and 2014.

But the team does have big question marks, particularly on offense.

Auburn lost four starting offensive linemen and SEC offensive player of the year Kerryon Johnson, a workhorse runner who was a centerpiece of the offense last season. Stidham’s favorite target Ryan Davis is back after setting the school season mark with 84 catches, but fellow wide receivers Eli Stove and Will Hastings sustained knee injuries during the spring that left their status for the season uncertain.

Here are some things to know about Auburn’s upcoming season:

STRONG DEFENSE: Coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense has been among the league’s best the past two seasons, and figures to be stingy again. The defensive line could be the team’s biggest strength with three-year starter Dontavius Russell at tackle and ends Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. Leading tackler Deshaun Davis is back at linebacker and the secondary appears solid despite key losses. A key question remains on who will fill Jeff Holland’s pass rushing role.

BACKFIELD QUESTIONS: It’s not entirely clear who’s the best bet to give Auburn a 1,000-yard rusher for a 10th straight season. Kam Martin is the front-runner after averaging 6.6 yards on 118 carries in his first two seasons, but the 5-foot-10 193-pounder hasn’t had a chance to test his durability. Redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow and freshman Asa Martin appear to be leading the pack behind him.

KEY GAMES: Auburn made the SEC championship game and moved into playoff contention thanks largely to wins over national title game participants Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium. They play both the Bulldogs (Nov. 10) and Crimson Tide (Nov. 24) on the road this time.

SEASON OPENER: The Tigers, who have gotten off to stumbling starts in each of the past three seasons, open Sept. 1 against preseason Pac-12 Conference favorite Washington in Atlanta. “They may be one of the most complete teams that we play the whole year, the most complete team,” Malzahn said.