Winning the Birmingham Bowl was a far cry from what many fans expected before the season. Auburn was supposed to be playing in the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl, not the Birmingham Bowl.
But with the win, there’s a new sense of optimism around the program for 2016.
“Our team’s been close,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the game. “We’ve had some tough losses, and we’ve been close. But the thing that stands out to me about this team is that they stuck together. They played hard. They didn’t quit.
“The future’s very bright. I think you can see that today with the momentum that we have for next year.”
As we look ahead, here are five questions facing the Tigers this offseason.
What’s going to happen at quarterback?
It’s been the question all season. It was the question heading into the bowl game. And now that the bowl game is over, there is still no answer. Redshirt freshman Sean White got the start, which many thought was telling for the future. But White struggled, throwing two costly interceptions late in the first half. In the second half, Jeremy Johnson -- the former “Heisman contender” -- got a few snaps and all he did was score two touchdowns. Auburn will also welcome John Franklin III, the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the ESPN JC50, in January. Between those three, Tyler Queen and incoming freshman Woody Barrett, there will be plenty of options.
How will the defense look under new coordinator Kevin Steele?
Shortly after the bowl game was over, Malzahn announced that Steele would be Auburn’s next defensive coordinator. So what does that mean for the Auburn defense? Steele has plenty of coaching experience, having made stops at Alabama, Clemson and Florida State before he was the defensive coordinator at LSU last year. And he proved last year that he can adapt to his personnel, which is important as he joins his third team in as many years. The key will be continuity. He is Auburn’s fifth defensive coordinator in six years. He doesn’t need to go in and make wholesale changes to that defense. Keep it simple.
Who, if anybody, declares early for the NFL?
Auburn has a handful of underclassmen on the roster who have been rumored to test the waters at the next level and declare early for the NFL. It’s a group that includes offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Avery Young, as well as defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson. All four would be wise to stay, but if there’s an opportunity to get drafted, who’s to say they shouldn’t take advantage of it? The most intriguing is Lawson. Had he not gotten injured (again), he’d likely be gone. He’s a first-round talent. And for that reason, he might still leave. But if Auburn can convince him to stay, he’ll be one of the SEC’s top players next year.
Can the offense find some playmakers?
If you look at why the offense struggled this season, it’s easy to point the finger at the quarterback position. But there was something else missing, too -- playmakers. Peyton Barber had a good season, but he wasn’t a game-changer like Tre Mason was two years ago. There wasn’t a Sammie Coates on the roster. The closest thing, D'haquille Williams, was kicked off the team. Looking ahead, Auburn has to find some playmakers. True freshman Kerryon Johnson flashes. Jovon Robinson might be the most talented player on the offense. But what about wide receiver? Who will emerge next year? Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are both options. Or maybe it will be one of the incoming freshmen, Kyle Davis or Eli Stove, assuming they both sign with the Tigers.
Is Gus Malzahn’s job safe after the bowl win?
Auburn fans might think it’s crazy to even mention Malzahn’s name and the hot seat after Wednesday’s impressive bowl victory. After all, the last image we remember from Malzahn in 2015 is him “dabbing” in front of his team in the locker room. But this season was nothing to dab about. This team fell well short of expectations. As athletic director Jay Jacobs said, “There is no excuse going 6-6 at Auburn.” Malzahn has nothing to worry about this offseason, but he can’t afford another 6-6 season on the Plains next year. And as we learned with fellow SEC coaches Mark Richt and Les Miles, even eight wins might not be enough.