Auburn is set to play in the Birmingham Bowl later this month, but after a 6-6 regular season, fans have already begun to look ahead to next year. We’ll do the same. Here’s a recap of the Tigers' 2015 season and an early look ahead to 2016.
Best moment: Look no further than the season opener. Auburn jumped out to a 24-0 lead on Louisville, thanks in large part to Justin Garrett’s 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown, and hung on for a 31-24 victory. There were still signs of what was to come for this team, namely the three interceptions thrown by Jeremy Johnson, but through the first week the Tigers at least halfway looked like the team that was predicted by many to reach the College Football Playoff. However, it was a steady decline from that point on.
Worst moment: To Auburn’s credit, the Tigers were close in just about every game they played. The lone exception came in September when they went to Baton Rouge and were blown out 45-21 by LSU after falling behind 24-0 at halftime. And to make matters worse, Auburn defensive back Johnathan Ford spoke out about LSU running back Leonard Fournette earlier in the week, telling the media that stopping him “shouldn’t be that difficult.” Fournette received the message loud and clear. He rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns in the rout.
Offensive MVP: In that first win, Auburn saw not one but two running backs go down to injury in a matter of minutes. That opened the door for sophomore Peyton Barber, and he took full advantage of the opportunity. Barber rushed for 115 yards on 24 carries in that first game and never looked back. He gave way some to junior college transfer Jovon Robinson late in the season, but Barber still led the Tigers with 976 yards rushing and was tied for fourth in the SEC with 13 rushing touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who began the season as the third-string running back.
Defensive MVP: Had Carl Lawson been healthy all season, this award likely would’ve gone to him. Nobody impacted the Auburn defense more than he did when he was on the field. Instead, it goes to his replacement, Cassanova McKinzy. The senior linebacker, who was second on the team in tackles last season, began putting his hand on the ground more when Lawson went down, and it wasn’t long before he was the team’s best pass-rusher. McKinzy led the team with 10 tackles for loss and five sacks and also had 20 quarterback hurries.
Biggest question for 2016: Who will be the starting quarterback? Johnson began the season as the starter but was benched after throwing six interceptions through the first three games. The coaching staff turned the offense over to redshirt freshman Sean White, and though he wasn’t spectacular, he at least protected the football. An injury to White gave Johnson the job back down the stretch, and from that point on it was anybody’s guess as to who the starter would be. It’s still anybody’s guess heading into 2016. The wildcard might be John Franklin III, a dual-threat quarterback from the junior college ranks who is expected to sign with the Tigers on Wednesday.
Reason for optimism in 2016: Looking at the offense, the only seniors in the starting lineup are wide receivers Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray. That means both quarterbacks, all four running backs -- Barber, Robinson, Kerryon Johnson and Roc Thomas -- and all five starting offensive linemen are expected to return. That should be more than enough firepower for Gus Malzahn to work with, and assuming a quarterback emerges from the pack, this unit should be much improved next season. The defense is still looking for a coordinator to replace Will Muschamp, but regardless of who it is, the return of Lawson would give Auburn one of the SEC's best defensive players for 2016.