In the middle: Auburn Tigers
When it comes to Auburn, it depends on if you’re a glass half-full, or glass-half empty, type of person. By nature of this list being short, the Tigers are either the third-most favorable possible opponent for the Vols, or the third-toughest.
Auburn’s 2020 campaign will go as Bo Nix goes. The 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year started every game a season ago and threw for 2,542 yards, 16 touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing for 313 yards and seven touchdowns. Nix progressed as the season went along, and he should be set up a big sophomore season under the guidance of first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris.
Nix has plenty of weapons at wide receiver, too. Seth Williams is one of the better wide receivers in the SEC and returns as Auburn’s leading wide receiver from a season ago when he caught 59 passes for 830 yards and eight touchdowns. Williams will be flanked by the speedy Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove.
The running game and offensive line play could be what stunts Nix’s growth this season, however. Auburn lost four starters along the offensive line and will have new starters at both of the tackle positions. Redshirt junior center Nick Brahms is the only returning starter. The Tigers desperately need Austin Troxell to be productive coming off of his second ACL tear, as well as for Brodarious Hamm to take a step forward. Auburn also needs junior college signees Brendan Coffey and Killian Zierer to be ready to play from day one, as well as Akron graduate transfer Brandon Council.
How quickly Auburn’s new-look offensive line can gel together will not only affect Nix, but it’ll also determine just how productive true freshman Tank Bigsby can be as the likely starting running back. Bigsby arrives with a lot of hype following the departures of Boobie Whitlow, Kam Martin and Malik Miller. D.J. Williams, Shaun Shivers and Mark-Anthony Richards will also play a role in the running back room.
Auburn will always be stout defensively as long as former Vol linebacker Kevin Steele is the defensive coordinator. Even if there are question marks scattered throughout the defense.
Auburn’s defensive strength in recent years has been its dominance at the point of attack, but that group looks a lot different in 2020. Gone are the household names and multi-year starters of Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe. Steele will be relying on JUCO signee Deandre Butler, Tyrone Truesdell and Daquan Newkirk to fill the production lost.
The Tigers will have to reload its secondary as well after four of its five starters are now in the NFL. Noah Igbinoghene is the biggest loss, as he was the top cornerback for a unit that ranked eighth nationally in pass defense. Javaris Davis, Auburn’s other starting corner, graduated, while starting safeties Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson also graduated. Steele has his work cut out for him, but there’s talent ready to step up in Roger McCreary, Nehemiah Pritchett, Smoke Monday, Christian Tutt and Jamien Sherwood.
Linebacker will be the strength of the defense for Auburn to start the season. Senior K.J. Britt is one of the best run-stoppers in college football and sophomore Owen Pappoe started every game last year as a true freshman. Big Cat Bryant, T.D. Moultry, Derrick Hall and Colby Wooden will be counted on at the BUCK position.