|No. 12 Auburn's season of high expecations begins|
New quarterback Jarrett Stidham and the 12th-ranked Auburn Tigers open a season with high expectations Saturday, when an extremely young, but always tricky Georgia Southern squad visits Jordan-Hare Stadium.
The Tigers, coming off last year's 8-5 season, are expected to contend with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West. They are viewed by many as a second-tier playoff contender.
A lot of that will depend on the development of Stidham, a heralded sophomore transfer from Baylor, who is coming back from an ankle injury suffered in November that cut his freshman season short.
"He's still inexperienced," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "So we've got to keep that in mind, but we're very excited for him. I know our team is 100 percent behind him and ready for him to lead us out."
Stidham will orchestrate the Tigers' attack under the direction of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Auburn returns eight starters on offense, including star junior running back Kamryn Pettway, backed by dangerous Kerryon Johnson. The offensive line is bolstered by senior right guard Braden Smith, a preseason All-SEC first-team selection.
"Everybody is ready," Stidham told AuburnTigers.com. "We've been going against each other all the way back to spring ball. We're excited to get out there against another team and see what we can do."
Picked to finish seventh in the 12-team Sun Belt Conference in a poll of league coaches and media, Georgia Southern is one of the youngest teams in the nation. The Eagles have only eight seniors on the roster, the fewest of any of the 130 FBS teams.
"We've had an excellent four or five weeks of camp. Really excited for our football team and what they've been able to do and prove at this time," Georgia Southern second-year coach Tyson Summers said. "Really excited about the opportunity that we've got this week, and that's what we view it as, an opportunity to be able to go and do something great."
Redshirt freshman Shai Werts has earned the nod to start at quarterback for Georgia Southern and gets to make his debut against an Auburn defense that surrendered only 17.1 points per game last season.
Werts will try to provide a spark to an offense that took a step back last season. The Eagles, long known for a potent option attack, averaged just 224 yards on the ground last season. That's a seven-year low for Georgia Southern.
Junior running back Wesley Fields is the Eagles' leading returning rusher. Fields finished with 512 yards last year.
"I think that Shai is going to approach this game like he would like any other one," Summers said.
"It's his first game. I'm sure at times he'll have some nerves about him. He's going to be real excited, I know that. I think he's done a great job of leading our football team for the last five and six weeks. I'm really excited about his opportunity to be able to go and a really good defense to start with."
Auburn is heavily favored, but needs to avoid looking ahead to a Week 2 showdown at defending national champion Clemson. Auburn opened last season with a 19-13 loss to Clemson.
Auburn also stumbled against Texas A&M early last season before running off seven straight wins to earn a trip to the Sugar Bowl, where the Tigers dropped a 35-19 decision to the Oklahoma Sooners.
Pettway rushed for 1,240 yards last season, despite not seeing the field in four games. The Tigers lost three of the games that he didn't play.
Stidham, in his freshman season at Baylor, completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions. He'll be working with a young receiving corps in his first season with Auburn. Sophomore wide receiver Darius Slayton is the Tigers' leading returning receiver with just 15 receptions.
"They've grown up a bunch," Stidham said of his young receivers.
"Chemistry wise, it's completely different, with spring ball then the summer, and obviously fall camp. Chemistry has been a big deal to us and so we've gotten that settled down. I think they're ready to go. They work extremely hard every single day. They make my job a lot easier. I'm excited to throw them the ball."