Boy, you guys really did show out for Liberty week. Here's the biggest mailbag of the season.
Because this edition is 13 (!) questions, I kept most answers short and sweet. Hope that's OK with everyone. If not, you'll know where to find me tomorrow.
Thanks to those who submitted questions for this week's Plainsman Mailbag. Submissions for next week's will open Sunday.
From @ColeMcCauley8 on Twitter:
1. What do you think is the floor and ceiling for this Auburn bball team?
Ah, yes. The perfect opportunity for me to drop my predictions for 2018-19 Auburn basketball.
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First off: I would caution everyone not to read too much into the results of next week's Maui Invitational. Auburn could very well get thumped by Xavier and immediately hop on a plane back to The Plains (ha). That wouldn't surprise me a bit.
Teams aren't fully fledged in November. Even by the start of SEC play, Auburn may not be at its ceiling for this season.
The floor for Bruce Pearl's Tigers certainly isn't ground-level. With the sheer talent gushing from this roster, I don't see any way for Auburn to flop and barely sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
The ceiling: Auburn could be — and will be, in my opinion — the best team in the conference by March. When you look at the regular-season crown, it's a toss-up. Kentucky and Tennessee are probably the easier choices at this point, but the Tigers have an edge on the Wildcats right now and host Tennessee in the final game of the year.
Kentucky will probably pull through in the SEC Tournament like it always does. But in the Big Dance, give me Auburn's incredible depth, laser-sharp shooting and ravenous hunger for a ring — and redemption — over most teams in the country.
2. Is Chuma the best player on this Auburn team?
Through two games, the answer was a resounding yes.
Before the season, it felt like sophomore forward Chuma Okeke might need just one more year; wait until Bryce Brown and Austin Wiley (probably) are gone, then Okeke and Jared Harper could throw alley-oops every possession.
Well, seeing as Okeke averaged 19.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and two assists per game against South Alabama and Washington — and shot 75 percent from deep — it appears the future is now.
"Best player" is probably a label that alludes Okeke this season. Wiley is your best prospect, Anfernee McLemore or Bryce Brown are your top defenders, and it's honestly anyone's guess who the top shooter is on this team. But Okeke is certainly the most versatile.
Following the standout sophomore's season into SEC play will be must-see television.
From @JoshFisherPhoto on Twitter:
3. Rumor has it Hugh Freeze might be coming to Auburn as there will likely be an OC shakeup. Thoughts?
Um, how do I put this? Yes.
Not to be that "I have multiple sources" guy, but a trusted source of mine tells me Freeze desperately wants to be the offensive coordinator next season.
Freeze, like most around the Auburn program, can feel Chip Lindsey heading for the door — whether it be of his own accord or not. And the fit makes sense in many ways.
Freeze's daughter goes to Auburn, and he's good buddies with Gus Malzahn. Most Auburn fans would prefer to see Malzahn reach outside his circle in this hypothetical coordinator search, but Freeze's numbers at Ole Miss are hard to argue against (No. 8 scoring offense nationally a year before leaving Oxford).
To top things off, Freeze recently posted this picture in an Auburn shirt AT A WAFFLE HOUSE. Match made in heaven.
4. Any predictions for the Maui Invitational?
In the words of Justin Lee: find your flip flops.
I've got Auburn beating Xavier in the opening round — hopefully in some dramatic fashion. Xavier hasn't impressed me thus far, especially in its double-digit home loss to Wisconsin this week. With just enough player turnover to make things tough for new head coach Travis Steele, give me Pearl's guys to have done some solid prep work for this one.
The "oh God" game comes next. Duke will likely get past San Diego State to set up Tigers-Blue Devils.
Auburn isn't yet at full strength, like I told Cole in the first question. In March, this might be a fight to the finish. But in Hawaii, I don't think Auburn will have enough defensively to slow down Duke's big three of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.
Still, an Elite 8-esque tournament will give Pearl tons to build on heading into a beefy nonconference slate.
5. Who do you see as the likely successor of Stidham next season? Obviously, there will be a lot hashed out in the offseason but Auburn does have several high profile recruits?
If Malzahn can somehow snag Kelly Bryant — which is looking like a huge longshot at this point — then it's him.
Bryant would be the perfect gap-year leader while Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix are still settling into what could be an offense under new leadership.
But that's less than likely. That would leave Malik Willis, Cord Sandberg, Gatewood and Nix — listed in 2018 depth chart order with the 2019 commitment at the end.
Willis will get the first crack at it in spring ball, with Sandberg likely bringing up the rear. The coaches will also want to give Gatewood ample opportunities, seeing as he'll be fully healthy with a year of experience with the team.
But here's something to think about: Nix plans to early enroll in January, allowing him to partake in spring practice and, eventually, A-Day. Assuming he's made his decision to go pro at this point, Jarrett Stidham will still be hanging around the complex. Out of the four candidates, Nix's game most closely resembles Stidham, who will be there to give pointers.
That's a long way to go to say I don't think the true freshman can pull it out. Obviously, like you said, these are way-too-early projections, but I see the race coming down to Willis and Gatewood by the time fall camp rolls around. To me, Sandberg will need another year to get back up to his former 4-star self.
The easy choice then would be Willis. But he's certainly regressed this season. If Gatewood can pull off an impressive camp, he may very well be the guy under center against Oregon. But in that situation, my safe bet would be on Willis.
Either way, 2019 should be one of the more interesting Auburn quarterback battles in recent memory.
From @gabe_keeter on Twitter:
6. Will Austin Wiley be a detriment or the difference for this team in Maui?
Through two games, Wiley hasn't been very hurtful to Pearl's offensive gameplan, but he hasn't been extremely helpful, either.
Sure, his stature alone allows the Tigers to slow down the pace and dump it down low if the outside game isn't up to par. But stats-wise, that only hindered Auburn's offensive output against Washington. He posted just a +3 plus-minus in that win.
However, against Mississippi College, his plus-minus came in at +27.
In all, Pearl hasn't yet figured out how to consistently re-implement Wiley. To me, that's going to lead to less efforts to get him the rock in Maui. I don't see that slowing down the Tigers against Xavier, though, as they're more than happy to run-and-gun at this point.
Against Duke, however, Wiley could be the difference on defense. If Pearl slides both he and McLemore in the game, Williamson and company are going to experience tough sledding at the basket.
From @JCHamner73 on Twitter:
7. If we lose to or only squeak by Liberty ( 3 points or less) Allen Greene has to let go of Gus Malzahn right?
Athletic director Allen Greene told us with utmost confidence last week that Malzahn will be the Tigers' coach in 2019 no matter what. University president Steven Leath echoed that this week.
Granted, I could eat these words if Liberty does pull off the upset and Auburn pulls the trigger on Malzahn. Stranger things have happened this season in college football. But in the end, I think money talks, and that $32.1 million buyout is probably really loud.
From @Joel44537047 on Twitter:
8. Has Bruce Pearl talked about the Johnny Orr incident since he's been here?
He hasn't mentioned it while I've been in the room.
Full disclosure: I had to look up said incident. From my understanding, rumor was that Pearl was an instigator in the dust-up as well, correct?
If that's the case, I may bring it up to him sometime soon. But I'll definitely have to do some more digging before I do.
9. How many does Buckshot throw for: over/under 400?
Give me just under 400.
Liberty likely won't be able to rely on its run game at all. That leaves the offense in the hands of Stephen "Buckshot" Calvert, who may very well have the best quarterback name in the FBS.
Speaking of FBS: It's the Flames first season as college football big boys, and Calvert hasn't missed a beat. The junior is just one of four FBS gunslingers his age to pass for 7,000 yards or more and 60 touchdowns in his career.
He also needs three touchdowns in the final three games to become Liberty's all-time leading touchdown tosser.
I don't see him hitting that mark against a usually stingy Auburn secondary. However, it won't be Calvert's first rodeo as the primary source of offense. He's got a true gunslinger mentality with 14 interceptions to go with his 18 touchdowns this season.
I see that getting him in trouble against the most talented defense he'll plays this season. However, he's going to rack up a bunch of pass attempts, so his yardage could skyrocket, especially if Biletnikoff Award watch-lister Antonio Gandy-Golden (882 yards, nine TDs) can beat Jamel Dean and company downfield.
From @auburntigers100 on Twitter:
10. What are players that could go to the NFL early?
Let's lead off with Stidham, shall we?
Although he isn't walking tomorrow at Senior Day, it's becoming increasingly clear that Stidham will be off to the NFL in 2019.
The move makes sense. He's losing his grip on Auburn's offense, yet the redshirt junior is still a top 5 prospect at quarterback.
From here, we can just go down the list:
- Nick Coe (redshirt sophomore), defensive end - Coe's injury all but locked up his return to Auburn next season. He's been the top sack and tackle-for-loss producer along Auburn's talented defensive line, so he would surely be drafted in April. But it's an incredibly deep defensive line class, and Coe may have a shot to a first- or second-rounder if he sticks around and hones his game for another year.
- Marlon Davidson (junior), defensive end - According to Walter Football, Davidson is the No. 24 defensive end prospect in the upcoming draft. Again, this will be a deep D-line draft, so my money would be on Davidson staying for his final season. But Jeff Holland certainly surprised us in a similar situation last season, and Davidson's current projection has him in the fourth to sixth rounds.
- Derrick Brown (junior), defensive tackle - Brown is one of Auburn's no-brainers. He eats offensive lines for breakfast, and his production over the past few weeks has scouts drooling. He currently projects as a top-10 pick, just behind Alabama's Quinnen Williams.
- Jamel Dean (junior), cornerback - Dean has all the tools, like Carlton Davis did, and scouts have him in the first few rounds. This departure wouldn't surprise me one bit.
- Javaris Davis (junior), defensive back - Davis' speed and athleticism in the open field have made him one of Auburn's most productive defenders over the past few seasons. However, the lack of a true position has him low on most draft boards, so a senior season would serve him well.
- Jeremiah Dinson (junior), safety - Dinson is a wildy intelligent defender on the backend, but his size has him nowhere to be found on most draft boards. He'll be back.
- Daniel Thomas (junior), safety - Same deal with Thomas. He's been a top playmaker for Kevin Steele's defense, but another strong year next season would suit him well.
- Prince Tega Wanogho (junior), offensive tackle - Wanogho is Auburn's best O-line prospect in a terrible year for the position group. His ceiling has scouts saying sixth to seventh round, but another year of learning the fundamentals is likely in store for the former defensive lineman.
- Darius Slayton (junior), receiver - Most Auburn fans would write Slayton off for his inconsistency this season, but he has good NFL size and has popped up in the late rounds on a few projections boards. However, this receiver class is like the defensive line group in terms of depth. Slayton is the least likely Tiger to leave.
11. Could there be any changes in the coaching staff?
As has been discussed between us in this mailbag before, Lindsey and the offensive coordinator position is the most likely coaching change.
J.B. Grimes will be given another year to implement his system. The only other possibility that comes to mind is special teams coordinator Larry Porter, as his unit has exponentially improved from before his tenure. Secondary coaches Marcus Woodson and Greg Brown might deserve some attention, too.
12. If Stidham comes back for 2019 will any the other qbs transfer?
We're 99 percent sure Stidham is gone, since reports were everywhere saying Auburn told Bryant that would be the case.
But if Stidham spurns the league and becomes Auburn's first three-year starter since Brandon Cox (2005-07), it's likely we would see at least one transfer, especially considering how tight the quarterback battle would presumably be if Stidham leaves.
13. Will we see Joey Gatewood play Saturday?
As expected, Malzahn beat around the bush with this question when I asked him for you Wednesday.
Malzahn said Gatewood has been fully practicing the past few weeks after a thumb injury nagged him in the early season. That led me to ask if he'll be available against Liberty. The cryptic answer was, "We'll see how that goes, but he's healthy now."
So Gatewood is technically available, even if Malzahn would say that outright. However, because of his lack of experience with the offense, I see Willis and Sandberg getting the nod before Gatewood.
Plus, if Gatewood plays poorly, the "bust" talks will return, and that's the last thing Auburn's coaching staff wants with a freshman quarterback before a huge position battle in the spring.
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