No. 9 Auburn's offense aiming for better start to season
AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Gus Malzahn and Auburn are trying to avoid their customary slow start offensively.
The ninth-ranked Tigers surely can't afford a sluggish opener Saturday against No. 6 Washington in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where they dropped their final two games last season.
Auburn is 1-4 against Power Five opponents in the first three games going back to 2015, and the offense has looked downright messy at times even against FCS opponents.
One thing working in their favor this time is the return of quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
The only time Auburn hasn't struggled early under Malzahn was in 2014, the one other season when he had a returning starter at quarterback, in that case Nick Marshall.
"We're playing one of the better teams in college football, and we have our quarterback back," Malzahn said Tuesday. "I think the fact that our quarterback's back, that gives you a comfort. At least you know what you're getting at that position."
Last season, Stidham was new to the program after sitting out a season at a Texas junior college following his departure from Baylor. It was also offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey's first season.
The Tigers still became only the eighth team in Southeastern Conference history to top 3,000 yards both passing and rushing en route to a Western Division title .
But they had to overcome an ugly blip early. The Tigers allowed 11 sacks and managed just 117 total yards in a 14-6 loss to Clemson in the second game. Auburn was unimpressive again the next week against FCS Mercer, committing five turnovers.
Stidham rebounded to finish second in the SEC in passing yards.
"I think we're a lot further along than what we were at this point last year," he said. "Obviously with myself being in the system for a full year, I just understand the offense better and understand defenses better.
"And so during fall camp, I think we put in a little bit more at a faster pace than we did last year. That's how it seemed to me, at least. I think they just know that I'm able to handle everything that we've been putting in."
Here's a look at how Auburn's offense, Malzahn's specialty, has sputtered out of the gates in all but one season since he took over in 2013, even in that SEC championship debut:
—2016: Started 1-2 and totaled just 41 points in those three games against Clemson, Arkansas State and Texas A&M.
—2015: Auburn eked out seven-point wins over Louisville and FCS Jacksonville State before dropping two straight.
—2013: Had close wins in two of the first three games and didn't really start clicking offensively until after a loss to LSU.
"There's a lot of different factors with that," Malzahn said. "Obviously when you have your quarterback returning, that definitely helps. But a lot of it has to do with opponents, too. When you're playing a really solid opponent, sometimes your deficiencies can be recognized early."
Reserve linebacker Richard McBryde will miss the season with a neck injury, Malzahn said. ... UMass grad transfer Jack Driscoll beat out redshirt freshman Austin Troxell for the first-team spot at right tackle. Redshirt freshman tailback JaTarvious Whitlow is Kam Martin's top backup.