Auburn 2015 Pickin' Preview: Can Tigers recapture 2013 magic?

Hi, I'm Jerry, and this is my latest Pickin' Preview. My against-the-spread Expert Picks for the 2014 season were, to put it politely, terrible. In the interest of making some unlikely picking improvement -- and, hopefully, learning something along the way -- I'm previewing a preseason top-25 team each Tuesday until the 2015 season kicks off ... but do so from a spread-picking, win-total-guessing angle.

This week: Gus Malzahn's high-octane Auburn Tigers.

Auburn Tigers

2014 records: 8-5 (4-4 SEC) straight-up, 4-9 (3-5) against-the-spread

Projected AP preseason rank: No. 9

247Sports 5-year average recruiting rank: 8.4 nationally, 4.2 SEC 

2015 personnel in a paragraph: Gus Malzahn's offense has endured some major losses -- Nick Marshall, Cameron Artis-Payne, Sammie Coates, Reese Dismukes -- but few on the Plains are worried. Jeremy Johnson has tantalized in his prior quarterback cameos; Alex Kozan and Austin Golson are added to a line that returns both starting tackles; Duke Williams and Ricardo Louis are still around at wideout; and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas form an all-five-star tailback tandem. Plus there's, you know, Malzahn. The defense is as deep as your average puddle but does return eight starters, adds transfer safety Tray Matthews, and is now coached by Will Muschamp. As the above top-10 recruiting rankings would suggest, this is an on-paper SEC contender -- provided the injury bug passes over Muschamp's defense.

Was last year's team as good as -- or better than -- its record? Say this much for the still-nascent Malzahn era at Auburn: it hasn't lacked for excitement. A year after the roller-coaster ride to the 2013 BCS championship game, the Tigers played five more one-possession games (going 3-2) and suffered two more losses -- to Mississippi State and Alabama -- that were much closer on the stat sheet than the scoreboard. If breaks vs. Kansas State and especially Ole Miss meant the Tigers could have won only six games, a blocked field goal for touchdown vs. Texas A&M and red-zone issues vs. the Bulldogs and Tide meant they weren't that far off from 10 wins, either. Bottom line: Football Outsiders' F+ ratings called this the No. 7 team in the country last season. Five losses or no, they aren't that far off from re-entering the SEC title conversation. 

Three against-the-spread trends worth watching:

Only once in the past seven seasons has Auburn's final ATS record been within two games of .500. If it's felt like the Tigers have been one of the most volatile programs in the country the past several years, that's because they have been, posting ATS marks of 2-9, 6-7, 10-4, 5-8, 4-8, 12-2 and 2014's 4-9. Vegas has been slow to catch up to how strong or how poor the Tigers have been for a while now; will that continue this fall? 

Malzan started 23-4 as a head coach, then went 2-9. After a streak like the one Malzahn put together across his lone season at Arkansas State and first 16 games at Auburn, some regression was inevitable ... but does it also mean Malzahn might be due for a bounce back in 2015? 

Auburn is 9-4 the past 10 years as a home underdog. It doesn't happen often, but with Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama all coming to Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tigers could be a home 'dog on at least a couple of occasions in 2015.

A quick 2015 schedule breakdown: An SEC West team that plays Georgia annually just isn't going to avoid having one of the FBS's toughest slates, but Auburn can at least console itself with the fact it's not last year's schedule. The trip to Manhattan has been replaced by a neutral-site date with Louisville, and the Rebels, both sets of Bulldogs, and Alabama all come to Auburn. Of course, dates at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M won't be easy, but the Tigers also won't complain about drawing Kentucky in one of their SEC road slots, either. 

2015 win total: 8.5 wins (over -130)

So ... over or under? Auburn is one team where the oddsmakers' assessment seems to differ sharply from the media's, which has offered the Tigers the occasional bit of dark horse national contender love. The assessment here is simple: even with 2014's gantlet of a schedule and sieve of a defense, Malzahn got the Tigers to eight wins. It seems hard to fathom that the addition of Muschamp and both end-of-season rivalry games coming to the Plains isn't worth another win somewhere. OVER 8.5 WINS

National title odds: In contrast to Auburn's win total, the first set of national title odds actually had Auburn with the fourth-best chances (12-to-1) back in January ... and at Bovada, that line has actually shortened to 9-to-1. That's too short for any SEC team, given the difficulty of getting out of the conference and winning both playoff games; until or unless those odds come back to the neighborhood of 15-to-1, there's not enough reward to justify the risk.

For funsies, an against-the-spread pick we'll make right here and now: In the five seasons Malzahn has spent at Auburn as either head coach or offensive coordinator, four times the Tigers have had a cupcake game scheduled either immediately before or in the middle of the Georgia-Alabama double. ATS record: 0-4, with that ATS loss coming by an average of nearly 13 points. And hey, whaddya know, there's potentially underrated Idaho -- who went 8-3 ATS in 2014 despite only going 1-10 straight-up -- sandwiched right there between the Bulldogs and Tide. The pick: Idaho to cover against Auburn. 

The bottom line: Auburn's defense collapsed down the stretch in 2014, but it's not as if Muschamp doesn't have pieces to work with -- Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Kris Frost mean the Tigers will start three former five-stars in their front seven alone. Combine what has to be a measure of defensive improvement with Malzahn's offense and it won't be a surprise if -- a la 2013 -- the Iron Bowl decides the SEC West. Then again, if the secondary can't stay healthy and the offensive line can't get back to its road-grading 2013 ways, against this schedule 7-5 wouldn't be that big a surprise, either.

Previously in this series: GeorgiaBaylor, Ohio State, UCLA, LSU, Clemson, Michigan State, Oregon

All against-the-spread records compiled from Phil Steele's College Football Preview.

Jeremy Johnson has high expectations as Auburn's new starting quarterback. (USATSI)
Jeremy Johnson has high expectations as Auburn's new starting quarterback. (USATSI)
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