GUS MALZAHN (PHOTO BY JASON CALDWELL)

Jason Caldwell's Monday Morning Quarterback Column: Up And Down Year For The Auburn Football Team

The Auburn football team's regular season showed the need for the Tigers to have more than one quarterback ready to win games.

What To Make Of This Season

It’s hard to wrap your mind around Auburn’s 2016 season because of the ups and downs surrounding the Tigers this year, but one thing that stands out to me is that I saw Gus Malzahn grow as a coach. I know it’s hard for some fans to fathom that statement after the losses to Georgia and Alabama, but turning the offense over to Rhett Lashlee was a big step forward in his growth as a head coach on this level.

There is no question there is still plenty of room left to continue growing for Malzahn and his offense and that showed up both early and late in the season regarding the development of quarterbacks.

Choosing Sean White showed the potential of the offense and its capability, even without a true dual-threat quarterback. Piling up yards and points while using the passing game gave the Tigers some balance and allowed the running attack to really take hold.

The problem came when White was injured. Much like last season when his injury sent the offense spiraling backwards following solid games against Kentucky and Arkansas, not having him healthy was the biggest blow for the offense down the stretch.

That is where developing quarterbacks comes in. Auburn had numerous chances to let John Franklin throw the football this season and chose not to do it. When the time came to lean on him they didn’t know or didn't trust he could get the job done in a game situation.

I know it's never a good thing when your starting quarterback goes down, but you have got to be able to make at least a few plays with the backup in the game and play aggressively when the situation calls for it. That is something that has to be addressed moving forward.

Now the question is what are the Tigers going to do about it?

I believe with a healthy White this Auburn team is 9-3 and would have had every opportunity to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Saturday with the way the defense was playing. Without him the Tigers were anemic.

Moving forward Auburn has to have a better plan in place for the offense to be successful with the second guy taking snaps. Whether it’s changing up the way things are done in practice or just taking the reins off of guys, the need to get better behind White is a must.

With all that being said I believe the program is actually in very good shape heading into a bowl game and the 2017 season because of the players in place.

Almost the entire set of skill players returns for this team with White, Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson, Stanton Truitt, Kameron Martin, Chandler Cox, Elijah Stove, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, Nate Craig, Ryan Davis and Jason Smith just some of the names that should be key players for the Tigers next season. Throw in rising young stars on defense such as Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown up front, veteran linebackers Tre Williams, DeShaun Davis and Darrell Williams along with secondary players like Stephen Roberts, Carlton Davis, Javaris Davis, Nick Ruffin and Daniel Thomas and there are plenty of reasons to think next year's Auburn team could be better.

Possible Sugar Bowl

No matter the outcome of the season, getting a chance to play in the Sugar Bowl against possibly Oklahoma would be a great opportunity for the program and that could be where this team is headed. The Sugar Bowl takes the highest-ranked SEC team outside of the playoffs and that is likely to be Auburn following losses by Florida and Tennessee, and barring an upset win by the Gators in the SEC Championship Game. LSU could still sneak ahead of Auburn, but with a head-to-head loss to AU and one less win Auburn should be ranked in front of the Bayou Bengals when the time comes to choose bowl matches.

Auburn hasn’t faced the Sooners since the Sugar Bowl in 1971 when the Tigers were blitzed 40-22 by one of the top teams in the country that season. This year’s game would set up as a chance for Malzahn’s Tigers to pull off an impressive victory with Oklahoma probably one of the last teams outside the playoff top four if the Sooners get past rival Oklahoma State on Saturday

If LSU slides ahead of Auburn in the College Football Playoff rankings it could be a rematch of the 2007 Cotton Bowl with Nebraska for the Tigers, but this time in the Outback Bowl in Tampa. That would be a much more favorable matchup for Auburn, but wouldn't have the impact of playing in New Orleans.

Big Visitor This Week

One of the prospects who could give the offense a boost is former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham and he is expected to be on the Auburn campus again this week for a visit.

A dynamic player who would likely push White for the starting QB assignment, Stidham’s addition would make the Tigers better because of the competition for the spot and the battle that would ensue in spring practice.

With the ability to run very well combined with a strong and accurate arm, Stidham played wide receiver early in his high school years so he has got the athleticism to bring an added dimension to the offense along with the experience of playing as a true freshman in the Big 12. After sitting out of football this fall, he will be eligible to play at the college of his choice in 2017 with three seasons of eligibility.

Still looking at Texas A&M and with Florida trying to make a late push, Stidham is expected to visit College Station sometime in the coming week as well before announcing his destination sometime in early December.

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