AUBURN, Ala. — It took an army for Auburn football to have as much success as it did in the 2017 season. In a way, the lack of a superstar made way for a complete team to top the SEC West.
Coaches and players came together in what was a special season and the result was 10 wins (including victories over Georgia and Alabama), a SEC Championship Game appearance and a Peach Bowl berth.
Picking out just one important player is a daunting task when glancing down the Auburn roster. Some players and persons involved in the program who played critical roles don’t even crack the top 10.
Perhaps there’s a Most Valuable Person who wore a uniform and another who stood on the sidelines. Or is there just one person who Auburn couldn’t have survived the season without? Is there an obvious answer?
Our SEC Country Auburn team writers discussed:
JUSTIN FERGUSON: The easy answer has to be Kerryon Johnson, right? Yes, Auburn’s offense became more balanced and explosive with the arrivals of Jarrett Stidham and Chip Lindsey, but Johnson was the go-to guy for the Tigers time and time again. He was the touchdown machine, he was the one moving the chains in tough situations. And when he was hurt — Clemson game, SEC Championship Game — Auburn’s offense just wasn’t the same. Johnson stepped into a huge spot after Kamryn Pettway’s multiple injuries, and Auburn looked like a championship-caliber team when he was on his game. He drew the attention of defenses, which made it easier for Stidham to keep teams off-balance on Lindsey’s longer and early-down pass calls. But I’ll definitely say there are multiple candidates for the MVP role on this team.
LAUREN SHUTE: I completely agree that there are multiple candidates for the MVP on the 2017 roster. Honestly, the first thought that comes to mind is Gus Malzahn for bringing in someone like Lindsey. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re known as an offensive genius. And even though there were questions about who was truly in charge early in the season, it seems that Malzahn finally did relinquish control and Auburn went on a run because of it.
Still, I believe Jarrett Stidham is the MVP for the Tigers. Those who have paid attention are familiar with the quarterback struggles on The Plains over the last few years. When the running backs were carrying the entire offensive load, Auburn was much easier to stop. Stidham’s ability to deliver long passes downfield and also his ability to adjust and improve later in the season are his biggest assets, in my mind.
I also think not enough has been said about Stidham’s leadership and ability to make Auburn his home in such a relatively short time. Obviously, Kerryon’s leadership is incredible, but I think Stidham had a relaxed yet intense presence the Tigers desperately needed.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about important offensive players. Who comes to mind when you think of a defensive MVP?
FERGUSON: I’ll go with Jeff Holland for Defensive MVP. Take a look back at the history of Auburn defense in the Gus Malzahn era. When Auburn has a healthy and effective pass rusher — like it did in 2013 with Dee Ford — the team just plays better. Auburn didn’t get that in 2014 or 2015 when Carl Lawson was injured. But a combination of Kevin Steele and Lawson’s fully healthy final season took this defense to the next level.
Auburn could’ve been in danger of regressing defensively after losing Lawson and Montravius Adams. There weren’t any established pass rushers on the roster. However, Holland went from being a third-down specialist who always seemed a half-second away from making the big play to one of college football’s top edge rushers. He was also a force against the run, which made for a dominant defensive line.
Being able to rush just four players on passing downs and still affect the quarterback is huge. With Holland, Auburn was able to do that time and time again, and it’s a huge reason why this was a legitimate top-10 defense in 2017.
Q: Who would you say is the least likely person, but most deserving of a defensive MVP award?
FERGUSON: I really didn’t expect Stephen Roberts to have the season he had. He was a real weapon in making stops at the line of scrimmage and even creating tackles for loss. Roberts’ progress as a senior allowed Auburn to use him or Tray Matthews in either safety role, which was huge for Kevin Steele’s defensive calls. Who were you thinking?
SHUTE: I really like that answer. He’d be at the top of that list, for sure. I think he had some tackles Auburn fans will remember for years to come.
I feel like you could draw the defensive MVP’s name out of a hat, but I’d go with Dontavius Russell, probably. He’s an older guy who never quite has the stops to get noticed, but similar to Roberts he’s got some hits fans will remember. I feel like he also took pressure off Jeff Holland and helped some of the sophomores progress, too.
Q: Speaking of the trenches, let’s hit an area we haven’t yet: offensive line. Who’s your MVP up front, because I feel like there are two clear candidates.
SHUTE: Braden Smith and Austin Golson. Can they be co-MVPs? I guess if I had to pick one, I might say Golson. As good as Smith was, Golson’s versatility was invaluable for Auburn, especially late in the season. Can you imagine playing in every spot along the offensive line?
FERGUSON: There’s an argument to be made for Casey Dunn along with Golson, but I’ll pick Smith. He was an All-America talent up front this season. Through all of the changes and rotations due to injury, Smith was a healthy, dominant and consistent force at guard. That’s the definition of most valuable.
SHUTE: You’ve convinced me. Can’t say enough about Dunn or Golson, but, yeah, when you think about what could have happened without Smith it’s a little scary.
Q: Last one. Coaching staff. Who’s your most valuable coach?
FERGUSON: Chip Lindsey. It was a rough start for him, but once he got things straightened out with Gus Malzahn, he brought the balance Auburn desperately needed on offense. His play calling in big wins over Georgia and Alabama was near perfect. Another year of the Lindsey-Stidham combination should make for some great football.
SHUTE: I can’t disagree with how valuable Chip Lindsey has been. I’d go with Kevin Steele, though. As many others did, I had doubts whether Year 2 could really be better without Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Rudy Ford, Josh Holsey and others. Steele has been so critical to a really exciting defensive shift at Auburn. Guys have pride in their “Stupid D” and it’s fun to see.
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