‘Future is very bright’ for Auburn football; Sugar Bowl upset could lead to huge 2017 NEW ORLEANS — Auburn flipped the calendar in New Orleans this weekend. And while whatever happens Monday night in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma goes on the 2016 record, the Tigers want it to have a greater effect on what it does in 2017. After a slow start, midseason surge and late swoon — followed by a month of returning to health and developing talent — Auburn has eyes toward next season. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn knows what an upset of the Big 12 champion will do for the confidence of a roster that could return 15 starters next season on offense and defense. The Sooners were 2-point favorites. The Sugar Bowl begins after 8:30 p.m. ET at the Superdome. TV: ESPN. RELATED: Five Auburn predictions for the Sugar Bowl
“To be able to get a victory in this game will be huge,” Malzahn said. “You know, the future is very bright in our program. But obviously, any time you win a bowl game, you get great momentum.” Auburn was in a much different spot a year ago. After starting the 2015 season with championship buzz, the Tigers fell to 6-6 and scraped into the less-prestigious Birmingham Bowl. But sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson said the way the Tigers rallied to knock off what was then a stellar Memphis team by 21 points fueled a 2016 turnaround. “We didn’t know if we were going up or if we were going down,” Johnson said. “We got a good bowl game victory last year, and I think that really propelled us through the summer and gave us motivation for this year and now we are in the second biggest bowl to the playoffs.” Auburn fell from SEC championship contender to 8-4 in the month of November, but it has plenty of reason to believe it can get that launch pad-type victory in New Orleans. MORE: Why Auburn’s offense is unlike anything OU has faced all season
Sean White, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson led Auburn’s offense to a 6-game winning streak in the middle of the season. All three of them are sophomores. Seven of Auburn’s top 10 receivers on the season are underclassmen. Three starting offensive linemen can return in 2017 Injuries killed Auburn’s momentum toward season’s end — and it could play a role in who starts at quarterback in 2017, thanks to the arrival of former Baylor star Jarrett Stidham. But all the key contributors are expected to play near 100 percent Monday against the Sooners. “We know what we are capable of doing and what we were doing before a couple of injuries happened,” Johnson said. To the Tigers, Johnson said, the Sugar Bowl is about “coming out here playing how we are supposed to play and getting back to how we were playing during that three or four week spell when we were just dominating people. We get that done, and I think we will gain a lot of respect. But bottom line — we have to do what we do.” Auburn’s defense, which surges to the top five nationally in scoring after several years of subpar performances, is built more on veteran play than is the offense. Star defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson most likely will become high-round NFL Draft picks in a few months. Top defensive backs Josh Holsey and Rudy Ford will end their Auburn careers Monday in the Sugar Bowl. Several depth players across the defense are set to leave the Plains as well. But Auburn expects to return most of its starters on defense in 2017, too. Marlon Davidson has the look of Auburn’s next great defensive star after a strong true freshman season. All key linebackers return in 2017, and Carlton Davis should again anchor a tough secondary. MORE: Auburn’s 2016 team set for one last game together in Sugar Bowl
Those Tigers playing their final game on Monday know how important the Sugar Bowl will be for their younger teammates. “We’re playing to win, we’re playing to bring a Sugar Bowl back to Auburn, we’re playing to give these young guys momentum coming into next year,” Holsey said. “We’re playing for these young guys to be a top 10 team next year. We’ve got a lot to play for.” With all of its returning talent and several hyped newcomers set to join the team in 2017, Auburn can start next season as a title contender. Getting a victory over one of the hottest teams in college football won’t guarantee success, but it could be the beginning of it. “If we get this W, I mean, who knows what we can accomplish next year?” Johnson said.