EDITOR'S NOTE: We decided this was such a good fanpost that we elevated it to the front page.
This is the first time I've made an attempt at a fanpost, so I wanted to give you all a little background on myself before I offer some thoughts. I've attended most every Auburn game over the last 20+ years and was fortunate to experience my 22nd straight Iron Bowl in person last night. My blood is rooted deep in Auburn University and Auburn Athletics, and I'm damn proud of it.
1) 44 points, 28 first downs, 628 yards of offense, 456 passing yards (a single game Auburn record), 172 yards rushing (when Alabama's defense averaged giving up 85 yds./game, +1 in the turnover margin, only 55 yards in penalties with an undisciplined defense, and almost +8 minutes in time of possession. And an 11 point loss.
I remember when Alabama would win the stat lines and we'd win the game and they'd moan and groan about how they were the better team, but if I'm being honest the better team won the game last night. Just like the better team won last season. You can't quantify a team that simply plays together as a stat, and to Alabama's credit, when they got down they punched back.
What does concern me here is this: prior to the national championship loss last year, Auburn had not lost a game when scoring over 30 pts. since the 1996 4 overtime game against Georgia. In the last 13 games Auburn has lost 3 times when scoring over 30 points. We can talk about redone execution all we want, but we scored 44 points and that should always be enough to win. The defense played inspired football at times, but to say they played well would be an overstatement.
So what went wrong defensively for the Tigers this year? While not easy to answer, I don't think it's the right question. What went right for the Auburn defense in 2013 against Georgia, Missouri, and Florida State? Did we just simply expect our guys to get better with a year under our belt (I did), and were we wrong to expect this? Our defense allowed Georgia back into the game with ease, struggled mightily against Missouri last year, and couldn't close in Pasadena. What I'm saying is that this group got accustomed to having an elite offense bail them out, and it showed throughout the second half of this season.
There's frustration to be had for this for certain. But it shouldn't be limited to Saturdays. Tackling, stupid penalties, and poor assignments throughout all 3 levels of the defense is a Sunday through Friday problem that manifests on Saturdays. My frustration has been lacking a killer instinct that I don't know was fixable because of personnel deficiencies, but I do believe could have helped be built in practice that we just did not see for the most part this season. This was not a championship caliber defense, and it showed in the 2nd half of the year.
Coach Malzahn has some tough decisions to make on our defensive coaching staff, and I honestly have no idea what the right answer is. Well it should be easy, right? Well on the surface, sure. But tell me this, at the coaching convention in New York, how many offensive coaches do you think Malzahn has networked with in the last 10 years as opposed to defensive coaches? What kind of ratio do you think that is? How many defensive coaches does Malzahn know well that he'd be comfortable bringing in considering he's spent the majority of his time building up guys on the other side of the ball in terms of relationships. If Rhett Lashlee were to leave, how many folks think Gus WOULDN'T have a guy he'd be comfortable with to be brought in? Defensively that's not as easy of an answer. Which leads me to my next point...
2) The case for a change and a return of Will Muschamp to Auburn.
There's two thoughts Gus might have this morning. One is that we have got to recruit our guys to fit this system and let it play out. Sometimes patience truly is a virtue. I'm in the minority that the coach who called an excellent gameplan that did more to beat Oregon than Cam Newton did in 2010 deserved to be our defensive coordinator in 2012. This was solidified to me when the guy we hired to replace Ted Roof, Brian VanGorder, had no interest in adapting to the modernization of offense in college football. He's since started adjusting at Notre Dame. Would it have made a difference in 2012 with that offense? Probably not. But I do believe Ted Roof deserved that chance after losing almost everyone off his defense in 2010. So patience may be the course. I don't know, but from a head coach's mentality, he hired Ellis Johnson for a reason, and that reason is that he is the best coach we could ask for to run our defense. We don't know what goes through the mind of a head coach but in this case I have to believe he's smarter than all of us are because this is his job, his profession, and quite frankly his life work.
The flip side to that coin is maybe it's time to make a change. Regardless of leaving points on the field, our offense shouldn't have to score 56 points to beat Alabama. If a change is to be made, Auburn should focus its search on Will Muschamp and bring in Travaris Robinson as its secondary coach. Auburn wanted Robinson when Gus was hired, but he wasn't going to leave Florida at that time. He's like a Dameyune Craig for defensive players, and his recruiting prowess in Florida is well documented. I'm of the belief the players need at least one younger coach on the defensive side, because it has become a relationship issue this season (see: Whitehead, Jermaine).
But Will Muschamp has issues with higher ups in the athletic department at Auburn, right? Wrong. I have first hand knowledge that Will Muschamp was given 20 tickets to the Chick-fil-a Bowl in 2007 and one of the first phone calls he got after being fired from Auburn was from one of his good friends who is a higher up in the athletic department. There is no issue between Jay Jacobs and Will Muschamp. Will Muschamp left Auburn frustrated because Tommy Tuberville allowed Eddie Gran to basically hire Tony Franklin and Muschamp wasn't included on any of those conversations, and he did not want to coach with a spread guy back then. So anybody telling you that Muschamp has issues with Auburn or vice versa is not telling the truth.
So why would Muschamp want to coach with a spread coach now? Because he wants to be a head coach again. Because he now knows he's got to adapt to the game (as has Saban to an extent), and who better to coach under than an offensive head coach who isn't involved on the other side of the ball? He gets the credit for the success, and is opened up to a network of offensive coaches through Gus that could help him become a successful head coach somewhere else in a few years.
But what about buyouts and the athletic budget? Can we afford him? Can we afford to get rid of assistants? We have over $25 million in reserves. We didn't pay Chizik in a bulk sum. It's not just doable, but it's actually not hard to cut the deal. Our pockets are deep because we have people who continue to give big money to the program because they believe in Auburn (sidetone: if you can give to Auburn Athletics, I believe you should). Unless Georgia opens up, the most mutually beneficial place for Will Muschamp to coordinate a defense next season is at Auburn. And we can afford him.
3) What to expect in 2015.
Looking beyond the bowl game and recruiting, I'm excited about winter workouts for this group. Knowing that this team is capable of being a championship contender will serve as proper motivation for what I'm sure will be hell this winter with Coach Russell. This group coming up has talent, and hopefully can avoid winter/spring injuries to build more consistency up front on both sides of the line.
Personnel wise I for one am excited for the Jeremy Johnson era at Auburn. This is the first time since Brandon Cox replaced Jason Campbell that we've had a real succession plan at quarterback, and I believe he's the best passer in the SEC right now. Call me biased, but show me a QB in the SEC who is head and shoulders above the group we saw this past year and I'll recant. Johnson brings a real arm to the backfield that we didn't have consistently with Nick Marshall. He also doesn't run a 4.4 40 yard dash like Marshall, but he can run. As much as I love Nick Marshall and appreciate what he has done for Auburn, from a passing standpoint we're getting a real upgrade.
It will be interesting to see what happens on the offensive line, as Braden Smith will battle for a starting job most likely at left tackle with Shon Coleman, who I believe has his best football ahead of him. Not sure if moving Avery Young inside is a permanent solution, but if so a line consisting of Young, Pat Miller, Austin Golson (center), Alex Kozan, and Smith/Coleman should bring more consistency to the offense. We started so many variations on the line in 2014 that we didn't gel like we had to for us to be successful. If you want to complain about redzone issues last night or in Starkville, this is the reason why.
There's plenty of time after the bowl game to break down each position, and I'd rather wait and see who leaves early before going any further, but I do expect the offense to shift to more of a Tulsa style Malzahn offense than the 2010, 2013-2014 offense we've seen. I'd be good with this because there's less film on our style of play in that scenario.
The schedule, while brutal, is more manageable. But what it will take for Auburn to get back to Atlanta next year is the very thing that doomed us this year. We have got to be more fundamentally sound on defense, can't afford to give up stupid penalties, need 5 offensive lineman that play the same position all year and gel together, and become a consistent threat in the air so defenses don't assume that they have to make the quarterback beat them.
Offensively the issues are fixable in the offseason. It starts up front and we've got to have them healthy and playing the same position instead of shuffling the guys around as much as we have. We were a good football team this past year, but were probably a bit too hopeful for a repeat of 2013 with this schedule and losing 2 pass rushers, the 2nd overall pick at left tackle, and a freak fullback. We should be 9-3 or 10-2 at best. But we're 8-4 when we could've been 6-6. That's football. But Gus is building this thing up, and that isn't done overnight. I believe he's the best coach we could ask for to build a consistent contender and am glad we've got him. Plus, there's a coach on the other side of the state who has seen his infrastructure of success fall apart thanks to the shift in offenses across the SEC West. If he wants to try and get in a shoot out with us every year, I like our chances to win most of them. The whole process they use may be adapting, or it may very well be going by the wayside, because one thing is for certain, the field didn't tilt when they stepped on it quite like it has the last 5 years.
Thanks for your time for reading. Hope all of you are well and stay well. And as always, it's GREAT to be an Auburn Tiger!