Auburn is in a bit of an odd situation going into the 2013 season. Last year was a nightmare that left the Tigers with no offense, an inept defense, a 3-9 record and a coaching change. Under normal circumstances, any improvement at all and any positive signs for the future would be considered a success. But that's not the case for the Tigers this year.
Gus Malzahn may be in Year 1, but he'll be expected to be further along in the program-building process than most other first-year coaches. He's familiar with a large portion of players on the roster, many of whom were recruited to excel in his offensive system, and that roster is full of raw talent that hasn't been developed. Just showing improvement over 2012 likely won't be enough to satisfy fans in orange and blue at the end of the season. Auburn's offense and defense need to hit certain marks, and the record at the end of the season must be a lot better than it was last year.
What's going to determine the amount of success Auburn has? It'll come down to certain players' abilities -- or inabilities -- to really pick up the new schemes and excel.
With Malzahn back in town, Auburn fans sure as hell aren't going to stay quiet if the Tigers average 18.7 points per game like they did in 2012. In fact, since the perception is that former head coach Gene Chizik sabotaged the offense and limited it two years ago, the 25.7 points per game Auburn averaged in 2011, which would be a big increase over last year, probably won't be good enough. When it's all said and done, the Tigers need to put up at least 30 points per contest. Auburn averaged 33.3 per game in 2009, and that was coming off a bad year, too. The only difference was that Chizik's first roster wasn't tailor made to fit into Malzahn's offense. Since so many players on this year's team know the head coach's system, recreating the type of scoring seen four years ago shouldn't be unreasonable.
The running game, which is the bread and butter of this attack, should be fine. We know how solid Tre Mason is, and Cameron Artis-Payne showed during spring practice that he could be even better. Whichever player gets a stranglehold on the starting role and the majority of snaps should have a 1,000-yard season, and whoever's second-string should see plenty of action, too. Finishing the year with at least 600 yards would be a good sign that everything went well. The offensive line should open up plenty of holes, considering it features six former four-star recruits in the two-deep.
The only thing that could derail the Tiger offense in 2013 is the passing game, and more specifically, quarterback play. Those are big question marks. Auburn's receivers will have to step up and be much better than they have been over the past two years. With Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen gone, there's no proven target on the outside. There are plenty of players who look like they could be playmakers -- Brandon Fulse at tight end, Ricardo Louis and Sammie Coates split out wide -- but they still have to prove it. Even more importantly, Auburn needs a signal caller who can not only manage the offense, but be a catalyst for its success. Right now, that's a big question mark. Based on his performance in the A-Day game, Kiehl Frazier doesn't look like the man. And Jonathan Wallace, even though he was serviceable last season -- well, that's just it. He appears to be serviceable. Auburn needs better than serviceable.
Basically, the Tigers need Nick Marshall to come in and win the job, leaving no doubt in the coaches' minds. Jeremy Johnson may be a star in the future, but the idea of relying on a true freshman is a bit scary. Marshall certainly has the skill set to be a great QB in Malzahn's system, but whether or not he's a good enough decision-maker and can play with confidence remains to be seen. If he's not, the offense will likely be a disappointment. Whoever wins the job needs to put up good enough numbers through the air to open up the running game. If Auburn has a player that can throw for 2,000 yards and 17 or so touchdowns, while keeping interceptions down, scoring 30 points per game shouldn't be a problem.
Auburn fans have been watching defenses that have struggled to at least some degree for so long, it's hard to remember the last time the Tigers actually had a good all-around unit. A program that was once known for shutting down opponents and playing physical, low-scoring games hasn't finished in the top 50 in scoring D since 2008, when Tommy Tuberville's last team ranked 14th nationally, allowing 18.0 points per game. Since then, Auburn has given up 27.5, 24.1, 28.9 and 28.3 points per contest. Woof. In terms of total defense, the Tigers have allowed 374.4, 368.4, 408.0 and 420.5 yards per game over the last four years, ranking ninth or worst in the SEC each season. Double woof.
With all that in mind, and knowing Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle attack doesn't make things any easier, Ellis Johnson probably has a little wider margin of error in his first season as defensive coordinator. Auburn's defensive players haven't had proper fundamentals in years, and it's going to take some time to instill them. The Tigers will struggle at times with tackling this year, and we just have to hope they get better as the season goes on. But just because expectations are tempered, that doesn't mean they don't exist. Auburn should be better on defense, especially against opposing spread offenses, thanks to Johnson's 4-2-5 alignment. Johnson has said he'll go with multiple looks, employing a 4-3 or 3-4 when necessary, so hopefully, Auburn will be able to slow down pro-style attacks at LSU, Georgia and Alabama, too.
Up front, the defensive line will have to return to form seen when Tracy Rocker was coaching in 2009 and '10. The defense as a whole may have been bad in both of those seasons, but it wasn't the line's fault. In '09, Auburn finished fifth in the SEC with 28 sacks, and the Tigers ranked third with 35 during the national championship season. Over the last two years, those numbers fell off. The Tigers recorded 22 sacks in 2011 and '12, ranking ninth and 11th, respectively. The biggest reason for the drop in pressure on opposing quarterbacks was a complete lack of ferocity from the interior linemen. Mike Pelton, who replaced Rocker after the 2010 season, just couldn't teach his players to be mean, and it showed on the field.
Fortunately, the Tigers' new line coach, Rodney Garner, has a solid reputation. Garner spent the last 14 seasons at Georgia, and for the most part, his linemen were able to get in opponents' backfields. Since 2007, the Bulldogs racked up at least 30 sacks in a season four times. If Auburn could even come close to that number, it would be a colossal improvement. And if Garner puts the fire back in the D-linemen, it will do wonders against the run, too.
Auburn's defense was maligned during the full length of Chizik's tenure, but in his first two seasons, especially 2010, it was pretty good against the run. The Tigers didn't start out well in 2009, but in the month of November, they allowed just 3.2 yards per carry. And thanks in large part to Nick Fairley clogging the middle, the national championship team gave up 3.4 yards per carry. In 2011, that average ballooned to 4.6, and it topped out at 4.9 last season. While having a less aggressive line hurt Auburn against the run, a serious lack of talent at linebacker has done more damage. Auburn's backers have been too often out of position and unable to finish tackles over the last two years, an epidemic that must be fixed. With Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost taking over starting roles, and Justin Garrett showing real ability at the Star position, the lack of talent appears to be shored up. McKinzy and Frost were four-star prospects, and Garrett received the best reviews of any Tiger during spring practice. They might not be ready to dominate from the start, but they should be much better by season's end. Hopefully, Auburn can get that yards-per-carry average back down to 4.0 at a maximum.
The secondary is likely the biggest defensive question mark in 2013, because unlike the Tigers' run D, it was truly awful in each of Chizik's four seasons. Auburn allowed at least 218 passing yards per game for four straight seasons, and it looked like the defensive backs never really knew what they were doing. They couldn't press, which led to plenty of open underneath routes, and in coverage, Auburn's DBs seemingly never turned around to look for the ball. The Tigers have experience in the defensive backfield, but they'll have to improve their play. While giving up, say, 200 yards per game wouldn't be great, it would be a big step in the right direction.
This where Auburn fans have to have the most patience, because a successful record in 2013 would be considered a failure in most other years. First, just take a look at the Tigers' schedule:
Aug. 31 vs. Washington State
Sept. 7 vs. Arkansas State
Sept. 14 vs. Mississippi State
Sept. 21 at LSU
Oct. 5 vs. Ole Miss
Oct. 12 vs. Western Carolina
Oct. 19 at Texas A&M
Oct. 26 vs. Florida Atlantic
Nov. 2 at Arkansas
Nov. 9 at Tennessee
Nov. 16 vs. Georgia
Nov. 30 vs. Alabama
That's not exactly cupcake city. With games against LSU, A&M, Georgia and Alabama, you can almost guarantee four losses for Auburn. And while the remaining SEC games against Mississippi State, Ole MIss, Tennessee and Arkansas aren't as difficult, it's hard to forecast the Tigers running that gauntlet unbeaten in a rebuilding year -- even though Tennessee and Arkansas are rebuilding, too. Realistically, Auburn looks like a 7-5 team -- 8-4 if they're better than expected, 6-6 if worse. Finishing 7-5 or 6-6 wouldn't excite anyone in any other season, but after 2012, that would show great strides. On the other hand, expecting such an improvement following such an ugly year would be unrealistic at most schools.
So if the Tigers have a "good" 2013 season, here's what it will probably look like: roughly 30 points and 400 yards per game on offense, 24 points and 370 yards allowed per game on defense, and a 7-5 record. And if it's a really good year, the foundation will be laid for a much brighter future under Malzahn.