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A New Day: The Wishbone’s 2013 Auburn Tigers Preview

The Wishbone concludes this year’s preseason SEC preview (see our SEC West preview here, our SEC East preview here) with an in-depth look at everyone’s favorite team, your Auburn Tigers! How will Auburn rebound from the worst football season in school history? Read on to find out.

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“One does not simply stop our offense.”

Coach:  The Hurry-Up No-huddle Professor.  The Guru of Go.  (And his Sorcerer’s Apprentice!)

Mascot makes us think of:  Fun times. Glory days. Friend of the good and righteous and beloved of everyone young and old.

Returning starters:  7 on offense, 8 on defense.

Offense loses:  Passing Yards: 20%; Rushing Yards: 36%; Receptions: 59%. Offense that doesn’t match the personnel: 100%.

Strength of schedule: 18th toughest in the nation according to Phil Steele. Road games are at LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Tennessee. Auburn avoids playing South Carolina and Florida. They also take on Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic out of conference.

Questions: See below for our expanded analysis.  Hey—we don’t do this for just any old team.

Arrested Development Character: Oscar Bluth is Auburn.  The easy-going brother of self-important George.  Occasionally accused of things he didn’t actually do.  The Bluth brother NOT accused of “light treason.”  (Take to the seas, Bama!)

Best case scenario:  Auburn digs its way out of the pit and takes substantial strides back towards SEC respectability.  And—best case?–knocks off all of the “bottom four” of opponents, at least three of the “middle four” and at least one of the “top four.”  9-3

Worst case scenario:   (Did you notice that last season’s result was MUCH worse than our worst case scenario?  We did.)  The worst case scenario for any Auburn season is now a repeat of the 2012 season.  But that’s not going to happen here.  6-6.

Van and John think: It’s coming.  Trust us.  But first, some analysis:

1. What should an Auburn fan’s mindset be heading into the season?

Like many of you, we have blocked the 2012 Auburn football season out of our minds and erased the evidence from our DVRs.   But when you start talking about the 2013 season, you have to remember where Auburn is coming from.   And that place is a big crater at the bottom of the Marianas Trench at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.  Can Auburn rise up to the heights of college football again?  Yes.  But it won’t happen in day, or in a season.

Here is what our mindset will be this year and what we believe will be a healthy mindset for you:  Enjoy every game because it will be a heck of a lot more entertaining and fun than the 2012 season.  We know that a Gus Malzahn offense will be productive.  Malzahn has consistently shown the ability to turn out productive quarterbacks and strong running games at every stop on his coaching journey.

Auburn is going to attack, play fast on offense and this team doesn’t have anything to lose.  Do you remember the 2009 Auburn – Alabama game?  We do.  Pulling out nearly all the stops, they rolled the dice at every opportunity and it nearly paid off.  It certainly made the game much closer than anyone had a right to expect.  That kind of attacking style is what we expect from Gus in the games against the better SEC teams this year.

2. How much difference will Malzahn make on the offense? How much better could it be?

Do you want proof of the Malzahn Effect?  In 2008 Auburn was among the worst offensive teams in college football, averaging 302 yards per game and 17 points per game (110th in the country).  The 2009 Auburn offense was 16th in the country in total offense (431 yards per game) and 17th in scoring offense (33 points per game) – and that was with the immortal Chris Todd at quarterback!  So we expect Malzahn and Lashlee to make an immediate impact.

We think the running game will be much better.  Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne with Corey Grant in the speed back role, running behind an improved and experienced offensive line, fullback Jay Prosch (who will immediately contribute in the 2009 “Eric Smith role” of sledgehammer blocker on the sweep and pass receiver safety valve) and tight end C.J. Uzomah will be very, very productive.   This is the key because if the running game is dependable and productive it takes a lot of the pressure off new quarterback Nick Marshall to carry the offense.

3.  Who emerges to make plays?

With the departure of Onterio McCalebb, Emory Blake and Phillip Lutzenkirchen, the Tigers desperately need other players to step up and make plays.  Who do we think that will be?

–  Cameron Artis-Payne!  The A-Day game was just a taste of what this running back can do.  We believe he can be the productive inside runner that this offense requires.  And he has more speed than expected.  He will be an SEC household name by October.

–  Ricardo Louis.  At least one receiver is going to step up in this offense, in the same way that Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery emerged in 2009.  We believe that Louis will be that guy.  New quarterback Nick Marshall has a very strong arm and we expect several deep passes per half to keep the defense from coming up too much to stop the run.  Louis will be on the receiving end of many of those balls.

–  Nick Marshall on the play-actions and the naked bootlegs.  Gus’s blocking schemes are terrific when properly executed, particularly in the way he utilizes receivers on the edge to open lanes near the sidelines for backs on the sweep.  Instead of Cam blasting up the center, a la 2010, we look for Marshall to make his hay on the broad sprint outs, turning the corner behind solid WR blocking and zipping for first downs.

4. Can the new defensive coaches and infusion of talent reverse the long downward trend in defensive performance?

While the offense fell off a giant cliff last season, the defense has been on a slow, steady decline since 2004.  The Auburn defense hasn’t been up to ‘average SEC defense’ level of performance since 2007.  (The run defense was good in 2010 and they made timely sacks and plays—particularly Nick Fairley, obviously–but overall it was below average in the SEC.)

The hiring of this defensive coaching staff can reverse that trend.   The new influx of talented players who will benefit from excellent positional coaching will make it happen.  However, the recent injuries and player losses will not help the situation in the short term.   They were a quick refresher for those of us who were starting to dream about this defense being really good right away; that may not happen.   Oh, it will be better than last year – but it should be with the talent on hand.

Depth in the secondary could quickly become an issue against teams like WSU and Texas A&M.  With Dee Ford’s injury the team will need immediate impact from newcomers Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel at defensive end.  And the defensive tackles have gotten pushed around far too much the last two years.  We expect Rodney Garner and productive new players like Montavious Adams and Ben Bradley to change that.

The biggest changes in the secondary will be simple and obvious – Auburn will come up tighter on receivers instead of giving away ten yards every time, and the tackling in open space will be better.   Just don’t expect 1988 or 2004 level defenses quite yet.

5. Hey – at least the kicker and punter were good!

Yes, the rest of the team was awful last year – but the kickers were both great and they return!  Steven “Steamin’” Clark punted the ball 70 times and had five returned for a net total of four yards.   Cody Parkey was very good on kickoffs and solid on field goals.

Can a punt returner emerge that both catches the ball consistently and scares the other team?  We would like to think so.  There are multiple good options available, and we look forward to seeing who will emerge.

6. How about the schedule?

We like how the schedule sets up with decent home games to challenge the team and prepare them for SEC games before being thrown into the fire of conference road play.   The new offense may be a little more conservative and run-oriented in the first few games than you might expect from Gus, unless the defense is giving up lots of points– in which case we expect full-throttle sooner rather than later.

The late-season game at Tennessee is very intriguing to us.  Given the schedule the Vols face early in the season (and if you know Tennessee at all, you know their schedule always ends up being very front-loaded), they may be looking to the Auburn game with a sense of desperation, or at least high priority to get them bowl eligible.  That game could end up being huge for both teams, and turn into a real war like we used to have with the Big Orange back in the Dye Era.

6. The bottom line.

This Auburn team has a lot of talent.  Don’t believe us after watching last year?  Recently the SB Nation SEC blog “Team Speed Kills” calculated the talent on SEC offensive and defensive depth charts using recruiting rankings.

Auburn was SECOND in the SEC.  Think about that.   If you take that raw talent and add much better coaching – both at a coordinator level and at many of the positional groups– this team will definitely improve.  We expect a much better product on the field in 2013.   But a good bit of improvement does not necessarily equal winning the SEC.   This team could improve more than any college team in recent history and still win only 9 games – there’s simply that far to go.

Our feeling is that this Auburn team will be fun, it will be competitive (the days of blowout losses in SEC games are OVER) and it will play hard.   But that may not be enough in some games on the road schedule.  If Nick Marshall becomes as productive as all the other Malzahn quarterbacks have been, the offense will be fine.  The defense will be better, but not enough to be elite caliber yet.   As we discussed on the Wishbone Podcast, our realistic belief is that 7-5 and a bowl game is what we can and should expect from this team.   If everything breaks right then 9-3 would be an amazing first season for this coaching staff.   If more injuries hit at key positions or the quarterbacks struggle, then 6-6 is a possibility, too.

Remember- we are talking about Auburn THIS YEAR.  We believe that Coach Malzahn has this team on the path back towards the SEC Championship Game.  It will just take him a year or two to get there.  But the good times are just around the corner.  Maybe it won’t be long before the “new day” looks a lot like January 10, 2011.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.

Order The Wishbone’s Decades of Dominance: Auburn Football in the Modern Era.

Keep Reading:

* Football rankings guru Richard Billingsley says Auburn should claim century-old crown: ‘My national championship for Auburn in 1913 is a very valid national championship’
* Auburn wore green jerseys TWICE in the 1930s
* Auburn coach car endorsements of yesteryear
* Gus Malzahn in college
* That time a cow won Miss Auburn

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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