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Auburn Lettermen are pretty much predicting another national championship run for the Tigers

"I see us playing for another National Championship, and in my mind this is not rosy, it’s realistic." Auburn Lettermen are predicting an even Newer Day on the Plains.
Auburn Lettermen are predicting an even Newer Day on the Plains.

One year ago, as Gus Malzahn’s inaugural season as Auburn head coach neared its first kickoff, I pondered the question on every Auburn fan’s mind – what’s the right number?  There was reason to be upbeat, but in the wake of a demoralizing 3-9 campaign the previous year, the consensus opinion among Auburn fans was that a seven or eight-win season would be an impressive start to Malzahn’s reclamation project.  There was no settled starter at quarterback, a completely new coaching staff, and brutal SEC competition.  To further heighten concerns, an entirely new system was being installed on defense, and with Malzahn’s return, reinstalled on offense.

Surveying the SEC schedule which included road trips to Baton Rouge and College Station against the inimitable Johnny Football, I begrudgingly decided that an eight-win regular season was a tall order, but not unfair.

Fortunately for every Auburn fan, Malzahn marches to the beat of a different drummer, and eats conventional wisdom for lunch.   What followed was the most remarkable turnaround season in the modern college football era, with back to back monumental game winning plays against the Tigers’ two biggest rivals.

And so it goes that one year removed from the expectations game for Malzahn’s first season, you would need Inspector Clouseau to find a pessimistic Auburn fan, and why not?  The returning talent is substantial, and for the first time since Mitch Mustain’s senior season at Springdale in 2005, Gus Malzahn returns a second-year starter at quarterback in Nick Marshall.

If you want to play the karma angle, Malzahn’s 2004 Springdale team finished 12-1, coming up short against eventual state champion Little Rock Central.  Fueled by that hunger and sting of defeat, Springdale reeled off an undefeated 14-0 season in 2005 en route to the state Class 5A championship, outscoring opponents 664-118.

If you are instead a dogged realist, the Tigers’ 2014 schedule definitely sets up significantly tougher than 2014 – at least on paper.  To the extent opponents underestimated Auburn a year ago, that alleged advantage has evaporated.

You heard from our lineup of Auburn lettermen on their confidence in Malzahn and his coaching staff.  Now let’s hear from the lettermen as they peer into the crystal  ball on what the 2014 season may bring.

The lineup . . .

Terry Henley, RB, 1970-1972

Randy Campbell, QB, 1980-1983

Ben Tamburello, C, 1983-1986

Dick Schmalz, WR, 1969-1971

Alvin Bresler, WR/Wingback, 1968-1970

Yann Cowart, C, 1983-1986

Wayne Bylsma, LB, 1988-1990

Anthony Judge, LB, 1988-1991

William Clifton, OL, 1998-1999

Thomas Bailey, WR / KR / PR, 1991-1994

Russ Carreker, LB, 1983-1986

Cody Parkey, K, 2010-2013

 

Part II:  The 2014 Season Forecast

Terry Henley, RB, 1970-1972

“There’s no question we’re were gonna be better on defense,” Henley says.  “And there’s NO question we have a QB that can throw an intermediate pass this year, and throw to a spot with more loft and touch on the ball.  So there are some obvious improvements from last year on both sides of the ball.”

“Still, the crucial thing despite these positives is that you avoid injuries. Last year, Georgia had a VERY good football team, but early season they lost five key starters.  Florida had a pretty good football team but lost three starters.  It can be very hard to recover when that hits you early season.  I don’t like to see any player injured.  I didn’t want Gurley at UGA injured – I wanted him to play and our guys whip his ass.”

Henley is not one to equivocate on his forecasts, and to those who would call him an Auburn homer, he considers that a badge of honor.

“We’re gonna win ‘em all this season,” Henley boasts.  “Auburn will win every game we play.  If you think I’m were gonna stand up and say anything else, you’re crazy.”

For Henley, such preseason bravado was built at an early age, and hardened under Coach Ralph “Shug” Jordan.

“I had a great Pee Wee football coach,” Henley says, “who used to always teach us that W is the only letter we talk about – winning.  And that was a big reason why we never lost a single Pee Wee football game.”

During Henley’s 1970-1972 stint at Auburn, the Tigers lost a total of only four regular season games.   Jordan had instilled the same commitment to winning.

“That’s exactly what Gus has instilled in this football team: winning, sticking together, and enjoying what you do.”

Randy Campbell, QB, 1980-1983

“I’m very excited about this season because I know we will be competitive against everyone on our schedule,” Campbell says. “We may have a better team than last year for several reasons. Nick Marshall has a year under his belt and will provide leadership and big play ability.  Sammie Coates and Duke Williams lead a superb core of big, fast receivers.  We need to fill Tre Mason’s shoes, but we have a lot of talent at running back.  Replacing Jay Prosch is the key to me on offense, and how Gus does that will determine our style of play.  He could go smash mouth like last year, or have a more balanced attack with the passing game.”

But Campbell knows the deadly path of waging an SEC campaign.

“The schedule is as tough as it gets,” he says.  “Opening with Arkansas, and playing Kansas State at their place and LSU early are the key games that may determine a good versus a great season.  If we get by two or more of those games we will be able to control our destiny with the last two  big games on the road against Georgia and Bama.”

“Team chemistry is always a big key to having a special team.  We had it in 2010 and again last year.  Gus will stir the pot and add the right ingredients and if we get some quality senior leadership it’s going to be a helluva lot of fun this season.”

Ben Tamburello, Center, Auburn 1983-1986

“This season sets up very different from 2013,” Tamburello says.  “We are defending champion, not the underdog.  But the hunger, drive and desire to return I actually think works to Auburn’s advantage. The experience and leadership of returning players who achieved such an incredible turnaround from zero SEC wins in 2012 to SEC Champions is a big edge for Auburn.  This group experienced great success but just fell short of winning it all, and sting of that will provide the motivation, winning edge and confidence to be back in Atlanta as SEC West Champions and competing in the first ever four-team playoff for the second year in a row.”

Dick Schmalz, WR, 1969-1971

Terry Henley, make room for old teammate Dick Schmalz on the optimist bus.

“It is hard for me to have an objective opinion and forecast for the coming season,” Schmalz says.  “I always think Auburn can and will win every game.  But the difference for 2014 is that this year, the team’s potential is unlimited.  Both with and without my orange and blue glasses, I think they will be undefeated.  With an improved (yes, improved) offense as well as a deeper and more experienced defense, the team can win them all this season.”

How do you improve on an offense in 2013 that was second in the SEC in scoring offense, and first in the nation in rushing offense?

“How could anyone possibly have anything bad to say about Auburn’s offensive system?” Schmalz asks.   “When you have unprecedented rushing success that can be even better with the team’s maturation in the passing game, which will unquestionably be not only better, but, I believe, will set new Auburn passing records this year.”

Alvin Bresler, WR / Wingback, 1968-1970

“Auburn has a very tough schedule,” worries Bresler.  “The four games stretch beginning with South Carolina and ending with Georgia is no easy task.  As we all know, you have to play the games one at a time, with total focus on that opponent, which is what was special about the maturity last year’s team.”

Despite the schedule, Bresler, like Henley and Schmalz, seems to be drinking championship koolaid.

“My 2014 prediction is 13 wins and one loss,” Bresler says  “We will get back to Atlanta, win the Southeastern Conference Championship, and land a spot in the first ever football Final Four.  The reasons for my optimism is that Nick Marshall will be improved as a passer, he’s got more playmakers in the receiving corp, we will have big, strong, fast offensive line with depth at the position, big, strong and aggressive defensive line with depth, true athletes at linebacker, and a defensive secondary that can stop the run and pass.  This is a total team that is ready to make a big run.”

Yann Cowart, Center, 1983-1986

I’m very optimistic but slightly cautious,” Cowart says.  “Last year, we caught lightning in a bottle and Gus and the coaching staff out-schemed opponents a bunch.  It will be harder to sneak up on any opponent this year.   I’m extremely impressed with both sides of the line. Dismukes is as good as I have seen, and as I understand the blocking schemes better, this O-line performs it to the max.  Replacing Mason may be a bigger task than some assume.  The scheme last year relied so heavily on his ability to read the blocks, and Tre was a master at making the cut and never allowing a square hit. That takes experience more than pure skill.”

Wayne Bylsma, LB, 1988-1990

“This year, I see us going 11-1 regular season, and getting back to Atlanta,” Bylsma says.  “With our dept, talent, and coaching, 12-0 is certainly attainable, but I’m afraid we may slip up somewhere.  With our schedule, we just can’t rely on some of the luck we had last year ending the season.”

Bylsma tempers his optimism with some wisdom, as he understands there is a third, and critical phase of the game, special teams.  “My biggest concern coming out of spring is our kicking game – you have to have a solid kicking game to win a championship.”

Anthony Judge, LB, 1988-1991

“I see us right back in the thick of it,” Judge says.  “We lose a few key players, but I believe that where we lost talent was at positions we are extremely deep – running back, offensive tackle, and defensive end.  I especially love the depth on the offensive side of the ball.   I don’t see any huge drop off in the running game, and with an improved passing game, expanded playbook, and depth at wide receiver, it will open up the running game even more than last year.  Duke and Sammie will be as explosive as any combo in the country – not just the SEC.  Nick, Artis-Payne, Corey, and hopefully Peyton and/or Roc will give us production as good as last year based on a stronger passing game.  The only thing that will stop this offense is if we stop ourselves.”

Judge is also upbeat on the 2014 Tigers defense.

“Defensively, is there a more important position to be deep at than defensive line?” Judge asks.  “You will not find a more productive D-line in the country than ours this year, period.  It’s reminiscent of our ‘88 squad with T-Rock, Stallworth, Roland, D-Rock, Ogletree, and Smith.   We are not just two-deep—we have ten ‘starters’ in the front four, and five seniors says it all.  Gabe and Ladarius are both underrated and will have a breakout year, possibly All-SEC type seasons.  I think another year with Coach Johnson only helps Cass and Kris.  Not just them, but Cam, Kenny, and Javiere, and it looks like Swain, too.  As for the DB’s, I like the direction we’re going with big physical corners and head-hunting safeties.  I’m real excited about Moncrief, and he makes an impact now. I have twi wildcards for this defense that could come up big – Justin Garrett and Trovon Reed.  I am looking forward to seeing Garrett and Therezie on the field at the same time.  I have a funny feeling that Trovon works himself not only into the rotation, but is much more productive than anyone expects.”

Not surprisingly, Judge sees the elements of a monster season.

“We’ll know a lot about this team by September 19th,” Judge says, “the day after a trip to Manhattan, KS and with Arkansas under our belt.  But there is only one layup on the schedule beyond September.  But I’ll take going on the road twice to the state of Mississippi, and getting LSU and USC in Jordan-Hare.  We’ll have a huge challenge going on the road to what used to be the back-end of Amen corner, but I like our chances of running the table going into Athens.  I actually like our chances of running the table the entire season, but it’s college football, so anything can happen.  I’m solid with 11 regular season wins and another ‘winner takes all’ Iron Bowl.  We will win the SEC title again, and take a place at the Final Four table.”

Judge aims to please the Auburn Family with a bonus national outlook.

“Oklahoma will again find a way to mess it up in the end,” Judge says.  “Ohio State will be a Final Four team, but a weak Big Ten stops them from winning it all as they won’t be battle tested.  Oregon and FSU will win a bunch of games, but will slip up somewhere, maybe in the Final Four.  I’ve got a hunch the SEC finds a way to get two teams in.  Of all the contenders, I like our chances better than anyone to win it all.  If we are going to do it, this is the year with the depth and veteran leadership at every level, on both sides of the ball.  Championships are always won up front, and you will be hard pressed to find a more formidable combined O-line and D-line in the country than ours.  This is what will separate us from the rest.  I say we finish what we started last year.  We get 13 seconds better and take home the crystal.”

William Clifton, OL, 1998-1999

“Auburn will be a better this year than last year,” Clifton observes.  “However, the record will not reflect it.  I see a 10-2 and possibly 9-3 season on the Plains.  The trip to Kansas State will test us early, but I foresee us winning that one by single digits.  Having the game on a Thursday night but a week and a half to prepare will help us; however, Bill Snyder is a good coach with an experienced team and in college, experience means a lot.”

Clifton certainly believes in this staff and team, but he’s a realist when it comes to the SEC schedule Auburn faces.

“Starting with South Carolina on October 25th on to Georgia on November 15th, the schedule is a meat grinder,” Clifton says.  “USC has Spurrier and that is all that needs to be said.  Spurrier took a sorry ass South Carolina and built them into an SEC force.  Ole Miss will be a good team this year and has enough ability to beat both Bama and Auburn this year.  Having a similar system as Gus also allows for Ole Miss to be really well prepared.  Hugh Freeze is quietly building a team that every three to four years will be tough due to a predominantly junior/senior team.  While Texas A&M will be down this year, Sumlin’s offense is tailored to score.  Their defense will make marginal improvements but if Auburn has 2-3 turnovers, they could pull the upset.  So during that four game stretch, I think we drop one game due to nagging injuries.  Then on November 29th, it will be a hell of a game.  I am of the belief that Bama will lose three games this year because they are breaking in an untested quarterback.  Auburn may or may not be one of those losses, because by the 12th game, nerves are no longer a big factor and Saban has this game circled on his calendar.  Nobody has beaten Saban in back to back years while he has been at Bama with his championship runs, and we face a tall task doing that this year especially in Bryant-Denny Stadium.  Bama’s quarterback play will be the deciding factor, so if Coker manages the game and has no turnovers, it will be a low scoring affair with a flip of the coin.  If Coker plays poorly, Auburn wins it by double digits.”

Thomas Bailey- WR/KR-PR ‘91-‘94

“I always felt if Auburn could establish a passing game and tighten up our defense by getting of the field on 3rd downs more often that we would be a force to be reckoned with,” Bailey says. “That arrives for Auburn in 2014. I’m excited that Coach Malzahn is finally getting an opportunity to work with Nick Marshall for a second season, and I expect Nick and our superb group of receivers to be on the same page throughout the season.  With that said, I see us playing for another National Championship, and in my mind this is not rosy, it’s realistic.”

Russ Carreker, LB, 1983-1986

“I would love to say ‘undefeated’,” Carreker says, “but for those of us that have played, and most other folks, we recognize the quality of the teams that we will line up against.  They are going to be good, too.   I think that we will be better than we were last year on both sides of the ball but no one knows what injuries will occur, or how the ball might bounce in tight games.  Experience tells us that it is very hard to have great back-to-back seasons.  It is difficult to stay hungry enough to put in the work required to have that kind of success in the SEC.  That is where Gus’ drive and intensity will shine, I really believe.  I expect this team to stay very hungry.  I will be surprised if we lose more than two games, and ultimately, I like our chances of going 11-1 in the regular season.”

Despite his wishbone and power running game roots under Dye’s mid-80s teams, Carreker loves what he’s seeing in Malzahn’s offense.

“I am a convert to Gus’s offense.  Five years ago, I thought it would never work, but feed me crow.  There is no doubt that it will work.  Simply put, it puts our players in advantageous positions almost all the time.  You do that with good players and you are going to move the football and score points.  Defensively, I really like what we are doing schematically.  We have always been good at Auburn when we have had disruptive D-linemen and when we do not over complicate the scheme.  I think that we are getting there with Coach Garner and this group of linemen.  I also love the athleticism that we are trying to find for our LB and safety spots.  Against today’s offenses, this is essential and I think that we are getting closer to having really good athletic players with the group we have coming up.  Common sense tells you that the flexibility that this athleticism offers is a huge advantage.  The downside that we have to fix is that these guys are not always the best run-stoppers.  If we can resolve this, our defense can make great improvement this season.”

Cody Parkey, K, 2010-2013

If only because of the uncertainty at kicker and punter, there is reason to worry about Auburn’s kicking game, at least until we see the specialists in action with 87,000 in the stands.  Those with orange and blue tinted shades, however, point out that Auburn will punt infrequently this season, and few if any games will be decided by a long field goal.

Ah, if only life in the SEC were so simple.  Cody Parkey knows better.

“The kicking game will be crucial because field position wins football games, and splitting the uprights on field goals and extra points plays a huge role in helping out the offense,” Parkey says.

“As for this season, we lost a strong senior class, but I think we’ll have huge season again.  I see an 11-1 regular season again, because with Nick Marshall back, and even more comfortable in this offense, we will be hard to stop.  I believe Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will both have big seasons and there will be no dropoff in the running game.  The Tigers get back to Atlanta, and make the first ever Final Four in college football.”

There you have it – a deliciously upbeat consensus take from some Auburn lettermen on the 2014 season.  In the weeks ahead, I’ll weigh in with the correct answer, once I finish Windexing this crystal ball.

Doug Dean (Eagle5 on the InterWebz) is a close observer of Auburn and SEC sports. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanEagle5. Write him at [email protected] .

Related: What impresses Auburn Lettermen the most about Gus Malzahn’s coaching staff?

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