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Malzahn’s Thirteen Seconds: Sealing the Deal in 2014

Having lampooned the forecasting record of the expert media pundits, Doug Dean makes the case for a monster season for Malzahn’s Auburn Tigers in Part II of his preseason forecast.

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Gus Malzahn, practicing for the Playoff. [Photo: @FootballAU]

“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

– Admiral David Farragut (1801-1870)

One hundred fifty years ago, Admiral David Farragut surveyed a treacherous Mobile Bay aboard his USS Hartford, and shouted the immortalized command:  “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” His lead monitor ship, Tecumseh, had been sunk moments earlier by an exploding mine, and swallowed up in the Mobile Bay. Farragut swung his own ship across the tethered mines, which failed to explode. His fleet followed safely, and anchored above the isolated forts, which promptly surrendered.

Gus Malzahn enters his second season as Auburn head coach in eerie kinship with Admiral Farragut, staring as he does at his team’s own deadly path in 2014, a string of schedule torpedoes blocking safe passage to the ultimate prize. Like Farragut, Malzahn must damn the torpedoes, take the right bold risks, and order warp speed as the prescription for his run at the first ever four-team college football playoff.

As the Tigers today sit coiled like an angry rattler with a top 5-6 national ranking, there is supporting logic that they possess the venom to strike with extreme prejudice against 11 regular season opponents, faltering but once to win the SEC West and become the first repeating SEC champion since Phil Fulmer’s 1998 Vols.

So damn the media groupthink that a difficult 2014 schedule will sink Malzahn’s ship. It’s full speed ahead as Gus Malzahn delivers big in his encore act, and draws comparisons to Spurrier’s offensive domination in the mid 1990’s. Playing the most difficult schedule of seven preseason ranked teams can be the undoing of even superior teams, but with the advent of the new four-team playoff, the SEC champion need not go through the schedule undefeated.  And in the case of the Auburn Tigers, if they make it to the Amen Corner of Georgia and Alabama, they will be more battle tested than their archrival opponents.

Call me an Auburn homer, call me a Barner, but call me when you’re selling your New Orleans hotel for New Year’s Eve for the January 1st semifinal. Somewhere between Auburn grad and astronaut Ken Mattingly’s Apollo 16 mission, Auburn grad Tim Cook being named CEO of Apple, Raymond Harbert’s $40 million donation to Auburn’s Harbert College of Business, and Auburn researchers closing in on the Ebola virus, “Barner” became a badge of honor for me.

So with apologies to the Drive-By Truckers, Mama bake a pie, Daddy kill a chicken. And stock up on the Charmin’. The boys are coming home from Jerry World, January 13, 2015 with the first ever National Championship Trophy.

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The new four team playoff system puts an end to controversy (LOL)

Malzahn’s 2014 Auburn Tigers will navigate the nation’s toughest schedule with but one blemish, to the Ole Ball Coach on October 25th in Jordan-Hare. No one can defy the law of averages forever, with Spurrier sitting at oh-for against the Tigers. But last laugh is best, as Malzahn bests Spurrier in a December 6th Atlanta rematch with the Gamecocks, landing a # 1 seeded berth in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, as a selection committee show of schedule strength importance.

Here are the driving forces that will propel Malzahn to seize the CFB Playoff hardware:

• “13 Seconds” Trumps Defending SEC Champion Complacency. If Auburn does not land the likely 11 regular season wins required to return to Atlanta, it will not be due to fat-headed complacency. Only those inside the AU athletic complex since January fully grasp Malzahn’s obsession with finding every tiny detail of hard work and improvement he dubs the “missing 13 seconds”. In 2014, there will be at least 3-4 adrenalin charged games that go down to the wire, and Malzahn, his staff, and team demonstrated in 2013 how comfortable they are in high wire moments. Reeling off a championship season requires the mental discipline to have a singular focus, week by week, so that each game becomes a series of mutually exclusive “now’s”. The returning players and staff still live the sting of Pasadena, and it becomes fuel for a long, difficult road to North Texas.

• Catch Gus if you can. The most heavily purveyed myth in the offseason is that defenses will catch up with Malzahn’s system, having had a full Spring and Summer to study it. Picture, if you will, SEC defensive coordinators spending much of the offseason looking at the “static” snapshot of the Malzahn 2013 offense, and then building defensive tactics that will shut down the HUNH. Then slap some Mennen Skin Bracer on both cheeks, say “Thanks, I needed that”, fling open the window, and scream: Do you simpletons actually believe that Gus Malzahn’s HUNH system is static? He has been reconfiguring his systems to new personnel, polishing an aerial attack to make defenses pay when they load the box, installing a bigger percentage of his playbook than 2013, and setting up counterattacks for anticipated chess moves of defensive coordinators who believe FSU provided a template for stopping Malzahn. Now that’s funny, I don’t care who you are.

Photo: Brandon Marcello
Photo: Brandon Marcello

• Not since Mitch Mustain, Springdale High. For the first time since Mitch Mustain’s senior season at Springdale High in 2005, Gus Malzahn returns a second-year starter at quarterback in Nick Marshall. This bizarre fact, juxtaposed with the record-busting offensive production that Malzahn creates, begs a question which should alarm Auburn opponents. Is at least incremental improvement in Nick Marshall’s passing accuracy not probable, particularly with future NFL wideouts in Coates and Williams? If you’re into karma, Malzahn’s 2004 Springdale team finished 12-1, coming up short against eventual state champion Little Rock Central. Mustain returned for his senior year. Fueled by the sting of coming so close, Springdale reeled off an undefeated 14-0 season in 2005 en route to the state Class 5A championship, outscoring opponents 664-118. Sound familiar?

• An insurance policy at backup QB. Jeremy Johnson would start as QB this season for most SEC teams, and is ready to step in to deliver whether it is planned, or of necessity should Marshall go down.

• A seasoned O-line with a dominant senior center. The head of the spear for Malzahn’s attack is Auburn center Reese Dismukes, an All-American candidate and a Remington Trophy favorite entering his final season. Dismukes can stare out into Mobile Bay from his Spanish Fort town with mixed emotions as he readies for battle in the trenches. There is his abundant pride for becoming a rock solid team leader with a bright future, and gratitude for an unforgettable 2013 season. Yet there is hollow feeling of unfinished business due to the elusive “13 seconds” in Pasadena. Despite the loss of Alex Kozan for the season, J. B. Grimes has the luxury of depth and talent, and Greg Robinson’s successor at left tackle, Shon Coleman, is turning heads. Grimes has reloaded the road graders.

• Ellis’s “gotchas”. While the loss of defensive end Carl Lawson for an undetermined number of games is a blow, Ellis Johnson returns a deeper, more experienced front, with Montravius Adams, Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Elijah Daniel, Ben Bradley, and LaDarius Owens who will be capable of wreaking havoc on offensive lines, allowing the linebacking corp of Frost and McKinzy to make stops and improve the rushing defense. Johnson has high expectations of Holsey and Moncrief in the secondary, and athleticism and physical play from the Star position. Former Auburn offensive coordinator Jack Crowe is very high on Ellis Johnson. “Ellis is somewhat of a modern-day Erk Russell,” Crowe said. “Terry Hoage, his big, physical safety, was a half-breed, a freak physically, and Erk used him really like a Star position player. Ellis’s defense will fool people. It looks like it’s bend but don’t break, which it is at times. But Ellis has got lots of “gotcha” solutions when the opponent threatens the red zone or it’s what Ellis considers a critical situation.” Ah, the Erk Russell Junkyard Dog Split 60 defense, a suffocating force. (By the way, Terry Hoage is living large today a winemaker in Paso Robles, CA.)

• Newbie SEC QB’s. Among the Tigers’ most serious SEC opponent threats, only the two Mississippi teams return quarterbacks with any degree of SEC or D-I experience, and neither is Cam Newton. Unfortunately for both, they lack the quality depth of supporting cast to survive 15 rounds in the ring with this Tiger team, barring a rash of turnovers or gaffes. In the case of archrival Alabama, the process variation also includes entirely new terminology and system under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. As we saw with Marshall a year ago, new can be good, but SEC teams are beating long odds when they insert an SEC rookie. Bet on the veteran QB who has a strong O-line and home run threat skill players in tight games.

• “Real Deal” Russell. Strength and conditioning programs in the SEC are not “commoditized” – there are significant differences between SEC strength and performance programs. Ryan Russell projects sheer energy, and is driven to be novel, and to differentiate athletic performance at Auburn. That hunger is contagious, and a perfect cultural fit at Auburn. Russell transforms each athlete to the sports performance required of the position, and customized to Malzahn’s and Johnson’s systems. Players see the results, and take the Russell workout mandates to his “every damn day” insanity to include a 24/7 accountability for each player on nutrition, recovery, sleep and lifestyle. The result is strength and speed personal best records being shattered – even during the football season. By creating a training environment that emulates the way you play, the way you move and the way you recover, Russell improves performance and reduces the risk of injury. Most SEC sports performance programs are playing catch up to Russell, it’s that simple.

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Photo: Auburn Magazine.

• It’s Time to Open Fire. In his first season as Auburn head coach, and an entire restoration project, Malzahn made a calculated – and brilliant – call to take the variability of Marshall’s throwing accuracy out of the equation, and lean heavy on the ground attack. It hit big, but with future NFL receivers in Sammie Coates and Duke Williams now in the arsenal, Malzahn knows he must open fire and make defenses pay when they cheat defensive backs up. It won’t matter how that translates into run / pass ratio, which is likely to be a situational, game planning decision tree. What matters is that the threat will be real, and Malzahn will be “agnostic” in calling a run or pass play, as neither will constitute a bad risk with Marshall’s improved skill set and pass receiving arsenal. Defenses will also come to sleep on Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray, Marcus Davis, and the H back, setting up wide open throws.

• Tail Lights. Few if any other SEC teams have a 4.3 forty or possibly sub-4.3 forty home run elite speed of a Corey Grant, which in big games can equate to a 7-point bonus to the Tigers. Grant can and will house it from the speed sweep position and on kickoff returns in most games this season, and he has added 10 pounds to endure hits. And even when he’s not toting the rock, the eye candy deception he creates freezes defenders, creates blocking angles, and contributes to explosive plays by Marshall or a feature tailback. Also keep an eye on newcomer Stanton Truitt as a Grant understudy, as Truitt also brings elite speed to the table.

• Depth where it most matters. Only a few other SEC teams have the luxury of quality depth at running back in Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber, and true freshman five-star Roc Thomas who it appears will be hard to keep off the field. With carries also in the mix for Corey Grant and beefy Kamryn Pettway, the Tigers are built Ford tough to endure the pounding of a 15-game schedule.

• Greybeards running the D. There are going to be huge pressurized moments in big games, when a big stop is critical, and a defensive staff needs to make quick, accurate judgments or simply know when to calm their troops or administer some fire. Experience matters, and Johnson and his defensive staff bring more than 100 years of college coaching experience between Johnson, defensive line coach Rodney Garner, safeties coach Charlie Harbison and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith. They’ve seen it all on game day, and their strength at player development will mean that a few true freshmen like Andrew Williams, Tre Williams, Nick Ruffin and others can provide depth early.

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• Savvy schedule management. Malzahn faces a perilous schedule. However, looking closer, after likely dispatching Bret Bielema’s Hogs on August 30th, Malzahn gets a warm-up game with San Jose State to polish systems, followed by a bye week before the Thursday night trip to take on Bill Snyder’s K-State team. So that creates 9 days of preparation for La Tech, which is essentially a tune-up game for the vitally important LSU match on October 4th. A physically beaten AU team will have to find a way to just win at Starkville one week later, and no win would be ugly. Sitting at 6-0 at that point, they will be executing at a very high level. They’ll need to be, with a four week stretch of South Carolina, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M and in Athens to take on the Dogs. They can afford one loss in that four-game stretch, setting up the Iron Bowl as the likely play-in game to Atlanta.

• Reason to worry. The departure of punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey should top the worry list, and the question marks area of rebuilding could rear its ugly head in 3-4 expected tight games. For now, Malzahn has assigned both punting and field goal duties to Daniel Carlson. The first four games will likely not call on combo kicker / punter Daniel Carlson to be the difference in the game, so the Tigers must play mistake free in September, and hope that the kickers are dialed in by the LSU game.

• The neighborhood bully is uncomfortable. Bama coach Nick Saban has rightly earned street cred in the SEC as the neighborhood bully, especially defensively. But the offseason clearly pointed to a degree of discomfort on the part of the defensive mastermind, as he pursued odd back door channels to disrupt the speed and pace tenets of Malzhan’s Hurry Up, No Huddle offense. Saban’s move bringing in an offensive coordinator in Kiffin as marked by disruption at programs as genius, combined with a 12th hour transfer of FSU backup quarterback Jacob Coker at least raises fair questions as to whether the SEC’s most successful head coach is leaning reactive rather than strategic. “We do a good job of scheming people when we play them,” Saban recently commented. “We do a good job of telling our players how they need to play things and how to stop what they do. And when you play a no-huddle team, you can’t do as good a job of that. They don’t recognize it as fast. And I don’t care how you practice it, it’s going to be difficult unless you’re a no-huddle team yourself. And that has a downside because how do you coach the players? You can’t coach them between plays because everything’s about how fast you go.”

Regardless, the media favorite to win the SEC (and national championship) will have talent superior to 9-10 opponents and should win with little struggle. If Auburn can make it to the Iron Bowl with only one loss, Saban’s discomfort with Malzahn’s offense, combined with Auburn’s schedule better preparing them for a tough, four quarter battle, points to a second consecutive Malzahn Iron Bowl win.

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The Tigers’ 2014 path is a brutal road, indeed, with torpedoes waiting to ignite at every turn.  But if this group of Tigers is who I believe they are, an impossible road it is not. Line ‘em up!

(Postscript:   One ESPN college football analyst is not sleeping on Gus Malzahn’s 2014 Tigers.  Last week, former Florida Gator and 14-year NFL veteran Kevin Carter picked the Auburn Tigers to go 12-1 with a home loss to South Carolina, and repeat as SEC Champions.  Someone has hacked my computer.)

 

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]. You can read his previous stories for TWER here.

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

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