Can Auburn win right away this year?

malzahn_cheerAfter reading Quan Bray’s statement about a national championship and seeing some optimism on our message board, I started wondering if Gus really has the ability to hit 8 wins this year.  What does Gus need to have to really impress?  Does he have the right players to win games the way he wants to win them? 

Looking back at Gus’s career even back into his high school coaching days, it’s evident that Gus’s teams are not heavy on defense.  Having a squad that can put up points and put up points quickly is the primary need for Gus to win.  Having a defense that causes big plays and bends but doesn’t break is needed, but having a total shut down defense is only a want and not a need.

We can see that this is true when analyzing how teams change when Gus comes on board.  Skipping the Arkansas season for myriad reasons, I’m going to begin with Tulsa.  This will be brief before getting to 2013 Auburn.

In 2006, based on a bit of research and a bit of difficulty finding official statistics, Tulsa’s offense had 4000 total yards for the season.  About 3000 yards passing and 1000 rushing, and the rushing yards were spread out over a host of running backs with only one breaking the 350 yard mark for the year.

In 2007, Gus arrived and Tulsa hit 7615 total yards, averaging 41.1 points per game, and improving their run game from 1000 yards to 2421 yards.

That’s a 3600 yard jump thanks to Gus Malzahn’s offense, and the team went on to finish with ten wins since 1991.

In 2008, Gus again improved the offense to 7978 yards…nearly 8000 yards in one season.  This time, the team rushed for 3752 yards.  In two yards, Gus Malzahn improved the offensive running game by 2700 yards.

In 2009, Gus arrived to an Auburn team that featured one of the most embarrassing offenses in SEC history.  The offensive coordinator had been fired midyear, the team earned one of its five wins by kicking a field goal and shutting out the other team’s offense.  The team was shut out by Alabama and generally laughed at when it came to offensive production.

Then Gus took over and improved the total yards from 3627 yards in 2008 to 5613 yards in 2009.  The team went from 5 wins to 8 wins with a few games damn near being huge upsets.  The run game improved from 1642 yards in 2008 to 2756 yards in 2009.  Also, most importantly for what we are dealing with in 2013, Gus Malzahn came to Auburn when Auburn seemingly had an embarrassing assortment of quarterbacks.  Who would play, everyone asked?  Kodi Burns was god awful.  Chris Todd was the laughing stock even of Auburn fans.

And the passing game improved from 1985 yards in 2008 to 2857 yards in 2009.

We know about 2010.  More on that later.

In 2011, when the wheels began coming off the Chizik era, we saw the offense take a hit.  Even with a difficult crop of quarterbacks with little talent, Malzahn’s offense put up 4392 total yards.

In 2012, Malzahn left and Chizik lost his mind and Loeffler was too young and the offense had 3660 total yards while averaging a mere 18.7 points per game.

Also in 2012, Malzahn became the head coach at Arkansas State where he had to take on multiple roles instead of being just the offensive coordinator.  Did this inhibit his team from having again an improved offense that dominates?

Not one bit.  Arkansas State was already built for a high octane successful offense.  Gus still improved it.  In 2011, Arkansas State had 5800 total yards of offense.  In 2012, they hit the 6000 yard mark.  They earned 700 more rushing yards than in 2011 and finished the season with 8 straight wins.

TL;DR – Gus Malzahn knows offense.  He has always improved the offense when he’s arrived no matter the personnel or history.  When Gus Malzahn’s offense is clicking, he has always been part of a team with at least 8 wins.  When Malzahn’s offense is clicking, he’s only been part of a team getting blown out six times.  Take away the debacle of 2011, he’s only been part of a team being blown out twice.

So what does this mean for 2013?

When analyzing Gus Malzahn’s offense, we can see what offensive features are crucial for success.  In 2010, everything Gus Malzahn needs came together and we saw one of the most dangerous offenses in college football history, and that team led by the offense and a big play defense went undefeated when its conference division was at its toughest possibly in its history and the pinnacle of the season was a Heisman Trophy and a BCS national championship.

In 2010, the offense featured the following components: 

1. Athletic quarterback with a strong arm and pinpoint accuracy (Cam)
2. A scatback that can move between the tackles with some strength (Dyer)
3. A speedster that can hit the corner or take screens (O-Mac)
4. A sure handed possession receiver (Darvin)
5. A deep threat at receiver (Zachary)
6. A sure handed TE (Lutz)
7. A dual threat H-Back (Smith)
8. An experienced center with knowledge and strength (Pugh)
9. A reliable left tackle with experience (Ziemba)
10. Size and strength on the offensive line

These are the players Malzahn wins with.  If you look at his other successful seasons as an offensive coordinator and head coach, this is what he needs.  What this really boils down to is a strong run game.  The passing game is the frosting.  The run game is the cake.

Can 2013 fill these needs even if they aren’t as talented?  I mean, obviously there’s no need to think we’re really going to go undefeated.  But could we hit 8 wins with this offense?

1.  Athletic quarterback with strong arm and pinpoint accuracy 

Nick Marshall is known for his speed.  Just perusing through a few articles, that’s his main strength.  He’s 6’2 205 pounds, and he’s fast enough to play DB in the SEC (Georgia a few years ago).  The knock on him is that his arm may not be the strongest and his accuracy is very suspect.  He threw a lot of interceptions in JUCO, however, his ability to scramble made him one of the more coveted JUCO quarterbacks in the nation.  It’s widely assumed that he will be the starter.  I think we can place a checkmark here with him.  Gus Malzahn’s offense isn’t necessarily built on five step drops, surveying the field, and making the proper throw with perfect fundamentals.  It’s quick paced, one step and throw sometimes, and that may mask his poor accuracy.

If he can’t throw the ball a few yards to his left to a receiver or running back screen, then we might as well have Frazier playing.

2.  Scatback – 100% yes, and we have depth here.  Tre Mason is a serviceable running back who runs his ass off and has great agility between the tackles.  Artis-Payne is a big guy that proved in spring practice that he can shed tacklers and hit the hole with reckless abandonment.  This is a big checkmark for 2013.

3.  Speedster RB – Not really.  Tre Mason is fast, but he’s no O-Mac fast.  He may serve the role well, but I’m not sure I see anyone that can fill this role immediately.  Perhaps Corey Grant, but I’m not going to give too much credit to guys that haven’t played yet as a starter on a college football team.

4.  Possession Receiver – No.  Not one receiver on this roster has proven to have good hands.  Perhaps Denson will fill this role, but based on last season and the spring, there’s no one.

5.  Deep threat – Trovon Reed?  Quan Bray?  Sammie Coates?  No one.  Not yet.  Can’t rely on these guys.  Coates proved he can get open deep, but we had trouble getting him the ball and he had problems hanging onto them.

6.  Sure handed TE – We have a few guys with potential.  Uzumah looked great before getting hurt.  But nothing to prove that we can count ont hese guys.

7.  H-Back – Prosch?  I guess we can count him.  He’s going to block people that’s for sure.  But catching a few passes like Eric Smith did?  Not sure he can handle that.

8.  Center – Experience?  Yes.  Reese Dismukes has experience.  Knowledge?  Not sure he has it.  He’s been part of two rather piss poor offenses and he’s had his fair share of off the field trouble.  With his talent though, I think we can put a checkmark on this one.

9.  Reliable LT
 – No.  Not even close.  While 2012 is tough to bring up because of the cluster that was that entire team, the fact remains that our offense gave up a whopping 36 sacks in 12 games.  That’s three per game, and I guarantee we gave up less than that in our 3 wins against directional cupcake schools.

10.  Strong offensive line – Gus’s mojo is the run game.  We have good size save for Patrick Miller.  We have a lot of recruiting stars from their high school days.  We know that last season the run game could get going despite having zero defense and zero passing game.  This is a big checkmark for us.  I think this line is going to gel together very well and push some folks around.

Conclusion – I’ve changed my mind.  I too am now thinking we can get to 8 wins.  Mainly because everywhere Gus has gone, the offense has not only improved overall; it has had a vast improvement in the running game.

And if there’s any area of the team that can already be considered a strength, it’s the running game.

I full expect Auburn to easily break the 2500 yard mark in rushing.  With an athletic quarterback, two sure-thing running backs, and a strong offensive line, we should take advantage of our three (four if you include Wash St) easier opponents.  We should still be matched well with the Mississippi schools pound for pound.  Arkansas is in danger of being a bottom dweller.  Tennessee is in a major rebuilding project with an unknown coach.

It might take a huge effort by the coaching staff, but I think Gus has the tools for his own formula of success.  Run the ball.  Improve the passing game.  Bend but don’t break defense.

Here are my preseason projections including predicted scores based on thin air, but whatever – 

1.  Wash State – Auburn wins 34-24
2. Arkansas State – Auburn wins 35-31
3.  Miss State – Auburn wins 24-21
4. @LSU – Auburn loses 17-31
5. Ole MIss – Auburn loses 24-28
6. Western Carolina – Auburn wins 56-21
7. @Texas A&M – Auburn loses 21-38
8. Florida Atlantic – Auburn wins 49-24
9. @Arkansas – Auburn wins 31-17
10. @Tennessee – Auburn wins 24-14
11. Georgia – Auburn loses 21-31
12. Alabama – Auburn loses 17-24

8-5. 

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