Heading into the 2013 season the questions surrounding Auburn were: What does head coach Gus Malzahn need to improve Auburn’s stock? Does he have the right players to win games? Does he have the tools to win the way he wants to win?
Auburn and Malzahn answered those questions with an emphatic yes, posting a 12-2 overall record, picking up the SEC Championship, and coming 13 seconds short of a BCS Championship. Emphatic can be negative or positive. Need to clarify.
The questions this year are framed in the wake of that success. Can Auburn sustain the momentum? What obstacles face the Tigers?
There are two key factors in Auburn’s favor if they hope to build upon last year’s successes. First, the advantage created by continuity of the coaching staff. Second, the number of returning offensive playmakers points to potential to be even more explosive.
Malzahn and the Tigers. turned the ship around faster than anyone imagined last season. Call it fate, call it luck, call it karma, but the results speak for themselves.
A team that could barely line up properly in 2012 came out of the gate vastly improved and continued to get better all season. The team that trounced Missouri with nearly 600 yards rushing in the SEC Championship Game would beat the Auburn team that worked hard to get by Washington State by 20 points or more.
The bulk of key staff returning allows for continued growth throughout the off-season and the dividends should be evident early this season. That level of continuity also leads to sustained recruiting successes.
Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson to the St. Louis Rams is nothing to sneeze at but anyone writing off Auburn’s offense does so foolishly.
Nick Marshall, in spite of a recent moment of poor judgment, looked much improved in the passing game this spring. Add in an exciting group of targets for him to hit and you can see the makings of a more balanced, more explosive Auburn attack for 2014.
Auburn is solid up front and in the backfield as well. So even if the defense is exactly what it was in 2013, Auburn is going to be able to put points and pressure on opponents this season.
Conversely, there are two key obstacles to Auburn’s attempt at a repeat performance: the schedule and playing as the hunted.
Auburn’s schedule starts off favorably. Arkansas is still a long way from being good and San Jose State is coming in for a pay day. Things get interesting in the third game with a Thursday night trip against Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats. To Auburn’s advantage, the Tigers have an off-week prior to this road trip.
An early homecoming against Terry Bradshaw’s alma mater, Louisiana Tech closes out September.
In October, Auburn will enters a series of bear traps each week.
LSU on October 4th will be the most talented team by far Auburn will face by that point of the season. The Bayou Bengal defense seems to be the only one in the SEC immune to the effects of the Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) Offense.
Auburn hasn’t fared well against LSU in recent years and it is certain Les Miles’ team will bring the wood when they step on the Plains.
The following week is a trip to Starkvegas where Mississippi State awaits. No one is sure just how good the Bulldogs might be this year. However, no one is denying the talent of QB second team all SEC quarterback Dak Prescott this season and taking him lightly would be a mistake.
Under fifth year head coach Dan Mullen Mississippi State fans once again think the Bulldogs are “on the verge” of a breakout season. Second-team All SEC quarterback Dak Prescott leads the ‘Dogs and while State’s breakout dreams will likely fizzle in the brutal SEC-West once again, this isn’t a game the Tigers can overlook.
The open date provides a much needed respite before a tough three-game stretch that includes home dates against SEC East favorite South Carolina, a road trip to Ole Miss, and a homestand against Johnny Manziel-less Texas A&M.
Traveling to Georgia and Alabama (with Samford sandwiched in between) to close the season is as tough an Amen Corner as Auburn has faced in years.
Navigating that schedule unscathed would be a herculean feat.
Malzahn has already admitted that this team knows they won’t sneak up on anyone this year.
It’s arguable that last year’s team didn’t do much sneaking after it was established, either. Maybe Texas A&M wasn’t prepared for the full offensive assualt, but after that opponents knew what they were getting week in and week out.
Auburn will get every team’s best shot and moreover, the coaching staff will have to break out unleash more of the playbook to cut through the SEC slate and have a chance to make the eventual playoffs. This is an attitude thing, pure and simple.
If the coaches can keep this team hungry and focused, it won’t be an issue. However, we’ve all seen what happens when a team starts believing the hype.
The 2014 season is nigh and the bar is set high for the Tigers. Here’s to seeing if/how they clear it.