Anyone who was raised an Auburn fan and has even made limited trips to The Plains on a football Saturday knows that the University and program are entrenched in tradition — true college game day traditions that are at the very core of what college football is all about. Regardless of where Auburn stands in the win-loss column, devoted fans flock to Auburn each football Saturday to participate in Tiger Walk, tailgate with friends, watch the eagle fly and hopefully congregate at Toomer’s Corner to roll the trees after a big win. These and many other traditions help form that bond between Auburn students, alumni and fans alike, giving a true sense of family.
Auburn fans also realize that following this program through the years is a rollercoaster ride like no other. It seems that no team’s fortunes change in the blink of an eye more than those of the Auburn Tigers.
One season finale finds a program in disarray. After losing to its biggest rival by 40 points the ten-year tenure of head coach Tommy Tuberville comes to a disappointing end. Two short years later, some of the same players who suffered the end of the Tuberville era hoist the crystal football up high on a January night in Arizona, celebrating a perfect season and the BCS Championship.
Fast forward another two years to find Auburn marred in one of the worst seasons in its storied history. From BCS to bust, head coach Gene Chizik’s Auburn arc flames quickly out.
Changes come swiftly, former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn returns to helm the Auburn football program and a new day dawns. Just one year removed from the Chizik crash, only a rare special teams miscue and a last second drive by Florida State prevents the SEC Champion Tigers from bringing home a second national championship in four years.
The question now is simple: Does this rollercoaster ride of highs and lows continue or has Coach Malzahn laid the foundation to lift this program to an elite level and keep it there for years to come?
The answer may lie in the old adage that great leaders surround themselves with great people. Malzahn has taken that approach to heart and assembled a coaching staff that rivals and most likely trumps any staff in all of college football.
Another old coaching adage states: “It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmys and Joes.” Top tier talent can make an average coach look great. Top talent in the hands of a great coach creates legends.
Malzahn clearly understands the need to attract quality coaching and player talent to compete.
In assembling his staff, one first qualifications he looked for in an assistant coach was the ability to draw top talent from around the country. Former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig, named National Recruiter of the Year while Recruiting Coordinator at Florida State, was lured home by Malzahn. So were former Tigers Rodney Garner and Travaris Robinson, both lauded as among the best recruiters in the game.
Running backs Coach Tim Horton, was also recognized by ESPN as one of the nation’s top recruiters and also molded that talent into great performers. Horton was of just two coaches in the nation, and the only one in the SEC, to coach four different 1,000-yard rushers from 2007-10. In his two seasons at Auburn, Horton coached SEC leading rusher and Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason, who rushed for more than 1800 yards in 2013 and All SEC back Cameron Artis-Payne who led the SEC with more than 1600 yards in 2014.
In bringing back Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator after his stint as head coach of the Florida Gators, Malzahn not only added another top flight recruiter, he also secured what many believe is the best defensive coordinator in the game. In five seasons as SEC defensive coordinator (LSU and Auburn) each of Muschamp’s defenses finished in ranked in the top ten nationally in total defense and the top 15 nationally in scoring defense. Even as head coach, his Florida defenses ranked in the top ten nationally in 2013 and 14.
A more star-studded line up of coaches in college football would be difficult to find. In regard to their collective recruiting prowess, the proof is in the consistent top ten rankings by every recruiting service available. Look no further than the talented array of players Auburn will field on both sides of the ball in 2015 as evidence.
Malzahn’s high powered offense will have four and five star recruits at all skill positions. The same applies to an offensive line that is expected be one of the top units in the SEC and perhaps the country.
Muschamp didn’t exactly inherit a bare defensive cupboard either. Despite some troubling late season defensive woes that were at the heart of a 2014 collapse that saw Auburn lose five of its last six games and fall out of playoff contention, the problems seemed to be more with schemes and game planning than personnel.
There was certainly enough defensive talent to perform at a higher level than the team did under former coach Ellis Johnson, who was fired at the end of the regular season. Muschamp’s arrival helped secure a recruiting class that included numerous highly rated defensive players, including the nation’s top defensive recruit, Byron Cowart. If Cowart is as talented as most anticipate, Muschamp may have the luxury of putting a trio of consensus 5-star defensive linemen on the field at the same time. Two experienced senior linebackers return and numerous 4-star underclassmen pushing for playing time at that position as well. In addition, transfers Tray Matthews and Blake Countess from Georgia and Michigan respectively suddenly boost a secondary that was a weakness in 2014 to potentially one of the better units on the team.
The possibilities are endless and exciting, particularly when viewed through Orange and Blue Ray Bans. When those colored sunglasses are removed, however, the reality is this combination of superior coaching and top level talent is merely what it takes to compete in what remains the toughest division in the toughest conference in the land. To rise above and compete for championships requires the addition of quality coaching.
It’s a brutal grind. All seven teams from the SEC West teams are ranked in virtually every preseason top 25 poll. Every single program can make a case for finishing atop the West pile. Even traditional doormats Mississippi State and Ole Miss have raised the stakes, finding their way into the playoff conversation in 2014. There are no easy outs.
Lofty expectations have been placed on his program by many of the experts, and rightfully so. When a team boasts a staff of this pedigree and a roster filled with burgeoning talent, expectations come with the territory.
Some Auburn fans claim to relish the role of underdog coming into a season. Those who cling to that point of view cherry pick seasons when Auburn was expected to dominate (see 2003) and the team underperformed. They highlight other seasons where Auburn wasn’t expected to contend (see 2004, 2010 and 2013) yet the Tigers rose above those expectations.
The reality, however, is that trend isn’t an “Auburn” thing. Team fortunes ebb and flow. The last time a team went wire-to-wire number one? USC in 2004. Twelve times since 1997 the team that finished first started the season ranked fifth or worse. Six of those were ranked out of the top ten.
Meanwhile the team picked in the preseason to finish first rarely came close. Only four times in the last ten years has the top ranked team in the preseason finished in the top five. Most finished tenth or worse, one finished unranked.
It is a virtually undeniable certainty however, that a team needs to be ranked inside the safety zone of the Top Ten if it truly intends to be a contender. Only four times in the last 17 years has the national champion come from outside the preseason Top 10. One of those was Auburn. The 2010 Tigers are the only program to come from outside the Top 20 and finish with a championship.
For Malzahn to elevate Auburn into a perennial national power, the old-school “play the role of underdog” mentality isn’t the answer. Shying away from expectations isn’t the magical talisman. Embrace the expectations and anticipate excellence. To rise to the level to which this team and staff are capable, the program must “get off the rollercoaster” and level out the up and down ride.
From the outsider’s perspective it appears that Malzahn has the resources, the support, the staff and the talent to get the Tigers off that ride and keep the program in the playoff conversation every year.
If Malzahn has the formula to elevate his team to that level consistency, the greatest college game day traditions in the land will be even more enjoyable for Auburn fans.