July 3, 2013
When you talk to Auburn football players, it's clear that they are a much happier and optimistic bunch than they were at the end of last season or even the start of last season.
First-year head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff deserve a lot of credit for that, but so do the players who went through the misery of last season deserve even more credit. They have enthusiastically bought into what their coaches are preaching and into the demanding program run by strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell.
Russell says that, not only are players showing up ready to take on "voluntary" workouts with enthusiasm, but they are coming back for more when their mandatory work is done.
"We have to run them out of here sometime because they have classes," Russell said. "We are having to push them out the door, which has been exciting. I actually said that to one of my guys on the staff. We used to have to pull them in. Now we are pushing them out."
That can only be a good sign for Auburn football. And it's a big step that had to be taken in the recovery process from last season's 3-9 record, the worst at Auburn in more than 60 years. But it's just a step.
Here is one man's opinion of five things that need to happen if the Tigers are to quickly regain what has been, for the better part of six decades, its rightful place in college football:
1. Win the games they are supposed to win. For a long time, Auburn has dominated the likes of Mississippi State, Ole Miss and even Tennessee. It certainly has more going for it than Arkansas. Win those games and the nonconference games and you already have eight wins.
2. Play Auburn-style defense. Gus Malzahn's hyper-speed offensive scheme will contribute greatly to winning games, but as bad as Auburn was on offense last season, it was a helpless defense that played the biggest part in blowout losses. In the final three SEC games - Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama - Auburn's defense gave up 16 touchdowns on 18 first-half possessions. All three of those teams pulled their starting quarterbacks after one series in the second half. You simply have no chance to win playing defense like that, and it goes strongly against Auburn tradition. Those three teams outscored the Tigers 150-21. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his players are convinced that kind of defense is a thing of the past.
3. Find a winning quarterback. It doesn't take an All-American quarterback or a first-round draft choice or even an All-SEC quarterback. It takes a quarterback who performs under pressure, protects the football and is viewed by his teammates as a leader. Who will take on that challenge? It could be junior college transfer Nick Marshall, junior Kiehl Frazier, sophomore Jonathan Wallace or true freshman Jeremy Johnson. All have talent, but that alone is not enough.
4. Force turnovers and don't turn the ball over. Check out the top teams in the country in any season. You'll also see teams that are at or near the top in turnover margin. Last season, Auburn's turnover margin was minus-12. Worse, Auburn quarterbacks threw 15 interceptions and Auburn defenders intercepted just two. That must change for the defense to be successful.
5. Play with confidence and swagger. In most seasons, Auburn football teams have gone into almost every game not only believing they could win but expecting to win. The past two seasons, there has been sign of that in the biggest games. It must come back.
Will all these things happen in the 2013 season? Some almost certainly will. Some will happen sooner than others. How many and how soon will have a lot to say about what happens in the season that rushes toward us.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: