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Inside Auburn's Road Back to Relevance

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Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterNovember 30, 2016

Auburn's turnaround from a 3-9 record in 2012 to 10-1, the No. 6 spot in the BCS standings and an Iron Bowl showdown with Alabama for the SEC West title in 2013 is nothing short of remarkable.

A team that was shut out by a combined score of 87-0 in its final two SEC games last season is on the periphery of the national title race and all of the sudden relevant in the SEC again.

AUBURN, AL - NOVEMBER 16: Ryan Smith #24 of the Auburn Tigers celebrates after the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 16, 2013 in Auburn Alabama. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

What's the reason for the remarkable one-year turnaround?

First-year head coach Gus Malzahn.

When athletic director Jay Jacobs hired Malzahn after a one-year stint as Arkansas State's head coach, he knew Malzahn would turn things around. But the immediate success—with Auburn in the mix for the SEC Championship Game and BCS National Championship Game in Year 1—was a shock even to him.

"I knew we would get better, and I knew we would again, have fun playing the game, but I don't know if anybody thought we'd improve this much this quickly," Jacobs said. 

So how did Malzahn turn things around so quickly?

Sep 14, 2013; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn during the first quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Jordan Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

His mantra from Day 1 has been that it's "A New Day" in Auburn, and his most important sales job as the new coach on the block was selling that mantra to his team.

It bought in.

"That was the biggest thing they had to accomplish, and that was the thing that Gus focused on from the very beginning," Jacobs said. "It all starts with trust and confidence, and that's why it was so important and Gus was so relentless in making sure he had the right staff, the right nine assistant coaches. Guys who are teachers, guys who are trustworthy and guys who are made of character."

Headlining the success in Malzahn's first year as the head coach on the Plains has been the remarkable turnaround of the offense, which ranks second in the SEC in yards per game at 499.9 after amassing just 305.0 yards per game in 2012.

Auburn Total Offense 2012 vs. 2013
Statistical Category20122013
Total Offense305.0 YPG499.9 YPG
Rushing Offense148.42 YPG320.27 YPG
Scoring Offense18.7 PPG39.0 PPG
Yards Per Play5.277.04
Plays of 20+ Yards4561
CFBStats.com

The coaching staff having one singular focus was big for Malzahn's offense, and the cohesive offensive strategy has paid immediate dividends for the Tigers.

"There's a consolidation of strategy," said Jay G. Tate, publisher of AuburnSports.com. "I really like [former offensive coordinator] Scot Loeffler, but I didn't feel like he had a good grasp of what he wanted to do last year. I know he knows how to run a good offense, but he was stuck between what he wanted to do and what he had, and I never really felt there was a real overall concept of what was trying to be accomplished."

Of course, junior college transfer Nick Marshall's emergence as a legitimate dual-threat quarterback accelerated the transition process.

Marshall leads SEC quarterbacks with 82.30 rushing yards per game, has tossed nine touchdown passes and is averaging 153.0 yards per game through the air. He was only on campus for five weeks before taking his first snap with the Tigers, and Malzahn has been impressed with his evolution within the system.

Auburn QB Nick Marshall
Auburn QB Nick MarshallScott Cunningham/Getty Images

"It's really all of the above," Malzahn said. "Just being comfortable running the offense with the communication, his reads and his progressions and really, his game management."

But it wasn't just a change in the on-the-field coaching staff that turned around Auburn's fortunes, it was a change in the strength and conditioning program that has really helped the Tigers buckle down in the red zone.

Ryan Russell, the team's strength and conditioning coach, came to Auburn from Arkansas State, and has played a major role in the turnaround. The Tigers rank third in the conference in red-zone touchdown percentage (47.37 percent), and second in red-zone scoring percentage (73.68 percent).

"Maybe one of the most important things that Gus did was bring Ryan Russell in here," Jacobs said. "Your team is really built January through August, and the way these guys are conditioned and the condition that coach Russell has got them in, I'd say that's an easy area [of the turnaround] to overlook. But when you have a problem in that area, that's the first thing that pops out."

The play of Auburn's defensive line has been a big reason the Tigers have been successful this season. Defensive end Dee Ford is second in the conference in sacks with eight and tackles for loss with 11.5—all of which have come in the last eight games.

Auburn DE Dee Ford
Auburn DE Dee FordWesley Hitt/Getty Images

A talent injection this offseason along the defensive line with defensive tackle Montravius Adams and defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel has allowed the staff to rotate throughout the game, keeping players fresh for a full four quarters.

"National signing day was a key day for us," Jacobs said. "We signed some key guys who are already now playing like Lawson, Adams and Daniel. We thought the D-line would be the deepest position on the team, but we've had some injuries and some of those freshmen had to come in and help out."

In one short year, Malzahn has completely reversed the fortunes of a program that was in turmoil just 12 months ago. A team that was battered, beaten, demoralized and lost has found its way all the way back into legitimate title consideration.

"At 10-1," Jacobs said, "it's safe to say that Auburn football is back."

Back indeed. 

Back in the Top 10, back in the national conversation and—most importantly—back into relevancy.

It was going to happen at some point, but nobody expected it to come this quickly.

 

*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

 


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