Let’s make one thing clear: Even if the following steps are executed with the meticulousness of a world-class brain surgeon, the likelihood of an Auburn-esque turnaround in only one year is dubious. It simply doesn’t happen—it's a historical outlier—and another Malzahnian surge from a different party nestled off the grid seems unlikely.
That’s not saying there aren’t intriguing teams, coaches and situations that will be able to take that next step. But taking that next, next step—the one where national championships are suddenly in the equation following a solid year of dumpster-fire GIFs to summarize the season—requires a variety of things to go right.
It also requires a plan, a customized collaboration based off specific personnel. This Auburn team had a plan and a coach that was able to scheme to the team’s potential almost instantly. It also had talent in key places, a necessity in any turnaround.
There was a blueprint, one that fell just short of the crystal football. The unbelievable path to get there outlined a road map for teams to follow, one with a few distinct traits that other hopefuls should take note of.
Step 1: Make Offense the Priority and Lean on Your Playmakers
The term “Defense Wins Championships” looks lovely on a poster, and your father will still lean on it regularly because it sounds like intelligent football talk. The reality of the phrase, however, is that it's also horribly outdated. Generating enough offense can mask your glaring imperfections on the other side of the ball.
The difference between this step and the others to follow is that this is a philosophical decision that is made early on, perhaps somewhat naturally depending on the head coach.
Focusing in on offense doesn’t necessarily mean that defense is an afterthought, either. It simply means that the guts of this team—the thing that makes it tick—will be putting points on the board in unique ways.
That was the Auburn way. A distinctive, paced offensive attack and a “stop us if you can” mentality. It was built around running back Tre Mason, who ran for more than 1,800 yards this past season. This included 663 yards and seven touchdowns against Alabama, Missouri and Florida State to close out the year.
The term “playmaker” is relative, but every team has a player that can do spectacular things with the football in his hands. It may not have a Tre Mason, but it has a building block. And this renaissance should begin with this simple idea of building around him.
Step 2: Settle on a Quarterback and Build around His Strengths
Of course, “Find a Heisman-winning quarterback and start him” feels like a logical first step. Realistically, however, most teams simply won’t have a Jameis Winston to turn to. If you do, please ignore Step 2 and move to Step 3.
More than likely, however, a team will have an intriguing quarterback with something that can inflict damage on an opposing defense. In the case of Auburn, it had Nick Marshall’s raw athleticism. Marshall’s throwing was—and still is—a work in progress, but few quarterbacks around the country are able to match what he can bring on the ground.
Building around his strengths took even the great offensive sorcerer Gus Malzahn and his staff time to figure out. After throwing 67 passes in Weeks 3 and 4, Marshall threw the ball just 56 times over the next five games.
He became more of a threat to run, and matching his ability with a potent group of backs and an athletic offensive line didn’t hurt, either. Systematically, however, Auburn geared its offense around what Marshall was able to do at that given time.
For other teams, this isn’t about finding the next Nick Marshall. This is about finding a capable player with talent—and yes, this part is required—and game-planning to what makes him unique.
Making the player who will touch the ball on every offensive play comfortable is an integral part of making any team go, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this depending on the personnel in place.
Step 3: Dominate the Statistics and Areas That Often Go Unnoticed
This is cliché coach speak, but there’s something to be said about excelling in areas that are often overlooked. It’s in the details.
This won’t generate the same kind of interest as some of the major categories, but situational domination can go a long way over the course of the year.
A strange but meaningful example of this is kickoffs. No team in the country kicked more touchbacks than Auburn in 2013. The Tigers’ 69 touchbacks were tops overall by a significant margin. For a reminder of just how vital this statistic can be, watch the final five minutes of the national championship.
Finishing in the top 30 in kickoff returns, penalty yardage and sacks allowed per game also aided Auburn a great deal. Field position became an integral part of how this team functioned, while negative plays were eliminated.
There are more specific statistics that accurately encompass the team, like finishing second in plays of 50 yards or more. These are more obvious than matters relating to field position, turnovers and special teams, but all can equate to overwhelming, unexpected success.
Step 4: Scheme to Your Defensive Strengths; Accept Who You’re Not
If you’re able to scheme accordingly, you won’t need all-Americans roaming the field at every level on defense. However, this can be easier said than done for most.
Having a particular unit with some dominant, game-changing players, however, can be more than enough to push you over that edge. For Auburn, its defensive strength came with its defensive line. Headlined by Dee Ford and star-to-be Carl Lawson, the Tigers finished with 32 sacks on the season. This aggressive approach put them at No. 3 in the SEC, behind Missouri and Georgia.
On the other end of the results spectrum, the Tigers opponents averaged 4.6 yards per carry. This put them at No. 10 in the conference and tied them at No. 86 overall with Temple.
Auburn’s approach along the front was built off aggression: Get to the quarterback without blitzing, generate negative plays (90 for the season) and cause chaos whenever possible.
Of course, this was an ideal scenario for a team with talent up front, a luxury not all have.
If a team is unable to generate pressure with its front four, it will have to blitz. If the secondary is a concern (as it is for many), getting pressure by any means possible will be key in eliminating this strain off the back end. This is just a small sample size of situations, although many fight similar battles yearly.
By being overly aggressive, you’ll give up big plays, certainly, but you’ll also generate some with this style. It’s not a perfect system, although it doesn’t need to be.
Step 5: Hope For Luck
For any team—anticipated dominant force or unlikely party—luck is an integral part of this equation. You need it to thrive over the course of a grueling regular season. There are no factors to predict if this will be on your side.
You either have it or you don’t.
Auburn found luck in many ways. In the simplest form, injuries were never really an issue. That sounds insignificant compared to some of the highlights that will live on, but this is the usual piece of the puzzle that derails most title hopes.
Then, of course, there’s the luck that takes this to another level: It’s the 4th-and-18 pass that somehow found its way into Ricardo Louis’ hands against Georgia. Or the Iron Bowl finish against Alabama that requires no further narrating.
Auburn made its own breaks, but it was also on the right side of some incredible fortune. For a team to follow in its footsteps—to go from pleasant surprise to feared power with a snap of the finger—luck will need to be a significant role.
You can have three Gus Malzahns, two Tre Masons and four Dee Fords, and yet a team is still likely to fall out of the championship picture at some point. It's the percentages, and the room for error is so incredibly small.
For teams off the grid looking for that immediate turnaround, it's even smaller. But as we saw firsthand this season, it can be done.