Auburn is the reigning champion of the Southeastern Conference—widely considered the best football league in the world besides the AFC and NFC of the NFL—and came within 20 seconds of winning a national title last season. With plenty of talent returning, it is expected by most to compete for similar honors in 2014.
So many things about this story are remarkable. In 2012, Auburn hit a historic low with a 3-9 overall record and winless run through the SEC. Gus Malzahn had one year of college head coaching experience—in the Sun Belt Conference, no less—before taking over on the Plains in December 2012, making the speed of the turnaround hard to fathom.
How does a program engineer such an about-face?
The answer is complicated and nuanced, owing itself to players and coaches up and down the roster. But perhaps nothing explains it better than a quick look at next year's projected starting backfield.
A backfield that is made up purely of transfers.
Quarterback Nick Marshall started his career as a defensive back at Georgia before moving to Garden City (Kan.) Community College to try his hand at playing quarterback, which he had also played in high school. The result was rather peachy, Marshall going on to pass for more than 3,000 yards, rush for more than 1,000 yards and score 37 total touchdowns in his lone season at the JUCO level.
He threw 20 interceptions—there were kinks for Malzahn to smooth over, no doubt—but not every quarterback can shuffle around the pocket, launch an effortless bomb from his own 15-yard line and have it land in his receiver's hand on the opposite 15 (clip at 1:28 below):
This is the type of potential Auburn looks for in transfer players: talent that had often landed at one SEC program, wasn't the correct fit and is now looking for a fresh new beginning. It exists, in half, right behind Marshall in the Auburn backfield, too.
Battling to "replace" Tre Mason as the lead dog in Malzahn's running game are two players who received more than 60 carries last season. One, Cameron Artis-Payne, joined the program, like Marshall, as a JUCO transfer in 2013. The other, Corey Grant, came over from bitter rival Alabama—which couldn't find an earnest role for him—to walk-on at his hometown school on the Plains.
Together the pair of Grant and Artis-Payne, who combined to rush for 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, have Auburn fans feeling at ease despite the loss of a Heisman finalist in the backfield. Such is the depth fostered by searching for quality transfers.
Such is the ultimate safety net.
This history, of course, runs deeper than just last season.
In 2010 Auburn welcomed a University of Florida émigré whose one year at Blinn College (Texas) went well, leading to his being ranked the No. 2 JUCO player on the 247Sports composite.
That man was Cameron J. Newton, who in one year led Auburn to an undefeated record, won the Heisman Trophy, claimed a national title and was drafted No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers.
In doing so, Newton not only proved Auburn a program capable of hanging with its rival in Tuscaloosa: He established it a comfortable, auspicious host school for players in need of a fresh start. And now, four years and one more trip to the national title game later, such a reputation is beginning to reap its benefits.
Former head coach Gene Chizik didn't fully grasp the position he was in after Newton led his team to the title. He had just fostered the most successful first-year transfer season in (at the very least) modern college football history. Such a feat deserves to be snowballed on—to beget another feat just like it.
Instead, Auburn flat stopped bringing in JUCO players the next two seasons. It failed to pitch itself as the place Newton had proved it to be. Not until Malzahn's first half-class in 2013 did the Tigers sign a single new recruit from junior college.
Malzahn in his first year signed six.
Even though he, unlike Chizik, fell short in the national title game, Malzahn is using the transfer system to his advantage. Marshall came from JUCO and now, in less than a year, he's a household name and Heisman candidate. What's stopping you from doing the same?
That pitch appears to have worked on the recruiting trail, as Malzahn landed the No. 1 JUCO player on the 247Sports composite, 6'3'' receiver D'haquille Williams. The last time a receiver was the No. 1 overall JUCO player in the country, it was former Tennessee Volunteer and current Minnesota Vikings standout Cordarrelle Patterson.
Also coming in this cycle are the top-rated defensive lineman and safety from the JUCO ranks—DaVonte Lambert and Derrick Moncrief, respectively. Both were top-11 overall players on the composite and are expected to play meaningful snaps for a national title contender in 2014.
For 2015, Malzahn has already secured commitments from athlete Jason Smith and cornerback Tony Bridges. Both are former teammates of Williams and Moncrief at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, both are the top-rated players at their position and both are ranked in the top seven of the overall JUCO composite.
This is how Malzahn prefers conducting business.
See a potential hole on next year's roster? Fill it with a transfer from another SEC school or junior college.
He said as much on signing day of this year:
Auburn is content to become the Ellis Island of college football: The melting-pot city where the expats all descend, where they can live the (Southeastern) American Dream.
Two former SEC players went to JUCO, became Auburn quarterbacks and led the school to an SEC title in their first year. In 2014, there's a chance a receiver, lineman and safety help achieve a similar thing.
And if the system ain't broke...don't fix it.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT