Auburn Football: Gus Malzahn's 6 Biggest Challenges for the Tigers in 2014
When Gus Malzahn became Auburn's head coach in December 2012, the challenge facing him was immense.
The Tigers were coming off their worst season in recent history, an embarrassing 3-9 campaign that featured zero conference wins. Auburn would have to adjust to a new coaching staff while trying to preserve its recruiting prowess in the competitive SEC landscape.
A year-and-a-half later, after a dramatic turnaround that finished with an SEC championship and a spot in the final BCS title game, Malzahn's initial challenge has been accepted and conquered.
Now, the second-year head coach has to deal with a new set of tests.
Malzahn's Tigers will open the 2014 slate with great expectations, as they return a majority of their starters from last year's storybook season. But there are still holes to fill in the depth chart, tough matchups on the schedule and a shift from underdog to trendy preseason favorite.
Here is a look at six challenges standing in the way of Auburn's ultimate destination for 2014: a trip back to the college football's biggest stage to grab what it narrowly missed in 2013.
Achieving Offensive Balance
Auburn's long run to the BCS National Championship Game last season was exactly that—one long run.
The Tigers called running plays 72 percent of the time last season. The mix of read-option and power-running plays gave Auburn the top rushing attack in college football, but Malzahn's offense lacked a consistent aerial threat in passing situations.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee want that to change in 2014, when the offense will feature a more experienced Nick Marshall at quarterback and junior college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams as a new big-play receiver.
Marshall was named Auburn's A-Day Offensive MVP after attempting 22 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns in one half of action. While Williams and returning starter Sammie Coates showcased the Tigers' new attacking mentality in going for catches at A-Day, senior Quan Bray had a breakout performance Auburn fans have been anticipating with a pair of touchdowns.
Auburn's 2014 offense showed that lighting up the scoreboard with an all-around offense will be easy—when it faces a second-team defense. Only time will tell if the Tigers will be able to continue that successful balance against some of the nation's best defenses in the grind of the SEC schedule.
Cutting Down Turnovers
Nick Marshall arrived at Auburn with a bad reputation for turnovers. In his one season at Garden City (Kansas) Community College, the defensive back turned quarterback threw 20 interceptions and fumbled the ball five times.
Marshall's interception numbers decreased dramatically in a run-heavy offense, and he finished the 2013 season with only five picks.
If Marshall continues to improve his accuracy through the offseason and into the 2014 campaign, Auburn's offense should be safe from an alarming rate of turnovers through the air.
However, the Tigers must address their fumbling problem. Marshall and his fellow offensive playmakers coughed up the ball 30 times in 2013, which resulted in 11 changes of possession.
Auburn finished last season with a zero in turnover margin. The last three national championship teams have finished with turnover margins of plus-8 or higher, with defending champions Florida State setting the pace with an incredible plus-17. If Auburn wants to be a championship program in 2014, it needs its defense to create more takeaways and its offense to protect the ball.
Improving "Between the 20s" Defensively
Auburn's defense made great strides in several statistical areas last season, from finishing 10th nationally in red-zone defense to jumping 18 spots in scoring defense.
Although Ellis Johnson's defense was one of the toughest units to break down in scoring situations, opposing offenses had little trouble moving the ball "between the 20s." Even with an SEC title and an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game, Auburn finished 87th in the country with an average of 420 yards allowed per game.
Fortunately for Johnson, he has seen improvement in his 4-2-5 defense so far this offseason.
"We're making a lot of plays that we didn't make last spring," Johnson said. "Familiarity within the system, making quicker and better adjustments on formations and playing better within the system and with each other, we're just a lot better."
The Tigers will have to replace a few veterans from their defense, but they also return several key starters who played important roles in the turnaround. With more practice against one of the nation's fastest offenses in the spring, the Auburn defense should be prepared to handle high-caliber attacks outside the red zone.
Installing New Specialists
Auburn's special teams became one of the program's most reliable units in its dramatic turnaround from SEC cellar dwellers to champions.
Kicker Cody Parkey, punter Steven Clark, kick returner Tre Mason, punt returner Chris Davis and holder Ryan White are now on NFL rosters, so the Tigers will have to debut an entirely new set of specialists for 2014.
The newcomers at kicker and punter, redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson and Jimmy Hutchinson, each spent a season training with the Tigers in their title campaign. Both players were at the top of the 2013 recruiting class nationally at their respective positions, and Carlson found a spot on B/R's Preseason NCAA All-Freshman Team.
In the return game, Auburn has an impressive list of potential replacements, including speed demon Corey Grant and veteran cornerback Jonathon Mincy. Former starting quarterback Jonathan Wallace is taking the snaps at holder, giving a new passing component to Auburn's popular "Batman" extra-point conversion.
Several of these special teams newcomers have not played under the bright lights of Jordan-Hare Stadium in a crucial conference showdown. As seen in the 2013 Iron Bowl, specialists can decide the outcome of a major game, so the new faces will need to transition quickly.
Handling High Expectations
No one predicted Auburn, who went 3-9 in 2012 and changed an entire coaching staff, would be on top of the SEC in 2013.
Auburn thrived in its underdog role last season, knocking off several ranked teams with a surprising new offense and a resurgent defense.
This season, the Tigers will take no one by surprise.
Auburn will most likely open the season with a Top Five ranking and will be one of the favorites to make the inaugural College Football Playoff. For the first time in several years, the Tigers will have targets on their backs when compared to divisional powerhouses Alabama and LSU.
The last two seasons in which Auburn started in the preseason Top 10 ended in disappointing fashion—2006 featured two conference losses to unranked rivals, and 2003 finished with a trip to the Music City Bowl for the eighth win of the season. The Tigers will be determined to redeem themselves from the heartbreaking loss in Pasadena, but will it be enough to push them through a grueling SEC schedule?
Surviving "Amen Corner"
Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing the 2014 Tigers will be the first road-only version of "Amen Corner," the annual rivalry games against Georgia and Alabama.
After two of the most unbelievable wins in program history against these rivals pushed Auburn to the SEC title game, a potential championship defense could go right through Athens and Tuscaloosa.
Auburn's last win at Bryant-Denny Stadium came in 2010 with the famous Cam Newton-led comeback. Although the Tigers have won seven of the nine Iron Bowls played in Tuscaloosa, they have not had recent success in Athens, where Georgia has won four of the last five meetings.
Home-field advantage played an important role in Auburn's big rivalry wins last season, but Malzahn's squad will not have that luxury this season. Road games in the SEC are never easy, and the two biggest games on the Tigers' schedule will undoubtedly be the two toughest challenges in 2014.