Gus Malzahn came out of nowhere in his first season as Auburn's head coach, leading his team to the SEC title and to within 13 seconds of the crystal football.
Now, he's got a much more dangerous opponent to deal with: expectations.
Auburn no longer is the upstart monster nobody saw coming. It's a bear. A big one with a target on its back.
Should this season be playoff or bust for the Tigers?
When asked about that last month in Atlanta, Malzahn dodged the question like a fighter ducking a right cross.
"We have high expectations at Auburn," he told B/R at a booster event in Atlanta. "It's a process. We're going to be as good as we can possibly be. That will be our goal again."
Coach speak? No doubt.
But let's be real. While Malzahn, and most other coaches, will focus on the process during the offseason, the goal for this team isn't just making the playoffs—it's winning the whole thing.
For that reason, anything short of a playoff berth should be viewed as a disappointment.
Sure, losing running back Tre Mason, offensive tackle Greg Robinson and fullback Jay Prosch isn't ideal, but Malzahn has produced 11 1,000-yard rushers in eight seasons as a college head coach. That's not to say that Mason—who rushed for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns—was a product of the system last year. He thrived in a system designed for him to thrive.
That system won't change in 2014.
In fact, it has what amounts to a fuel additive.
For the first time in his college coaching career, Malzahn has a starting quarterback returning for a second season in the system. That quarterback, Nick Marshall, already showed he has a big arm and the ability to be a weapon on the ground after rushing for 1,068 and 12 touchdowns last year.
If the intermediate passing game continues to progress as it did this spring, this offense is going to be hard to stop. The presence of junior college transfer "Duke" Williams in addition to established deep threat Sammie Coates should put an immense amount of pressure on opposing defenses—even more than last season.
Defensively, Auburn was hit-or-miss last season. In fact, it was more miss than hit, particularly on Florida State's final drive of the national title game, where one missed tackle allowed Seminole wide receiver Rashad Greene to sprint 49 yards down the sideline to set up the 'Noles for the game-winning score.
But that defense, which was beat up in the secondary and inexperienced in the linebacking corps, was still good enough to get the Tigers in position to win it all.
They'll be better in 2014.
Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy had great games in Pasadena and would have been the big story of the national title game had Auburn held on. The beat-up secondary will get a boost now that it's healthy and has competition coming from the 2014 recruiting class.
The secondary will also benefit from a deep defensive line, which should force pressure and mistakes.
Auburn has a lot of options up front, but the uncertainty surrounding sophomore Carl Lawson's knee injury will make that a work in progress during fall camp.
Having those options, though, will pay off and allow defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to put his linemen in advantageous situations based on down, distance and situation once the season starts.
This team is motivated by "what could have been," as evidenced by "star" linebacker Robinson Therezie's tweet from February:
ROBENSON THEREZIE (@cadilac_34) February 27, 2014
Auburn was on the brink last season. It has an offense that is easy to diagnose but impossible to defend and is healthy and building off experience on defense.
The schedule is tough, particularly down the stretch when the Tigers play South Carolina, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama all over the final six weeks of the season. Such is life in the SEC, but that shouldn't be used as an excuse for a team that has the pieces to make another run.
Whether you believe Auburn won with luck last season or recognize that aspect of Auburn's season has been exaggerated, it absolutely should be playoffs or bust for Auburn.
With the coach, the scheme and the returning starters Auburn has in place, anything less would be a disappointment—coach speak notwithstanding.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.com.
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