(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Sports)
CBR's "Way Too Early" Top 10
No. 2 Auburn Tigers
So if you follow college football at all (and let’s be honest, if you’re on this website, you do), then chances are, you probably don’t need us to tell you the story of the 2013 Auburn Tigers.
By now, you already know that it was right around this time last year that the school replaced Gene Chizik with his former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn— a coaching upgrade of roughly 2,000 percent.
You probably also know they replaced a group of players who resembled “quarterbacks,” in name only, with a little-known JUCO hot-shot named Nick Marshall….who only happened to evolve into the single most dynamic quarterback in the SEC not named “Johnny Manziel.”
And you know that the combination of the two (along with a million other smaller variables) translated into a season for the ages on the Plains, one which took the team from 3-9 and winless in the SEC in 2012, to a 12-2 finish in 2013, which included an SEC Championship, and ended just seconds away from winning a championship.
Still as exciting as things were at Auburn in 2013, there are still plenty of questions entering 2014. Most importantly, how do they replace two key cogs to this season’s offense? And what do they do about a schedule that gets significantly tougher next season?
Regardless, here’s what you need to know about the Auburn Tigers, a club which comes in at Crystal Ball Run’s No. 2 team in the ‘Way Too Early 2014 Top 10?
The Good: In essence, ‘The Good’ for Auburn really comes down to this: Auburn returns both Malzahn and Nick Marshall.
That might seem kind of simplistic, only it isn’t, for two very important reasons:
1. Remember that Marshall showed up last summer from junior college. Not in the fall. Not in January, allowing him a full spring to get to know his teammates and Malzahn’s system. Last summer.
It also means…. Good God, how good could this guy be in 2014?
Remember, this will be Marshall’s first full year in any college system as a quarterback, after starting his freshman year at Georgia on the defensive side of the ball, playing his sophomore year at JUCO ball, and arriving at Auburn just months before the first game last summer.
With the strides we saw Marshall make from week-to-week this past season, he should make monumental gains with a full off-season to work under Malzahn.
That also leads to this point…
2. As Malzahn enters his ninth season as a college head coach or coordinator, 2014 will mark the first time…are you ready for this?… that he will work with the same quarterback two years in a row.
I mean, are you kidding me?
Add those two things up and it’s scary to think how Auburn’s offense could be.
Especially when you factor in that in addition to Marshall, the Tigers return plenty of weapons on that side of the ball (including wide receivers Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis). And while the defense won’t be as talented, Auburn does have a couple of young emerging stars on that side of the ball, specifically on the defensive line (yeah, we’re looking at you, Carl Lawson).
Add that up, and there’s no reason to think that this team can’t end up back in Atlanta as SEC West champs, and possibly in the first ever college football playoff, as a contender for another title.
The Bad: As easy as it to pencil in Auburn as a title contender, let’s remember a few things, starting with the fact that they will lose several key cogs to last year’s title game run. Heisman-trophy finalist Tre Mason is the headliner, but let’s also not forget that offensive tackle Greg Robinson will leave to (and likely end up as a first round draft pick), leaving a huge void on Marshall’s blind side. Who replaces him? And how quickly can they pick up the offense is one of the biggest questions the Tigers have to address this spring.
Of course those are the surface-level problems, and as you dig deeper there is one, much larger issue that needs to be addressed.
That issue? Umm, have you seen their schedule? While the 2013 Tigers truly had a special season, they were also helped in large part by a favorable schedule. Auburn got Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss at home, and got a lousy Tennessee team as their second cross-divisional game with the SEC East. Remember, the Tigers only left Auburn one time before the middle of October…which not ironically was their only loss of the year until the National Championship Game.
So what happens when things flip, and the schedule gets much tougher? Auburn opens the season with a conference game (granted, it’s a likely ‘gimme’ against Arkansas) and hit the road for trips to Kansas State and Mississippi State by the middle of October. The back-half of their schedule is even more loaded (if that’s possible), with visits from LSU and Texas A&M, and trips to Ole Miss, Georgia, and yes, Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Also, their second cross-divisional game is against South Carolina, a major step up from last season.
That won’t be any easy task. Especially for designs on a run at a National Championship.
The Uncertain: Admittedly, while things aren’t all “good” entering the off-season at Auburn, there really isn’t that much “uncertain.” Yes, the schedule is tough, but it’s not sneaking up on anyone. Same with the departures of Mason and Robinson; we’ve known basically since the middle of November they were likely gone.
This might also be a good time to mention that unlike virtually any other team who enters the season in the hunt for the National Championship, Auburn didn’t really have any major turnover on its coaching staff. Florida State, Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon will all be breaking in new coordinators this spring, yet at Auburn its business as usual. That kind of continuity is something you can’t undersell.
So for Auburn, it isn’t so much addressing issues which are “uncertain” this spring, as it is already knowing those issues, and finding answers.
Does that make sense?
Let’s just move on.
Verdict: With the return of Malzahn, Marshall and a good chunk of this defense, ultimately, there isn’t really any reason to think that Auburn can’t compete for another National Championship.
Yet there’s a major different between “can’t” and “will.” And when you look at this team, and specifically the schedule, the “will” is where you get tripped up.
Like every team that Auburn faces in the SEC, their fate isn’t so much necessarily in their own hands, as it is how everyone else develops.
A trip to Ole Miss will be tough…but could tougher depending on how all Hugh Freeze’s young players develop.
A visit from Texas A&M will tough…but could be tougher if Kevin Sumlin finds a true answer to replace some of Johnny Manziel’s production at quarterback.
LSU will tough…but could be tougher if Anthony Jennings evolves, or if Leonard Fournette is as good as advertised.
The point being, so much of Auburn’s ultimate successes and failures in 2014 will be beyond their control.
At the end of the day, we at Crystal Ball Run stand by the Auburn Tigers as the No. 2 choice in our preseason ‘Way Too Early’ Top 10.
Still, there are a lot of scenarios (many of which, will be no fault of Auburn’s) where they don’t finish the season there.
Figuring out where they end up will be the interesting part.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.
Be sure to check out the rest of CBR's "Way Too Early Top 10":