When you look back at the best teams in the history of the program one of the common denominators has been a strong defense, but in particular forcing turnovers. Whether it was 1983, 1988, 1993 or 2004, getting the ball back to the offense in prime scoring position is a key to winning football games.
That is something Coach Ellis Johnson and the defensive staff have been focusing on since arriving on the Plains, and rightfully so. Last season the Tigers forced just 13 total turnovers in 12 games while turning the ball over 25 times. It doesn't matter how good you are on offense or defense, if you lose the turnover battle more often than not you're going to put yourself in a position to lose a college football game.
In the last 10 years Auburn has won or tied the turnover battle for the season seven times and has a winning record in each year. The only time the Tigers lost the season turnover battle but still managed a winning season was in 2005. That year Auburn turned the ball over five times against Georgia Tech in a 23-14 loss, but the remainder of the year the Tigers had just 13 turnovers while forcing 14 from the opposition.
If you look at the three top seasons in terms of turnover margin in the last 10 years for Auburn you'll find out they are the three top seasons on the field for the program. In 2010 Auburn forced 22 turnovers while turning the ball over just 17 times. In 2004 Auburn forced 25 turnovers with 21 turnovers of their own. The 2006 season was the third top season that ended with a win over Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl. That year Auburn forced 25 turnovers while turning the ball over 20 times.
With the amount of passes thrown in today's college football games, interceptions are one of the biggest ways to impact a contest on the defensive side of the ball. Last season Auburn came up with just two interceptions on 358 pass attempts after snagging 11 in 2011 and 12 in 2010. Because of that the addition of Melvin Smith may just be the most important addition to Malzahn's staff in the offseason.
As the cornerback coach at Mississippi State, Smith led one of the top ball-hawking secondary units in the country. Last season the Bulldogs picked off 19 passes with cornerbacks Darius Slay, Johnthan Banks and Nickoe Whitley combining for 12 interceptions.
In 2011 MSU picked off 12 passes with Banks, Whitley, and Slay combining for 10 of the 12. Banks and Whitley combined for six of the team's 13 interceptions in 2010 as well to give the trio a combined 28 interceptions in the last three seasons alone. That is three more than Auburn managed as a team over the same stretch, something that gave the Bulldogs' offense plenty of opportunities to score.
With Malzahn's wide open attack getting the ball back to the offense is going to be critical for success because there will be three-and-outs and the defense may get tired at times. It's a fact of life when the offense goes a break-neck speed.
Creating turnovers allows the defense to get off the field and also gives the offense another shot to put points on the board. Both of those will add up over the long haul and could be the difference between winning two or three more games in a season.