The head coach, who said he is hoping to get injured players Dee Ford and Justin Garrett back on the field for the defense this week, is taking on an opponent that comes into the contest on a nine-game winning streak. Seven of those victories came last year with Malzahn on the sidelines leading the Red Wolves.
Justin Garrett was a standout performer in AU's spring game this year.
If Ford, a senior defensive end, and Garrett, a junior "star" rover, are good to go for the 6:30 p.m. CDT kickoff they will try to help contain an Arkansas State offense that racked up 62 points, 509 rushing yards and 163 more yards through the air in an opening night blowout of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
"They are one of the hottest teams in college football," Malzahn said of his former team, which was up 48-0 at halftime in its opener. "They know how to win, and they expect to win.
"Offensively, they have a lot of playmakers that can make big plays either in space or with the deep ball," Malzahn noted.
"Defensively, they have a lot of playmakers, too," he said. "They have a lot of experience back on both sides of the football. The bottom line is that we have to play better than we did on Saturday to beat them."
Ford and Garrett were injured just minutes apart in Auburn's second preseason scrimmage. Ford hurt a knee, which did not require surgery. The fifth-year senior was a second preseason All-SEC pick and is considered his team's top pass rusher. He made 34 tackles as a junior with six quarterback sacks.
Garrett, who moved from linebacker to "star" rover in spring drills, was named the A-Day Game Defensive Most Valuable Player to cap an impressive overall spring training performance. However, a foot injury kept him watching the opening night game from the sideline on Saturday night.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson noted that Garrett hurt his foot again in practice last week and wasn't full speed so the coaches made the decision to let his backup, Robenson Therezie, handle the "star" duties vs. Washington State. That worked out nicely with Therezie earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors in his first college start after making seven tackles and intercepting two passes.
Johnson said players on his side of the ball are continuing to try to please the coaching staff as the Tigers learn the finer points of playing his 4-2-5 alignment.
"They have been positive about the response to anything we have changed and wanted done differently," the veteran coach said. "Change is always hard. I think I've been through it about nine times--well more than that--in 34 years. It is hard on players, it really is, even when you have success, but I think the attitude has been good the whole time.
"I think the question is, what it would have been like had we not held up our end of the bargain and come in with one more frustrating loss? That was the most important thing that happened in my opinion the whole night (vs. Washington State). When we had a chance to slip, we didn't. They stood right in there and played hard and finished the game and got it done. Obviously, they had a problem doing that in the past."
In the opening game Auburn's offense didn't play at the normal high-tempo pace Malzahn's teams are known for running. The head coach said to expect that to change as juco transfer Nick Marshall settles into his new assignment as the starting quarterback.
"The pace will definitely pick up each game," said Malzahn, whose Arkansas State team averaged 73.2 offensive snaps per game in 2012 with a high of 98 plays vs. Memphis. Against Washington State the Tigers ran 65 plays.
Malzahn noted that part of the reason for the slower than normal tempo was the fact the Tigers were breaking in a new starting quarterback, Marshall, who had only been with the team for a month.
Another factor was the Tigers' inability to move the chains on third downs. They finished the WSU game converting just 4-13 and the pace of Malzahn's system increases in a possession after the initial first down. Improving the third down conversions is a focus in practice this week. "That was one of the more discouraging things the whole night," Malzahn said. "We are going to improve in that area because that wasn't good."
What was really good on offense was a breakout performance by redshirt junior Corey Grant, who led the Tigers in rushing with 146 yards on just nine carries.
Grant signed with Alabama, but transferred to Auburn and had to sit out for the 2011 season while redshirting when Malzahn was the offensive coordinator. Eligible to play last season, he carried the ball just nine times in mop-up duty vs. New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. after the Tigers' changed offensive systems.
"Corey has got real speed," said Malzahn, who added, "He is very strong. He can break a tackle, too. He really impressed me. I was here before and I knew what he could do, but he wasn't eligible that year and you saw him on the scout team. He's got a chance to really help us."
Grant got prime time action on Saturday night vs. the WSU Cougars and took advantage of his opportunity.
Recruited by Auburn out of nearby Opelika High, Grant instead choose to play for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide.
"It was a tough decision," he said of his college choice. "I loved Coach Malzahn and his offense." The running back said one of the reasons he signed with Alabama was he decided that he wanted to attend college away from home and another was that Saban convinced him he would be a good fit for the Tide's offense.
"Every student at my high school was like I want to get away from home so I did that," Grant recalls. "Then I realized that it really wasn't for me. Coming back here, I feel like I made the right choice."
Grant said Auburn's offense has proven to be a much better fit for his skills as a speedy running back and he is excited about playing a major role in his team's offense this year.
When Malzahn returned as head coach in December, Grant's chance for a larger role improved considerably. "I was very excited, but my other teammates were excited, too, because a lot of the guys here were recruited by him and came in when he was here," the running back said. "Overall, the whole team was excited."
In other news and notes:
*Saturday's game will be televised regionally on Fox Sports Net. Bob Rathbun will do play-by-play and Tim Couch will be the analyst.
*The Auburn Network's call of the game will be available on Sirius Radio Channel 136.
*Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker, who had knee surgery last week, is not necessarily out for the season, Malzahn said on Tuesday. "We are going to see where we are at with Jeff each week,"?the coach said. "Hopefully, we can get him back sooner rather than later, but if that (the need to redshirt) does happen we will have that conversation. We have not had that conversation yet. Jeff is a leader on the team, if not the leader. He is very important to us as a whole."
*Saturday's game will be just the third time the Tigers have played Arkansas State. Auburn is 2-0 vs. the Red Wolves, including a 52-26 decision in 2010. Auburn is 17-0 all-time vs. members of ASU's Sun Belt Conference.
*Improving the punt return production was a preseason goal for the Tigers. Senior Chris Davis returned one punt vs. Washington State and showed why he won the assignment by using his quickness to gain 19 yards.
"I was pretty proud of the way he handled himself back there," Malzahn said. "He has got some play-making ability once he catches the ball. He made something out of nothing and got some positive yards. That was a bright spot. I think in that area we will even improve as the season goes on."
*The Tigers will honor members of the 1988 SEC Championship team during a pre-game ceremony on Saturday. The 1988 team was the middle squad in Coach Pat Dye's three-year streak of league titles.