No, I'm not talking about the amazing play by Ricardo Louis for the game-winner against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday night, I'm talking about the incredible turnaround for the Tigers in 2013 that finds them one win away from playing for the SEC Championship.
First off there is no question that Gus Malzahn is one of the biggest reasons why this Auburn team has won 10 games and is headed for a New Year's Day bowl game at a minimum. His drive and determination have always been evident, but as a head coach he has taken his craft to another level. Focused on the task at hand, he has the Tigers working towards the goal of getting better every day instead of trying to win a championship on Tuesday in September.
With Malzahn you get his coaching staff and it was the right mix of guys at the right time for the Tigers. On offense Rhett Lashlee is the young coach who is perfect to mold Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson in an offense he has known his entire football life.
eteran running back coach Tim Horton brings experience in the SEC to an offense featuring talented Tre Mason. There is no question Mason has taken his game to another level under Horton's guidance with Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant doing big things as well.
With a talented group of offensive linemen to work with, J.B. Grimes has turned the Tigers into a mauling front five and that is the engine driving Auburn's SEC-leading rushing attack.
Defensively, veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson's scheme and ability to adapt has been a lifeline for a group looking for something to believe in. Along with Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison, Johnson has found a way to get his best players on the field and that is something that had not happened the last few seasons at Auburn. Even with injuries and little experienced depth at several positions, the Tigers have found a way to make the plays to win.
There are two coaches who need to be mentioned for many different reasons. While both Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner have made a huge impact on the field with the wide receivers and defensive linemen, respectively, it has been in the area of confidence that the two have helped to turn the program around. Both former standouts with the Tigers who know what can be done on the Plains and what it takes to get there, their belief in the program carried over to the players immediately and is yet another reason why Auburn was able to break through in year one.
Even with all of the coaches in place you can't get it done without talented players. That is something this Auburn team was never lacking in last season. Finding a reason to believe again and put in a position to make plays, this group of players has just started to scratch the surface of its potential this season. If they can put it all together then we may be witnessing not only a season to remember, but also a season for the books.
I don't know how many times I have seen an Auburn defensive lineman with his jersey stretched out from his body or with an arm grasped by an opposing offensive lineman, but it's way too many. Its seems like the only time holding is called now is on the perimeter and is rarely called between the tackles or in the pocket. I think that's one of the reasons why offensive teams continue to break record after record despite defensive players becoming more and more talented every year.
There is no question that offenses are as good as they have ever been, but defenses have been left between a rock and a hard place. It wasn't that long ago that the rules changed to allow offensive linemen to use their hands as long as they didn't get outside the framework of the body. Now that rule seems like a thing of the past with anything but a bear hug allowed by some officiating crews.
Maybe football needs to go the way of basketball and begin cracking down on the flagrant offenders until the game is cleaned up. It may get worse before it gets better, but for the good of the game it's time to do something.
Big Finish for Smith
It's hard to imagine a better finish to an up-and-down career than the one Ryan Smith is having. A player I first saw as a 10th grade safety and quarterback at Cordova, Smith always asks about my nephew Kyle (West Alabama quarterback Kyle Caldwell) whenever I see him after the two dueled each other in a playoff game a few years back. Keeping his focus and working for the day he would get his shot, Smith grabbed his third interception of the season in the win over Georgia and has become one of the most important defensive players for the Tigers after rarely playing each of the last two seasons. Somewhere there should be several coaches wishing they had the chance to make that decision again.
The Big Break
For years I was always against having a week off before the Iron Bowl game because it made the build-up too much for everyone involved. This season there is no doubt in my mind it will be an advantage for this Auburn team after the emotional rollercoaster the Tigers endured Saturday night. Needing a few extra days to completely get the game out of their heads and also more time to get their legs back following a challenging three-week stretch, the Tigers should be well-rested heading into game week and giving Malzahn extra time to prepare his team is icing on the proverbial cake.