While there is no question that Nick Marshall's addition to the offense at quarterback has helped changed the fortunes of the Auburn football program, he is far from the only reason why Coach Gus Malzahn's Tigers will face rival Alabama on Saturday with a berth in the SEC Championship Game on the line.
While many thought that Auburn's offense would be much improved under Malzahn and Coordinator Rhett Lashlee, the biggest questions revolved around the defense and what veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson had to work with in his first season at Auburn. Even though the Tigers are still giving up yards, the dramatic differences in points allowed, red zone defense and creating turnovers are a big part of the change at Auburn.
Johnson said he wasn't sure what he had, but he knew that he had bodies to work with when he arrived and that depth has proven to be a blessing in 2013.
"The one thing that stood out to me--and I have to compare it to my years at (South) Carolina and Mississippi State and even those years at Alabama--it was the deepest football team I've seen in spring practice," Johnson said. "With the number of scholarships that had been cut and so many rehabbing injuries that normally are going on at that time of the year and your seniors are leaving, etc., you've got some players that have proven they're good enough so you don't want to get them hurt.
"We didn't have but about 25 guys at South Carolina that really needed to scrimmage because they needed to improve or we didn't really know what they could do. The rest of them were either injured or we knew they could play, but it was very different. We were very deep."
Having depth to work with has been huge for the Tigers, especially in the secondary. While people talk about the losses for the Florida Gators on the injury front, this is an Auburn team that lost its leading returning tackler Demetruce McNeal before the season started because of a violation of team rules. Also lost was veteran defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker because of an injury. The defensive MVP in the spring, Justin Garrett, played in just two games at less than full speed before being lost for the season. Throw in the loss of safety Josh Holsey just 48 hours before the Texas A&M game and you have four starters out of the season for the Tigers.
The emergence of Ryan Smith and fellow senior Ryan White has been huge for Auburn's defense in 2013
While the defense has seen a steady improvement, the offense has come light years since spring practice. Much of the reason for that is having Marshall at quarterback, but it's also because of a group of players who have worked hard to come together as a unit. Returning some key players throughout the offense and guys who were already familiar with Malzahn's system, Lashlee said they got a sense that things were coming together pretty early in spring practice, but he wasn't sure it would develop quite like they have.
"I don't know if I thought we'd be sitting here at 10-1," Lashlee said. "I didn't necessarily in my head think we wouldn't be. When we came out of spring ball, I didn't really know what to think until right after our spring game and we had a couple of practices--just the way their body language and demeanor started changing. I knew they were starting to believe in it a little bit that intangibly we were getting better. I don't think we were very good at that point.
Putting Marshall in place heading into the season, Auburn got off to a good start with a win over Washington State. The next week was one of the biggest points of the season for the Tigers though as Marshall led a late touchdown drive over Mississippi State that ended with a touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah. Lashlee said it wasn't so much about how they were playing early in the season, but just the fact that they were learning how to win.
"You can never say enough about confidence," Lashlee said. "We were able to win some close games early, beat Washington State, beat Mississippi State, play well in the second half of a situation where most teams would have gotten beat 60-20 at LSU. Of course, it all capped off when we were able to get the big win at (Texas) A&M in a back and forth deal. Each week you could just see it build and so at that point, after we beat A&M, you kind of thought anything was possible to be honest with you."
There is no question the wins were big for this team, but much like 2010 perhaps the biggest reason for the turnaround on offense came after Malzahn and the coaching staff got a few games under their belt with Marshall to figure out just what they had in the athletic quarterback. Rushing for just 148 yards and no touchdowns the first four games on 41 carries, Marshall and the offense found its groove following the LSU loss.
With a week off to fine-tune, Marshall ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against the Rebels. Sitting out the Western Carolina game, the junior came back with 100 yards and two more scores on 20 carries in the win over Texas A&M. That was the start of what has been a strong finish for Marshall, including a 214-yard performance and two touchdowns on just 14 carries in the win over Tennessee. In the five SEC games since LSU, Marshall has 602 yards (120.4 yards per game) and eight of his nine rushing touchdowns this year.
Held to just 120 yards by Mississippi State and 213 by LSU before the off week, Auburn's lowest total since then was 233 yards on just 46 carries at Arkansas in a game where the Tigers threw the football just nine times. In the seven games starting with Ole Miss, Auburn's running game is averaging a whopping 370 yards with 29 touchdowns.
What does that mean for this Saturday's game? That remains to be seen. There is no question that Alabama's run defense is the best Auburn has faced this season, but on the other side that defense has yet to face a running attack anything close to what Auburn brings to the table. That sets up what has the potential to be one of the all-time best Iron Bowl showdowns this week at Jordan-Hare Stadium.