The Tigers allowed 420.5 yards per game during 2012 and 420.7 yards during 2013. They surrendered 28.3 points per game during 2012, improving to 24.7 during 2013.
Of the nine major statistical categories on defense, Auburn improved on eight of them from 2012 to 2013. Though the improvement was a welcome sight, it was not to the level Auburn coaches are determined to reach.
The primary goal towards defensive improvement is defending the run. Most coordinators, including Ellis Johnson, will put "stopping the run" high on their priority list for almost every game.
"Our philosophy in trying to stop the run game, we're going to try to out-number it," Auburn's defensive coordinator said. "We are going to put one more body up there than you can block and try to disrupt the blocking schemes instead of trying to physically overpower offensive linemen."
The 2013 defense improved in this area, allowing 163.0 yards per game on the ground compared to 197.6 allowed during 2012. It was a much needed change, but not to the standard Auburn needs to be.
During the last 66 games (2009-2013) Auburn has allowed an average of 162.1 yards rushing per game at 4.36 yards per attempt. Auburn previously allowed 120.5 yards rushing per game on 3.60 yards per rush from 2003-2008 (66 games). This includes 44 rushing touchdowns allowed from 2003-2008 and 102 allowed from 2009-2013.
The most alarming statistic is the number of 200-yard rushing games allowed by the defense in recent years. During the 66 games from 2003-2008 Auburn allowed seven games of 200 or more yards rushing. From 2009-2013 the Tigers have been hammered with 23 games of 200 or more yards.
The statistical goal is to keep the opponent under 140 yards rushing. From 2003-2013 Auburn's record is 71-11 when holding its opponent under 140 yards rushing and 29-31 when failing to do so. The Auburn defense reached this goal 68 percent of the time from 2003-2008, but only 44 percent of the time during 2009-2013.
Johnson schemes his front to slide left and right. "We don't tie our front people down, squeezing and getting their hands on offensive linemen very much," Johnson said. "It's more about getting up into the gaps, getting across, playing on their side of the line of scrimmage and creating disruption." This requires the two linebackers to primarily remain between the tackles, fending off blocks to scrape behind the front four.
If this style of play is to reach its full potential, Auburn's linebackers will need to be physical, athletic and quick. It also means the interior line will need to be disruptive to create havoc in the backfield, permitting the linebackers to make plays. This wasn't always the case during 2013, but it was more consistent compared to 2012.
Examining the last 25 years of Auburn football, the 2009, 2013, 2011 and 2012 defenses finished at the bottom in run defense. Because nearly 50 percent of the runs defended will come on first down, Auburn must improve on its national ranking of No. 80 in yards allowed rushing (4.71 yards per play) on first down.
From 2010-2012 a linebacker led Auburn in tackles in only 51.3 percent of its games, including the "star" position. The linebackers led in tackles 76.9 percent of the time during the 2013 season. This is a positive sign Johnson's approach on defense allows the linebackers to make plays.
Cassanova McKinzy makes a play vs. Arkansas.
During the last five games of the season Cassanova McKinzy increased his tackle production by 67.4 percent and Kris Frost increased his by 50.0 percent. With the majority of the defensive line returning for 2014, Auburn's front seven should continue to progress.
During the 2012 season Auburn's front seven accounted for 51 percent of the team's tackles, which increased to 58 percent in 2013. Line coach Rodney Garner knows the heart of the defense is the front four, which is why he tries to push those players to their limits.
"You have got to be tough to play D-line in the SEC," Garner said. "I want to know how tough my guys are, I want to know where their breaking point is before Saturday so I'm going to try to break them every day."
Garner utilized a platoon system during the 2013 season, rotating 10-12 linemen into the action during each game. This strategy resulted in Auburn playing its best defensive football during the fourth quarter.
The coach's interior linemen improved their tackle production by 60 percent, tackles for loss by 78 percent and sack production by 340 percent from 2012 to 2013.
Montravius Adams made an immediate impact in his first college game vs. Washington State.
Auburn added four new faces to the defensive line during the 2013 season as Ben Bradley, Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson became a regular part of the playing rotation. The quartet carried its weight, accounting for 27 percent of the front four's tackles, 24 percent of the tackles for loss and 29 percent of the sacks. Lawson, Daniel and Adams were true freshmen last fall, leaving plenty of time for continued growth and improvement.
Auburn was fortunate to obtain the production level it did from its true freshmen on the defensive line. Johnson knows the risk of becoming too dependant upon incoming freshmen up front. "I think you're always in trouble if you're counting on an incoming high school player to solve a problem for you," he said. "Now, some of them do it, but those are real positive, and unexpected positives. You're happy you got them, but if you're building your program off of thinking a high school player is going to come in and fix something wrong in an SEC football program, you're rolling the dice."
The Tigers signed eight players in the 2014 class who are expected to add help to the front seven on defense. Though Malzahn is an offensive-minded coach, it doesn't mean he lacks an appreciation for quality defense. "You're always trying to improve," he said. "You're always trying to build more depth."
Rather than celebrate Auburn's No. 2 final ranking and Southeastern Conference championship, Malzahn's staff long ago turned its focus to the 2014 season. Looking past last season's dozen victories, it's the final loss of which resonates with the coaches and it will likely become the driving force for the 2014 team.
Auburn was one more stop from winning a national championship, which should provide plenty of inspiration for the 2014 defensive players to raise their level of performance.