Stat Tiger Column: Strong Start A Must for AU

Stuart Carter (StatTiger) writes about the challenges facing the 2014 Auburn team as it looks to win back-to-back SEC championships.

Last season Auburn came within 13 seconds of winning the BCS National Championship, raising the expectation levels for the 2014 season.

With the return of quarterback Nick Marshall and four starters on the offensive line, Auburn is expected to be lethal once again on the offensive side of the football

The defense managed to improve from 2012 to 2013 and Ellis Johnson has an extensive history of improving his group's scoring numbers from year one to year two dating back to his days as the defensive coordinator at Clemson.

Gus Malzahn knows the expectation level should be high this season. "If you're at Auburn, Auburn expects to win championships," AU's second-year head coach noted. "You know that when you come here, and that's good. That is what makes Auburn special."

Expectations among college football fans tend to generate plenty of discussion and enthusiasm. For the players and coaches, expectations normally translates to additional work, effort and focus to transform those expectations into reality.

"You have just got to be honest with people," Malzahn said. "Last year we snuck up on some people. This year they are going to have us circled, and that is exactly what I told our players. We are going to have to be better in every area."

From 1981-2013 Auburn finished the season with at least three losses 67 percent of the time and only one loss or less 12 percent of the time. Auburn's offense should be good enough to compete in every game this season, but improved defensive play will be needed to increase the probability for victory.

Since the Doug Barfield Era from 1976-1980, Auburn has compiled a record of 161-3-0 when scoring at least 30 points during a game and a record of 182-6-0 when scoring at least 28 points.

During Malzahn's affiliation with Auburn as head coach or offensive coordinator, the Tigers are 34-1 when scoring at least 28 points during a game, but 8-11 when held under that number. The 8-11 record includes a record of 4-10 when being held to under 28 points against FBS competition with a winning record.

Though Auburn has scored at least 28 points under Malzahn in 65 percent of its games, the concern should be centered around the 35 percent of the games the Tigers fail to reach that mark. While Malzahn's offense has raised the frequency of 28-point games from 44 percent to 65 percent since 1980, the offense cannot be counted on to do it every time it sets foot on the field. Even the No. 1 scoring offenses in the SEC over the past decade have been held under 28 points in 22 percent of their games.

Over one-third of Auburn's games have been settled by seven points or less from 1981-2013 and 60 percent of the opposition has come against FBS competition with a winning record. These odds will obviously factor into the probability of winning them all, especially with the Tigers facing what looks like a more challenging schedule in 2014 compared to 2013.

Defending the Southeastern Conference title will be a major challenge. The last team to repeat as champions was Tennessee in 1997 and 1998. The last time Auburn had back-to-back 10-win seasons was in 1988 and 1989, though the Tigers came close in 2004 and 2005. It often takes only one league loss to derail a championship season in the SEC with so many competitive programs vying to win the conference.

Auburn enters the 2014 season as one of five SEC teams in the nation's top 14 of winning percentage over the past decade, but the Tigers are fifth in that SEC group. The highly competitive conference creates an atmosphere of very little wiggle room for error or injuries. The South Carolina Gamecocks are a prime example, compiling a 42-11 record over the past four seasons, but they have no conference championship to show for it.

As explosive as the Auburn offense is expected to be in 2014, the Tigers will face five regular season opponents that finished in the nation's top 35 for scoring defense and three of those games will be on the road. Coach Malzahn points out that one of the keys will be playing well early on in the season.

"We didn't play great," he said of his team's performance during the early portion of the 2013 schedule. "We got better each game, and we were playing our best football at the end of the year," he noted. "This year we have got to be consistent and get off to a better start."

Over the past five decades Auburn has compiled a record of 129-25-4 during seasons without a defeat after five games. A terrific start to the season will be needed with the Tigers likely running into five ranked opponents in their final six games if they are going to make another run to the national championship game. The only late season home game on the schedule is vs. Samford. No team in the history of college football has ever closed out a season in this fashion so the challenge is a huge one for Malzahn's 2014 Tigers.

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