Even though the offense averaged more than 500 yards and 31 points per game during the same stretch, the Tigers won just two of their final six SEC games. One day after the 55-44 loss to Alabama, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was fired and the search was on for his replacement. Less than two weeks after Johnson was fired, Gus Malzahn hired former Florida head coach, Will Muschamp, to improve Auburn’s defense.
“I love his energy," said Malzahn in explaining his choice for defensive coordinator. “I really wanted someone that had great energy and intensity...to really have that defense take on his personality.”
Muschamp, who served as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007, has been given the assignment of pumping energy into a defense that has failed to live up to expectations in recent seasons. The recent shortcomings on the defensive side of the football preceded Johnson's tenure. The last time Auburn fielded a Top 25 ranked defense was during Muschamp's final season at Auburn in 2007.
Since the 2008 season Auburn has allowed its conference opponents to gain at least 400 yards 50 percent of the time and at least 30 points in 52 percent of the games. These are alarming numbers when you consider the remainder of the conference’s teams allowed 400- yard games 39 percent of the time and 30-point games 38 percent of the time.
Muschamp’s second tour as defensive coordinator could be more challenging this go-around because he inherited a defense that isn’t performing as well as the one he took over in 2006. The upside is that Muschamp's defenses at Florida allowed 400 yard games just 19 percent of the time and 30-point games 25 percent of the time.
The coordinator’s method to improve the defense will follow a time-honored approach--build a system around the strength of the players and place them in situations they can succeed.
During his introductory press-conference, Muschamp touched on this philosophy. “Regardless of what you’re trying to stop, you better make it one dimensional,” the coach said. “When teams can stay balanced on you, it is really difficult to stop people.”
Defending the run has been a primary issue for the Auburn defense from 2009 to 2014. During this period Auburn has surrendered 200-yard rushing games 44 percent of the time. The rest of the conference has allowed them 30 percent of the time. Florida under Muschamp allowed 200-yard rushing games 12 percent of the time.
“In our league and our division, you better win the line of scrimmage or you will not have a chance,"Muschamp noted. “In terms of that you must be able to stop the run with most of the teams we are going to face and stay away from explosive plays.”
During 2006 and 2007 Muschamp’s Auburn defenses allowed a total of 29 plays of 30-yards or more over the course of two seasons. During the 2013 season alone, Auburn allowed 35 such plays and 24 during the 2014 regular season. Securing the run defense and limiting the big plays will clearly be a primary goal for the Tigers.
As Auburn prepares for the Outback Bowl, Muschamp is evaluating Auburn's personnel. Though he will be studying talent and ability, he will have an even closer eye on effort.
“You see the guy’s work ethic and work habits and how he goes about his business," the coach said. “For me, in order to be a really good player, God has got to bless you with some ability, but the most talented part you can have is work ethic. The best players I have been around are the guys that go work. They come out there every day and go to work."
Muschamp has built his career and reputation on his work ethic and desire to be successful. The sooner the coordinator puts a group of defensive players on the field that shares those traits the better Auburn’s chances will be to become a championship caliber team once again.
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