Former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn (2009–2011) returns after a one year absence, this time as the head man. Unfortunately for Auburn fans, a pretty major rebuild is in order.
That could go quicker than most rebuilds – the Tigers have recently pulled in some highly ranked recruiting classes. But this spring and fall camp showed there are a lot of kinks they'll be working out in 2013.
| Cougars (0-0) vs Tigers (0-0)|
AT A GLANCE
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Players to Know
Nick Marshall, QB: Both starting quarterbacks return from last season, but neither of them won the starting job in 2013. JC transfer Nick Marshall edged out phenom freshman Jeremy Johnson in fall camp. A 6-2, 210 pound junior, Marshall started out playing safety for Georgia -- he has a similar game to Jake Locker. He is a solid running threat and has a cannon arm, but his accuracy is inconsistent and he proved highly interception prone against the better JC teams he faced, (20 INTs and 18 TDs last season.) He's only been back playing the QB position for a year and has never faced major college level competition. Expect a lot of growing pains, but the talent and speed is there. And if he looks bad on five throws in a row and then on a busted play sprints 60 yards to paydirt, no one will remember those five plays before it. Jonathan Wallace or freshman Jeremy Johnson will get tapped if Marshall struggles. Jeremy Johnson looks like a young Vince Young. He is raw but extremely talented.
Tre Mason, RB: As you would expect, Auburn looks fairly loaded at running back. Mason is a steady workhorse who ran for 1,002 yards and 8 TDs last season. The fan base seems even more psyched about his backup, Cameron Artis-Payne, who was one of the nation's top JC running back prospects.
Auburn's offense is morphing back to what it was before Malzahn left for a one-year head coaching stint at Arkansas State (9-3). But Malzahn's quarterback situation has never been this unsettled before. His (arguably) best two guys in Marshall nor Johnson have no experience at this level and both are still picking up the offense. The receivers have physical talent, but almost no game experience. They will be facing a WSU secondary which has more than its share of experience defending the pass, though they have yet to prove they're consistently capable.
Auburn is going to try and go at breakneck speed in the hopes to limit substitutions and keep WSU off balance. All signs suggest Auburn will keep their gameplan simple and try to leverage their running game. Malzahn's offense is expected in 2013 to closely resembles Oregon's zone-read option system. The quarterback initially motions to the running back to try to freeze the defense. Sometimes it is an inside run, sometimes it is an outside run, sometimes it is a QB keeper, and sometimes it is a quick play action pass. The defense has to decipher the play quickly, accurately and react aggressively. If they freeze they are left out of position and if they guess wrong, they are left in the dust. Stopping Auburn's run game therefore isn't as simple as stacking the box. The best move from this chair is to stick in man where are fewer decisions have to be made. This could leave WSU vulnerable against the pass, but they should take their chances there until Marshall proves he can beat them through the air, rather than with his and his RBs feet.
THE TIGERS ON DEFENSE
Players to Know
Justin Garrett, Star: Auburn fans have high expectations for Garrett but it is still just potential at this point. At the hybrid, "Star" position, which can either attack the line of scrimmage or play in coverage, Garrett is well positioned for big plays and could be an issue for Connor Halliday and the Cougs.
Chris Davis, CB: With his backup breaking an ankle this week, the pressure is really on Auburn's best cornerback. He is likely to be in single coverage all day. Davis and the secondary are the strength of the defense but they were susceptible to the long pass this spring and reportedly in fall camp. And the Cougs are deep, deep, deep at wideout.
The Auburn offense may have some familiarity to it, but the defense is getting a complete overhaul. Malzahn hired veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, fresh off a disastrous one year tenure as the head coach of Southern Miss. Johnson is tough and knows defense, but his no nonsense approach did not mesh with the players in Hattiesburg. He will be installing a new 4-2-5 defense, similar to what he ran at South Carolina in 2011. The results since the spring have been mixed, as they often are with a new system being put in place, and the recruiting in the previous years wasn't tailored to it. Compounding his problems are the loss of defensive end Dee Ford, arguably their best d-lineman in practice this offseason, to a knee injury in fall camp and the dismissal of starting safety Demetruce McNeal. Numerous talented freshmen are waiting in the wings and should earn early playing time but they are raw and unproven.
The 4-2-5 is designed to beat the Air Raid offense. The use of hybrid linebacker/defensive backs is meant to confuse the quarterback, while additional DB's flood the secondary. It is a virtual counter-tactic to what Mike Leach wants to do to a defense. The passing game has to be very accurate and well synchronized to work. Mike Leach may not like to run the ball very much, but he has to convince defenses that he can – or his running backs have to be able to take screens for good yardage in pseudo-run plays. Auburn is likely to dare Leach to run after the tiny number of attempts and yards WSU gained last year. In that regard, everything hinges on improved offensive line play for WSU. No defense can play pass coverage against five targets for very long – in addition to four high-value receivers there's RB Teondray Caldwell – and he can be very dangerous if the Cougs can give him space to work with.
THE TIGERS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Auburn looks pretty solid with kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. Parkey was 11-14 on field goals last season with 33 touchbacks on his 48 kickoffs. But many of those field goals were shorter kicks, his long was 46-yards and his accuracy has been marginal on the long tries. Clark doesn't get exceptional distance on his punts but he does get exceptional height.Out of 70 punts last season, opponents returned a mere five of them. For more Auburn S-T, click to this article from the CF.C archives.
-Transitions are hard, even successful ones. Veteran players who expected to be competing for championships find themselves stuck in rebuilding mode in a new system. Old players get neglected and young players get pressed into service much faster than normal. All spots are up for grabs, and there is no sense of a pecking order. Everybody is learning and trying to be the coach's favorites. It is very hard to build any team chemistry. This is what faces Auburn in 2013 and the Cougs must take advantage of it.
-The 2012 Tigers were a team with deep fundamental flaws, but realistically those flaws were materializing two years ago – despite the abundance of recruited talent. Back in 2011, Auburn scored 17 points or less and surrendered 38 points or more if half of its games. Even teams with a significant talent disadvantages -- like Utah State, Sam Ford, and Florida International -- were putting up comparable yardage numbers and threating to upset the Tigers. The cupboard is by no means bare, but the fact remains: this is a fairly major rebuild for Malzahn.
-Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is a veteran coach who has delivered solid results throughout his career. Two things would concern me if I was an Auburn fan: why were the results at Southern Miss so catastrophic last season, and why has he never stayed in one place for more than two or three years in almost 40 years of coaching.