If the 2010 national championship season was the best of times for the Auburn Tigers fanbase, 2012 was very close to being the worst of times. Just two seasons removed from being the undisputed kings of college football, the Tigers fell to a woeful 3-9 overall record and were winless in the SEC.
Gone is the 2010 SEC and National Coach of the Year in Gene Chizik, and entering is the man whom many believe was the mastermind of the 2010 season, Gus Malzahn.
While there is no doubting that Malzahn was a big part of the Tigers' success in 2010, Chizik's contributions should not be devalued. He was a great motivator and recruiter and a better game planner than most give him credit for.
After Malzahn departed for the vacant Arkansas State head coaching job after the 2011 season, Chizik brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators. Both coaches were qualified, but the personnel did not fit the schemes.
Will the return of Malzahn equal more wins in 2013? Can the Tigers take the first step toward restoring the roar?
The keys to Malzahn's complex no-huddle, hurry-up offense have been handed over to JUCO transfer Nick Marshall. Marshall is transferring from Garden City Community College, where he passed for 3,142 yards with 18 touchdowns in just 11 games. He also rushed for an additional 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Despite playing one less game, Marshall's JUCO statistics of 4,237 offensive yards and 37 total touchdowns trump former Auburn great Cam Newton's 3,488 offensive yards and 38 total touchdowns on the JUCO level.
However, the stat that is most troubling for Marshall is that he led the NJCAA in interceptions thrown with 20. Compare that to Newton's five interceptions, and expectations must be harnessed for Marshall this season as he adjusts to playing against SEC defenses.
He will have the benefit of junior running back Tre Mason returning to the backfield. Mason rushed for 1,000 yards last season despite being one of the few weapons in the Tigers' anemic offense. He has the potential to put up big numbers this season if the passing game can improve from last season's dismal performance.
Last season at Arkansas State, Malzahn's offense ran the football 57 percent of the time. So look for Mason and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne to put up big numbers this season.
While the running backs should increase their numbers this season, the wide receivers will need to as well. The Tigers ranked 112th in the nation in passing offense last season and lost their No. 1 receiver Emory Blake to the NFL.
Blake had 50 receptions last season. Moreover, all of the Tigers' returning wide receivers had only 54 receptions combined.
However, the receiver position features a ton of potential. If Marshall can get the football to his targets accurately, the wideouts could be the most improved wide receiver unit in the SEC.
All of these improvements are possible, but the play of the offensive line will make or break the Tigers' offensive production.
The good news is that the Tigers return six offensive linemen who have 70 combined starts. The bad news is that those returning players contributed to the team giving up 37 sacks last season, which ranked 109th in the nation.
The key to this unit will be conditioning. The offensive line will be asked to do a much different job at an increased pace in 2013. Marshall is quick on his feet, but players like Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade and Patrick Miller must get better as a unit.
Malzahn's play-calling ability alone will boost Auburn's embarrassing 18.7 points per game average from 2012. However, to make major advancements from the 2012 season, there must be vast improvements in quarterback play and the offensive line's consistency.
The most surprising part of the 2012 Auburn season was defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's inability to strengthen the Tigers defense.
The Auburn defense continued to struggle in 2012, finishing 66th in the nation in scoring (28.3 points allowed) and 79th in total defense (420.5 yards allowed).
New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will introduce the Tigers to their second new scheme in as many years.
This time, the Tigers will transition from a 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 defense. The major difference between the two schemes is the “star” position in Ellis' defense. The star is a hybrid safety/linebacker position and will likely be filled by Justin Garrett, who recently returned to practice after missing 10 days with a sprained foot.
Auburn will need to get better across the board on defense, and the recent dismissal of safety Demetruce McNeal has made it even more difficult.
The Tigers will need defensive end Dee Ford to continue his progression in 2013. He led the Tigers in sacks last season with six but will miss at least the opener with a knee injury he suffered in practice.
I do believe they have a star in the making in Angelo Blackson, but they will need more than just these two players to perform at a high level.
Can junior Gabe Wright finally reach his potential? If he had the boldness to wear a “Nick Who?” hat on signing day, it is time for the talented lineman to become a consistent contributor.
The Tigers are not great at linebacker, but technically, Ellis only needs two in his base package. I expect to see several young players get increased playing time at the linebacker position as the season progresses.
Despite the dismissal of McNeal, the Tigers have major potential in the secondary, but I believe the Auburn defensive backs underperformed last season for two reasons.
First, the team lacked a consistent pass rush.
Second, the entire defense only had two interceptions, and none of the starting defensive backs had one. That is a recipe for disaster. The fact that Auburn was 47th in the nation with those two dynamics in place is a positive sign for potential improvements in 2013.
Ellis is a good defensive coordinator, and the players should be better suited for his 4-2-5 scheme. The questions are: Can the Tigers get a consistent pass rush, and will they be able to create more turnovers?
This is the most stable unit for Auburn heading into the 2013 season. Punter Steven Clark and place-kicker Cody Parkey should continue to play well this season. Clark is a former Ray Guy Award finalist, and Parkey connected on 11 of his 14 field-goal attempts last season.
Whoever replaces Onterio McCalebb in the return game will be a downgrade, but the Tigers have enough speed on their team to find a suitable backup.
Worst-Case Scenario: 2-10 (0-8 in SEC)
Best-Case Scenario: 8-4 and Bowl bid (4-4 in SEC)
Dr. SEC Preseason Prediction: 7-6 with a win in the Compass Bowl (2-6 in SEC)
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