Here’s the million-dollar question: If Auburn was the 2013 edition of Notre Dame in 2012, which team will be the Tigers in 2014?
And since there has to be one—because there always is—why not Will Muschamp and Florida?
If you think the prospect of the Gators chomping all the way to the inaugural College Football Playoff is a pipe dream, consider some of the common threads they’ll share with last season’s Auburn squad.
Under the Radar
Think back to the beginning of the 2013 season and ask yourself this: What were the realistic expectations for Auburn?
Coming off a 3-9 season, it’s safe to say that the Tigers weren’t expected to do much, with the exception of showing some promise under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
To illustrate, Auburn didn’t receive a single vote in the 2013 preseason polls. Furthermore, reliable prognosticator Phil Steele had the Tigers ranked at No. 55 in his power poll coming into the season.
Though Auburn wasn’t taken seriously by the college football brain trust, it did have the benefit of small expectations.
Yes, what better way to find yourself than to do so while nobody is watching?
Coming into 2014, Florida—straight off a 4-8 campaign—will be similarly viewed. Instead of being a top-10 team in the preseason polls (like they were a year ago), the Gators will be categorized as a “hopefully better than last year” team.
In both instances, it’s the perfect cover for a big move up the charts.
The key factor that links programs like Auburn and Florida is consistent success at recruiting. The Gators, like the Tigers, have continued to sign top-ranked classes despite producing erratic results.
It’s simple: Given their talent base, both Auburn in 2012 and Florida in 2013 underperformed epically.
Take look at both teams’ recruiting class rankings since 2010.
|Recruiting Rankings Since 2010|
The upside of posting poor results with loads of talent is that a dramatic turnabout is not just some sort of fantasy land—it’s a real possibility.
Don’t think so?
How does Alabama go 7-6 in 2007 (Nick Saban’s first season) and post a 12-2 record in 2008? And how does Ohio State go 6-7 in 2011 and improve all the way to 12-0 in 2012?
It’s because both the Crimson Tide and Buckeyes consistently recruit classes ranked in the top 12.
One of the real keys to Auburn’s comeback was that they already had the talent on board to win a bunch of games.
Take a look at what Jon Cooper of Saturday Down South had to say in article this past July entitled, “SEC subplots: Will Auburn have the biggest revival in 2013?”
That’s right—of the four new head coaches, Gus Malzahn should have the quickest turnaround. Why? Gene Chizik’s problem wasn’t recruiting; it was developing what he recruited…So, there’s talent in the program to work with yesterday. Auburn finishes top five in recruiting annually, and recruiting has never been their problem. Malzahn will take the talent, put a flashy offense together and score points.
The good news for Gator fans is that Florida is in the same position, it has the talent yesterday.
Who’s Coming Back
Coming into its catastrophic season in 2012, it’s worth noting that Phil Steele had Auburn ranked No. 94 in the FBS in experience.
This number improved to No. 49 in 2013 and included four starters to an offensive line that led the Tigers to a No. 1 rank in rushing yards.
The point here is that where the 2012 team was woefully inexperienced, the 2013 squad was more seasoned, especially along both lines of scrimmage.
Florida, on the other hand, ranked No. 83 in experience coming into 2013 and though calculations are far from exact for 2014, the Gators are set to return as many as 18 starters.
Due back are all but two starters on the offensive line and the entire defensive front seven.
Overall, the Gators will be more experienced in 2014, and hopefully, they can concoct some sort of magic chant to ward off the injury bug.
Plus, you’ve got to be excited about the set of early enrollees at Florida this year, including quarterback Will Grier. If he gets a shot, you have to wonder if he could provide a positive charge a la Nick Marshall.
Another interesting wrinkle is where Auburn gained momentum with a new head coach in 2013, Florida will do so via a new offensive coordinator.
Since offense is the biggest area of concern for the Gators, perhaps a new schemer, a seasoned roster and a healthier season will prove just the ticket for a national title run.
Though both Auburn and Florida must face full-tilt SEC schedules, they share a common advantage in non-conference opponents.
First, take a look at the Tigers’ non-SEC foes in 2012 vs. 2013.
|Auburn Non-Conference Games: 2012 vs. 2013|
|#14 Clemson||1||L||Wash St.||1||W|
|New Mex St.||10||W||FCS W. Carolina||7||W|
|FCS Alabama A&M||11||W||FAU||9||W|
Auburn replaced the opener versus No. 14 Clemson with a home game against Pac-12 cellar-dweller Washington State. The result was starting the season with a seven-point win instead of a seven-point loss.
Next, take a look at Florida’s non-conference opponents this past season versus what’s up for 2014.
|Florida Non-Conference Games: 2013 vs. 2014|
|at Miami (Fla.)||2||L||Eastern Michigan||2||?|
|FCS Ga. Southern||13||L||FCS Eastern KY||13||?|
|#2 Florida St.||14||L||at Florida St.||14||?|
Similar to Auburn, the Gators will replace their Week 2 game at Miami with a home contest with Eastern Michigan. Effectively, this turns the early loss into an easy win.
It’s a serious momentum builder, which could pay huge dividends later in the season.
They’re Closer Than They Look
What’s intriguing about comparing Auburn’s 2012 team statistically with the 2013 squad is that the improvements were limited to a few major categories.
Yes, they won 10 more games and yeah, they looked drastically better, but other than rushing yards and points, it wasn’t a complete transformation.
Take a look at the stats.
|Auburn Statistically 2012 vs. 2013|
|College Football Statistics|
What the improvement came down to was 20 more points per game powered by 180 additional rushing yards.
What this means for Florida in 2014 is that the Gators don’t need to engineer an extreme team makeover. Instead, it needs to be a remodeling job.
In other words, they don’t need a Heisman-caliber quarterback because they already have three top-tier running backs.
The good news is that the Gators will start their project with a much better defensive product than Auburn had coming into 2013, a huge plus.
Take a look at what Florida has to do statistically in 2014 in order to make the same level of improvement that Auburn did a year ago.
|Florida's 2012 Statistics and Improvement Needed in 2014|
|College Football Statistics|
What’s intriguing about the numbers is comparing Auburn’s 2012 offensive stats with those Florida pumped out in 2013—they are almost equally as poor. Perhaps similar improvement could equal similar results.
While the analysis shows that Florida needs a three-touchdown-per-game improvement to match Auburn’s numbers in 2014, the menacing Gator defense could whittle this number down to two.
In other words, if you are better at stopping opponents from scoring, you don’t need to find the end zone as often.
So, can the Gators pick up at least 14 extra points per game in 2014?
With the best talent in the FBS? With an easier non-conference schedule? With a new coach on offense? With more returning starters? With less pressure?