Auburn turned the college football world on its head in 2013, emerging as one of the great single-season turnarounds in recent college football history.
First-year coach Gus Malzahn and his up-tempo, hold-no-prisoners offense played a huge role in the Tigers’ resurgence.
A year removed from an 0-8 season in SEC play, Auburn won the conference and came within 20 seconds of winning the BCS National Championship Game.
Without question, though, luck played a significant role in the unfathomable turnaround.
Think of The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
Remember Kick Six.
Rewind even further to narrow escapes against Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Auburn’s turnaround ranks among the most unexpected in recent history.
It also goes down as one of the most blessed.
Yes, the Tigers put themselves in position to win all their games, but the football gods also smiled upon them throughout most of the regular season.
Start with the win over Mississippi State, when Auburn trailed for virtually the entire second half.
The Tigers were down to their final drive when quarterback Nick Marshall strung together an 88-yard drive—accounted for almost exclusively by Marshall passes or runs—in one minute and 46 seconds.
Marshall ultimately hit tight end C.J. Uzomah for the game-winning, 11-yard touchdown with 10 seconds to play.
Auburn also found great fortune in the decisive moments of its win at Texas A&M.
Quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won the 2012 Heisman Trophy, got injured in the closing minutes of the third quarter and missed a critical drive in the fourth.
The Tigers took advantage, scoring touchdowns on their final three drives and forcing a three-and-out with Manziel on the sideline.
Manziel returned, but the defense stymied his last-ditch effort when defensive end Dee Ford—a breakout star of the 2013 Tigers—sacked him on fourth down in the closing seconds.
Then, of course, there were the plays that put the “Amen” in Auburn’s “Amen Corner”—the closing stretch that traditionally includes games against Georgia and Alabama.
Cue the miracles.
In the win over Georgia, Marshall tossed a 4th-and-18 desperation heave into double coverage with the Tigers trailing in the closing minute. Rather than batting the pass to the ground, Georgia defenders went for the interception, accidentally tipping the ball up in the air.
Receiver Ricardo Louis ran under the deflection, hauled it in and took it in for the winning score.
Two weeks later, Chris Davis returned No. 1 Alabama’s missed 57-yard field-goal attempt 100 yards for the game-winning score with no time left on the clock.
To deny an element of luck—or, at very least, incredible fortune—paved the way for a good season to become a great season would be foolish.
To say simply write off Auburn’s 2013 season as luck without skill would be to ignore facts.
As anyone who has stayed too long at a craps table can attest, though, luck runs out at some point.
Numbers stop hitting.
Sevens turn into snake eyes.
Auburn can’t expect the same amazing breaks that helped propel it to an SEC title to persist indefinitely.
A considerably tougher schedule might leave Malzahn and the Tigers searching for all the four-leaf clovers and lucky horseshoes they can get.
A Thursday night road game at Kansas State looms large early in the season.
Auburn also sees Tennessee fall off the schedule and South Carolina roll onto the slate.
Oh, and the home games against Georgia and Alabama become road tilts in 2014.
Considering the gauntlet ahead, Auburn will need to avoid a reliance on luck to repeat as SEC champ.
|Auburn Defensive Stats in 2013|
|vs. Bowl Teams from BCS Conferences||vs. All Others|
|Points Allowed Per Game||31.56||12.4|
|Total Yards Allowed Per Game||483.33||308.4|
So what must the Tigers do to give themselves the best chance to claim consecutive conference titles for the first time since 1987-89?
For starters, the defense must make huge strides.
The defensive line loses a pair of starters, but an infusion of talent from the 2013 recruiting class should enable Auburn to reload at the position.
Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy developed significantly down the stretch for the Tigers. They must continue to progress, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson needs to identify players capable of providing depth.
How much the secondary improves will likely determine the defense’s overall success.
A problematic unit sees four starters return for another year in Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme.
Talented newcomers, such as junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief, could elevate the secondary.
As for the offense, as scary as it might be for defensive coordinators, Malzahn’s offense could actually take giant steps forward in 2014.
The Tigers essentially pounded their way to a conference title on the back of a tremendous rushing attack.
Marshall made his mark in 2013 without the benefit of a spring practice. He is now spending the offseason developing further under Malzahn and in the offensive system.
Not only does top receiving target Sammie Coates return, the Tigers also bolstered their group by signing D’haquille Williams, rated by 247Sports as the No. 1 junior college prospect in the nation.
A stronger, more consistent passing attack would do nothing but add balance to Auburn’s already dominating run game.
Perhaps the biggest under-the-radar concern for the Tigers comes on special teams. They must replace both punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey.
Auburn can absolutely win the SEC again in 2014.
It must take substantial steps forward on defense and in the passing game—and receive capable performances from unproven players in the kicking game—to do so.