In & around SEC football

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2015 will be the most important season of Gus Malzahn’s coaching career at Auburn. Everything is in place for the Tigers to be the best team in the Southeastern Conference and possibly the country, but expectations have often been a burden on Auburn football.

In the last 25 years, Auburn has been ranked in the Top 10 of the preseason AP poll six times. In each of those seasons, the Tigers’ final ranking was lower than their preseason ranking. The most notable instances in recent memory of Auburn failing to live up to expectations were in 2003, 2008 and 2014.

In ’03, the Tigers were ranked sixth in the presea-son AP poll. They opened up the season with back-to-back losses to USC and Georgia Tech, however, and Tommy Tuberville’s team never quite recovered. Tuberville was almost replaced with Bobby Petrino, but a win over Alabama in the Iron Bowl saved Tuberville’s job. Auburn finished the season 8-5 and unranked.

The 2008 season didn’t end so well for Tuberville. Auburn began the year ranked 10th in the AP but had a disastrous season as the Tigers attempted to change from a West Coast offense to the spread. Auburn finished the year 5-7, and Tuberville was promptly fired after a 36-0 demolition by Alabama. 

Last season, the Tigers were fresh off of an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game and had plenty of returning starters. But the combination of putrid defense and a brutal road schedule led Auburn to a disappointing 8-5 record.

The 2015 AP preseason poll has yet to be released, but there’s a good chance that Auburn either will be in the top 10 or somewhere close. Athlon Sports has Auburn ranked fourth in its preseason poll, while Sports Illustrated has the Tigers third.

So what, if anything, is so different about the 2015 version of the Auburn Tigers? Should Auburn fans – and opposing fans – buy into the hype?

The short answer is yes. Auburn is loaded and should be the favorite to win the SEC championship this season. Offensively, the Tigers lost starters at several key positions, including quarterback, running back, center and wide receiver. However, it’s possible that the replacements for those players are actually upgrades.

Nick Marshall did an excellent job at quarterback in his two seasons at Au-burn, but even the most loyal Marshall fan would admit that his quarterbacking skills had serious limitations. His replacement, Jeremy Johnson, can do it all. He’s an accurate passer, and at 6’5, 240 pounds he has the build of an NFL quarterback. Johnson is also very mobile, but don’t mistake him for Cam Newton; Johnson is more of a pocket passer, and he’ll be throwing the ball to star wide receiver Duke Williams early and often this season. 

Joining Johnson in the backfield will be a mixture of new and familiar faces. Roc Thomas is back for his sophomore season, and while he didn’t see the bulk of the carries last year, he’ll be featured more prominently this fall. Tho-mas will split carries with incoming junior college transfer Jovon Robinson. At 230 pounds, Robinson is most effective running between the tackles, and the two backs should compliment each other well.

Defensively, the most significant change occurred on the coaching staff. Will Muschamp is making his return to The Plains after a head coaching stint at Flo-rida, and he’s inheriting a defense that hasn’t been good since he left after the 2007 season. Fortunately for Muschamp, the Tigers have the talent on that side of the ball to drastically improve. 

Auburn’s defense featured a plethora of weaknesses a season ago. Perhaps the biggest flaw was the lack of a pass rush. The Tigers lost star defensive end Carl Lawson before the season began in 2014 and were unable to consistently apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Lawson is back this season, and he’ll be joined by true freshman Byron Cowart, who was the top ranked high school player in the country last year. Lawson and Cowart should immediately prove to be an elite pair of pass rushing ends. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost will anchor the Tiger defense again after both opted to remain in school for their senior seasons instead of entering the NFL draft.

Having a talented roster certainly helps, but Auburn also will benefit from a more lenient schedule this season. The Tigers travel to Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, and Kentucky and host Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama. No schedule in the SEC is easy, but getting to play two rivals at home is something Auburn must take advantage of every other year. 

The SEC West promises to be strong this season, but it would a surprise if the Iron Bowl did not decide the division crown in November. Alabama has the tougher schedule and more unknowns than Auburn, but overlooking a Nick Saban-coached team would be unwise.

Gus Malzahn led Auburn to the quickest turnaround in college football history in his first season as head coach. His second year was a disappointment. If Malzahn wants to take Auburn to the next level as a program, this is the year to do it. Alabama is still a great program but not quite as powerful as it was at its peak under Saban. LSU is on the decline. Texas A&M is stuck in neutral. Arkansas is on the rise but still at least a year away from being a serious contender in the West. The Mississippi schools were a fun story a year ago, but their success will be short lived in the Wild West.

Auburn’s time is now, and the pressure falls on Malzahn to make sure his team takes advantage of the opportunity. The Tigers faltered in the past when expectations loomed large, but that can all change this season. It’s the playoffs or bust for Auburn.

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