Gus Malzahn had quite a first year at Auburn.
Not only did he become just the third first-year coach to win the SEC championship, he also produced the greatest turnaround in SEC history. From winless to within seconds of a BCS national championship doesn't happen every day.
Essentially, Malzahn is now a victim of his own success as anything less than a repeat will appear lackluster to a rabid fan base like Auburn. Nick Marshall returns with a talented set of receivers around him as he enters spring as a seasoned veteran under center. And the defensive depth chart is stacked with rising stars, in particular, all over the front seven.
But this team almost has to take a step back in 2014. Offensive superstars Tre Mason and Greg Robinson have moved on to the NFL while cult heroes Dee Ford and Chris Davis are gone from the defense. Other holes at defensive line, in the secondary and fullback are concerning as well.
Auburn could be the top challenger to Alabama in the SEC West this fall but before Malzahn leads his team into what appears to be a brutal schedule, the Tigers must address some needs in spring camp.
Auburn Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Auburn's 2014 Spring Practice
Establish balance on offense
Running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne were excellent backups to Tre Mason a year ago and should be able to carry the offensive load this fall. And no, Malzahn will never throw the ball 50 times per game. But developing quarterback Nick Marshall as a passer in an effort to find some balance could make this team virtually unstoppable on offense. There are a lot of names in the receiving corps but no elite playmakers other than possibly Sammie Coates — which is why newcomers like D'haquille Williams and Stanton Truitt are already drawing first-team reps. Williams has the ability to stretch the field with his big frame while Truitt provides speed and elusiveness from the slot. Of course, replacing uber-athlete Greg Robinson at left tackle to protect Marshall's blindside would go a long way in helping to create this desired offensive balance.
Develop the youth up front on defense
Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Kenneth Carter and Craig Sanders are all gone from the defensive line. While losing four contributors, including a first-team All-SEC playmaker, would hurt any defense, Malzahn and coordinator Ellis Johnson shouldn't be too worried about the front seven. Gabe Wright anchors the line but also will be asked to provide an example for his younger peers this spring. Rising true sophomores Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel have elite ability and upside but need to be groomed as starters in their first full offseason. Filling a hole left by the steady Jake Holland at linebacker will also be critical but most of the last season's depth chart returns — including Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. This unit may take some lumps this spring and into the fall as some of these players develop, but there's no disputing their talent and potential. Should they become all-league players this fall, Auburn could actually be improved on defense by season's end.
Organize the secondary
Two safeties, Ryan White (54 tackles) and Ryan Smith (68 tackles), have moved on and star cornerback Chris Davis graduated as well. The Tigers' secondary is arguably the biggest area of concern for Auburn this spring and after injuries moved the depth chart around last fall, Malzahn is likely looking to settle on a rotation. Jonathon Mincy returns to one corner spot but depth needs to be developed around him. Robenson Therezie and Jermaine Whitehead got plenty of experience a year ago and ideally will become one of the SEC's better safety tandems. Elsewhere, look for former running back Johnathan Ford and early enrollee Derrick Moncrief to get looks while both Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones recover from injuries. There were a lot of moving parts in this department for Auburn last year and organizing the depth chart is key this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
The Tigers literally went from worst to first and won't sneak up on anyone in 2014. Teams will be more focused on stopping Marshall and the Auburn defensive front is going to be very young. This roster's talent is much closer to the 12-2 record of last year than the 0-8 team from two years ago so optimism should fill Jordan-Hare Stadium. This team is an SEC contender without a doubt, but the Tigers face a nasty schedule this fall befitting a former conference champion. Road games at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are brutal, as is a trip to The Little Apple to face Kansas State in non-conference action. Toss in home games with LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M and Auburn will be hard-pressed to win the West once again. However, as we all learned last season, strange things can happen down on The Plains.