Will Gus Malzahn's defense turn it around in 2014?
The SEC West is the toughest division in college football, with the Iron Bowl rivalry between Alabama and Auburn taking center stage once again in 2014.
Auburn experienced a quick turnaround in Gus Malzahn’s first year, finishing 12-2 and losing to Florida State in the national championship. The Tigers defeated the Crimson Tide in their regular season finale on a memorable last-second returned missed field goal for a touchdown.
Alabama continues to set the bar high in the West, winning 11 games last year and reeling in another elite recruiting class.
With both teams expected to be picked high in most preseason top 25 polls, the November Iron Bowl could decide the SEC West champion once again.
However, both teams have significant question marks to address before late November, as Alabama’s quarterback situation and Auburn’s defense are the top concerns in the SEC West at the conclusion of spring practice.
Athlon Sports’ preseason magazines are set to hit the newsstands in late May/early June, and it’s time to settle some of the biggest debates for 2014. Over the next few weeks, AthlonSports.com will dive into some of the key topics by conference and some of the debates that will shape preseason predictions for this year.
Alabama’s QB Play or Auburn’s Defense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although there may be a transition period at quarterback for Alabama, I have less concerns about the Crimson Tide offense than I do Auburn’s defense. Jacob Coker should be a good fit in Tuscaloosa, and he has plenty of help from one of the top receiving corps in the nation and a deep stable of running backs. The Tigers return six starters on defense, and another offseason under coordinator Ellis Johnson should help this unit show progression on the stat sheet. But in conference games last year, Auburn allowed 6.4 yards per play and gave up 45 plays of 30 yards or more – the most in the SEC in 14 games. This unit has reason to expect improvement, especially with a talented line returning in 2014. End Carl Lawson and tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams could all be in contention for All-SEC honors, but the secondary must replace three key players, including cornerback Chris Davis. There’s no question Alabama will be in big trouble if Coker or Blake Sims fails to provide adequate quarterback play. However, the Crimson Tide can mask some of their quarterback issues with a strong defense and rushing attack. Although Auburn can outscore most of the teams in the nation, I don’t think it can win the SEC West again without improvement on that side of the ball. Both of these parts are a concern, but I have bigger issues with the Tigers’ defense in 2014.
Although I do think Alabama will miss the underrated AJ McCarron, especially once conference play heats up, the Crimson Tide have enough talented skill position players to ease Jacob Coker's transition into the starting lineup. Plus the defense should be more than capable of picking up the slack, if necessary. On the other hand, there's Auburn's defense, which ranked 86th in FBS last season in yards allowed and 100th against the pass. Yes, the Tigers are the defending SEC champions and were 79 seconds away from winning the national title, but this is a team that was on the receiving end of numerous lucky bounces last season (see: Georgia game, Iron Bowl) and out-gained conference foes by less than 19 yards per game. So while the offense was churning out more than 500 yards per game, the defense was giving up more than 420. This defense also lost two of its best players in first-team All-SEC end Dee Ford and second-team cornerback Chris Davis. With no Ford rushing (10.5 sacks) the quarterback and Davis not patrolling the secondary (or able to run back a missed field goal to put the Tigers in the SEC Championship Game), I'm leery of any marked improvement from a defense that returns just six starters. So while quarterback play may be a question mark for Alabama entering this season, the Crimson Tide have a well-rounded supporting cast that should provide plenty of answers. As good as Auburn's offense was last season, it took a tipped, last-second Hail Mary and one of the most improbable endings in college football history to bail out a rather generous defense. If the status quo holds for these two units, I think it's too much to expect a repeat this fall of what transpired in 2013.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
This is an easy one, right? It’s the Auburn defense. The Tigers, to their credit, did most of their defensive work last season when it counted. Auburn led the SEC in third down defense and finished third in touchdown rate in the red zone. The Tigers were fourth in sacks per game and fifth in tackles per game. Yet at the same time, Auburn was 10th in yards per pass and yards per carry. To me, that means the departure of Dee Ford and three other key contributors from the defensive line will be missed even more than anyone would anticipate. Alabama adds a potential two-year starting quarterback in Jacob Coker, who challenged Jameis Winston for the starting job at Florida State. It’s unreasonable to expect Coker to come close to what Winston did last season, but with Alabama’s skill position talent on offense, Coker doesn’t need to be Heisman-caliber. Coker will at worst be a caretaker of the offense in Tuscaloosa. I'm not sure Auburn has a similar solution on defense. In 2014, Auburn will have a much tougher time replacing Ford than Alabama will have replacing AJ McCarron.
Kevin Causey (@CFBZ), CrystalBallRun.com
Auburn's defense finished the year 12th in the SEC in total defense and ninth in scoring defense. In year one of the Ellis Johnson era, they weren't great but generally they made plays when they had to (and in some cases they got bailed out by miracles). This year, they should be better although they will have to find a replacement for star Dee Ford. Gus Malzahn's offense will also be able to hide some of the deficiencies of Johnson's defense.
For Alabama, a change in quarterback is not something that has happened often in the Nick Saban era. In fact, in Saban's eight years he's only had three starters (John Parker Wilson, Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron). Now they must replace a four-year starter and do so with a wildcard offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin. Like Auburn's offense, Bama's defense will cover a lot of faults of their offense but at some point during the year Alabama's QB (be it Jacob Coker or Blake Sims) is going to have to step up and make game winning plays. When you combine that with the question mark of Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, I have to say that Alabama's quarterback play is more of a concern heading into the 2014 season than Auburn's defense.