War Eagle: Why the Auburn Tigers Should be Looked at as Serious National Championship Contenders
Question: Can a team that just came off a disappointing 8-5 record bounce back and win the national championship?
The answer to that is absolutely. When is the last time a team won the national championship after winning fewer than nine games the season before? The 2010 Auburn Tigers won the national championship after posting an 8-5 record in 2009. That is the exact same record they had in 2014. So, why should these Auburn Tigers be looked at as serious national championship contenders?
Well, for starters, have you seen their new quarterback? His name is Jeremy Johnson and he is set to wow the War Eagle faithful. In two seasons as Nick Marshall’s backup, he threw for 858 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions while completing well over 70% of his passes. His most impressive performance was a first-half start against Arkansas in the 2014 season, when went 12/16 (75%) and threw for 243 yards with two touchdown passes.
In addition, he also has the perfect quarterback body as he stands at 6 feet 5 inches and weighs 240 pounds. As Auburn’s likely starter, he should thank the guys that he’ll be playing behind. Auburn will boast one of the best offensive lines in the country. In 2014, they allowed Nick Marshall to be sacked just 14 times. The returning starters on the offensive line (Devante Danzey, Avery Young, Alex Kozan, Braden Smith, Shon Coleman, and Austin Golson) will contribute to Johnson’s protection.
Who will be Johnson’s weapons? 2014 team receiving leader Sammie Coates has moved on to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Thankfully, second-leading receiver D'Haquille Williams is returning. In 2014, Williams had 45 receptions for 730 yards and five touchdown catches. He had four 100-yard receiving games, all of those coming against bowl teams (Arkansas, Kansas State, Mississippi State, Alabama). With Johnson throwing to him and Coates' departure leaving him as the top option, Williams’ production could be even better.
Who will provide the attack on the ground? Jovon Robinson will most likely be Auburn’s starting running back. He’s never started a game at Auburn, but the team seems to be confident in him.
"He's really good at setting guys up, and maybe he won't make them completely miss, but he'll force them to arm tackle, and he'll break it easily because of his size and his strength," quarterback Sean White said about the 232-pound runner. Robinson won the NJCAA national offensive player of the year in 2013, rushing for 2,387 yards (a junior college record) and 34 touchdowns. He is the nation’s number 1 junior college transfer and should contribute greatly to the team’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
The best part about all of this is that they are led by arguably the best offensive mind in the country in head coach Gus Malzahn. Malzahn served as Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-2011. In 2010, he was instrumental in Cam Newton’s success. Newton became the first player in SEC history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He was also the 3rd player in NCAA FBS history to throw and run for 20-plus touchdowns in a single season.
With Newton at the helm, Auburn went on to win the national championship. Malzahn won the Broyles Award that year as the nation’s top assistant coach. After a one-year stint at Arkansas State, he made an immediate impact as Auburn's new head coach in 2013 as he guided them to a 12-2 record and a national championship appearance. This was just one year after Auburn posted a 3-9 record with zero SEC victories.
Okay, you get it. Auburn should have an awesome offense. They have a QB who possesses size and throwing ability, quality - albeit unproven - weapons at receiver and in the backfield, and a head coach with an elite offensive mind. But what about their defense? After all, doesn’t defense win championships? How did Auburn’s defense do in the 2014 season?
In 2014, Auburn was 80th in the nation in passing defense and 44th in rushing defense. They allowed 26.7 points per game, which was 63rd in the nation. So obviously, Auburn’s defense wasn’t particularly good. Why will they improve this season?
Will Muschamp, that’s why. Auburn’s new defensive coordinator should have a huge impact on the Tigers. Say what you want about the man when it comes to his head coaching abilities. As Florida’s former head coach from 2011-2014, the offense under Muschamp was terrible. But one thing no one can deny is that he can coach defense.
The defense, however, was great. Under Muschamp, Florida ranked 9th, 6th, 5th, and 4th in total defense, respectively. Before becoming Florida’s head coach, Muschamp was the defensive coordinator for the Texas Longhorns from 2008-2010, where they had nation’s fifth best defense in both 2009 and 2010. Prior to that, he was actually at Auburn from 2006-2007 and guided their defense to the sixth best in the nation in his final season there. There’s a reason why defenses under Muschamp are always very good. It’s because he is a no-nonsense guy who expects nothing but the absolute best from you.
“If you can’t execute, you can’t play,” Muschamp says. And he means it.
So who does Will Muschamp have on defense that he can utilize? Last season's leading tackler Jonathan Ford is returning. He was 10th in the SEC with 94 tackles. He also recorded three interceptions and one forced fumble. Cassanova McKinzy is also returning. He was second on the team in tackles with 91 (14th in the SEC) and had one interception and one forced fumble.
In addition, Auburn is bringing in defensive end Byron Cowart, the number 1 recruit on ESPN’s 300 rankings. The incoming freshman should impact Auburn’s defense immediately.
"He already possesses NFL size, and he's very strong at the point of attack, so he's that rare player who fits into the SEC right away from a physical standpoint," national recruiting writer for Bleacher Report Sanjay Kirpalani said. Cowart is a member of Auburn’s seventh-ranked 2015 recruiting class (according to Rivals from Yahoo Sports) and its most vital piece by far.
Get ready, folks. The Auburn Tigers are coming. They’re loaded on offense, should have a vastly improved defense,and quite possibly have the most stacked coaching staff in the nation. Now, I am not saying that they are going to win it all. What I am saying, however, is don’t be surprised to see them improve on last season's 8-5 record to chase a national championship. It should happen, and it will happen.