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Auburn’s regular season recap: Malzahn orchestrates the biggest turnaround in college football

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SDS recaps every team’s 2013 regular season:

Auburn Tigers

Final Record: 12-1 overall, 7-1 SEC, SEC Champions

Magical is the best word to describe Auburn’s 2013 turnaround. From 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play to 12-1 and SEC Champions, turnarounds like that don’t just magically happen, and they’re not supposed to happen in the SEC. So, how did Gus Malzahn architect the most impressive turnaround in college football that put Auburn in the national title?

Related: 5 reasons Auburn beats FSU

First, he inherited talent. Gene Chizik wasn’t a great developer of talent, but he sure could sign talent. Malzahn already had an intimate knowledge of the players he was inheriting, too. Second, Malzahn got the players to believe, and he changed the culture of the program immediately. It usually takes coaches a year or two to weed out the misfits and bring in ‘their guys’, but Malzahn changed the culture in less than a year. That’s amazing and a testament to Malzahn and his coaching staff. Thirdly, his offensive scheme is conducive to scoring points, and he adapted his scheme to the personnel’s strengths. Most coaches try to force their style of play on the players, but Malzahn adapted his scheme to the players’ strengths.

The greatest play in some program’s history wasn’t even the greatest play in the month for Auburn. Ricardo Louis’ 73-yard touchdown catch was magical and would be the best play in history for several programs, but Chris Davis’ ‘Kick-Six’ made it the second best play for the month.

Related: Finebaum breaking a promise to an Auburn fan

Now, instead of gearing up for a bowl game at 6-6 or 7-5 like everyone thought, Malzahn is getting his team ready to play undefeated FSU for the national championship. Pinch yourself.

The offense’s two biggest threats and playmakers were QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. This offense was built around the strengths of both. Marshall threw for 1,759 yards, 12 TDs and five INTs, while Mason rushed for an SEC-high 1,621 yards and 22 TDs, breaking Bo Jackson’s single-season all-purpose record with 2,137 yards. But it didn’t stop with Marshall and Mason, as Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne both rushed for over 600 yards. In fact, Auburn was the only team in college football to have four 600-yard rushers. The Tigers led the country and the SEC in rushing offense, averaging over 335 yards per game, as well as the most 20- and 30-plus yard rushing plays.

The lost treasure in the dominant offense and running game is the offensive line. Anchored by LT Greg Robinson and center Reese Dismukes, the O-line was dominant the entire season. Alex Kozan, Chad Slade and Avery Young rounded out the other three starters, and each had big seasons. The Tigers allowed just 16 sacks, good for fourth in the SEC, and this will be the best offensive line Florida State will have faced all season.

One of the most underrated players in the SEC is WR Sammie Coates, who led the conference averaging 22.13 yards per catch, catching 38 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. Another receiver who has a big future is Ricardo Louis, who caught 26 passes for 297 yards and two touchdowns, while Quan Bray and Marcus Davis both caught over 20 passes. TE CJ Uzomah caught nine passes and three of them were touchdowns.

Every championship team has to have one defender making a big impact. That’s Dee Ford, much like Nick Fairley did in 2010. Ford led the Tigers with 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks, along with 17 QB hurries. Nosa Eguae, Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens held down the other three defensive linemen spots with freshman Carl Lawson being another impact defensive end. Wright recorded 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, while Lawson had 7.5 and four sacks.

One of the biggest impact linebackers and players throughout the season was Cassanova McKinzy. McKinzy racked up 66 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks, along with six QB hurries, and Jake Holland and STAR Robinson Therezie held down the second level. Therezie picked off four passes in crucial situations.

Corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis played well throughout the season, and safeties Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith did, too. Davis was the team’s top tackler with 69, and he also broke up 14 passes, while Mincy had 12 breakups and one INT. Smith recorded three INTs and 62 tackles, while Whitehead had two INTs and 62 tackles. This group wasn’t great, but they are good enough to win a championship.

One of the biggest reasons Auburn won a championship is their special teams play. Everyone knows about Smith’s ‘Kick-Six’ return against Alabama, but punter Steven Clark had a magical stretch run to the season. Clark finished sixth in the SEC in punting and averaged 42.52 yards per punt. Placekicker Cody Parkey made 14 of 19 field goals and 62 of 63 extra points this season. Special teams is one area where Auburn had an advantage in every single game.

Here’s a look at the team stats:

Category (SEC rank)
Scoring Offense 40.2 PPG (2nd)
Rushing Offense 335.69 PPG (1st)
Passing Offense 169.6 PPG (12th)
Total Offense 505.3 YPG (2nd)
Scoring Defense 24 PPG (6th)
Rushing Defense 164.5 YPG (10th)
Passing Defense 259.3 YPG (14th)
Total Defense 423.5 YPG (12th)

One that got away: Had Auburn played LSU later in the season, the Plainsmen would have won that game. Instead, LSU caught Auburn early in the season and at the right time in Baton Rouge, and Jeremy Hill ran wild for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Auburn’s three turnovers – two by Nick Marshall – were the ultimate difference. However, the loss was early enough not to hurt Auburn, and the team took a different identity after the LSU game. I really thought the LSU loss was necessary for Auburn to win a championship.

Offensive Stud: While Nick Marshall is the biggest impact player in Malzahn’s scheme, Tre Mason gives the offense a physical edge. Going for over 300 yards and four touchdowns in Atlanta will make you the MVP, and he received a Heisman invite because of it. Mason was underrated throughout his career, and he’s finally getting the love he deserved. Mason rushed for 1,621 yards on 283 carries for 22 touchdowns. Impressive.

Defensive Stud: Cassanova McKinzy should get some love for this, but the impact player on defense is Dee Ford. Ford will be crucial against FSU, and he’ll have to get pressure on Jameis Winston and disrupt the passing game. Ford recorded 26 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

Related: What you need to know about FSU

What’s Next: Everything is on the line in Pasadena against Florida State. Auburn will try and win the SEC its eighth straight national title and fifth straight for the state of Alabama. Looking into the crystal ball for next year, the Tigers will be loaded again. This program is going to be a national player every single year with Malzahn at the helm. This doesn’t have a Gene Chizik one-year-wonder-type feel; Auburn will be a long-term player on the national scene.

Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports





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