Auburn report card: Nobody has made the turnaround the Tigers have
by Ryan Black
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Oct 30, 2013 | 1552 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates after defeating Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn celebrates after defeating Texas A&M in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
AUBURN — No team in the country has had a bigger turnaround through eight games than Auburn.

Last season at this time, the Tigers were 1-7. With a new coaching staff in place under the leadership of Gus Malzahn this year, Auburn has inverted its record to 7-1, and is still in the mix for division and conference titles in the SEC. Throw in a few losses by teams ranked above them, and the Tigers might get a chance at a national championship provided they can win out.

But how did Auburn get to this point?

Let's break down the Tigers' performance in six different areas before assessing a final grade, with eight regular-season games in the books and four to go.

Rushing Offense: A+

No aspect of the team has been more dominant or successful than the ground game. The Tigers are lapping the field in rushing yards, leading the SEC with 315.4 per contest, with second-place Missouri nearly 90 yards behind at 224.5 a game.

Auburn has had three games with more than 400 yards rushing and four games with more than 300. What makes Auburn so good? Why, its range of options, of course. Though Tre Mason has established himself as the Tigers' lead back, Corey Grant (speed) and Cameron Artis-Payne (physicality) each bring a dimension of their own. And don't forget about quarterback Nick Marshall, whose confidence in the zone-read game is growing every week, gaining 313 yards and scoring five touchdowns in his last three games.

Passing Offense: B-

Many might think this grade should be lower, which is fine. What I look at is this: Are the Tigers scoring when they put the ball in the air? The answer is yes, by a ratio of 2:1, with 12 touchdowns against six interceptions. No question, the raw numbers could be better if Marshall hadn't overthrown so many open receivers — or if the receivers had done a better job of holding on to other well-thrown passes — but the reality of the situation is that as long as Malzahn is the head coach, the Tigers will never be a pass-first team.

It just needs to be able to do enough to keep opponents from keying on the run too much. And that's exactly Auburn has been able to do this year.

Rushing Defense: A

It's hard to look at the Tigers year-over-year improvement against the run and not be impressed. Last season, Auburn allowed opponents to run for an average of 197.6 yards every game. This year, it's a different story, as the Tigers are giving up just 138.5 a contest, which is fifth-best in the SEC.

Only two teams have even broken the 200-yard barrier, and that came in back-to-back weeks, against Mississippi State and LSU, respectively. Perhaps the keynote performance of the year came against Texas A&M, as the Tigers held the Aggies to 133 yards. It marked the lowest rushing output for Texas A&M in the two years Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has been the starting quarterback.

Passing Defense: B

This category is always a bit tougher to grade, because it's not only comprised of number of interceptions and the passing yards allowed, but also of pressure put on quarterbacks.

When it comes to yards, the Tigers have given them up in bunches, with its 267-yard per game average ranking next-to-last in the SEC, ahead of only Missouri's 284.2. But as has been true of the defense as a whole, while Auburn will give up the yards, it's much stingier when it comes to touchdowns.

The Tigers have permitted only eight touchdowns through the air this year, which is tied for fifth-fewest in the league, and the eight interceptions quadruples 2012's total. Oh, and senior defensive end Dee Ford's re-emergence after battling an early-season injury has helped the Tigers get immense pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as the team has already notched 20 sacks (tied for second-most in the SEC) this season.

Special Teams: B+

Auburn's special teams have been exactly what they need to be: solid every week, spectacular on occasion. No, senior kicker Cody Parkey hasn't been perfect — he's 10 of 13 on field goals this year — but none of his wayward kicks have come back to haunt the Tigers.

Fellow senior specialist Steven Clark has been every bit as good, as opponents are averaging a miniscule 0.5 yards per return. And the Tigers returners — notably Chris Davis on punts — have been electrifying with the ball in their hands. (Just think back to Davis' 70-yard return last week versus Florida Atlantic or Mason's 100-yard kickoff return for a score in the season opener if you need a reminder.)

Coaching: A+

Based on nothing but the team's record alone, Malzahn and his staff would get an A-plus. Already four victories ahead of last season's three-win total, the Tigers could possibly triple it — or better — by the conclusion of this year's campaign.

But the coaching staff gets further credit for immediately coming in and turning around a team that went through one of the worst seasons in the history of a proud football program last year, yet one season later has established the belief it will win every game it plays.

Overall: A

Given everything mentioned above, how could this not be at least an A? The only thing keeping it from an A+, of course, is the lone loss against LSU.

Even in that defeat, however, Auburn fought back to make it a bit more competitive than the 35-21 final score would reveal. And with a third of the regular season still remaining, Auburn still has everything left to play for — a division, conference (and possibly) a national title. The last four regular season games will reveal whether this ends up as a "good" season for Auburn or a "great" one.
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