FROM AUBURN — Being that this is the season opener, we decided we'd give you a little bonus and ask not one, but two Auburn beat writers a series of five questions. This week's kind guests are Brandon Marcello, who covers Auburn for AL.com, and Ryan Black, who covers Auburn for the Ledger-Enquirer based in Columbus, Ga. Read on for my questions and their answers.
1. This is probably a multi-layered question, but what do you think was the biggest mistake or failure that led to Gene Chizik’s downfall? Most people out here think about Auburn and associate it with Cam Newton and the 2010-11 BCS title. How did things go so wrong so fast?
Marcello: “I watched Auburn from afar (I covered Mississippi State for a few years before arriving here in Auburn), and from watching the Tigers and talking to others it seems the problem was developing talent. Auburn will always bring in blue-chip recruits. The school has the tradition and is located in a great spot to recruit the hotbed of talent in this area. The problem was developing that talent. It also didn't help that there was no consistency at quarterback. Add that on to Gene Chizik's decision to change the offense when he hired Scot Loeffler to replace Gus Malzahn, and it was a recipe for a downfall. The Tigers' offensive personnel simply did not fit the pro-style scheme and the defense couldn't get off the field.”
Black: “I wish I could answer this question with a bit more certainty. I didn't cover the team during the Chizik era, so I can't speak from any first-hand experience. However, from talking to people around Auburn — both media and non-media members alike — the easy answer is that he simply lost control of the team after it won the 2010 national title. After that magical season, it seems that he changed for the worse. In 2011, he apparently started to have more input on the offensive game plan, even though it's an area that he had virtually no experience handling. Part of the reason for that decision, many said, was because Chizik felt he didn't get enough credit for the national title, with the majority of it going to Cam Newton (rightly so) and then-offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. After Malzahn left to take over at Arkansas State, he brought in Scot Loeffler, whose pro-style offense fit the Tigers about as well Shaquille O'Neal in a kid's shoe. The biggest sign Chizik lost the team came when news surfaced last season that he had hired a private security firm to enforce curfews. The bottom line is this: He was never as good a coach as the 14-0 season might suggest. On the same token, he didn't inexplicably forget everything he knew football just because he went 3-9 last year. Therefore, he's somewhere in the middle, along the lines of the 8-5 records he posted in 2009 and 2011. All in all, I believe Chizik is a decent coach, albeit one I think is better served as a coordinator than in control of an entire program. (Check out his career as an assistant at Auburn and Texas and the team's corresponding records and defensive rankings while he at those schools. The stats speak for themselves.) For further reading and more detail on the subject from someone with a little more time around the beat, I highly recommend this piece from AL.com's Kevin Scarbinsky.”
2. What’s the perception of WSU in Auburn? It doesn’t seem like a Pac-12 team coming off a 3-9 season would warrant a ton of respect in SEC country, but Auburn didn’t exactly set the world on fire last year, either. Do Tiger fans see this as a gimme? A challenge? An unknown?
Marcello: “I think most Auburn fans expect a win, but some of them also believe it's going to be a close game. Fans are very excited and, honestly, it might be one of the biggest season openers in recent history just because of what this game means for the future. A 3-9 season for Auburn is not acceptable, and with a new (but familiar) coach on campus, they're expecting a turnaround. Look no further than the spring game, when 83,401 people showed up — the most in the country. The fans are ready to move forward and picking up a win would be huge. Again, I believe many fans expect a win. They're really excited.”
Black: “I'd say the Tigers' fan base is taking a “cautiously optimistic” view into Saturday's game. Do they expect to win? Yes. But do (reasonable) fans have many expectations beyond that? No. Malzahn has brought a renewed energy back to the Plains, but I think last season's debacle made everyone around the program appreciate how fleeting success can be. Just because they won the national title in 2010 won't help them win in 2013 — it certainly didn't do much for the Tigers in 2012. And it's the same story when it comes to the SEC. It doesn't hurt playing in the nation's best conference, but it doesn't give an inherent advantage in non-conference matchups, either. And since you brought it up, Washington State is undoubtedly considered an unknown commodity, especially when it comes to the Cougars' offense. When asked whether they could recall facing a similar offense while at Auburn, not a single defender could come up with an answer. They thought it resembled some of what Texas A&M ran last season, but the Aggies aren't nearly as reliant on the passing game as the Cougars — which I suppose you could say about every other team in the country. They did agree on one thing: defending it will going to be a challenge unlike anything else they'll face this season.”
3. If the Tigers are going to improve this season, where does that improvement start? Their defense gave up some lopsided numbers last year. Is there a notion that unit has taken a big step forward, or might it take a year or two?
Marcello: “Depth is an issue at safety. The Tigers have two really good cornerbacks in Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy, but depth, again, is a problem there, too. That's no a good sign for the Tigers as they prepare to face an Air Raid offense. I'm not sure anyone really knows what to expect from the secondary, although defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said in the spring it was the Tigers' most impressive unit on defense.
Auburn simply has to force turnovers this season and win the turnover battle. That didn't happen last season. In fact, the Tigers picked off only two passes and none came from the cornerbacks.
The Tigers will be fine on the defensive line. There's plenty of depth there, but it's just a matter of developing that talent, especially blue-chip freshmen like Elijah Daniel, Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Hybrid safety Justin Garrett is the best player on the defense and will be a big difference for the Tigers after playing out of position at linebacker last season. Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme fits the Tigers' personnel.”
Black: “It might surprise some given how offensively-oriented Malzahn is, but he has said on multiple occasions that the key to the Tigers' season is how the defense performs. And if there is anyone who can whip a defense into shape immediately, it's Ellis Johnson. All you have to do is look what he's done in the past. In his first year as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2004, the Bulldogs gave up 100-plus yards less to their opponents than the previous season. It was much the same at South Carolina. Taking over in 2008, Johnson helped the Gamecocks’ chop nearly 90 yards off their total defensive output, improving from ninth in the SEC (378.1 yards per game) to fourth (291.9) in just one season. Can he do the same with the Tigers? The talent is there. With Dee Ford (who will miss Saturday's game and possibly a bit longer due to a knee injury) at defensive end, they have an All-SEC caliber pass-rusher. Big things are expected of Justin Garrett, too, who was the star of the spring. Ironically, “Star” is also the name of the hybrid linebacker/safety position that Garrett plays, which allows him the flexibility to play close to the line of scrimmage or drop back into coverage to act as a third safety depending upon the situation. Throw in the returners along the defensive line and in the secondary, and even with the dismissal of last year's leading tackle (safety Demetruce McNeal), the defense doesn't look half bad. Do I expect improvement? Without question. The Tigers gave up 420.5 yards per game last season, which ranked next-to-last in the 14-team SEC. It will be tough to move into the top five in the SEC like Johnson did in his first year at South Carolina, and it's not because of anything that Auburn can't do; it has more to do with the absurdly-good quality of the league's defenses. Moving into the top five of any defensive category in the SEC normally means it also landed a team in the top 10 in the country, sometimes higher. I think a reasonable expectation for the Tigers is ranking in the six-to-nine range in most of the conference's statistical departments this season, with the potential to be even better in 2014.”
4. Gus Malzahn has said he wants to run the fastest offense in college football. Do you get the feeling that his players have adapted well to his schemes, and is the current roster well-suited to run the ball the way he’d like to?
Marcello: “I think it helps that most of the talent on offense was recruited by Gus Malzahn previously. They had some growing pains in the spring, sure, but they seemed to execute very well in the spring game. Malzahn has continued to say that the team has picked up the scheme and the pace. I think the Tigers are ready.
I don't think that means Malzahn's offense will be the fastest in college football. History shows that he will obviously snap he ball quickly, but I don't expect to see the Tigers in the top five by the end of the season. The Tigers run the ball quite a bit, which can lead to the clock ticking down, obviously. They also will slow the pace if they get up by a couple of touchdowns.”
Black: “If there's one thing I'm sure of heading into the season, it's that Auburn's offense won't have any problems adapting to the speed at which Malzahn wants to operate. Nearly every interview session of the preseason involved players taking about the offseason program put into place by strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. To be able to run as many plays as Malzahn would like, you've got to be in pretty good shape, after all. And as crazy as it sounds, the pace people will see on the field this fall is slow compared to what the Tigers do during practice. The team moves at warp-speed, with the thinking that games will be a breeze after practicing at a breakneck clip during the week. And the Tigers won't lack for options in the backfield. Junior Tre Mason is back after leading the team in total offense, the first non-quarterback to pull off that feat since Bo Jackson in 1985. Cameron Artis-Payne will get plenty of carries, too, while Corey Grant and true freshman Peyton Barber are lighting-quick and blessed with the ability to make plays in space that are so integral in the team's wide-open offense. Johnathan Ford may return at some point as well; for the moment, however, the true freshman is at cornerback, shifting over to defense during fall camp to increase depth at the position following an off-field injury to Jonathan Jones. Oh, and did I mention Nick Marshall? Auburn's newest quarterback ran for 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns last season in junior college. Not too shabby. One more thing: The Tigers have four starters back on the offensive line, which many consider the strength of the team. So there's that. Needless to say, with the plethora of weapons at his disposal, Malzahn will likely be smiling about the running game all season long, even if he'll remain stone-faced in media sessions.”
5. Nick Marshall seems to have received quite a bit of hype, given how little experience he has as a college quarterback. Where would you rate the confidence level in him as a quarterback in the SEC? Have there been any indications that ball control will be a problem for him like it was at Garden City?
Marcello: “I've asked your last question several different times and ways throughout preseason camp. He threw 20 interceptions and fumbled the ball eight times (five were lost) at Garden City (Kan.) Community College last season. Gus Malzahn says he has been “very accurate” in preseason camp. In fact, I'm told he didn't throw a single interception during the Tigers' three scrimmages that led to the coaching staff naming him as their starting quarterback.
Marshall is a heck of athlete. He's got a big arm and his speed and elusiveness is something that Malzahn hasn't quite ever used in his offense (Cam Newton was fast, obviously, but he was a bruiser capable of taking punishment between the tackles). It'll be interesting to see Saturday night just how they use Marshall and whether they turn him loose or make him rely on his running backs to set the tempo.”
Black: “Not that you would probably expect to hear anything different, but the coaching staff and his teammates have no worries about how Marshall will fare in his first year as a quarterback in the SEC. (I would think these were the same type of 'Can he replicate his junior college success?' inquiries Cam Newton heard three years ago.) Malzahn did admit he's “curious” to see how Marshall responds on Saturday. Since he's never been in this situation before, it's impossible to predict how he'll react the first time he faces adversity. That's why Malzahn said he won't ask Marshall to do anything more than he's comfortable with as far as the playbook was concerned. The coach wouldn't give a percentage of how much of the playbook Marshall has already grasped, but Malzahn felt it was more than enough for Saturday's game plan. As far as his accuracy is concerned, Marshall has received nothing but praise for his decision-making from both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee. In fact, Lashlee said the junior didn't commit a single turnover in any of the team's scrimmages during fall camp. It's understandable why the questions are out there, though — any time you throw 20 interceptions in a season like Marshall did last year, those kinds of queries are going to arise. If you talk to his former offensive coordinator at Garden City Community College, he would tell you there was a valid reason for that alarming interception total: It was due to Marshall's belief he had to score every time he had the ball. If you glance at the team's defensive stats last season, you'll see that isn't far from the truth. Assuming Auburn's defense makes strides this season — and influenced by how many times the Tigers run the ball — I expect Marshall's interception tally won't even be half of what it was in 2012.”
Ryan Black on Twitter: @wareagleextra
Brandon Marcello on Twitter: @bmarcello