The Auburn Tigers went winless in the SEC last season, finishing 3-9 which cost head coach Gene Chizik his job. Former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn returns to Jordan-Hare as head coach with the task of returning the Tigers to the level that won them a BCS National Championship in 2010. While Malzahn will focus on the offensive side of the ball, it will be an experienced core on defense that will key Auburn’s renaissance.
Auburn will return eight of their top 10 tacklers from 2012 next fall, led by Demetruce McNeal at safety. He finished second on the team with 90 tackles and tied for the team lead with nine tackles for loss in 2012. McNeal also added a sack, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. He’ll be called on to be a leader again this season as he moves all over the field disrupting opposing offenses.
In addition, six of the top seven tacklers along the defensive line come back next season, led by senior Dee Ford at defensive end. Ford led the team in sacks with six while recording 34 tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss. Also back is defensive tackle Angelo Blackson, who made 26 tackles including tying for the team lead in tackles for loss with seven. He added a sack, a couple of forced fumbles and even blocked a pair of kicks.
Having a reliable foundation coming back on defense could buy Auburn some time while Malzahn redesigns the Tigers’ offense. They will have to be better than they were last season, when they allowed 28.3 points per game, good for 66th in the country. Auburn will undoubtedly have to go through some growing pains with a new coaching staff taking over and a strong defense will give them some ability to hold up while they figure themselves out.
The Tigers have some work to do to get back to the elite of the SEC. An experienced defense will help ease the transition for the new regime in 2013 and make the turnaround at Auburn happen that much quicker.