The Auburn Tigers snuck up on everybody in 2013. Not one preseason poll had War Eagle represented, but who could demonize that? The Tigers went 3-9 in 2012, going 0-8 against the SEC. Gene Chizik was booted out of the program, and in came Gus Malzahn. Nobody knew what kind of results to expect when Malzahn returned last season; no one expected a national championship run.
There’s no denying last year was a magical experience, but there was also an element of luck. Think back to November. Auburn was 9-1, ranked seventh nationally and fighting desperately for a shot at the BCS championship.
The Tigers had already blown a 20-point lead, and the Georgia Bulldogs had taken a one-point lead with less than two minutes to play. In one final desperate attempt for a victory, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall launched a pass to wide receiver Ricardo Louis, which then bounced off Bulldog safety Josh Harvey-Clemons’ hand, and into Louis’ for the game-winning touchdown.
Don’t forget the four missed field goals by Alabama Crimson Tide kickers Cade Foster and Adam Griffith. The final missed kick by Griffith produced one of the most memorable plays in college football history — Kick, Bama, Kick. Auburn’s Chris Davis returned the final failed 57-yard attempt for a game-winning 100-yard touchdown.
That’s not to take away any accomplishment from the 2013 season. Ultimately, the Tigers put themselves in the position to win games, regardless of how the victories came about. In 2014, there’s a huge target on War Eagle, and making it to the inaugural College Football Playoff will be even harder this season.
Much like a Phoenix is resurrected out of the ashes, Auburn will have to rise above some preseason turmoil. Nick Marshall and cornerback Jonathon Mincy will not start in the 2014 opener due to marijuana-related legal trouble. But even worse, the news came out on Friday preseason All-SEC offensive lineman Alex Kozan would miss the entire season after suffering a back injury while weight lifting.
The loss of Kozan is a big blow to the offense, but there’s no reason to hit the panic button. The Tigers have some depth to work with up front, and after shifting a couple players around on the line, the offense shouldn’t miss a step. However, if the injury bug hits another lineman, the road will become bumpy.
Also, at SEC Media Days, coach Malzahn confirmed sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson would miss most, if not the whole season after ACL surgery on the knee he hurt in spring practice. The great teams adapt accordingly, but replacing Lawson won’t be an easy task. Auburn has recruited very well the last few years, so the depth is there to handle some injuries.
In addition to navigating through the turbulence during the spring and summer, once Auburn steps on the field in late August, they will face one of the most difficult schedules in the nation. The schedule features two favorites to win the SEC East, the South Carolina Gamecocks and Georgia. Also included in a brutal six-game stretch are games against the LSU Tigers, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Ole Miss Rebels and Texas A&M Aggies.
There’s no reason to write off the Tigers as favorites in the SEC West, but the journey to defend their conference championship will be tough.