The Auburn football program showed deep problems in 2012, but consider the very basic things that might have at least blunted the sudden and sharp on-field decline.
Imagine that Auburn team with a certain identity on offense, fitting existing personnel.
Imagine that Auburn team with reasonable soundness and tackling on defense.
With the hiring of new head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff hires so far, it seems Auburn can count on having at least those two things soon.
Throw in the Thursday night hiring Rodney Garner away from Georgia, and the good times in recruiting look more likely to continue.
Those are major pillars for improvement for a program that spent 2012 looking more like a guarantee-game opponent for its SEC competition.
It won’t take much for Auburn to show improvement in 2013. Very basic things could at least make the Tigers look ready to rejoin the circle of dogs barking around those fighting for SEC supremacy.
Very basic things could at least revive hope as the new staff, still not fully formed, patches things while working to solve deeper problems like rebuilding the roster and a winning internal culture.
As was said at the press conference to announce Malzahn’s hiring, there’s no going from a 3-9 record back to national contention as quickly as Auburn went from national champion to at 3-9 record. The new staff inherits a major mess.
But imagine some basics in place in 2012. Auburn could have beaten LSU at home with just a little more offense. The Tigers could have beaten Vanderbilt on the road.
Maybe an offense that wore on opponents could have spared the Tigers some fourth-quarter shutdowns, and Auburn can have that again with the Malzahn and his disciples.
Auburn fans fondly remember the days of run-first, up-tempo offense when Malzahn was the coordinator. Auburn spent three years recruiting to that system before slamming the breaks and screeching to a pro-style halt in 2012.
The skid marks ending at the ditch’s edge tell the story.
Not only does Auburn have Malzahn to re-establish that offensive identity as the Tigers’ head coach, but he now has disciple Rhett Lashlee to run it as coordinator. They also hired offensive line coach J.B. Grimes from Arkansas State, where Malzahn served as head coach during Auburn’s meltdown season.
There’s no doubt what Auburn intends to be on offense. There’ll be no stubborn attempts to force a strange identity. Auburn is firmly on the Gus bus, more so even than when Malzahn had to bend to the wishes of his now-fired former boss, Gene Chizik.
That Auburn will have a firm offensive identity befitting its personnel should make a noticeable difference on the field in 2013, and that style of offense has shown it causes problems for even the elite SEC defenses.
On defense, Auburn has Ellis Johnson, and never mind his 0-12 attempt as a head coach at Southern Miss. Through stops at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina, he has proven that his 4-2-5 setup works in the SEC.
It also well fits an Auburn program whose roster is longer on hybrid players than on good linebackers.
There’s a reason why offensive-minded coaches like Malzahn and Steve Spurrier keep hiring Johnson. They had to call plays against him before hiring him.
It’s also worth remembering that Auburn doesn’t need an elite defense, so long as Malzahn’s offense is up and running as designed. The defense just needs to be aggressive and get the ball back. With the help of co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison and Garner coaching the defensive line, that looks more the doable.
Also, having Harbison on the recruiting trail with Garner should get Auburn fans over losing Trooper Taylor and Curtis Luper from Chizik’s staff.
Everyone knows what Garner can do in recruiting. He did it for Auburn in the first half of the 1990s, and he did it for Georgia for 15 years. He was named as one of the nation’s top recruiters in 2010 and 2011.
Folks in Northeast Alabama know Harbison’s work at Clemson. He talked former Lincoln running back D.J. Howard out of an Auburn commitment in 2010, the same year Rivals named Harbison a top 25 recruiter.
If Garner and Harbison do for Auburn what they’ve done elsewhere, then a program with three consecutive top 10 classes should continue to recruit well.
For now, it’s all about showing improvement on the field for Auburn. It won’t take much, so an offensive identity and somewhat sound defense make for a good start.