Just three years after winning the BCS title, Auburn is breaking in a new coach – sort of. Arthur Gustav Malzahn III was the offensive coordinator for that 2010 squad, but this will be his first SEC head coaching gig. He did well in his one season leading Arkansas State, going 9-3 there last fall. Now, let’s take a look at his team, which is MSU’s Week 3 opponent and first SEC foe for 2013.
Auburn Tigers (Sept. 14, in Auburn)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 3-9 (0-8, 7th Western Division)
• Final ranking: Not ranked
• Coach: Gus Malzahn (first season)
• Returning starters: 16 (5 offense, 9 defense, 2 specialists)
• Last meeting: MSU, 28-10 (Sept. 8, 2012, in Starkville)
• On the Web: auburntigers.com
When Auburn visited Starkville last year, Kiehl Frazier had a most forgettable game. The Auburn quarterback completed 13 of 22 passes for 125 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. He did not at all look like an SEC quarterback.
Frazier wound up playing in nine games last season, with five starts. He completed 53.4 percent of his passes for 753 yards, two touchdowns and eight interceptions, and he split time with Jonathan Wallace and Clint Moseley. With Moseley now gone, the QB battle is between Frazier and Wallace, and Malzahn considers those two guys co-No. 1s coming out of the spring. Wallace was the starter at season’s end.
Malzahn made his name as an offensive mind, so the Tigers are hoping he can turn Frazier or Wallace – or both – into the kind of QB that can direct the sort of high-octane, high-scoring attack Auburn fans had grown accustomed to the three years Malzahn was offensive coordinator. It’s unlikely to be a quick fix, but there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement. Last season, Auburn ranked 115th nationally in total offense, 112th in passing, 78th in rushing, and 112th in scoring.
One thing about Malzahn – he will adapt to his quarterback’s skill set and to the offense’s strengths. That’s one reason he’s been successful wherever he’s gone. Auburn returns tailback Tre Mason, who rushed for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns last season. And he’ll be running behind an offense line that returns four starters, including center Reese Dismukes.
Defensively, there’s plenty of experience. Leading tackler Daren Bates is gone, but the next four top tacklers return, including free safety Demetruce McNeal (90 tackles, 7.0 TFLs, four PBUs). The Tigers are deep in the secondary and up front, where Dee Ford (team-high 6.0 sacks) returns at end. Auburn ranked 74th in the country in sacks last year, and that’s just one area of focus for new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who used to run MSU’s defense (2004-07). After a forgettable year as the Southern Miss head coach (0-12), Johnson is back in a familiar role that he also held for several years at South Carolina.
Johnson will employ a 4-2-5 scheme that Auburn hopes will help the defense be more stingy than last year’s unit, which allowed 420.5 yards per game, 13th in the SEC. The Tigers were decent against the pass at times, allowing 222.9 yards per game. They gave up more than 300 passing yards just once, against Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. A&M also rushed for 352 yards that game, and Auburn gave up 320 ground yards to Clemson. Opponents averaged 197.6 rushing yards.
Given his track record, you’d expect Malzahn to find some success at Auburn. How quickly is the question, and he’s sure to be working out plenty of kinks in Week 3. But Auburn has been a tough place for MSU to play; State’s lost five of its last six on the Plains.
Next up: Troy