Auburn beat writer Q&A: The view from the Plains

Gus Malzahn

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn calls out to his team in the second half of an NCAA college football game against LSU in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013. LSU won 35-21. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — A year ago, Auburn beat writers were preparing themselves for a possible coaching search as the Tigers limped to a winless SEC season.

Today Auburn is one of the most impressive stories in college football and coach Gus Malzahn is a possible coach of the year candidate.

The Vols (4-5, 1-4 SEC) play No. 7 Auburn (8-1, 4-1) on Saturday at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, noon).

We asked Auburn beat writer Joel Erickson a few questions about the Tigers. You can follow Joel on Twitter and read his coverage here.

1. How surprising is Auburn’s 8-1 record and why do you think Gus Malzahn has been able to have so much success in Year 1?

Pretty surprising, particularly after the way the Tigers finished in their final three SEC games of 2012. In those games, against Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn allowed touchdowns on 16 of 18 first-half possessions, and a closer look at some of the stats reveals just how different it’s been. For example, Auburn is averaging more than double its rushing output from last season, the Tigers’ quarterbacks are currently 65 spots higher in pass efficiency, the defense is allowing 8.2 points per game less than the 2012 version and the ability to close in the fourth quarter has absolutely flip-flopped. For what it’s worth, most people expected Auburn to take some small steps before taking the big ones.

Malzahn started things off by hiring an experienced, well-regarded staff with a lot of SEC experience, and the impact of the 2013 signing class has been impressive. Quarterback Nick Marshall has been the breakout player so far, but the Tigers also signed a lot of players — running back Cameron Artis-Payne, wide receiver Marcus Davis, defensive linemen Carl Lawson, Elijah Daniel and Montravius Adams, among others — who have played key rotational roles and come up big in key moments. Malzahn has also taken a relatively hard line on discipline, a problem for the previous team, and the staff has done a good job of identifying playmakers who were either pushed to the backburner by the previous staff (hybrid Robenson Therezie) or hadn’t made much of an impact yet (wide receiver Sammie Coates, left guard Alex Kozan, linebacker Kris Frost).

2. Auburn only threw like two passes last week. What’s with that?

In a couple of SEC games, Auburn has focused on its running game as a way to get the defense rest after the opposing team churns out yardage and keeps that unit on the field. Arkansas ran 46 plays in the first half compared to just 22 for Auburn, and the time of possession was wildly in the Razorbacks’ favor. With that in mind, Auburn tried to stick to the ground to even that out a little bit — although the Tigers scored too quickly to flip the time discrepancy — and then used the running game in the second half to salt it away. What’s been interesting this season is that Auburn has regularly been able to run the ball against stacked eight and nine-man fronts, and when the Tigers have been able to do that, Malzahn has been perfectly comfortable sticking to the ground game.

3. What is Auburn’s biggest weakness and how successful have opponents been in exploiting it?

Auburn has had some trouble against offenses that run a power rushing attack, for two reasons. One, the Tigers have had trouble with missed assignments, poor angles and missed gaps in the running game, and two, because those kinds of offenses can keep Auburn’s offense off the field. LSU, obviously, had plenty of success in a first quarter that proved to be the difference in the game, Mississippi State took a 20-17 lead into the final two minutes and Arkansas could have made things interesting if the Razorbacks hadn’t missed on two red-zone opportunities in the first half. Passing offenses have picked up yards against Auburn, but the Tigers tend to string out those types of opponents and force mistakes.

4. Is Auburn’s success sustainable? In other words, could you see Auburn returning to where it was before the disaster in 2012 — consistently competing at the top of the SEC West?

I think it is. Malzahn’s obviously got a proven offensive track record, and in Ellis Johnson, he’s found a defensive leader who isn’t likely to leave any time soon. Beyond that, Malzahn brought in some heavy recruiting muscle in assistants Dameyune Craig, Rodney Garner and Tim Horton, and the coaching staff has already shown a good eye for the kind of talent that will fit well in the scheme.

5. What’s your prediction for the game and why?

I picked Auburn over Tennessee 31-17, mainly because the Volunteers, although great at home, seem to be a bad matchup for what the Tigers do best. Auburn is the SEC’s best rushing offense, and Tennessee has struggled against those kinds of teams. In addition, Auburn has a penchant for magnifying the mistakes of quarterbacks, and Joshua Dobbs is still making only his second start.