SEC preview: Auburn

The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn can draw up plays until his hand is battered and bruised.
His players could completely accept the hurry-up, no-huddle philosophy, change their bodies and improve their conditioning.
But that's not what is going to lead Auburn to a turnaround season following a 3-9 disappointment in 2012.
"The number one thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back," said Malzahn, who enters his first season as the Tigers' coach. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that's made Auburn great. Worry about your teammate, not worry about yourself. Lose the entitlement issue.
"History shows if Auburn has their edge, they can compete for championships and win games."
The Tigers lost their edge in 2012 under Gene Chizik. The players quit, leadership was lacking and Chizik was fired the day after a 49-0 loss to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. It was the worst season in 60 years.
Malzahn returned to Auburn after a one-year absence (he was the Tigers' offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011) with his "new day" mantra. He doesn't dwell on the past. He also opened every position on the roster in the offseason, deciding to not watch film or mention the previous season and the players' shortcomings.
"I feel like the team is coming together real well," offensive lineman Chad Slade said. "Everybody is getting good with each other."
Malzahn's goals do not seem to be any lower than those of his predecessors, even if he doesn't talk publicly about winning a championship in his first season at Auburn. In fact, returning to a bowl game would please fans after going 0-8 in the SEC in 2012.
"I told our guys last year is last year. I don't care why, how, whatever," Malzahn said. "We're putting it in our rearview mirror. We're looking to the future. I talked about a new day. When I first got there, we had to do some Dr.Phil-ing. There were some mental scars. I feel good about our team. They put it in their rearview mirror and they're looking in the future."

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Malzahn has one lofty goal in mind this season. He wants to put the fastest offense in college football on the field. If the Tigers do that, then they will win some games. "We completely believe in pace," he said. " Like I said earlier, if we can execute our offense at a fast pace, it's a big advantage. " Auburn had one of the worst offenses in the country, ranking 115th nationally in total offense and 112th (18.7 points) in scoring. Those numbers are expected to go up with Malzahn calling the plays. The Tigers utilized a pro-style offense under first-year coordinator Scot Loeffler in 2012, and it just didn't fit the personnel. Many of the players on the Tigers' roster today were recruited by Malzahn when he was running his hurry-up, no-huddle offense from 2009 to 2011 on the Plains. Many players gained weight playing in Loeffler's offense, including quarterback Kiehl Frazier, but strength coach Ryan Russell has reshaped their bodies in an effort to improve their conditioning because fast players will be needed to run this fast offense.
AREAS OF CONCERN: Not one receiver on Auburn's roster eclipsed 200 yards last season. It's a problem, yes, and with inexperience and the possibility of offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee relying on a player to have a breakout season, the unknown can be a scary thing to rely on. Ricardo Louis and Trovon Reed have been impressive in preseason camp, and Jaylon Denson was possibly the best receiver on the team during the Tigers' spring practices. Louis led the Tigers in the spring game with eight catches and has again been the No. 1 target in preseason camp. Tight ends/H-Backs C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse have the talent, but not the experience. The key will be finding depth, and whether that means they will have to count on freshman Tony Stevens and running back/receiver Corey Grant in the slot for some production.
SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Auburn opens the season against two pass-heavy teams in what could prove to be two of the highest-scoring games in the country. Auburn opens the season against Washington State on Aug. 31. Both teams are coming off three-win seasons. The Cougars' Air Raid offense, coupled with the Tigers' hurry-up approach, could push this game well into the night. Auburn's defense, which has switched to a 4-2-5 scheme, will likely line up more often in their Dime package. There will be no shortage of storylines for Week 2, when Malzahn coaches against his former team, Arkansas State, on Sept. 6. A home game against Mississippi State will follow, and a win there could set the Tigers up for a bowl game. Auburn ends the month with a trip to LSU, which it nearly knocked off last season despite a horrible season and defense that was sliced up by nearly every opposing offenses.