April 14, 2014
It's easy to forget sometimes that Gus Malzahn and his coaching staff are heading toward just their second season at Auburn. That's probably because their first season was one that will be remembered as long as Auburn plays football.
How unlikely was it that Auburn, coming off a 3-9 season, would win the Southeastern Conference championship and play for the national championship? No other coach in all the history of SEC football ever won 12 games in his first season. Not one. And Malzahn did it in the West Division, the toughest football league this side of the NFL.
After last season's meteoric rise to the top, the next challenge, one Malzahn recognizes clearly, is to stay there and to get the national championship that got in gut-wrenching fashion last January.
Here's how the current SEC coaches and how they fared in their first seasons:
Alabama: Nick Saban, 7-6, 2007
LSU: Les Miles, 11-2, 2005
Arkansas: Bret Bielema, 3-9, 2013
Auburn: Gus Malzahn, 12-2, 2013
Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze, 7-6, 2012
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen, 5-7, 2009
Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin, 11-2, 2012
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier, 7-5, 2005
Georgia: Mark Richt, 8-4, 2001
Florida: Will Muschamp, 7-6, 2011
Kentucky: Mark Stoops, 2-10, 2013
Missouri: Gary Pinkel, 4-7, 2001
Tennessee: Butch Jones, 5-7, 2013
Vanderbilt: Derek Mason, first season
Auburn's football opener against Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium will generate lots of energy, mainly because the two head coaches aren't exactly pals.
Last season, Bielema talked about playing "normal American football" before Auburn visited Fayetteville. So, Auburn and coach Gus Malzahn spent the day running straight at the Arkansas defense, giving them their own dose of "normal American football," and won 35-17.
Arkansas went on to go 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC.
Bielema and Alabama coach Nick Saban mounted a big effort after the season to get rules changed to slow down offenses like Auburn's and were essentially shouted down. There's no way to know for sure, but it's a good bet that, on Aug. 30, Malzahn will try to give Bielema a look at football played at hyper speed.
Bielema, on the other hand, has told his players that Auburn and Missouri are proof that the Razorback can have big season in 2014. In 2012, Auburn didn't win an SEC game and Missouri won two. Last season, they played in the SEC Championship Game and Auburn played in the BCS Championship Game.
Auburn basketball assistant coach Chuck Person, I am told, has been a big hit with Auburn players and with recruits. That's not surprising. Person is Auburn's all-time leading scorer, played for more than a decade in the NBA and coached with some of the best in NBA history. And he truly loves Auburn.
After starting Southeastern Conference play 4-2, Auburn's baseball team has struggled mightily. The Tigers have lost three consecutive series, including a sweep at Ole Miss, and made the turn at the halfway point of the league schedule a 6-9. It's a long, hard climb from going 6-9 to getting to postseason play.
What has happened? Perhaps the biggest problem has been the inability to turn hits into runs. The Tigers are third in the SEC in team batting average at .287 and second in on-base percentage at .377. Yet, they are 13th in runs scored with `166. They have scored just seven runs in the last 51 innings against SEC teams.
The third inning of Sunday's 4-3 loss at Alabama put that problem on display. Auburn had five hits and drew two walks but scored just three runs. Two runners were thrown out at home.
In the sixth inning, the Tigers had three hits, but Jordan Ebert was thrown out trying to steal second and they failed to score.
That former Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson will go high in the first round of next month's NFL draft is a foregone conclusion. Some say he'll be the first or second player picked. Virtually everyone says he will be one of the first top five.
Gil Brandt, who I respect most among those who analyze such things, ranks Robinson No. 4 on his list of the top 50 draft prospects. He ranks former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford at No. 35.
Surprisingly to some, Brandt ranks Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel No. 1, followed by South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Buffalo linebacker Khali Mack, Robinson and Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
Two SEC football games will have been played next season before September. Auburn plays Arkansas on Aug. 30 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. On Aug. 28, Texas A&M plays at South Carolina.
I wonder if Auburn would have agreed to play Louisville in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in August of 2015 if it had been known that Bobby Petrino would be the Cardlinals' coach.
Until next time ...
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: