A mere two years after winning the BCS National Championship, the Auburn Tigers hit rock bottom in 2012 by enduring their worst season in 60 years.
After losing its first two games of the season to nationally-ranked Clemson (26-19) and Mississippi State (28-10), Auburn got on the board with a 31-28 overtime win over ULM on Sept. 15. From there, however, it dropped five in a row to conference foes to quickly fall out of the race in the SEC West.
The Tigers managed to piece together two more wins before the season was out against New Mexico State (42-7) and Alabama A&M (51-7) to finish 3-9, but they went winless in eight SEC contests for the first time in school history.
Following the disastrous campaign, the program fired head coach Gene Chizik and all of his assistant coaches. Brought in to help bring the program back to its formerly prestigious levels is Gus Malzahn, who served as the Tigers' offensive coordinator from 2009-2011 and led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship in 2012.
OFFENSE: Auburn's offense was anemic last season, ranking 13th in the SEC in scoring (18.7 ppg) and last in yardage (305.0 ypg), while committing 12 more turnovers than it forced. The program will attempt to combat last year's deficiencies by implementing Malzahn's up-tempo style of offense, which has proven successful for the Tigers in the recent past.
"We're a two-back run play-action team that will run our offense at a two- minute pace the entire game," Malzahn said. "Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football. We feel like if you can execute our offense at a fast pace, it's a big advantage. So we'll be striving for that."
The most important piece to a fast-paced offense is undoubtedly a trustworthy quarterback, and Malzahn is conducting a wide-open competition to see who is best suited to be his signal-caller. Although he claims all four quarterbacks on the roster are in play to win the job, it appears that either Kiehl Frazier (753 yards, two TDs, eight interceptions) or Jonathan Wallace (720 yards, four TDs, four interceptions) will be the starter for the Aug. 31 opener versus Washington State.
The most effective offensive weapon last season was Tre Mason, who returns hoping to improve upon a 1,002-yard, eight-touchdown season. Cameron Artis- Payne, a junior college transfer (2,048 yards, 25 TDs at Allan Hancock in 2012), also figures to see plenty of reps. The running backs will benefit from an offensive line than returns four starters.
The most experienced receiver is Quan Bray, who caught only 14 balls last year for 94 yards.
DEFENSE: The Tigers are historically known for their strong defenses, and while last year's unit wasn't the worst in the league, the 28.3 ppg and 420.5 ypg allowed was much more than what they are used to.
Dee Ford (6.5 TFL, six sacks) anchors a defensive line that reunites three starters from a year ago, although he will garner much more attention in 2013 without Corey Lemonier (5.5 sacks) playing opposite him.
Jermaine Whitehead is the top returning tackler, racking up 86 stops from his safety position, although he would benefit his team by improving his pass defense. Chris Davis also did little to intimidate opposing receivers in the secondary, breaking up just three passes a year ago.
Jake Holland (73 tackles) is the veteran presence in a linebacking corps that includes sophomores Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cody Parker and Steven Clark return to their posts as the kicking specialists. Parker was 11-of-14 on field goal attempts last season, including 8-of-8 from inside of 40 yards. Clark averaged just under 40 yards per punt and pinned 15 inside the 20-yard line.
Bray and Corey Grant will likely split return duties following the departure of Onterio McCalebb (523 kick return yards in 2012).
OUTLOOK: Elite teams often take steps back due to player turnover or coaching changes, but few programs have fallen as far, as quickly, as Auburn has since 2010. Once a regular BCS contender, the Tigers' only goal for 2013 should be to return to respectability in the SEC, although with a predictably terrifying schedule (including matchups with Texas A&M, Georgia, LSU and Alabama), that will be much easier said than done.
Malzahn has an advantage of having familiarity with the program, meaning the grace period for implementing schemes and rapport with players and coaches will be shorter than usual for a new head coach, and he believes that a new year is a new beginning for his squad.
"Last year is last year, and we have to put that in the rear view mirror," Malzahn said.
An improvement upon the 2012 season won't be difficult to do, and that much is expected from a storied Auburn program, but the talent to compete with the big boys in the SEC West simply isn't in place. The best the Tigers can hope for is five or six wins overall, with only two or three of those coming in conference play.