The 2013 edition of spring practice marks the beginning of a new era on the Plains, as Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn will work with his team for the first time. Malzahn was hired in December after the Tigers fired Gene Chizik following a disastrous 3-9 campaign in 2012.
Two years after winning the 2010 BCS Championship, Auburn's first national title since 1957, the Tigers hit rock bottom. Malzahn, who served as offensive coordinator at Auburn for three years, left before the 2012 season, and Chizik hired Scot Loeffler, signaling a shift to a pro-style attack. That turned out to be a major mistake, as the Tigers averaged just 305.0 yards and 18.7 points per game. Those numbers were even worse in SEC contests, when Auburn put up meager averages of 235.1 yards and 10.1 points.
As bad as the offense was, it wasn't the only significant problem for Chizik's squad. The defense was one of the worst in school history, giving up 420.5 yards and 28. 3 points per game. Auburn wasn't good against the pass, allowing 222.9 yards per game, but the Tigers were absolutely inept against the run, as Brian VanGorder's unit gave up 197.6 yards per game and 4.9 yards per rush. Both of those stats ranked last in the SEC. Just two years earlier, during the championship season, Auburn led the SEC by allowing 109.1 rushing yards per game.
It doesn't take a genius to guess that the combination of terrible offense and defense led to Auburn's worst season in decades. The three wins were the fewest for an Auburn team since 1998, and the Tigers were winless in SEC play for the first time since 1950. What's truly incredible is just how far and how fast Chizik's program fell. After the 2010 season, almost no one could imagine the head coach would be fired just two years later.
Now, it's up to Malzahn to right the ship and get Auburn back into SEC contention, but that won't be easy. Alabama has won three national titles in four years, and the Crimson Tide aren't going anywhere as long as Nick Saban is head coach. LSU is still a powerhouse under Les Miles, and conference newcomer Texas A&M, led by Kevin Sumlin, has emerged as a top program. Add in an Ole Miss team that's on the rise under Hugh Freeze, and it's pretty clear that just finishing in the top half of the SEC West will be a challenge, much less winning a conference championship.
It's definitely a new day in Auburn, but whether the forecast calls for plenty of sunshine or clouds and rain remains to be seen.
Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game date, location: Saturday, April 20, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
Approximate returning starters: With a completely different offensive system going into 2013, some players who started in 2012 may be passed over, while others who came off the bench will move into a starting role. Auburn returns its entire offensive line, aside from left guard John Sullen. In the backfield, quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace and running backs Tre Mason and Jay Prosch (who will likely fill the H-back role) will return. Wide receivers Trovon Reed and Quan Bray are back, too.
Auburn's defense was in flux for most of the 2012 season, an because of that, a bunch of players saw action. The Tigers will return eight starters from last season, with the biggest being defensive end Dee Ford, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and cornerback Josh Holsey.
Biggest addition: Obviously, the biggest addition for the Tigers is the new head coach. According to many fans and pundits, Malzahn was the brains behind the 2010 national title, and having his offensive system back on the Plains is a welcomed change. He has already shown his recruiting prowess, bringing in a top-10 class after just two months on the job. If he and his staff can develop that talent, on-field success could be right around the corner.
Biggest loss: If defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson lives up to his reputation, Auburn's D-line could be pretty good in 2013. But, the loss of end Corey Lemonier to the NFL Draft will hurt. Lemonier did a fine job of getting into the backfield during his time at Auburn, and with better play from his linemates, he could have been an absolute terror in his senior season.
New players? Auburn will have three early enrollees for spring practice: running back Cameron Artis-Payne, offensive guard Devonte Danzey and defensive tackle Ben Bradley. Bradley was a four-star JUCO prospect, and at 6'2, 302 pounds, he should provide immediate help in the middle of the Tigers' defensive line.
New coaches? Why yes, after firing Gene Chizik, Auburn hired new coaches. Malzahn compiled a staff that was celebrated by many, adding offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and defensive coordinator Johnson. Lashlee's offensive staff includes wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, running backs coach Tim Horton, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes and tight ends/special teams coach Scott Fountain. The defensive staff features safeties coach Charlie Harbison, defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith.
New schemes? After an attempt to run more of a pro-style look in 2012 -- which failed miserably, by the way -- Auburn will return to the Malzahn spread-option offense that brought so much success from 2009-11. On defense, the Tigers will shift from a 4-3 to Johnson's 4-2-5, which should help against opposing spread attacks. How it fares against smashmouth teams like Alabama and LSU could be an issue.