Guerry Clegg commentary: Auburn could make big leap this year

sports@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 27, 2013 

It happens every year. Some team in college football that had been down on its luck gets a break, wins a game or two that it's not supposed to, gets on a little roll, then keeps on winning all the way to a bowl game. Last year alone, 14 teams improved their win totals by at least four games.

This time last year, who could have imagined that Ole Miss would be one of those teams?

The Rebels were just 2-10 in 2011. Last year, after unimpressive wins over Central Arkansas and Texas-El Paso, they lost to Texas 66-31.

They would win six games in the regular season and then beat Pittsburgh 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. The Rebels could have been even better if not for close losses to Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU.

So … just wondering …

Why not Auburn?

If Ole Miss could improve by five wins, couldn't Auburn do something similar?

There is a common denominator, if only a coincidental note. The Rebels were led by Hugh Freeze, a proponent of the spread offense who was hired from Arkansas State. And just who replaced Freeze? That would be Gus Malzahn, another proponent of the spread offense.

Granted, six weeks from now, the very notion of a quick turnaround of Auburn's football fortunes might seem like a preposterous idea.

Maybe time will prove that the mess Gene Chizik left behind was too toxic to be cleaned up with a mop and broom.

But for now, it's OK to be hopeful. Actually, it's more than OK. It's essential.

Washington State replaces Clemson as the toughest non-conference opponent. No team coming off a 3-9 season has a right to overlook another BCS conference opponent.

But the Cougars were also 3-9. So the Tigers should win and sweep their non-conference opponents. Then they would just have to win three conference games to reach seven wins.

The offense HAS to be better, simply because it was so awful last year. Nick Marshall is a good fit for Malzahn's offense.

He has the speed and field vision to run the read-option, and the arm strength to keep defenses honest. No one is expecting him to be Cam Newton II. But he doesn't have to be. He just has to provide enough offense to give the defense a chance.

The defense doesn't have to be great. It just has to be good enough to keep the games competitive. Take last year's opener against Clemson. Auburn gave up 528 yards. Despite this, the Tigers led 19-16 in the fourth quarter.

Granted, that may not be Ron Jaworski in-depth football analysis. But it really is as simple as the Tigers just playing a little better in every aspect of the game, and to keep fighting.

That was the most astonishing and disheartening development of all last year.

They simply gave up as the season dragged on.

From a human standpoint, that's understandable.

It became clear their season was lost and even more clear that Chizik's fate had been sealed.

If a team has a quarterback, some size on both lines and team speed, it can compete with any team and win its share. That is, provided it also has a strong work ethic and a collective will to win. How much talent the Tigers have in these areas isn't clear. My guess is there's enough talent to beat Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Tennessee, and maybe pull an upset.

Somebody has to be the most improved team in the country. Why not Auburn?

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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