AUBURN, Ala. — Coming out of the spring, Rhett Lashlee wasn’t quite sure what to think.
Auburn’s offensive coordinator saw talent. He liked the Tigers’ body language, too. He thought they had started to turn a corner in self-belief, one of the biggest obstacles a team coming off a 3-9 season would have to surmount. So Lashlee felt like a winning campaign was likely in the offing.
But for the Tigers to be 10-1 heading into Saturday’s Iron Bowl?
Even he had to admit he wasn’t quite prepared for this — at least not at the outset of the year.
“You can never say enough about confidence,” Lashlee said. “We were able to win some close games early, beat Washington State, beat Mississippi State, play well in the second half of a situation where most teams would have gotten beat 60-20 at LSU. Of course it all capped off when we were able to get the big win at (Texas) A&M in a back-and-forth deal. Each week you could just see it build and so at that point, after we beat A&M, you kind of thought anything was possible, to be honest with you.”
Following the team’s most recent victory — a 43-38, white-knuckled affair versus Georgia that required a 73-yard touchdown catch for the ages courtesy of Ricardo Louis — Gus Malzahn was asked the same thing. Unlike Lashlee, the head coach refused to reveal any expectations he may have had for the season, saying he “never let my mind go there.”
He did acknowledge that this team had something “special,” though.
“They’ve been through a lot, and they rallied, came together and believed in each other,” he said. “They bought in to the fact (they needed) to get better in each game.”
The players themselves didn’t dispute that point.
“The coaches came in and implemented us getting better and us having to buy into what they were saying and their program, and we did,” junior tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “I think once we did as a team, that gave us an abundance of confidence in ourselves and them and what they wanted to do with us. I think the team morale has increased tremendously.”
Of course, it never hurts to have a bevy of skilled players with which to work.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is no stranger to reclamation projects, overseeing similar turnarounds at both Mississippi State and South Carolina. What separates the Tigers from those two, he said, was their depth. During a normal spring, Johnson explained, it’s hard to get a read on a team given the number of scholarship players who have either graduated or moved on to the NFL or other players who are rehabbing from injuries.
The closest thing he could compare this past spring to was that first season with the Gamecocks back in 2008.
“We didn't have but about 25 guys at South Carolina that really needed to scrimmage, because they needed to improve or we didn't really know what they could do,” he said. “The rest of them were either injured or we knew they could play. (This past spring) wasn’t much different. We were very deep.”
Much like Lashlee, Johnson saw the cupboard wasn’t bare talent-wise. That’s not to say the Tigers were perfect exiting the spring — there were growing pains, Johnson recalled.
Every negative emotion one could experience, Auburn battled during the first few months of Malzahn’s tenure.
Eventually, the Tigers worked through it, Johnson said, with their craving for victories the driving force.
“They certainly were hungry for some success,” Johnson said. “They just kept working and kept doing what they were asked to do. We’ve had very few times when the players ever slowed down, much less let go of the rope. They’ve gotten a great reward for it, and certainly deserve it.”
Auburn’s bounce-back season could get even better with a victory in this weekend’s matchup against arch-rival Alabama. With a win, the Tigers capture the SEC West Division title and a spot in the SEC Championship Game, needing only a loss by Florida State or Ohio State to have an inside track to a BCS national title contest appearance.
As dismal as last season went, though, the Tigers are thrilled to be in such an envious position. That extends to everyone else on campus, junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright pointed out.
They haven’t made it been difficult to detect, after all.
“The teachers' attitudes are better. The bus drivers' attitudes are better,” he said. “I guess what I'm trying to get at is that everybody's attitude is better. There's not much bad that can come from winning.”