AUBURN, Ala. — Bring up Auburn, and it's easy to deduce the topic discussion will immediately turn to: the offense.
It could be about the Tigers' coach, Gus Malzahn, considered an offensive mastermind. It could be about Nick Marshall, arguably the top quarterback in the SEC. It could be about Auburn's ground game, which led the FBS in rushing yards per game (328.3), breaking the school record set in 1985 (312.5). It could be about the passing game, which is expected to take a step forward this season with the dynamic duo of Sammie Coates and junior college transfer D'haquille Williams. It could even be about the offensive line, which returns three starters (Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade and Avery Young) and is considered one of the strengths of the team despite Greg Robinson's departure to the NFL and left guard Alex Kozan's season-ending back injury.
In the midst of all the offensive accolades, Auburn's defense barely registers on a national level.
And the Tigers' defenders don't like it one bit.
"We're back trying to prove (ourselves), because all we hear about is the offense," senior defensive end LaDarius Owens said. "That's what driving us as a defense: To get our names out there."
Everywhere he's looked, be it on ESPN, Twitter or a preseason magazine, every time Auburn is mentioned, the offense always takes precedence. The defense, in Owens' mind, has continually gotten short shrift from fans and media members alike. What makes it worse is that he believes the defense is every bit as responsible for last season's success as its more heralded counterpart.
Just go back and look at the Tigers' early games last season, Owens said, and you'll find all the proof you need.
"Before the offense got rolling, the defense kept us in a lot of those games. Mississippi State, Ole Miss, the tight games we had to win," he said. "And the biggest thing with us, we gave up a lot of big plays, but as far as somebody just beating us up and down the field, that didn't happen."
He pointed to the games against Georgia, Alabama and Florida State. In each, the Tigers' had stretches where they dominated the opposing offense. And then, the momentum would shift.
"We just slipped up at the end of a few games," Owens said.
A glance at the raw numbers would leave most observers underwhelmed: Auburn finished 86th in country in total defense (420.7) and 48th in scoring defense (24.7). But the Tigers excelled in two key areas: red-zone defense, where they ranked 10th in the FBS (73.1 percent conversion rate) and third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert only 33 percent of the time — 13th-best in the nation.
Delving deeper into the 2013 statistics shows that the Tigers, almost without fail, got better as the game progressed. In seven of its 14 games last season, Auburn shut out its opponent in the fourth quarter. Only three times (Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida State) did an opponent score more than 10 points in the final period. And the Tigers were nearly as good in the third stanza; Ole Miss (10) and Missouri (15) were the only teams to break into double-digits against the Tigers in the third quarter last year.
Those are the types of things Cassanova McKinzy believes people neglect to mention when they want to criticize the defense's performance in 2013.
"A lot of people don’t see all the stops and stuff that we made," the junior linebacker said. "It’s all right if we are overlooked. Last year was our first year in the system and this year is going to be way more physical."
Fellow linebacker Kris Frost agreed. For the first time in his career at Auburn, he's had a chance to work with the same defensive coordinator two years in a row. Ted Roof begat Brian VanGorder who begat Ellis Johnson. So people can continue to downplay the Tigers' defense if they want.
It won't alter Frost's optimistic outlook.
"It’s really good to just now get to build off of what we had. That’s also going to make us a better defense," he said. "We’re going to be more flexible with things. We’re going to know how to adjust things a whole lot more. ... We were really adamant about paying attention to detail and not making the same mistakes over and over. When Coach corrects something, it stays corrected."
Now that they know the ins and outs of Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme, McKinzy said the whole process has been streamlined, allowing players to simply react.
In turn, they're playing faster.
"We’re a lot more aggressive than we were last year," he said. " ... We were hitting. We were all over the field running everywhere. I feel like we were more aggressive and very smart on the backend from linebacker and DB. We’re very solid upfront. I feel like it’s going to be a whole different year."
So much so, McKinzy believes the defense will make major strides in every major statistical category this fall.
"I feel like we should be the top defense — not even in just the SEC, but in the nation," he said. "It's going to take a lot of work. It's going to take a lot of concentration. It's going to take a lot of mistakes, too. But I feel like we can be top-five or even the best (in the country)."
Until that happens, defenders will continue to use what they perceive as a lack of appreciation — if not downright contempt — for their contributions to elevate them to greater heights.
"That’s why I really think we’re working so hard this year on the defense. The defensive line, linebackers — everybody," sophomore defensive lineman Montravius Adams said. "It’s just kind of disrespectful not to mention the defense because we’re out there working, too. We’re playing and we’re helping win."