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Senior College Football Columnist

Malzahn's record suggests better days coming soon at Auburn

THE CIRCUS -- Perhaps more than anything else, new Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and his staff has been adamant preaching to their players to forget about the past, stressing their "New Day" theme.

Of course, the past, for many of those players -- and Malzahn himself -- does include a national title from the 2010 season. It's just that 2011 was disappointing and 2012 was dreadful (and that's probably being kind), so Malzahn's old boss, Gene Chizik, was canned.

So here comes Malzahn back to the Plains, optimistic his hurry-up, two-back, play-action attack can derail Nick Saban's juggernaut at Alabama.

"The number one thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is get our edge back," Malzahn said Wednesday at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that has made Auburn great. Worry about your team, not yourself. Lose the entitlement issue.

"History shows if the Auburn Tigers have their edge, they can compete for championships and win games."

Recent history also shows the Tigers are coming off one of the most embarrassing seasons in their proud history. They went 3-9 and were 0-8 in SEC play. They lost their final three conference games by a combined score of 150-21. Arch-rival Alabama, now the two-time defending champs, shut them out 49-0. They were bad on D (No. 79 nationally) and brutal on offense (No. 115), but Malzahn's rep for developing an offense brings hope.

Hope that is reflected in the fact that Auburn had some 83,000 fans show up for the Tigers' spring game. Auburn can sell Malzahn's scheme to recruits and to fans. Especially when he says things like ... "Our goal is to play faster than anybody in college football."

Malzahn's offense, sparked by superstar QB Cam Newton, carried the Tigers to a title three seasons ago when they set a school record for points (577) while establishing AU all-time bests in rushing and passing touchdowns.

In his one season as head coach at Arkansas State, Malzahn led ASU to No. 17 in the nation in total offense. Malzahn also triggered a big improvement in Red Wolves QB Ryan Aplin, who went from a 19-16 TD-INT ratio the season before the coach arrived to a 24-4 mark last year.

How much better the Tigers' QBs can be under Malzahn likely will determine whether Auburn makes it to a bowl game this season. The Tigers QB situation has been a mess ever since Newton moved on to the NFL.

"We don't know who our quarterback is," Malzahn said. "We have four guys, and we're going to give them an equal shot.

The guy whom many are most intrigued by of the four is junior college transfer Nick Marshall.

"He's a guy we were looking at when I was at Arkansas State," Malzahn said. "He's unbelievably talented. He has a big-time arm. He's like Jeremy [Johnson, Auburn freshman quarterback] in that how quickly can he pick up our offense. What we ask our quarterback to do from the sideline is tough pre-snap as far as communication and everything we ask them to do."

One very good sign is the players' level of accountability they've shown under the new staff. Malzahn pointed out that in their eight months, there have been no off-the-field issues.

The return of Malzahn, not surprisingly, provided a jolt of fresh air to the program after a year of hot-seat talk hovered over Auburn in the end of the Chizik tenure.

"It was completely different as soon as Coach Malzahn came back," said Jay Prosch, a senior fullback. "He started a fire in everyone. It's really exciting."

Defensively, another reason for optimism (at least if you listen to the players) is a more simplified defensive scheme under veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson.

Out went Brian Van Gorder's system that senior CB Chris Davis deemed very complex for the players. Davis said at one point in the season "we had guys out of position almost every snap."

Davis added that Johnson's system is easier to make adjustments in. Also, the new 4-2-5 scheme gets more speed on the field for the defense, which is a good thing with more teams picking up the pace.

That should help, along with a talented D-line, to get the Tigers back to being competitive again. And if Malzahn can work his magic with his QBs, Auburn could be back in the Top 25 sooner rather than later.

The Tigers are at home for five of their first six games, and they don't have to face Florida or South Carolina. A 4-2 start seems possible to get some momentum going for the Gus Bus.

 
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