HOOVER, Ala. — Seated at a table in an expansive ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Wynfrey, Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson raised his hands. The senior had a point to make at SEC Media Days, and he needed a visual to really hammer it home. “You’re in the SEC, and defense is ‘posterized,’” Lawson said. With that, he spread out an invisible poster with his hands. “So as a team, defensively, we want to be the best in the SEC. That’s what we’re striving for every day.”
Then Lawson paused. “So, yeah, a lot of pressure is on us,” he said, “not just [on] the offense.”
The “us” in that statement is Auburn’s defense, and on Monday Lawson reminded attendees just how much pressure the program faces in 2016. Last season Auburn stumbled to a 7–6 finish, good for last in the SEC West, despite being hailed as a trendy preseason favorite to win the SEC title. That disappointment inserted doubt into the future of head coach Gus Malzahn, who only two seasons ago led the Tigers to a berth in the national championship game.
As a result, Auburn’s offense has earned plenty of attention this off-season—for all the wrong reasons. The Tigers’ attack was very un-Malzahn-like in 2015, finishing 11th in the SEC in total offense (5.39 yards per play). The coach struggled to find a consistent answer between quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Sean White. It’s easy to see why offense has dominated the off-season narrative at Auburn, particular given Malzahn’s pedigree; the coach literally wrote the book on the hurry-up, no-huddle attack.
But on Monday Lawson eloquently reminded those in Hoover of a key fact: Defense, not offense, could actually determine the Tigers’ fate in 2016. In fact, for the first time in Malzahn’s career, his defense might be in better shape than his offense entering a season. Speaking to reporters, the coach didn’t mince words when asked about the potential of Lawson & Co. “I think we got a chance to have one of the best, if not the best, defenses we’ve had at my time at Auburn,” Malzahn said.
For that to happen, Auburn’s defense still must get better. Will Muschamp’s arrival as defensive coordinator last season conjured up expectations of a playoff run. But due to injuries and depth issues, that group didn’t live up to the hype. Auburn improved only slightly in total defense, allowing 5.37 yards per play compared to 5.67 in 2014. It also lacked an edge up front, finishing 13th in the SEC with an underwhelming 19 total sacks.
The end result was a Tigers team that failed to keep pace. Last September, Auburn lost 45–21 to LSU and 17–9 to Mississippi State and nearly fell to FCS foe Jacksonville State at Jordan-Hare Stadium, surviving 27–20 in overtime. Jacksonville State forced an extra period with an 11-play, 56-yard drive that included a conversion on fourth-and-two. The Tigers looked like SEC pretenders only weeks after being picked to win the league. “Last year was a motivation factor for us because we didn’t like the way we played last year,” Lawson said. “We didn’t like our record last year.”
The loss against LSU, in particular, still stings for Auburn’s defenders. That’s when running back Leonard Fournette steamrolled Auburn for 228 yards and three touchdowns on a mere 19 carries. “We don’t talk about it. We don’t want to think about it,” tackle Montravius Adams said of the LSU loss. “We feel like that wasn’t coaches, that wasn’t scheme. That was us as players.”
Such sour memories have lingered this off-season, and Auburn seems eager to turn the page. Six starters are back on defense, including Lawson and defensive tackle Adams, both of whom could’ve skipped school for the NFL draft. The defensive line, in particular, has Malzahn licking his chops. Names like Devaroe Lawrence, Dontavius Russell and Maurice Swain bolster a deeper group. Plus, former five-star recruit Byron Cowart is expected to finally add a spark at defensive end.
The wild card is Kevin Steele, Auburn’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons. After Muschamp left to take over as head coach at South Carolina, Malzahn lured Steele from LSU. Described by many as a players’ coach, Steele hasn’t forced Auburn to reinvent the wheel; players say the new coordinator’s scheme has largely mirrored that of Muschamp. “It was a lot of carryover from last year,” Lawson said. “It was a smooth transition for a lot of the players.”
Now, of course, Auburn has to deliver on those expectations, something it spectacularly failed to do last season. Those Tigers saw their playoff hopes squashed by the end of September, and if that happens again, Malzahn could very well lose his job. It doesn’t matter that he led the program to a national title game as recently as 2013. Malzahn’s boss, athletic director Jay Jacobs, fired former head coach Gene Chizik less than two years after he won the title. Every coach in the SEC West makes at least $4 million a year. Those expectations come with a price.
It would help Malzahn’s case if Auburn finds its footing on offense, as well. The coach must pick a consistent quarterback in an ongoing battle between Johnson, White and newcomer John Franklin III. Plus, the Tigers could use a more potent rushing attack, which stumbled to 4.35 yards per carry in 2015, just 10th in the SEC.
But alongside uncertainty on offense, Malzahn wasn’t afraid to hype his defense at SEC Media Days. That added pressure, he said, isn’t a bad thing, and that group, not the offense, could ultimately determine the coach’s fate at Auburn in 2016.
“I think they are going to go about it—I think we have a confident bunch,” Malzahn said. “They had a very good spring, flying around, having fun. I’m just looking forward to watching those guys and seeing what they can do with the defense.”