Auburn defensive end Dee Ford sacks Georgia’s Aaron Murray during last year’s matchup, one of the few defensive highlights for the Tigers in their abysmal stretch run.Auburn University Photo
Camp start: Aug. 5
Opener: Washington State in Auburn on Aug. 31 (7 p.m. EDT on ESPNU)
Fun fact: The Auburn-Georgia series is squared after 116 meetings at 54-54-8. The Tigers and Bulldogs began playing annually in 1892, taking off only 1917 and '18 because of World War I and 1943 due to World War II.
• Coming Wednesday: Florida
Let's just say Brian VanGorder worked out better as Georgia's defensive coordinator than he did at Auburn.
VanGorder had four successful seasons with the Bulldogs and six seasons of NFL coaching experience when he was hired last year to run Gene Chizik's defense. The Tigers returned nine defensive starters from their 2011 team that capped an eight-win season with a rout of Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but any hopes of marital bliss with their new defensive chief quickly gave way to confusion and strife.
"We didn't adjust, and it was obvious," senior defensive end Dee Ford said last week at SEC media days. "To be as talented as we were, it didn't matter since we weren't in the right places. You can't just play off of sheer talent, and you can't be as fast as you want to be. We weren't getting lined up."
The Tigers allowed 26 or more points in each of their first three games against Clemson, Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe, and those were the salad days. They allowed 41 points in a midseason loss at Ole Miss and closed a 3-9 debacle by surrendering a combined 150 points in league drubbings by Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.
Texas A&M's 63 points on Oct. 27 at Jordan-Hare Stadium were the most Auburn ever allowed in its home facility, and the 150 points yielded to the Aggies, Bulldogs and Crimson Tide were at least 30 more than the Tigers gave up in any of their three consecutive SEC championship seasons under Pat Dye from 1987 to '89.
"At the end of the season, teams like Alabama started pacing us, because the defense we were running was so complex," senior cornerback Chris Davis said. "You had to make different checks, and players couldn't get lined up right. We were out of position almost every snap, and it showed."
After falling to Georgia and Alabama by a combined 87-0 to seal Auburn's worst season in 60 years, Chizik was fired and replaced with Gus Malzahn, the offensive architect of Auburn's 2010 national title. It didn't take long for Malzahn to clean house, and he replaced VanGorder with Ellis Johnson, who has 16 years of SEC coaching experience and headed 2008-11 South Carolina defenses that were among the top 15 nationally.
Auburn defenders believe VanGorder's defense was too rigid and complex, while Johnson has stressed adjustments as well as basing his system off player ability.
"His adjustments are a lot easier compared to VanGorder's adjustments," Davis said. "We've picked up Coach Johnson's defense very fast, and I think we'll do really good."
The defensive front should be Auburn's strength with the return of Ford, Nosa Eguae, Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffrey Whitaker. Malzahn was able to lure Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner back to his alma mater, and Garner was able to help secure the touted defensive line trio of Montravious Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel in February.
Adams was a consensus top-five defensive tackle, with Lawson and Daniel top-10 defensive ends.
"Carl is big, and he can move," Ford said. "Usually on defense you have to make physical changes before you can play, but this guy is ready to play. Elijah may be the most mature of the three, so I'm expecting big things out of him.
"Montravious is definitely a physical specimen and is everything you want out of a defensive tackle."
How the defense's back seven fare will go a long way in determining whether Auburn can have a significant rebound season, though the biggest key will be at quarterback. The struggles of Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace left Auburn's defense on the field way too long last season, and neither of them took charge in spring practice.
Frazier and Wallace will be joined in August camp by junior college transfer Nick Marshall and touted freshman Jeremy Johnson in a four-way clash that Malzahn would like to whittle down in a hurry.
"The number one thing that our players have to do for us to be successful this year is to get our edge back," Malzahn said. "That is the mental and physical toughness, the blue-collar, hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth Auburn football that's made Auburn great. History shows that if Auburn has their edge, they can compete for championships and win games."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...