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Mike Marshall: An attention-grabber

So Las Vegas says Auburn will be an underdog in every Southeastern Conference football game this season.

Columnist Mike Marshall

That’s an attention-grabber, for sure.

One reason is that Las Vegas is usually scary accurate, especially when the season begins. There’s a reason those guys have been in business for so long. They’re good.

But Las Vegas does make mistakes in preseason assessments.

Las Vegas, for example, predicted eight wins for Auburn in 2010, as I recall. No one, including Las Vegas, knew exactly what Auburn had in Cam Newton.

This season, no one knows exactly what Auburn has in Nick Marshall, considered the likely starter at quarterback. No one knows exactly what Auburn has in Gus Malzahn as head coach.

Malzahn has some old-school principles. Like any successful coach in the SEC, he’s a strong believer in a physical running game.

Chances are, though, his tempo will be unlike anything the SEC has seen. Unencumbered by a meddling head coach, Auburn faithful will also likely see far more daring play selections that it is accustomed to.

All of that is good, in my view. For one thing, Malzahn’s philosophy will likely set him apart from the rest the conference coaches, giving Auburn a distinct recruiting advantage if Malzahn is successful.

The danger is that if Auburn’s offensive personnel is lacking, particularly in the line, then there is a chance to be overpowered by the top teams in the conference.

If that’s the case, Las Vegas will be right.

For Las Vegas to be right, though, Auburn will have to go two straight seasons without winning a conference game, something it has never done in history.

History says that Auburn will be better this season. Most first-year head coaches at Auburn show improvement, sometimes dramatic improvement, over their predecessor’s final season.

Ralph “Shug’’ Jordan went 5-5 in 1951, as opposed to 0-10 in 1950. We’ll skip Doug Barfield’s first season as head coach, and move on to 1981, Pat Dye’s first year at Auburn.

Auburn went 5-6 in 1981, but there was a far different feeling to that season compared to Barfield’s 5-6 record in 1980. There was a more hard-nosed style on offense and defense, and each of the losses was close, most to nationally ranked teams.

Auburn was 11-0 in 1993, Terry Bowden’s first season as head coach. The record was 3-8 in 1998, Bowden’s final season, but Tommy Tuberville went 5-6 in 1999, another season that signaled better times were ahead.

Many people believe Malzahn’s first season will be similar to 2009, Gene Chizik’s first season as head coach. Auburn went 8-5 that season, including a win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

Eight wins and a bowl victory would represent dramatic improvement, to be sure. But I don’t think it will take that much to make Malzahn’s first season a success.

After last season’s disaster, the most important factors include discipline, direction and team chemistry. Those are usually the traditional indications that a first-year coach is building a program, along with recruiting.

The schedule is challenging. Consecutive road games against Arkansas and Tennessee, both winnable, will likely determine if Malzahn gets a bowl game in his first season.

Marshall’s ability to handle the offense will be perhaps the biggest key. It doesn’t matter how good the system is if there is no one to run it, and Marshall, from all indications, appears to be the quarterback the coaches view as the likely starter.
I’ll give Malzahn wins over Washington State, Arkansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic, and Arkansas. The losses will be to LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.

Auburn will play with more energy, the result of Malzahn’s system and a more unified program. That unity will be perhaps the main reason Auburn will be much better this season.

And it will be another reason why Las Vegas will be wrong again about Auburn.

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