Coming off a season in which Auburn was 13 seconds from winning a national championship, it was never going to be easy to duplicate that. But Gus Malzahn wanted more. He didn’t want to settle for runner-up. His goal was to win it all.
Auburn came up a little short of that goal in 2014. The Tigers were in position to make the College Football Playoff after a dramatic win at Ole Miss in early November, but four losses in their final five games caused the season to go in a very different direction and led to major offseason changes to the coaching staff.
Offense: This wasn’t the problem. Auburn finished second in the SEC in total offense, averaging 485 yards per game. Quarterback Nick Marshall was terrific. He might not have run for as many yards as he did the year before, but his passing numbers went up and so did his touchdown total. Cameron Artis-Payne, who ran for 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns, became the second straight Auburn player to lead the SEC in rushing. And when healthy, there was no better wide receiver tandem in the conference than Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams. The only complaint would have been an offensive line that battled injuries all season, but it remained solid thanks in large part to All-SEC center Reese Dismukes. Grade: B-plus
Defense: How do you have one of the league’s top offenses and still lose five games? A bad defense. And Auburn’s defense was downright awful in the second half of the season. The Tigers allowed 30 or more points in six of their final seven games. Against Alabama, the offense put up an Iron-Bowl record 630 yards and scored 44 points, only to lose ... by 11. Veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was let go the next day. It didn’t fare much better in the bowl game when Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon rushed for 251 yards and three touchdowns. New coordinator Will Muschamp will have his hands full next season. Grade: D
Special teams: The lasting memory for Auburn fans is kicker Daniel Carlson missing a 45-yard field goal in overtime to lose to Wisconsin in the bowl game. But that kick wasn’t indicative of the entire season for Carlson. The freshman made 18 of his 24 kicks, including five longer than 40 yards, and one longer than 50 yards. The punting game was inconsistent, but Quan Bray provided a spark in the return game, returning two punts for touchdowns. Bray led the SEC with an average of 18 yards per punt return. Grade: B
Coaching: Malzahn pushed all the right buttons his first year as head coach. He took a team that many felt would finish middle of the pack and nearly won a national championship. In Year 2, he learned just how hard it is to stay on top. He’s still considered one of the best play-callers in college football, but even he had some questionable calls in the Alabama game, as well as the overtime period against Wisconsin. And since we’re on the subject of coaching, it doesn’t help that three defensive coaches were let go after the season. Grade: C
Overall: This season started off so well for Auburn. The Tigers pulled away from Arkansas in the opener, beat a very good Kansas State team on the road, and dominated LSU at home. Even after a tough loss at Mississippi State, the Tigers bounced back with two straight SEC wins. It was all setting up for another Iron Bowl showdown with a spot in the playoff at stake. It didn’t work out that way for the defending SEC champion, and despite eight wins and a bowl berth, the season has to be considered a disappointment. Grade: C-plus